Pastor Lisa Horst Clark
October 13, 2019
Exodus 3: 1 – 14a
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.” But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’”
The only time I ever saw a bush on fire I didn’t believe it until the fire truck arrived. I was in downtown Kirkland, waiting for the light to turn, when I saw what seemed to be smoke, up by the corner of the Kirkland Library. What threw me off was that it seemed like nobody else appeared to be noticing. Around me, there were people just nonchalantly walking along, crossing the street, driving their cars, and I was there going, “I could swear that looks like a cloud of smoke billowing from a bush over there.” But it was just far enough away that I thought, “I must be seeing things; it must be an unusually hazy day or something.” Because surely, if that bush was on fire, someone would be doing something, right? And as soon as I had dismissed the thought, and I was going about my business, that was when I heard the sirens coming down the street; the fire engine literally parked in front of the bush, ready to extinguish the spark that had somehow met dry kindling there, even as I had convinced myself it was not smoking just a moment before. Every pastor dreams of a literal burning bush, and I missed it because I kept waiting for someone else to notice it first.
The scripture says that Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, that he had led his flock beyond the wilderness and there the Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a thorn bush. He looked and the bush was blazing and yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight and see why this bush is not burnt up.”
We are talking about call this month and today we are looking at Moses and perhaps the most famous call story ever, which hinges on both a miracle and that someone noticed it: the thing that is burning and is not consumed by it. For this sight would compel Moses the rest of his life with the fires for justice, the fires of love for God’s people, the fires which would lead the people to the water’s edge and beyond and the God that was in the flame and the protection that allowed it to serve and sustain.
So to start out, let’s talk about call, for the ordinary folks have not been transformed into Charlton Heston epics. We each of us have a call of faith into relationship and covenant with God and today we are talking about where that can lead: a call to a vocation, to a particular place to be present in faith, at times for a particular work to do. In the Christian Protestant tradition we owe a lot about understanding of call to Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer. Before Luther, a vocation would refer primarily to religious orders and in his theology it expanded to include the work of all believers, that you didn’t have to be a monk or a nun, you could have a calling as a spouse or as a parent or in the midst of your very real work in the world. For it wasn’t just the prayers that the church was called to by God, but acts of service in all walks of life. And so, for the rest of us, we seek to be the people of faith and most of us have not heard the booming voices of heaven the movie set would envy.
So how do you, in your life, know what that call is or what it could feel like? There’s a famous quote from Fredrick Beeker that the place that God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger coincide. And if Moses and the bush feel beyond our experience, perhaps this rings something you know, a place or experience where your joy and the world’s needs meet and the result is a blessing to God.
I was reflecting this week on the needs and their fire. Perhaps you already have a place in your life where the fire of the world’s need, the insatiable needs of this world for care, for compassion, for justice, for mercy, for the work of building the kingdom of God, maybe you feel that fire acutely. Maybe you find that fire, something that can’t be destroyed, a place where you’re filled up. For goodness knows, the world needs a lot. Of the around 7.7 billion people on earth today, all of them need to eat something. And so someone here in this world needs to grow that food and cook it and prepare it to be shared, so that way all of God’s people can be filled. And if you are one of them preparing your meal for later today, you know who you are. We know that each of the 7.7 billion people on this earth need shelter and so there needs to be someone who builds the roof that will keep out the rain and someone who will build that connection of love that turns the house into a home that feels safe. And it needs someone who can be an advocate for a policy in a world where a safe place to sleep is not treated as a luxury of the privileged. We know each of these 7.7 billion people needs to communicate with each other, and so someone needs to build the phone lines and someone needs to negotiate the lunch room division lines and someone needs to stand in the midst of great international conflict with love and clarity and purpose. We know that amidst those 7.7 billion people are systems of profound wrong, built up by generations of racism and sexism and homophobia and someone needs to remove them, brick by brick. We know that among those 7.7 billion people we’ve found profound ways of harming each other and someone needs to stand in those places of violence with courage and conviction and love and compassion and accountability to make the ways of peace. And if that feels overwhelming, someone probably needs to stand in your workplace to address the issues that keep simmering beneath the surface, ready to speak and listen. And if that feels overwhelming, someone in your family really needs to speak to your Aunt Flora. You know how it’s been when you’ve been walking on eggshells around each other and at some point someone will have to be brave and say the thing that has to be said. We know that in these 7.7 billion people, and narrow it down to folks that have lifestyles like ours, that we are transforming the climates of this earth that will have disastrous consequences for us and for our children and untold numbers of species of God’s own creation and God’s own heart, and so someone, someone, someone needs to do something.
And so when you hear this call, this desperate cry for someone, when you feel in the midst of it your own name, your own being, as the world’s need there is a fire of love and care and courage. For when there is something you feel deeply, that springs from the heart of God in love, in passion, in compassion, in artistry, when you get a glimpse of God’s own hope then this fire is of God. This energy can be a holy flame that means you know you are getting up in the morning with a purpose that sets your days in the midst of God’s own story.
And we know for Moses, before this story began, that the fires began to feel almost too much. The Israelites had been slaves in Egypt for generations, oppressed by political regime, enslaved in back breaking servitude and as the story goes victims of mass infanticide. And so Moses, who is saved as a child from these waters and brought up in Pharaoh’s palace until he is faced with the injustices around with the injustices around them and it becomes too much, he finds himself lashing out in anger and violence, fleeing from his own acts. There is a time that this fire can fuel too much. And then after he answers his great and epic call to God, even later as he is leading the people there are so many times that we have in scripture Moses saying, “God, I’m ready to give up.” As the people complain, as Pharaoh ceases to see the ways, as the food and water run out, over and over again Moses comes to God in prayer, ready to scrap the whole plan. There is no lack of flame in Moses’ story, the question instead is whether there is too much, whether he is going to burn hot and be extinguished in the process. Moses was drawn to the bush to see what it was and he saw this as a miracle: that it could be on fire and not consumed. What mystery is this flame that burns and does not burn out?
In the break neck of terrible things in the world, it can be hard to know which flame to turn to at once. And even if you choose any single one: poverty, systemic racism, immigration, homelessness; any one is so vast and so deep and interconnected that if you feel on fire you may not know where to start or even if you’ve been at work for a while you can start feeling your hope and joy start to wither. And if it feels too big to talk about global crisis or local systems, even bring it down to one human life that you love. It is a great humility that it takes only one completely dependent life to wear you down. As you can know from talking to anyone who has one infant who needs to be changed and fed and who just won’t sleep, when loved ones suffering from memory issues, not to mention the complication of one loved one with addiction. For no matter how much you love your child, your parent or your friend, if you try to carry that one single life alongside yours, all by yourself, you will burn yourself out.
In the story of Moses, what drew him to follow was that he saw a bush, a thorn bush that was burning and was not consumed, and this image has struck those in the history of interpretation, from the rabbis and Rashi who saw in that flame and saw that it was a thorn bush and said, “Of course God would be a flame in a thorn bush because God belongs among those who suffer,” all the way to the Protestants, and Calvin and Wesley who saw the church under persecution as the bush that would not be consumed by the flames. What draws Moses to turn and look more deeply is that the bush is able to be on fire and not consumed, and I have to agree for I would be impressed just to see someone who is consistently reading the newspaper and doesn’t look a bit burned out.
What is it that helped create such a miracle? If I were to guess, I would think this bush is rooted. It was planted just where it needed to be, settled in the soil, with access to the nutrients that filled it up and reached for the deep waters of the soil. I would guess that this bush is exactly where it was; it was letting its branches reach as instructed by the unique cells of its being. For it was not trying to be a tree, or the grasses. It was being just what it needed to be on the far side of a distant mountain. For this is what we know: a call of God is not based on turning you into a different kind of essence than you are made to be. Moses had in his heart already a heart for justice. He felt uncomfortable speaking and so God called him to a role in which he could use all of his gifts that did not always require his own speeches. God was already in his upbringing and Moses knew his people and the way around Pharaoh’s court. In short it was Moses, who he was, what he had experienced, his own true self who was called to speak to Pharaoh, “Let my people go.’ Even if it made him frightened and the steps felt new, it was not a discomfort in opposition to who he was; it was a stretch, an extension of who he could be in God. For this flame is not one that just burns, it is a flame of God. Not the anger of vengeance but the fires of justice, not just passion but God’s love of neighbor. And so, if we find ourselves trying to do it all ourselves thinking that it all depends upon us, narrowing our scope or focus or to put it another way, becoming drained and brittle and rigid, prone to saying “always another,” seeking to pour out more of ourselves, becoming so dry that we look like kindling, it’s time to take a pause. When Moses cries out to God over and again, when Pharaoh’s heart is unmoved, when the Israelites complain and when hunger beats in their breasts, each time God’s response is to say, “This belongs to you and this is mine.” For Moses to say the words to Pharaoh, but God will bring the liberation; for Moses to hold the rod over the water, but God will make the way out of no way; for Moses to point out that God has already had food fall from the sky, each enough for each day.
For we say that it is God who is making the symphony and we get to be a note. It is God quilting the world and we get to be a stitch. It is God calling forth the harvest and we get to have a hand on a seed.
And so, my people, here is my prayer: that if you are feeling a lack of purpose that you may see a flame, that you may be drawn by the heart of God, by something in this world or this life that needs something just like, a someone just like you, and that when you get there that you may trust that you are not there alone but connected to one another and to God in a flame that does not consume but enlivens, that lifts and lifts the world along that way, so that we can be a people so moved by the story, whose eyes are so open to the workings of the spirit, who sees within us and among us and beyond us that we can be the people who turn our heads to say, “The bush is on fire and not consumed; we don’t want to miss it.” Amen
© Copyright. Lisa Horst Clark. 2019. All rights reserved.