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Sermon Archives

The Burning Bush

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Aug 31

Text: Exodus 3:-15

Many summers ago, I had the opportunity to do some traveling with a friend through Egypt. After a few days in Cairo, we headed west in a hired car through the Sinai desert. Our destination was nothing less than the mountain of God, Mt. Sinai, or, as it is alternatively called in our text for today, Mt. Horeb. We arrived at the base of the 8,000 ft. mountain in the middle of the night. With flashlights in hand, and determined to make the summit by sunrise, we immediately began our hike up the trail to the top. Three hours later, still dark, we arrived at the summit. After a short pre-dawn nap, we awoke to a truly breath-taking vista -- the red- hued rocks of the mountainous Sinai interior flattening into the surrounding desert, all underneath a hazy and golden Egyptian sky. Eventually, the heat forced us to turn back down the mountain. We stopped at a 6th century monastery nestled in a valley well below the peak. Inside, we found a small Chapel built around a very old, slightly wilted, large thorny bush. And there it was. Or so tradition claimed. There stood the burning bush. Its buried roots are believed by some to be the very roots of the bush where Moses first encounters the God of Israel. While I didn’t think for a minute that that was the place – historians have all sorts of competing claims - I nonetheless found myself moved. The experience tugged at a deeper set of roots somewhere inside of me, and not only the roots of this familiar story that had taken hold as a child. Being there also tugged at those roots of my human yearning for a sense of holiness and mystery. I wondered if that monastery would continue to survive the centuries as a marker of that place. And I wondered about the strength of my own roots and my own faith which questioned the miraculous possibility that there ever was such a bush to begin with. Maybe you can relate.

In her book Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard laments something along these lines. In her typically wry way, she writes:
“Now we are no longer primitive. Now the whole world seems not holy… We as a people have moved from pantheism to pan-atheism… It is difficult to undo our own damage and to recall to our presence that which we have asked to leave. It is hard to desecrate a grove and change your mind. We doused the burning bush and cannot rekindle it. We are lighting matches in vain under every green tree.”

Part of me wonders if that monastery and other like it have done more to desecrate than consecrate holy lands. Even still, I haven’t lost hope for the holy. And neither has Dillard.
She goes on to say:

“What have we been doing all these centuries but trying to call God back to the mountain, or, failing that, to raise a peep out of anything that isn’t us? What is the difference between a cathedral and a physics lab? Are they not both saying: Hello?”

Despite her sometimes skeptical tone, Dillard is one of many contemporary guides who has a knack for seeing the Holy that is lit up all around us, in nature, in people, in the arts and sciences. She is the last person to believe that holiness could be doused off the planet, despite humanity’s ongoing penchant for desecration. What is required, no doubt, is attention, and the cultivation of a deep sort of seeing and listening. What's needed is a willingness to do as Moses did, to “turn aside” from whatever path we are on, to change our direction from what we think is real in a given moment to that which is really real. According to one rabbi, Moses “craned his neck to see.” It's a totally deliberate motion, a departure from the straight-ahead, not to mention from his so-called “stiff-necked” people. But what, beyond some vague notion of the holy, is he being asked to see, really?

Let’s take a closer look at the text. On the surface, our narrative appears to be the record of an intimate encounter between God and Moses, a moment where the yearning for the holy is miraculously met, a “theophany,” scholars would say, a moment of divine revelation. It’s also has all the element of a classic “call” narrative, complete with naming of names (twice) -- Moses, Moses! -- and the requisite “Who me?” refusals. Though Moses is both a fugitive, having just killed an Egyptian who was beating up a fellow Jew, and a refugee from Pharoah’s oppressive regime, the story seems straightforward enough. In the words of biblical scholar Everett Fox: “A man is called by God to return to society and serve as God’s spokesperson – despite any opposition he may encounter and despite his personal shortcomings.” That’s clear enough. We got it. But what of this mysterious and un-consuming fire and why does God choose this moment.

I’m indebted to a brilliant Scottish-born Torah scholar named Avivah Zornberg for helping me to see a deeper layer in this story. It’s more than a mere invitation to “spiritual awareness” when we have our own mountaintop experiences. It’s more than a template for how God calls us into our shared work of redeeming the world. Setting the story into a larger context of God’s relationships with humanity writ large, she picks up a helpful nuance and points to a deeper message. In a 2010 interview with Krista Tippet of NPR’s On Being, Zornberg hones in on why God chooses shows up in the bush in the first place. She focuses on the line in verse 7. As soon as God begins the conversation with Moses, God says "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.”

Hear her interpretation: God [is saying] out of the burning bush that “I have really seen” — rahora itseh,[and] it’s an emphatic, double use of the word — “I’ve really seen the pain of the people, and I’ve heard their cry.” It’s at this point within the larger biblical narrative, where, as Zornberg says, “there’s a sense as if… a barrier has been removed and what God is now sensitive to its pain.” She elaborates on this theme in her book, “The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus.” This burning bush scene is the moment when we learn, in Zornberg’s words, “pain is not to be transcended, but shared”…“When God says “I know their ‘sufferings’…this becomes the underlying reason that God gives for opening up the channels of connection between Himself and the human being.“ You see, right before today’s scripture, the Israelites have cried out of their slavery four times, and chapter 2 ends with an amazing line: “And God knew.” Throughout the narrative, we are told God knew, God sees, God hears, God remembers the cries and groaning of the people of Israel.  According to Zornberg, this “indicates that a new factor has entered the world of slavery; it is called God, and it works as a perception of pain.”  

This kind of seeing and knowing, she later notes, and I quote again, is “a very important dimension of what makes redemption possible….One of the first things that makes the people begin to move internally is the experience of being seen, a very intimate feeling that God is really seeing them and seeing them where they really live.”

We know this experience in our guts, right?, of how transformative it is to be seen, to be heard, to be known.

Once more from Zornberg: “The sense, then, of their own pain as experienced through the eyes of the other is the beginning of the people’s redemption. “ To try to sum up all that brilliance, the point she’s trying to make, I think, is this: that here in the story of Burning Bush, God enters the world as the perception of human pain and in so doing God creates the conditions for the redemption of pain to begin. What’s more God is calling Moses, and by extension us, to go and do likewise!” Go Down Moses! Tell them I know! And set your people free!

It’s no wonder Moses balks. No wonder he says “I’m not worthy!” This is a heavy lift, is it not? No wonder why he questions whether those stiff-necked Israelites will believe a word he says. Moses has huge chutzpah here to push back against at such a moment at this. But there’s still one more thing he does and its never been done before. Not only does he refuse God four times, to which God repeatedly offers the assurance “I will be there” but he also asks to know God’s name! If he’s going to respond to the call, he better at least know who he’s working for! So he says, 'Who should I tell them I saw?' God’s response is perhaps the greatest mystery in the entire bible. God responds: Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh. Scholars have wrestled over its translation for centuries, offering countless version. There’s “I am who I am” which we heard from the New Revised Standard Version. But there’s another option that is preferred by the translator Everett Fox as well as Jewish philosophers like Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig. Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh can also be translated as: I will be there howsoever I will be there. As in …”I will be there with you”. As in “I have seen you and heard you and I know your pain, and because I now I share it, I will always be there with you, integrated into your very being because I am being itself. I will be there howsoever I will be there.”

In other words, God’s presence, like the fire in that bush, is inextinguishable! It’s not just that Moses sees God and there is no turning back, it’s that God sees and perceives human pain and suffering and there is no turning back. The trajectory of all human healing and redemption begins with this seeing. God’s inextinguishable presence is now inseparable from God’s compassion for and with all those in pain, including you and me. Mind you, God does not cause the pain in the first place. In every age and in every heart, there are Pharoah’s forces that lock us up and lull us into uncaring apathy. The miracle of the passage is that God models for Moses and for us that redemption begins in recognition and is carried out through an ongoing ministry of assurance and presence that “I will be there howsoever I will be there.” Despite whatever uncontrollable circumstance we may endure, for better or worse, God knows and God invites us to know our own and each other’s pain and the world’s pain that the redemption and healing may take place.

This past Friday, I encountered another burning bush of a sort while sitting on a North Shore beach with Nancy. Turning aside from Danish mystery novels I’d been reading earlier this summer, I grabbed a more serious book that’s been sitting on my shelf for many months. Its called “The New Jim Crow” by the sociologist Michelle Alexander. The book calls out a contemporary plague in American society as it recounts the history and present day reality of mass incarceration that has locked up and seized the lives and livelihoods of millions of people, mostly persons of color. She equates the scope and scale of the problem, and the systemic racism that underlies it, to pre-Civil War slavery and pre-Civil Rights Jim Crow South. She calls for nothing less than a revolution in consciousness and awareness of the devastation and desolation that the so-called War on Drugs and its related policies and policing have wreaked, especially on black men and families. Her powerful cry is no different from that of Moses: Let My People Go! But it begins with her seeing and helping others to see a painful reality that would not otherwise be on most of our paths. As was the case for the ancient Israelites, God’s purpose through it all is redemption, and it begins whenever we can open our eyes to what is really happening all around us, see the world through God’s ever-present, ever-compassionate, inextinguishable heart, knowing that God knows and God sees our privilege, our pain and our excuses that we are not worthy to the task.

“Earth’s crammed with heaven,”
Elizabeth Barrett Browning once wrote
“And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it, and pluck blackberries,
And daub their natural faces unaware….”

In the end, the story is one of call – a call to awareness, a call to perception both divine and human, of the otherwise hidden fires that burn within and all around us but do not consume. Moses could have kept on walking. He could have not been bothered. He could have missed that the Bush was not merely his way of seeing and seeking God but God’s way of seeing and seeking him, and through him, all of God’s people. Most of us would just as soon stick with the blackberries. The shared work of human redemption, God? Really? Don't you have something less taxing for us, God? How bout another blackberry?

But we too have seen Burning bushes, have we not! We too have encountered fires in our personal and collective lives that have burned us but not consumed. Perhaps we have even been blessed to enough to know the miracle of God’s extinguishable presence, to know (not without questions mind you, Moses had a lot of those) and to act in the faith that Eheyh Asher Ehyeh I will be there however I will be there. Lest we desecrate another grove nor douse another burning bush, especially given the state of our world right now, we should take a page out of the book of the Moses. Start by turning aside! Crane your neck if you must. Then adjust your footwear accordingly. Take off your shoes, as a sign of honor, not only in the face of natural beauty amidst stunning summertime vistas, but when you’ve come down the mountain as well, in the face of one another’s questions, and pains and yearnings and the pain of yearnings of God’s people everywhere. In the words of the Hindu Upanishads, may God “lead us from Unreal to the Real.” For the bushes are afire with God all around us, and God will be there howsoever God will be there. Amen.

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