Text: Exodus 3:1-15
We forget sometimes that the Bible is about us. It is not a story about them back there; it is about us here and now. As one biblical scholar put it, “…at one and the same time the biblical past not only illumines the present but becomes itself part of the present, part of us. Until you can read the story of Adam and Eve, of Abraham and Sarah, of David and Bethsheba, as your own story, you have not really understood it. The book is about ourselves, our own apostasies, our own battles and [our own] blessings….”
The story of Moses and the burning bush is in the Bible not just to give us information about the Israelites journey from captivity to liberation or data about Moses or details about God. It is not read again and again in churches because it is good for us or teaches us something we didn’t already know or makes us wiser or even better people. We hear the story of Moses and the burning bush in hopes that we might become vulnerable to those places from which God is speaking to us, susceptible to the holy ground we stand on, and willing to turn aside to risk seeing something miraculous and amazing.
The scene at the burning bush is bracketed by Moses’ life circumstance. He has escaped the fury of the Egyptian pharaoh—his adoptive grandfather—after the murder of the Egyptian overseer who was abusing an Israelite. Moses runs for his life to Midian, a tiny tribal community in the southern deserts on the east side of the Dead Sea. There he meets his bride, Zipporah, which means “little bird” in Hebrew. They very quickly have a son whom Moses names Gershom, meaning “stranger or sojourner there.” Such a name suggests that however much Moses thinks he has found a place to live for the remainder of his life, that may prove not to be true after all. He soon finds work in the shepherding business of his father-in-law, Jethro. In the course of time, Moses pastures his flock “beyond the wilderness,” far from the known haunts of his world, and comes to “Horeb (also called Sinai), the mountain of God.” And it is there that he spies the famous burning bush, a bush on fire but not burned up.
This story is so familiar, even for non-Christians, that the danger it poses is to not pay attention to its application for these times in which we are living. It is tempting to focus solely on the drama of the text for it is a good story—the kind of stuff worthy of acting legend Charlton Heston. For sure, the dialogue is intense, the details explicit, and the drama mysterious. Over the years I have looked to this particular story to give insight into what it means to respond to God’s call—to contemplate God’s voice. It has invited me to consider the holy ground that I walk upon daily. To be attentive to those places where I stand that have sacred meaning. But as I think about what this text has to say to our world today, the part that calls out to me is the dialogue found in verses 3 and 4: “Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ And when God saw that Moses had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And Moses said, ‘Here I am.’”
Have you ever wondered how many people walked past that burning bush and never turned aside to look at it? Have you ever wondered how many people saw the burning bush out of the corner of their eye but were too afraid to stop and really look and be curious about why the bush was burning but not consumed by the fire? Have you ever wondered just how many people stopped, turned aside to look but then kept on walking because they had somewhere else to be? Those have been my thoughts this past week as I have lived with this story. This week, I wondered how many times have I walked past the burning bush and not stopped or turned aside to really see. I wondered how many times I saw the burning bush out of the corner of my eye, but was in too big a hurry to get somewhere else to stop and listen.
For many reasons, some of which have to do with how Hollywood and Charlton Heston have trivialized this story, we tend to think that burning bushes are rare—not the things of everyday life. Maybe you find it odd to hear me say those words. If so, you would not be alone. Most of the commentaries I read noted that burning bushes are not everyday life experiences. And I would agree if we were talking about literal burning bushes. But we are not. This story, if we dare to make it our own story and really try to understand its meaning, is about the burning bushes that exist all around us, and our willingness to turn aside from our busy lives to see them. The question that Moses and the burning bush pose to us today is this, “What are we seeing?” Are we seeing the burning bushes all around us? Are we willing to turn aside from what we are doing to really see—to see where God might be speaking to us, calling us, and asking us to do something important; to see the needs of those who are suffering under oppressive structures and institutions; and to even see the miraculous and the amazing things that God is doing in this world through ordinary, even flawed people like Moses. I am suggesting to you today that every day we encounter burning bushes. Some of them are calling us to respond to God’s call to do justice—to be like Moses and fight for those who are oppressed. Other burning bushes are inviting us to simply turn aside and see God’s amazing and miraculous acts in the world.
I am aware that there are times when I consciously choose not to look at the burning bushes around me. There are even times when I can see a burning bush out of the corner of my eye and yet I decide to ignore it. Sometimes the pain and suffering in our world that the burning bushes represent seem too harsh to look at directly. Even the amazing and miraculous are hard to look at at times because we don’t want to be disappointed, or we feel undeserving.
There is a store in town where I have been a weekly customer for at least the past 15 years. Over those years, I have become friends with one of the employees. In the beginning, Nic and I would chat about impersonal things—the weather and current events. But when Nic realized that I was a pastor our talks quickly turned to religion and faith. Several years ago, Nic asked if I would baptize him. Being active in a church was difficult for him because he often worked on Sunday and on the Sundays he didn’t work he needed to be home with his wife who was quite ill. So after several conversations, I agree to baptize Nic. I told him he would have to wait until Easter weekend because we only filled up our baptistery once a year. And so, one Easter Saturday morning, before Nic went to work, we met at Pullen and I baptized him. His statement of faith was simple, but profoundly moving. The look in his eyes when he came up out of the baptismal waters conveyed a deep peace and an assurance of God’s blessing on him.
This week I was feeling rushed as I stopped in the store to pick up a few things I needed. It was late and I was tired. I wasn’t in the mood for small talk much less anything heavy. As I was leaving Nic and I spotted each other and I waved, hoping to leave without much conversation. But as usual Nic and I ended up standing outside talking. He shared with me that it was his 18th anniversary of working at this particular job. He told me that this job was his part-time job—working about 18 hours a week—and that he had another 40 hour a week job that he had been at for nine years. Then he said, “You know pastor, I work two jobs, some weeks 60 hours a week, and I can barely make ends meet.”
It may sound odd, but I as I said goodbye to Nic and turned to get in my car I found myself thinking, “I just saw a burning bush.” The working poor—just one burning bush that confronts us everyday. Do we see it? Are we willing to turn aside from our busy, rushed, full lives to see it?
There are burning bushes all around us that cry out with God’s voice. The environment and the inhumane treatment of animals. Racism and its insidious way of spreading hate and violence. Fundamentalism—both to the right and left—and its ability to polarize people of good will and faith. The list of burning bushes is endless. They are not rare—they are everyday life experiences. Everywhere we go in our world, they are there. Are we seeing them? Acknowledging them? Are you willing to turn aside and really look? Are you willing to hear God’s voice calling to you from one of those burning bushes? What are you seeing?
The burning bush is a complex symbol. It symbolizes suffering—the unjust suffering of the Israelites at a vulnerable time in their history; and Moses’ own personal suffering as he tries to find his way in the world. But the burning bush also represents the amazing and the miraculous in that the bush was not consumed, it represents those places in our world where hope and love and grace are not consumed by despair, hate, and vengeance. I see those places, too. This church, for me, is one of those amazing and miraculous burning bushes. You, the people of Pullen, are one of those burning bushes that represent the amazing and the miraculous. When we are at our best, individually and collectively, this church is willing to turn aside from our memories of church, our egos about church, and our ideas of how church ought to be; we are able and willing to turn aside, to see the injustices that surround us; we are willing to see, and to be called; and we become, in those places, heirs of Moses. And so I ask you, Pullen Church, in these times that are ablaze with burning bushes, “What are we seeing?”