13th Sunday after Pentecost
September 3 2017
Rev Loren McGrail, United Church of Christ
On the far side of the desert at Mount Horeb, beyond even the wilderness, God called the shepherd Moses to return to Egypt, to liberate God’s people because the cry of the Israelites had reached God’s ears – God’s heart. Biblical scholar Gerald Janzen says that not only does God hear the suffering but also God is hidden in the suffering. The cries of distress mobilize the attention of heaven.
God heard the cry of the people and God remembered having made promises. The people cried out because they believed God was there listening and therefore would respond. Liberation begins here. God is in the suffering.
Meanwhile, Moses was minding his father-in-law’s sheep way out near that holy mountain. He was minding his business and not thinking about the fact that he was a man wanted by the powers-that-be for murder. It was an ordinary day yet he was out beyond the wilderness.
It was hot out there and the air was probably thick when Moses suddenly came upon an angel of the Lord and a bush on fire. He probably thought he was seeing things, which is why he drew closer. He had to turn aside and look at this great sight, a bush on fire but not consumed.
How long did it take him to find something divine in his routine?
How long does it take you?
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner says this was not a miracle but a test. “God wanted to find out whether or not Moses could pay attention to something for more than a few moments. When he did God spoke.”
What are you paying attention to? Do you let God interrupt your routine?
God called Moses from that burning bush and warned him not to come too close, to keep his distance, and to take off his shoes. It was holy ground high up on that mountain and you should take off your shoes out of deference and respect. However removing your shoes is also a sign of hospitality. God wanted Moses to be comfortable enough so he could listen and receive this call to participate in God’s rescue mission.
God called Moses for the liberation of the Hebrew people. In an interdependent universe, our efforts can be a tipping point. God needed this baby who was saved, this murderer, this inarticulate shepherd.
Where are you called to be God’s Moses or Aaron? It is not enough to break your routine or take off your shoes in reverence; you must stop and get comfortable so you can hear the call. When was the last time you did this?
Fellow UCC pastor and poet Maren Tirabassi put it this way in her reflection on this passage:
Each year my thoughts go
to a different place in this story.
So this year at the oasis
in my life and the life of my country —
it’s that first part of the old man’s story
when he remembers
how he turned —
God drawing his attention
alight and with deep roots.
For we all stand on some Bears Ears,
some Staircase-Escalante or Cascade-Siskiyou
and hear – take off your shoes
thou shalt not
drill, frack, or clear cut this holy ground.
As we listen this morning to more news about more floods throughout the world, from Houston to many parts of Asia, we are reminded that the call to take off our shoes comes with a list of things not to do to this holy ground, our holy planet.
Like Moses we might be a little afraid to go to Pharaoh, however, to stand up for those being oppressed including our mother earth. But is it Pharaoh and his minions that we are most afraid of or is it fear that God is not really with us? “I will be you,” God says.
Really? Do we really believe this? Is this the second test, our faith that God is indeed is with us?
A few weeks ago, I had a few burning bush moments on the Boston Commons – actually, to be more accurate, on the streets of that still racially segregated city during a counter-protest march against White Supremacy.
Clergy from all faiths came to march with the counter protestors to say no to hate speech. After Charlottesville, when counter protestors, including my clergy sisters and brothers, were viciously attacked by the White Supremacists and neo-Nazis, it became imperative to anyone who could make it that one had to go to Boston to say “No, not here, no more, not ever.” We had to break our Saturday routines and show up and be counted.
The United Church of Christ clergy met before the march to worship and put on the full armor of God – our clerical uniforms and stoles. My buddy for the march was John Dorhauer, the president of my church.
Like disciples we were asked to disperse ourselves into the crowd and stay with our buddy. On occasion we were asked to marshal, which meant to hold hands and become a wall between the marchers and the police and potentially the Alt-Right groups who might attack us.
John and I walked for five hours chanting and talking in between taking pictures of just a few of the over 45,000 counter protestors.
It was during one of those moments, when I had my arms outstretched like I do at the communion table, that I had my burning bush moment.
I was in prayer position and also completely vulnerable to attack from those on the outside or those from the inside who might want to incite or fight back. I felt vulnerable and open. I was indeed at God’s welcoming table remembering the sacrifice and the blessing.
The late great Abraham Joshua Heshel used to say that his legs were praying when he marched for justice and peace. That hot summer day in Boston surrounded by Black Lives Matter and LGBT activists, and Immigrant Rights leaders and clergy from all faiths, with my Palestinian red silk stole dripping with sweat, I was standing and marching on holy ground. The streets were on fire with energy.
As we entered the Boston Commons, one of the African American clergy who seemed to be in charge of us, indicated that John and I were needed in the front. We broke from the crowd and followed her down the cleared street towards the Boston police in their scary black riot gear.
I looked at John and he looked at me and I said, “I have your back.” He answered, “I have yours.” And I prayed God was really with us because it looked like all hell was going to break loose and we were going right to the front of it. As the psalmist promised, I needed God to be my rear guard.
Earlier John and I talked about why we preferred stoles to clergy shirts. He liked the symbolism of the stole because it reminded him of the towel that Jesus used to wash the disciples feet. Servanthood. For me, I liked wearing the stole because I felt what I was doing was sacramental. I was worshipping.
So there we were, two middle- aged clergy, standing behind a line of Veterans for Peace calling out military commands but also telling the steely-eyed police with wooden clubs that they were nonviolent. And there we were in our sweat stained stoles ready to be slaughtered or witness or both.
This was my second burning bush moment as I realized that our presence was to be messengers of peace or if needed, later a witness to a violent scene. It was hot as blazes and my comfortable sandals were melting on that asphalt but I was strangely cool keeping alert to any movement from in front of us by the heavily armed police or from the sides.
After a few minutes the riot police dispersed. The drama was over. Some of the Alt-Right protesters had been arrested. We retreated.
In the cool of one of those lovely Boston Common trees we sat down and drank our warm water. We were exhausted and exhilarated. John lay back on the ground to rest his back. I drank in the moment. The ground was indeed holy and thankfully cool. We took off our shoes and our stoles.
On my way to lunch while still wearing my big turquoise cross, with a Black Lives Matter button hanging off it, an African American man on the sidewalk said, “Thank you.” I nodded back. The work continues.
God needs us for the liberation of God’s people. God needs us to step away from our busy lives and to pay attention, to recognize that the ground we stand on is indeed holy and thus needs our protection and conservation – no fracking, no drilling. God needs us to “act up and fight back” for justice; to stand against hate; to stand on the side of love. God’s passion for justice is a searing light but for it to become a reality it needs to find a home within us. We will not be consumed.
Jesus demands the same of us when he commands us to pick up our cross and follow. Discipleship and mission are one. The burning bush becomes for us a call to sacrifice.
I invite you today to pay attention to God’s presence, to see how your ordinary lives are lit up. When you find this – stop what you are doing and take off your sandals and remember everywhere you stand is holy and everyone you meet is a reflection of that holiness too. And then ask yourself, “Where am I needed today? How can I be one of those whom God can count on to show up or fight for justice?”
Go forth in assurance that the great I am has your back and the humble Christ your heart.
Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart (CH4 465)
In the Lord I’ll be ever thankful (CH4 772)
Be still, for the presence of the Lord, the Holy One, is here (CH4 189)
Come, living God, when least expected (CH4 609)
Will you come and follow me (CH4 533)
Blessing of the Burning Bush
You will have to decide
if you want this–
want the blessing
that comes to you
on an ordinary day
when you are minding
your own path,
bent of the task before you
that you have done
a hundred times,
a thousand times.
You will have to choose
whether you will attend
to the signs,
whether you will open your eyes
to the searing light, the heat,
whether you will open
to the voice
that knows your name,
that tells you this place
where you stand–
this ground so familiar
and therefore unregarded
is, in fact,
You will have to discern
whether you have
to rebuff the call
to withstand the pull
of what blazes before you;
whether you will
hide your face,
will turn away
No path from here
could ever be
could ever become
unstrange to you
has been scorched
beyond all salving.
You will know your path
not by how it shines
but by how it burns
leaving you whole
as you go from here
Jan L Richardson