Sunday, August 31, 2014
Texts: Exodus 3:1-15
There was a lot on Moses’ mind as he followed the flocks across the Sinai Peninsula, finding food and water where they could. One could say he was distracted as looked back over the way he had come – growing up in Pharaoh’s court, his curious feelings for the Hebrew people, both the ones who had helped raise him and those he saw in hard labor for the Egyptians. He wasn’t really sure how he fit in anywhere. Then there was the day he had struck out in rage, killing an Egyptian taskmaster who was abusing a Hebrew slave. He didn’t know exactly what had made him so angry. It all just seemed so wrong.
He had been forced to flee for his life, leaving behind all the wealth and privilege to which he had been accustomed. He found his way to the tiny land of Midian, where its priest had taken him in, giving him refuge. In time he had made an uneasy peace with this arrangement, eventually marrying the man’s daughter and becoming a part of his family. Now his responsibility was to tend the flocks of Jethro, a task for which his royal friends and family back in Egypt would have disdained and ridiculed him. “Oh look, the mighty Moses is a shepherd. He’s not such hot stuff now, is he? How far can a man fall? He’s living in the bottom of the barrel.”
It wasn’t that he minded the work so much. It gave him a secure role in the world and often kept his mind from wandering, but for several days now they had been moving farther and farther from Midian. Suddenly he was aware that he was in territory he’d never traveled before. He looked up and looming before him was a mountain with which he was unfamiliar. As he began to look around more carefully, trying to get his bearings, he saw something in the distance that caught his eye. It appeared to be a fire. He decided to check it out.
As he got closer, he could see a thornbush that seemed to be aflame and yet its leaves and branches were not actually burning. That is, they appeared to be unscathed by the fire. He moved in to get a better look. As he got very near, he was sure he heard a crack of thunder. Maybe the bush had been struck by lightning and lit ablaze. Only it was a hot, dry day without a cloud in the sky.
Again the thunderous sound, only this time, he thought he could make out words, like his name was being called. “Moses, Moses.” What could it be? Was there someone in distress in or around the burning bush? But how could they know his name? Again, the sound. This time he was certain it was his name. “Moses, Moses.” There was an urgency to the call. He had to respond, “Here I am.”
Thus did Moses encounter the living God. Lost, distracted, full of the challenges of his own life, God found him where he was and called to him. I suppose in his troubled self absorption, he might have wandered by and missed the whole experience. Barbara Lundblad writes, “I…know, and perhaps you do, too, if we’re honest with each other, that we have an almost endless capacity to keep walking. Schedules can do it. We’re terribly busy. We need to get someplace, no time to stop, we’ll come back later. Rationality can keep us from turning aside: we don’t believe in visions. Belief in an all-sufficient, autonomous God can keep us from stopping: God so totally other that any earthly sign could only be our own psychic illusion. There are plenty of sound reasons to keep on walking” (Barbara Lundblad, “Turning Aside,” March 5, 2000, csec.org). He also might have seen the flames and fled in fear as far and as fast as he could.
Still, there is plenty of evidence that when God comes looking for us, God will find a way to get our attention. Fortunately Moses’ native curiosity led him to “turn aside and look at this great sight.” Some would say that whatever path we take, there is something in each of us that longs for an encounter with the living God. We may be aware. It might be near the surface and a conscious quest or it may linger deep within us, out of consciousness, nagging at us indirectly. At any rate, Moses’ journey brings him to the foot of the holy mountain and here God descends to meet him in the midst of his distracted wandering. God calls him by name. God knows him better than he knows himself.
“That’s close enough, Moses. Take off your sandals. This is holy ground.” Have you ever tried to walk barefoot across burning sand? Hopping from one foot to the other, you look for shade or water or covering that will cool and protect your feet, but Moses removes his sandals and kneels in the presence of the living God. Overcome by the encounter, he covers his face, afraid to look directly at what blazes before him. There is an inherent humility that comes with such a sacred encounter.
My friend, LeAnn, used to remove her shoes to preach. She felt that standing in the pulpit was holy ground and removing her shoes was a meaningful, humbling symbol for her. There is something powerful in removing whatever comes between us and the sacred. In his poem, “God’s Grandeur,” Gerard Manley Hopkins observes,
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
So much gets between us and the grandeur of God, the sacred wonders of creation, and we trudge on unaware of what is possible all around us. As Anathea Portier-Young puts it, “…in this moment, Moses is told to remove his shoes. Draw away the covering that has protected you. Clear away the barrier between yourself and the earth so that your bare feet may touch and sink and take root in this holy ground. Let this living soil coat your skin. Dig in, feel your way, and find your balance here upon this mountain, so that its life becomes your life, its fire your fire, its sacred sand and loam and rock the ground of your seeing, speaking, and calling.”
Bare feet and burning bushes become markers of an encounter with the Holy One, the Living God. Such an encounter shakes us up, changes our lives, transforms us. It becomes source for our seeing, our speaking, our calling. The encounter is with the very ground our being and all being.
Portier-Young continues, “When Moses removes his sandals he will find himself at journey’s end, at the true goal of every journey. He will release himself from every claim so that he can accept the claim God makes upon him. He will strip away strivings for status, success, and stability. He will find his true ground and he will know where he stands” (Anathea Portier-Young, “Commentary on Exodus 3:1-15, August 31, 2014,” workingpreacher.org).
Could such an experience be available for us? Will we turn aside to see this great sight, this evidence of the sacredness of Creation? Will the time come when you and I find true ground and know where we stand? Where in your own journey have you been invited to remove whatever keeps you from digging your toes into sacred soil, from rooting and grounding yourself in it, from accepting the claim that the Living God makes on you?
Elizabeth Barrett Browning advised us that
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
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…
(from “Aurora Leigh”)
God is ever present and always calling us, luring us, longing for us to meet God in holy encounter, to see and embrace all of heaven, all of the sacred that surrounds us and for which we share God’s loving care. We will not each have the same experience Moses had. Moses was unique – as is each of us. God had a task for him, a monumental task, the liberation of an entire population from oppression and slavery.
God may not challenge you or I to such a grand enterprise. But God calls each one of us – “Mary, Mary. Lois, Lois. Thelma. Thelma. Lynn, Lynn. Alan, Alan. Rick, Rick. I have work for you. There’s a place for you, a calling for you, a task for you.” How will we respond, you and I? I imagine we might be as reluctant as Moses. We may offer as many excuses or more. We’ll try to talk God out of it. “Why don’t you choose someone else who is younger, better qualified, less busy, not as burdened with obligations, more faithful, more spiritual, a better person, a better Christian?”
Well here are the universal words of assurance I take from this text. In the midst of voicing his protest and making his excuses, God says, “I will be with you…” The promise is that we will not be alone; that God goes with us; that whatever the work to which God calls us peacemaking, justice work, liberation activity, compassion for others, care for the earth, it is shared work. Bare feet and burning bushes, our journeys and our encounters, our working and our living, when grounded in God, will bring us again and again to worship on God’s holy mountain. May it be so. Amen.