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Season of Pentecost week 11, Common Lectionary year A. 

Burning Bushes and Broken Bread: Finding God in Strange Places. (Exodus 3:1-15; Matthew 16:21-26)

By Rev Elisabeth R. Jones 

Prayer:

God meet us in this strange text. Open us to its possibilities, write this text into our own lives so that it becomes for us a Living Word. Amen.

Now the way that the Scripture tells it, this was an ordinary little desert bush – maybe a thornbush, or sage –
burning, like ordinary bushes often do in the desert,
but not quite…
The fact that it was burning but not burning up signals to anyone who knows anything about Bible stories that something extraordinary is about to happen…
You can hear the sound track, the suspense building as the minutes tick by, Moses waiting, watching in vain for the ash to fall, the branches to crumble.
Then there is the Voice.…
Which no one post Cecil B. DeMille’s epic can hear any other way than as a booming, sonorous bass.

Did it happen quite that way? Who knows? And does that really matter? What matters is that we sit on the edge of our seats, craning for a look at the Bush, listening for an echo of the Voice, watching Moses’ every move in his encounter with the Almighty.

Because we’ve been there too.
Or we think we have,
Or we sometimes wish we had.
That sunset that takes your breath away, and you find yourself in a moment or wordless prayer, struck dumb by the mighty beauty of God’s creation. That life-changing moment of holding your newborn to your cheek, awestruck that such a creature is the fruit of your love, and God’s creative spark.
That head-shaking, word-defying conviction that you or a loved one has escaped tragedy by a hair’s breadth.

The moment of deep peace in the midst of grief, or pain or turmoil. The holy hush that descends each month when bread is broken on this table. Simple ordinary naan bread and brand name grape juice somehow touch the tongue with the taste of blessing, we don’t know how or why. Those almost ordinary moments that are charged with the unordinary sense of Divine presence.

That’s why, despite the chatter of God and Moses in the verses that follow, you’ll find me pausing by the bush that doesn’t burn. Trying to understand just why and how, and who
it is who breaks into the humanness of my existence
with these intrusions of holiness, of mystery.

It’s not the first time we’ve seen this intrusion in Scripture, and the rest of the Bible is littered with similar moments. Abraham’s starlit encounter with the promise of God, Jonah’s nautical soul-nudging in the belly of a fish, a talking donkey, for goodness’ sake, leading Balaam in the direction of blessing not destruction. And that simple dove hovering above a soaking wet Jesus in the Jordan. These crazy combinations of the ordinary with the holy seem to be the trademark of the God of this Burning Bush, this Broken Bread, this Bible, this life of ours.

And in the end, I have to take this story at face value,
trust its truth, because I and countless others have seen God in stranger places, more than once.

So I move on, catch up with the conversation between Moses the landless murderer prince turned shepherd and a talking bush. Moses is no Charlton Heston hero in this story. He’s smart enough to realize he’s in the presence of a power greater than his own. (Which, given how much Moses has been throwing his weight around in the first 2 chapters of Exodus, is probably a pretty significant reorientation of his worldview.)

He’s also smart enough to want to check credentials. I applaud this strategy, actually. Let’s not be fooled by false gods, or indigestion-induced hallucination. If we’re going to acknowledge our encounters with God, it’s probably good for us to have a sense of just who this God is.

Trouble is, God then with Moses, and now with us, is not likely to comply with the request in a straightforward way.
Do you see how God answers?
First, God answers with a track record, not a name.
“I am the God of your ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob, Joseph.”
It’s a roll call of names, but not God’s. The track record is a good one, to be sure, of God’s interaction with a childless family, filled with promises of blessings fulfilled.

Is that enough for Moses? For us?
Is it enough to know the God our help in ages past, without knowing if God will be our hope for years to come? Probably not, so Moses presses on.
“Tell me your Name, others are bound to ask.”

We’ve been right there too, haven’t we? Needing to find the right word, the right name to express our oh-so tentative awareness that God has come close to us.
“So, tell us who you are God. Others are bound to ask.”

God’s answer to Moses has perplexed us ever since.
God’s Name is not a noun, but a Verb.
“Tell those who ask “I am who I am”, or is it “I will be who I will be”, OR as the Rabbis suggest. “I am in what I am doing.”1

We’ve had so much trouble with that Name that we don’t even know how to write it properly, or how to translate it into words that make sense.2

God’s very Name slips like breath through our fingertips on a frosty morning, palpable, but never containable.
Just like God.

We find ourselves in a rich and varied company who find themselves lost for words to name or describe the God who is found in strange places, like burning bushes, and operating rooms, and broken bread, and nature’s balcony.

And yet, tongue-tied though Moses or we may be, God’s eloquence is in God’s purpose for presence. In the case of Moses, we hear God say far more about why God is present than what God’s name is.

“I have seen the misery of my people, and I want you to work
with me to do something about it.”
( “I am what I am doing.”)

If God has said that once, God says it countless times.
God’s presence, in strange and wild and holy and lonely places is always for this one purpose: a merciful purpose.
In our exploration of Scripture two weeks ago, we discovered that to speak of God’s mercy is to speak of God’s commitment to relationships that heal the weakest and most vulnerable.
“I am what I am doing.”

When God comes close to us, in strange and wild or lonely or holy places, it may be for our own healing, or it may be so that God can call us to live out God’s dream of reconciling, justice-making, peace-making, world-changing love in those places where God finds us and leads us.

Speaking of strange places, as this sermon was percolating this week, I saw a burning bush on Parliament Hill and in Roy Thompson Hall. I heard the dream of God in the words of a politician whose life was too short, but whose words have taken root in young hearts and old, regardless of political stripe, calling us, as does this strange text, to love, to hope and to live the dream of a better world. 3
God’s Dream.

© Rev. Elisabeth R. Jones. August 2011

1 Hebrew: 1אהיה אשר אהיה(ehyeh asher ehyeh). Scholars debate its meaning. Cf. Gerald Janzen Exodus (1997) for a summary of the debate. See also Exodus Rabbah for Rabbinic commentary on this tale.

2 See the Beyond Wood and Stone blog entry “the Name of God” for a fuller discussion of how the Name of God has been spoken and written in the Jewish and Christian traditions. www.cpuc.edublogs.org

3 NDP Leader Jack Layton, died earlier this week, and was buried on Saturday, Aug 27th. His ‘last letter’ urged Canadians to “be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And together we’ll change the world.” see http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/story/2011/08/22/pol-layton-last-letter.html

 

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