GOD’S TEMPERING FLAME
A sermon preached remotely by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock,
St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts, on 30 August 2020 [Proper 17]:
Exodus 3:1-15; Matthew 16:21-28

For the fourth time in six years, I am again reading a book that speaks about the fact that there are two halves to our lives.  Falling Upward is Richard Rohr’s attempt to say “that there are at least two major tasks to human life.  The first task is to build a strong ‘container’ or identity; the second is to find the contents that the container is meant to hold.”[1]  The crux of the matter Rohr addresses rests with the question of whose content, what kind of content is to be held by the container.

This is, I believe, the same essential point that Jesus speaks to in this morning’s gospel lesson, when he mentions “gaining the whole world” yet “forfeiting one’s life”.  There are versions of this passage that translate the term “life” as “soul”.  The contemporary paraphrasing of the Bible that is The Message puts this passage this way: “What kind of deal is it to get everything you want but lose yourself?  What could you ever trade your soul for?”[2].

The issue boils down to having life on our own terms; or we can have life on God’s terms.  Viewing our lives as a chalice, the question that is being raised is: What’s in your cup?

Many important issues flow from this depiction of life’s two halves, but at the heart of it all lies the defining reality for us that God is God and not we ourselves.[3]  The issue is woven like this: God gives life.  We are responsible for crafting the container that is capable of holding what God gives.

The will of God is for each of us to have what we need and yet cannot provide for ourselves.  For our parts, the fundamental and ongoing task is how we make an adequate container to receive the life that God yearns continually to give us.  Or will we simply be content to receive what we can make of life?  And by the way, how’s all this going?

In the well-known story of “Moses and the Burning Bush”, we have a depiction of what our container-building is like and what it takes to receive what our souls yearn for.  In this seminal Old Testament story, I see a kind of template – a template with three parts that describes how we can shift from providing life for ourselves to beginning to receive what God offers.  In this sense, the story of “Moses and the Burning Bush” is a demonstration of our parish motto: If you come here, you will grow!  So, be careful!  The truth is that there is more to life than we can create or control.

In this morning’s reading from Exodus, we pick up the ongoing narrative of Moses’ emerging life.  In previous weeks, we have learned in soap opera fashion about Moses’ birth and cleverly arranged basket adoption by Pharaoh’s daughter.   We saw how Moses rose to prominence as Pharaoh’s “son”, at a time when his Hebrew people were enslaved by that same establishment system.  The tension of Moses’s two-edged identity (of being a circumcised Hebrew and a member of Pharaoh’s family) finally erupted, when he killed an Egyptian for beating a helpless Jewish slave.  When his cover-up of the deed became the source of public gossip, Moses ran away in fear for his life, which is where today’s scriptural episode picks up the action.

The biblical story-teller fast-forwards the narrative to show us a fugitive Moses, seeking a new identity in a faraway place, and it is implicitly clear that a great deal has occurred since Moses’ flight from Egypt.  Having run off to the wilderness to cover his tracks, we learn that Moses has gotten a -low-scale job, tending sheep that belong to a vague figure referred to as “Jethro, the priest of Midian”. And to top it all off, Moses has married the boss’s daughter.  My, how the mighty have fallen!  But the most telling element of this part of the story concerns the precise location of all this action.  Moses, we are told, is leading Jethro’s sheep to pasture on the mountain of God, called in this account “Horeb”.  In another episode in Moses’s life, the mountain of God is called “Mt. Sinai” and two stone tablets, not sheep, are involved.  Location, location, location!

I have often wondered what was on Moses’ mind, as he tended his father-in-law’s sheep in the desolate rough lands of the Sinai wilderness.  Surely, he had more than enough time to ponder his circumstance and to evaluate the painful state of all his losses.  For it has been a long and winding road down from being “number 2” in Egypt to working alone for your father-in-law in the badlands, tending his sheep.  In his place, I’d be filled with gnawing questions of “what if?”, and as a result I believe my sleep would be more haunted than restful.  To say that Moses had every right to be preoccupied is a proverbial understatement, which makes what happened next so curiously interesting.

This morning’s lesson begins by saying that Moses noticed something beyond expectation.  A bush aflame but not being consumed is certainly startling, but what strikes me is that Moses noticed it.  In what would be the completely understandable distraction of his up-ended life, Moses did not suffer from a victim’s tunnel vision.  Quite remarkably, Moses literally looked up from the burden of his routine and saw the bush burning but not being consumed.  His noticing strikes me as a first step in changing the content of his life.

Many times before, I have mentioned to you that in my mind one of the most valuable gems in the Prayer Book tradition comes from the prayer of “General Thanksgiving”.  For me, the prayer’s “gem” lies in the petition for “awareness”: specifically, “…And, we pray, give us an awareness of all your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives…”[4]

My point is that everyone can be “aware”.  It simply requires that we raise our eyes from our own feet to something higher.  In this regard, awareness is the most “democratic” of all virtues.  Without a doubt, there are many things that I do not understand, but I can, nonetheless, still be aware of them, along with the humbling fact of my limited understanding.  Awareness has the capacity to crack open the shell of familiarity with the prospect of new and larger life.  In Moses’s awareness, he noticed what he did not expect.  It was a first step toward his appropriation of the God-life, as it can be for us, as well.

A second step is even a bit more astounding to me.  In becoming aware of the burning bush and its unique quality, Moses then confronted it.  He didn’t whip out his phone camera and take a selfie.  Rather, he moved to the bush to see personally and directly what was happening.
It is important to remember the basic meaning of “confront”: It means “face to face”.  Moving out of whatever were the demands of his routine, Moses moved himself (physically and emotionally) to engage with the bush – “face to face”.  As the text says, he just had to “turn aside and look at this great sight and see” for himself what this bush was all about.[5]  And this action may be what tips the scales toward coming to grips with God and the God-life.

As our parish motto says: “Be careful: If you come here, you will grow!”  Awareness overcomes denial, but confronting what we are aware of is another thing all together.  Again, as the text honestly reports, “When the Lord saw that [Moses] had turned aside to see, [drum roll, please!], God called to him out of the bush…” [6]  And now, in the words Richard Rohr offers, the “Falling Upward” begins for Moses.  It can for us, too.

At the calling of his name from the flames of the bush, Moses responded with his presence.  He showed up; and we all know how much of life entails showing up.  “Here I am,” he responded with true accuracy.  And then it happened.  God warned him, “Come no closer!  Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”[7]  God implicitly says, “this is my ground; I, too, am here!”

Having moved from preoccupation to awareness, from curiosity to showing up and being present, Moses now finds himself on holy ground; and nothing will ever be the same again for him.

The discovery that we are on God’s ground, that God is present and in our midst, changes everything.  The cup, the container we have managed to put together now clearly is meant to hold God’s life; and we are to put that life to work in us and through us.

The Exodus story goes on to convey that God’s calling to Moses and to each of us (is it God or acid indigestion?) is a surprising, unexpected partnership, the outward sign of which is that the Holy One gives Moses (and subsequent generations) the divine Name.  The poet has asked, “What’s in a name?  God has answered, “My very presence and my divine life.”  So it was that Moses’ cup suddenly carried much more than his own wine.

Richard Rohr refers to this scene of the burning bush and other cases of life-transformation as “burnings”: specifically, that the life of faith and spiritual growth call us to prepare for what he also calls “the gift of burning’.[8]  As hard and disappointing as Moses’ life was tending the sheep, he certainly didn’t choose to tell Pharaoh what God wanted and was prepared to do.  Yet, his “burning” eventually brought new life to God’s people.  We may like the taste of our own wine, but God’s wine is new life itself, and (as Jesus teaches) that Godly wine requires new containers.

So, what about us?  Where is our burning bush?  Have we dared to notice it?  If so, to what extent have we willingly come face-to-face with its reality?  Moreover, have we dared to risk finding ourselves on God’s holy ground?  And if so, are we willing take our shoes off in humble recognition of God’s presence and call to us?

My hope and my pray is that St. Philip’s Church helps each of us to come to grips with these questions. So that we may notice, be present, and respond to God’s call.  Our lives, our very souls are at stake – ours and the world’s.  Amen.
[1] Richard Rohr, Falling Upward. Page xiii.

[2] The Message. Matthew 16:26

[3] Psalm 100, KJV: The Jubilate

[4] Book of Common Prayer, Page 101.

[5] Exodus 3:3

[6] Exodus 3:4

[7] Exodus 3:5

[8] Rohr, page 13