Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.
Good morning, St. Dunstan’s. Let me begin by saying how glad I am to have the opportunity to be with you in these last weeks of your good rector’s tenure. Jeff was among the first clergy to greet me when I came into the diocese nearly 8 years ago, and I, like you, have been deeply blessed by his ministry and friendship.
The title of my sermon today is, “There are Burning Bushes Everywhere.” Moses, as you heard, had an experience of God while contemplating a burning bush that he came upon in the wilderness while tending his father-in-law’s flock of sheep. Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.”
Picture the terrain of your life from God’s perspective. Imagine the equivalent of burning bushes everywhere, those things that if you stopped to notice and engage might have the power to change you, and change the course of your life.
In your mind’s eye, see yourself walking that terrain every day. What would it take for you to stop and notice? If you’ve ever walked down a garden path with a young child, you know what it’s like to notice everything, to see each leaf and fascinating bit of dirt as if for the first time.
About the burning bush, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner writes:
The ‘burning bush’ was not a miracle. It was a test. God wanted to find out whether or not Moses could pay attention for more than a few minutes. When Moses did, God spoke. The trick is to pay attention to what is going on around you long enough to behold the miracle without falling asleep. There is another world right here within this one, whenever we pay attention. [Lawrence Kushner, God was in This Place and I Did Not Know: Finding Self, Spirituality, & Ultimate Meaning (Woodstock VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1991)]
Pondering this evocative image of a burning bush as a means that God uses to get our attention, it occurs to me that there are at least three different kinds of burning bushes, with distinct things to say to us. No doubt there are more than three, but for today consider these:
First, the burning bushes of everyday miracles, what Rabbi Kushner calls the garden variety everyday mystical experiences. The Irish poet John O’Donohue once said that the most amazing thing about our lives is that we are here at all, that we exist. Life itself is a burning bush and cause for wonder and gratitude.
Cultivating a spirit of gratitude opens us to the miracle of our lives and the small flames of countless burning bushes that require absolutely nothing from us, but are simply there to give us sustenance. At a Thanksgiving Day worship service two years ago, I challenged the girls at National Cathedral School to take up a 30-day gratitude experiment. For 30 days, I asked them to write down 3 things they noticed each day for which they were grateful, and what changes did they notice in themselves, if any, as a result of this practice. “Try not to miss a day,” I said, “but if you do, simply start again.” I also assured them that they didn’t have to pretend to be grateful for hardships and disappointments, but perhaps in the midst of the harder times to see if they might look around and name three things for which they could be grateful: a supportive friend; good food; a hot shower in the morning.
All the 4th graders at National Cathedral School made the gratitude experiment a class project. After 30 days, they all wrote me letters describing their experience, which I treasure. Here is a sampling of what they wrote:
I was inspired to be more grateful and it worked. I found myself happier, more joyful, and less worried.
I liked writing the gratitudes because I learned that even if you are in hard times, you should try to find joy. I noticed that it was good to appreciate what you have.
I learned that writing positive things every morning gave me a more positive attitude. I liked that I learned how grateful I am.
I found that each day writing my 3 gratefuls helped me calm down and get a good night sleep.
It helped me feel better about myself, to think about what I have, not what I don’t have that some people do.
I noticed my cheerfulness not only affected me but others and brightened their days.
All this from the practice of paying attention to the small burning bushes of daily miracles and giving thanks.
There is another kind of burning bush, the second of the three for today. It has some urgency to it, for it is born of someone else’s need for help. The call of this burning bush isn’t necessarily for you in particular; it calls out to anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear. In other words, its invitation is open ended, as if God were asking, “Is there anyone out there?”
I think of Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan in this light. You recall that a man was robbed and left for dead on the roadside. Three men encounter him. Two of them, a priest and a Levite, pass by–not because they didn’t see, but because they chose to act as if they didn’t see. They were busy, important men, after all. They had no room for a wounded man. But another man, a Samaritan, did stop to help, not because God was calling him in particular, but because he saw the need and had room–or made room–to respond.
The priest and the Levite could just as well been the ones to offer mercy, but they didn’t. The Samaritan did. He saw the burning bush, took notice, and responded. God needed someone and the Samaritan took it upon himself to be the one.
If we live our lives with no margins at all, there is no space for us to respond to this kind of burning bush. Think of how God needs us to tend to the margins of our lives, the space that allows us to respond to the open-ended burning bushes, born of need. It’s important not to squander that capacity, and to be aware of what a gift it is. Imagine how grateful God is when we see a burning bush of need and respond because we can and we choose to do so.
The final burning bush calls to us as the second one does, but it’s invitation is not open-ended; it’s not for anyone. It has your name on it, or mine.
The example of Moses is instructive here. God wasn’t trying to get everyone’s attention with the blazing bush that was not consumed. God was speaking to Moses, and God deliberately chose fire as the means to get his attention because of the fire that had once burned so fiercely inside him.
Remember that Moses was born a Hebrew slave who had been taken from his parents and raised in a place of privilege, as the adopted grandson of some ruler who oppressed his people. Growing up, Moses saw injustice all around him, and it burned inside him like a consuming fire. One day, he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave and in his rage, he killed the Egyptian. He then tried to engage his fellow Hebrews, but they wanted nothing to do with him. Fearing for his life, he fled to another country, and he settled there, eventually married and had children. He mellowed quite a bit in the ensuing years, under the wise tutelage of his father-in-law, Jethro. By the time he encountered the burning bush, Moses was living a comfortable life in exile.
But God needed him. God needed Moses for a particular task, to lead the Hebrew people, Moses’ own people, out of slavery into freedom. God needed Moses’ passion for justice, as well as his hard won wisdom. And so, God spoke to Moses in the language of fire, the same fire that once burned inside him.
In the words of Eric Law:
Moses’ passion for what was just and right had gotten him into trouble before. His rage had burned and consumed him, causing him to lose sight of his calling and to hide in Midian as a shepherd. Encountering the burning bush reignited his passion for justice. But this time, the bush was not consumed. God promised Moses that his passion would bring about life for many. His passion, his fire, instead of consuming would take his people to a new land of freedom. The burning bush was the symbol of his original calling, with which Moses needed to reconnect. [Eric Law, Holy Currency Exchange: 101 Stories, Songs, Actions, and Visions of Missional and Sustainable Ministries (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2015).]
From time to time God calls to us, getting our attention with some manner of burning bushes meant for you and for me alone. Through them, God calls you or me, just as God called Moses, for a particular task at a specific time.
It doesn’t happen every day, but when it does, there’s generally a reason, born of our life experiences. The connection runs deep, to a core truth that is often connected to suffering and pain. For that is one way God redeems and repurposes our lives, allowing vocation to emerge from our broken places, so we might experience healing and even gratitude where we once felt sorrow and shame.
Today I Invite you today to consider the varied burning bushes of your life and mine:
Take note of every miracle variety of burning bushes, those that require no response from you other than gratitude. Cultivate the practice of gratitude, rooted in awareness of the blessings that surround you on every side.
Keep watch for the open-ended burning bushes that call out to you because you are in a position to respond. They will present themselves at an inconvenient time, but the world is held by those who respond.
And know that there is most certainly a burning bush for you, and you alone, because of who you are, the gifts you have, the wounds you’ve endured. When such a burning bush presents itself, remember that God is calling you as you are, for who you are. Moses was utterly and completely human when God called him. And so are we.
If you are living in the midst of such a call now, may God bless you and give you strength. If you aren’t and wonder how you’ll know when God calls, remember that it will speak to you in a deep and personal way. In the meantime, practice paying attention, so that you’ll be ready when the flame appears to you, and you can respond with your wholehearted yes.