Burning Bushes (and other subtle signs)

Earlier this week, I was in Pennsylvania visiting my mom.  This is the place where I grew up.  And when I return there, I’m always struck by how different my life in D/FW is from my mother’s.  Here’s a snapshot of a few things I noticed this week.

First…I can get from my home in North Richland Hills to Paris, France more quickly and easily than north-central PA. 

Second, we can rent a car at DFW airport 24 hours a day.  But, at the Elmira, NY airport, the rental agencies close at 8pm.  All of them.  There is no provision for late arriving passengers.  So, if your flight lands at 10pm, as mine did, it is assumed that you know someone who’s willing to drive 2 hours to pick you and take you to your destination. 

Third, nothing is nearby.  The doctors are an hour’s drive, the hospitals are an hour’s drive, the grocery store is an hour’s drive…

For a 90-year-old woman with memory loss and glaucoma, it is a very challenging place to live.

The story of Moses never gets old.  It seems like every time I encounter his story, I see something new.  And this week was like that, too.

The core of the story is well-known:  Moses is in the wilderness.  He sees a bush in flames; yet the bush does not burn up.  This piqued his curiosity…enough that Moses left the path he was on to investigate the Unusual.  When God sees that Moses recognizes His Sign—and that Moses comes toward the Sign, God chooses to engage.

The dialogue that follows is mostly spoken by God.  Moses says just three things….but each time he speaks, we learn about his character.  He says,

  1. Here I am.
  2. Who, me?
  3. Who shall I say sent me?

It’s hard for me to imagine being out on a hiking trail, seeing a blazing bush that is nevertheless unaffected by fire, and standing next to it hearing the bush exclaim, “Paula! Paula!”.  All that the bush would see is my backside running as fast as it can go.

But not Moses.  Moses says, “Here I am”.   He meets this unusual moment calmly.  He is listening and open to the Voice.  By saying, “here I am” Moses invites God to continue the conversation.  And God does.

God tells Moses that he is in the presence of the Divine.  Moses knows it; he hides his face.  God has a mission for Moses.  He is to visit the Pharoah of Egypt and deliver a message from God…the Voice of the burning bush:  set my people free.  Set all of Egypt’s enslaved work force free.

Moses does not reject or block God’s mission—he doesn’t say, “Yahwey, that will never work”.  Instead, he responds with humility:  “Who am I to speak to Pharoah?”

Finally, Moses must somehow convince the Israelites that he will lead them from Egypt.  He’s wondering if they will follow him.  He asks God, “Who shall I say sent me?”.  Moses will not lead the Israelites in his own name or for his own purpose.  He will lead in God’s name. 

Wrapped around the core of the burning bush story is another Sign…a covenantal sign between God and Moses.

Moses is in this wilderness because he feared for his life in Egypt.  To protect an Israelite slave, Moses killed an Egyptian.  Then he fled to the land where this story takes place.  He meets his future father-in-law, Jethro.  Moses is welcomed into Jethro’s family.  He trusts Moses with his daughter and with his sheep.

Today’s story began by telling us that Moses was leading his father-in-law’s sheep through the wilderness to a placed named Mountain of God.  That same place appears at the end of the story, too.  God says to Moses, “This will be a Sign that it is I who sent you:  you will lead my people through the wilderness to worship at the Mountain of God”….the very place Moses is standing.

Not until the mission concludes will Moses have confirmation that the voice of the burning bush is God.  Nevertheless, he will go.  We can add faithful to our character sketch of Moses.

He is a Shepherd….he has demonstrated that he can lead the flocks of his family.  And, now God will make him a Shepherd of God’s people.

When I first realized that a rental car would not be possible for my trip, I panicked.  I haven’t lived in North Central Pennsylvania for 40 years.  Who would be willing to give me a ride?  I called the folks who lived next door to my parents for 25 years…explained the problem…and they said, “We’ll pick you up”.  And they did.  At 11:15pm I walked into Mom’s house.

The next morning, Mom had a physical therapy appointment in a local community center.  As we walked into the building, a half dozen folks smiled at me.  It was apparent that every one of them knew me.  I was with my mother…and that was the only hint they needed. And they knew that I did not recognize them.

One woman spoke: “I can’t hear O Holy Night without thinking about you”.  I recognized her voice.  Bonnie.  She began telling her nightmare stories from having me in vacation Bible school.

Then another woman said, “And I remember you by your snowballs”.  Oh, boy, this was Grace…who lived next door when I was in elementary school.  Her husband like to start snowball fights with me and then run for his house.  Grace would hold open the kitchen door as he ran toward it.  But, being an expert snowball thrower, I’d sail a big one into her kitchen before she could slam the door shut.

One by one, they told me who they are…and who I am…through our stories.  The families who live in that area are deeply connected.  We are bound together by kinship:  a connection forged by geography, hardship, and time.  I didn’t choose to become Appalachian.  I was born into it.   

It is similar to the bond shared among the Israelites.  Their kinship is rooted in their relationship with Yahwey.  And, it will also be forged by geography (Egypt, the Wilderness, and the Promised Land), hardship, and time.  They are also born into kinship.

But, when Moses runs from Egypt into the wilderness after killing the Egyptian, he finds refuge with Jethro the Priest.  Jethro is not Hebrew.  He is a priest in another religion—the Druze.  Jethro welcomes Moses, a Stranger, into his home, his family, and his business.  He extends all the privileges of kinship to a Stranger.  It is a radical welcome.

Each Sunday morning, when we turn toward St. Martin’s and begin the journey toward worship, we become a Body of Christ.  The very act of gathering moves us into kinship.  What is remarkable to me is that this kinship is entirely a choice.

St. Martin’s isn’t the tallest steeple in our skyline.  It isn’t the most glamorous building in town.  We don’t have movie theater seats or a Starbucks café on premise.  We are not a people who come here to be dazzled by stuff.  We come to worship…as one body.

Our kinship in rooted in Christ. 

Like Moses, we intentionally get off the path of our daily life and move toward the burning bush that is our Eucharist.  We come and say, “Here I am”, in the very presence of God.

God chooses our radical, inclusive welcome to invite more people into our common worship life every week.  We are part of something quite extraordinary.

On this third Sunday in Lent, the story of Moses invites us to wonder:  What has God put aflame in your life?  Where is God arousing your curiosity, faithfulness, and humility to come closer…more deeply into the life of Christ.