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. 2 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. 3 Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ 4 When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And Moses said, ‘Here I am.’ 5 Then he said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ 6 The Lord said further, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
7 Then the Lord said, ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their slave masters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, 8 and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey…. 9 The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. 10 So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.’ 11 But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’ 12 He said, ‘I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.’
13 But Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you”, and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’ 14 God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’ He said further, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I am has sent me to you.”’ 15 God also said to Moses, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you”:
Tomorrow we celebrate Labor Day and this morning Scripture invites us to talk about God’s labor to bring peace and justice into our world and about how we get taken up into this holy labor. The call of Moses is a big call. It’s dramatic. It results in a complete change of his daily work. Moses will go from shepherding a flock of sheep out in the wilderness—this is good work, God-given work holy work—he will go from this to shepherding a flock of former slaves whom God has freed, and who will drive him nuts on their long trek through the wilderness, and who will make him wish that he had never turned aside to take a closer look at that burning bush. And even before Moses can become the shepherd of this human flock he has to do the really perilous work of confronting the King of Egypt, the oppressor, the slave master, who has a well-equipped army and is totally invested in keeping these Israelite slaves to do the back-breaking work of building his nation.
The call of Moses is a big call–dramatic from beginning to end. And there are all kinds of ways in which most of us cannot relate to this call story at all. For most of us the way that we are drawn into God’s justice work isn’t really dramatic. There are no burning bushes. No unmistakable voice calling in the night. No sudden clarifying dreams. But, I want to say, that what is essential in this call story is the same thing that is essential in all of our life stories. Moses is attentive and responsive. There are lots of little brush fires, and little burning bushes in the wilderness. The desert sun sets dry plants ablaze. Moses has probably seen it many times. He could have glanced, then looked away. But when he sees this bush burning, he gets curious. It doesn’t seem to be burning like normal. Moses wants to see more clearly and to make sense of what he sees. And it is exactly his willingness to take a closer look, to move toward this phenomenon that prompts God to engage Moses further. It is when God sees Moses turn aside to see this burning bush more clearly that God speaks to him and Moses hears and says: “here I am.” It is possible that if Moses hadn’t drawn nearer God would have started yelling to him. That happens to people. I heard these kinds of stories from my students in Seminary. But this isn’t quite how it happens with Moses.
Moses sees the burning bush and is attentive. He gets curious. Moves in closer. And with every step he takes he is being drawn deeper into God’s labors for justice and peace and becoming more open to God’s call. Obviously, there is much about Moses’ call story that is extraordinary. God does reveal God’s self in extraordinary ways, and there are also people who are extraordinarily sensitive to and open to God’s presence and communication. But, it seems to me that one of the ways we can all locate ourselves in the story of Moses’ call is to claim for ourselves the practice of being attentive and curious about what I would call “everyday burning bushes.”
Over the past several months we have been seeing a lot of “burning bushes.” We have witnessed more police killings of unarmed African American men and women, and both peaceful protests and violence in response. We see the deep political, ideological, and moral divisions between peoples in our nation. The coronavirus has awakened us to the reality that we live in a global village—our own physical health is inseparably tied to people on the other side of the world. Global poverty, violence, and oppression bring undocumented immigrants to our borders, tired, poor, and yearning to be free. Opioid addictions and overdoses are on the rise.
Maybe to describe these as “everyday burning bushes” is to understate the reality. Maybe we need to talk about “forest fires.” Maybe if there were just one small burning bush we would be able to turn aside, be attentive and curious, and moved to see more clearly and understand more deeply what we see. I know that it feels overwhelming and it is easier to just stay on the surface of things, or to bury our heads in the sand. For many of us, our lives are already overfull, or we don’t want to step out of our comfort zones. Moses certainly doesn’t. He is settled. Content. Doing just fine. But I have no doubt that the way we hear God’s call to bringing justice, peace, and true freedom for all people is to go deeper.
Over the summer a bunch of us read and discussed Reverend Jim Wallis’s book about racism, white superiority and a bridge to a new America.* We faced our own history, attended to the facts that show the racial inequalities that persist in this nation, and considered what it is like for police who are called to protect all people. When the coronavirus hit, some of us bought groceries for undocumented immigrants who are waiting to have their immigration status changed and who lost work. We learned their names, we celebrated the births of their babies, we heard their stories. In recent months, some of us joined vigils to pray for our police, to pray for those addicted to opioids and to name those who have lost their lives in recent months. These are all ways of walking toward the “burning bush,” of becoming more connected, concerned and curious to know and understand what it all means.
God is calling to us from within these “burning bushes.” Awakening our curiosity. Beckoning us to come closer. Compelling us to see and hear more clearly. And bringing us to that place where we hear God’s call, and with Moses we begin to ask: who am I God to labor with you to do justice, to seek peace, to love and offer kindness? Who am I? What are my gifts? What experience do I bring? Where is my power? What is my resistance? What can I offer? How can I make some kind of difference?
And God gives us this little community of Jesus, this holy gathering of the Holy Spirit, so that we are not alone in responding to God’s call. We have companions. We need companions who can support us in going deeper, companions who can pray and labor with us, companions with whom to be accountable to God’s call on all of our lives. You don’t have to be Moses, or Mother Theresa, or Martin Luther King, Jr. You don’t have to give up all the other good, everyday, holy work you are already committed to. You don’t have to give up your retirement. But God is always calling us to be attentive, curious, to see and understand more fully all the “burning bushes,” all the realities that draw us into God’s labor to bring justice and peace. It’s a journey. A step by step, day by day journey.
And we are on this journey because the God who says, “I am who I am,” the God of our ancestors, is a God who is infinitely attentive and infinitely concerned about the welfare of every single person. We belong to a God who sees human suffering and hears the cries of those who are oppressed and long for justice. This is where the whole story begins. With this God who in infinite love moves closer and closer. Who in the person of Jesus moves into our human existence; puts on our flesh; lives, dies and rises to free us from our enslavement to the powers of sin and death. We belong to this God who promises to be with us, always and everywhere. Who nourishes us with the bread of life and the cup of salvation. Who fills us with Holy Spirit and calls us together and empowers us to share the holy labor of bringing God’s justice and peace into our communities.
*The book by Jim Wallis is: America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America.