Friday, September 5, 2014

Blazing, But Not Consumed

Scripture for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost includes Exodus 3:1-15; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28

Today a burning bush catches the attention of Moses. This is back when Moses was a shepherd in the hill country of Midian. Wait, you may say: Only last Sunday, Moses was just a baby, discovered by Pharoah’s daughter in his basket among the bulrushes. See how much can happen in the space of a week!

The lectionary skips the part where Moses, raised as a prince in Pharoah’s household, steps in between two of his Hebrew peers who have come to blows over something, and Moses, not knowing his own strength, kills one of them. From that moment, Moses became a fugitive who found sanctuary across the border. He had a record. He would not pass a CORI check.

Yet God aims this pyrotechnical recruiting drive right at Moses. That’s what it is. The refugee Moses is happily resettled, and that status quo is about to go up in flames. So to speak.

God will call Moses to risk return to Egypt, to the royal court he had fled. God will call Moses to gain the trust of his own people, the Hebrews, who never quite knew what to make of him, especially after that incident. God will call him to be their champion before Pharoah, going toe to toe with that powerful figure in whose house Moses had been raised a princeling.

No one would have been more surprised by all this than Moses.

So watch out! If this story captures your attention, it might become more than just a snapshot of the ancient past… You may experience God calling you to take a risk, make a major return, confront a person, a power, a problem.

If Moses had taken a selfie at this moment—before the voice was heard, I mean— how would you imagine his expression? I’ll go with “puzzled”. But there in the pulsing heart of that fire, what is that shape that emerges, that presence asserting itself? When he sees this animating force expressing itself, Moses hides his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

“Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Is there a shortage of heavenly personnel, that God has to micro-manage the details of self-manifestation? Wouldn’t you have expected a host of underlings to announce the etiquette of engagement with the divine? All we’ve got here is one angel who appears to be tongue-tied, for he says not a word. Perhaps he’s an angel-in-training. God alone speaks.

As of that moment, the bush plays no more of a role in this story. Its one purpose was to draw Moses’ eye. With that accomplished, God’s voice claims the stage.

Notice the verbs in what God says. I have seen: I have seen the misery of my people. I have heard: I have heard their cry. I know: I know their sufferings. I have come: I have come down to deliver them from their enemy, and to bring them up to a good and broad land.

In the Holy Eucharist, key verbs describe the love that pulses like living flame at the table of new life: On the night he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus took bread. He blessed the bread. He broke the bread. He gave the bread into the hands of his disciples. Those are the verbs of familiar action, salvation action, in the redemption accomplished by God in Jesus Christ.

The verbs we hear from the burning bush—I have seen, I have heard, I know, I have come—might be called the key verbs in the redemption history of Judaism. They pertain to many a story in the Hebrew Bible, for they describe the nature of God who is all-embracing, all-engaging, all-compassionate, all-committed to creation.

And biased. The Hebrew Bible makes no apology for its claim that Israel is the chosen nation, Jews the chosen people; and, as today’s reading makes clear, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites simply must move over and play dead—worse yet, become dead—in the advance of the Hebrew refugees into the land of milk and honey. Is all this bias from God? Doesn’t it come from the human heart and mind? This exclusivism continues to bedevil the politics of the Middle East. And while we can expect the New Testament to insist upon a new inclusivism, we know all too well that our own religion has often earned the teacher’s report card with the comment, “Does not always play well with others.”

“Blazing, yet it was not consumed.” God needed the burning bush no longer, but a preacher is reluctant to let go of it.

Take Paul’s letter to the Romans and lift up just the verbs that constitute his vision of apostolic Christianity: Outdo… be ardent… rejoice… be patient… persevere… contribute… extend… bless… weep… live in harmony… associate… claim wisdom modestly… take thought… live peaceably… leave room for God… feed… give…overcome evil… heap burning coals on the heads of your enemies.

I like that last one. Not, I hope, in a perverse way, but for its jujitsu approach to mutual transformation: the generous care, the wondrous love, the amazing grace that St. Paul exhorts us to practice puts, at the same time, our enemy in a surprising and unexpected place, and us in equally uncharted waters. Mutual transformation demands starting with radical equality. These uncharted passages of new birth are waters of baptism—seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving neighbor and enemy as we love ourselves; respecting the dignity of every human being.

The bush was blazing, yet not consumed, because the energy of God is boundless, limitless, creative, and mysterious. The burning coals of service, respect, and love will, in like manner, not consume us because they are the energy of God at work in us, and God knows how to renew them—renew us—in perfect sustainability.

This is the lesson learned by the first-century Church: That all the bold apostolic doing and being summed up by all those verbs would be made possible for them by the power of the God’s Spirit. This is the same lesson Moses would come to grasp—though it forever felt as if it has grasped him.

It is the lesson that all our scripture lessons point to, prepare us for, draw us to, call us to dare trust… and follow.