Sermon for Sunday, September 3, 2017 || Proper 17A || Exodus 3:1-15
I wonder what would have happened if Moses had ignored the burning bush. Would he have simply led his sheep down from the mountain and lived out the rest of his days in placid comfort in his father-in-law’s house? Or would God have thought up another way to catch his attention? Our faith tells me the latter is more plausible: God would have shown up again in another manner, and perhaps then Moses would be ready for the encounter. And if not then, a third time. And a fourth. And so on.The possibility of encountering God is not a once in a lifetime experience, though a single encounter can change the course of a life. Rather, God is always and forever present, and an encounter with the Holy in our midst is directly proportional to our level of spiritual awareness. Now, please don’t misunderstand: God continues to speak creation into being whether or not we are aware of such creative work. God is present, always and forever. If God, the foundation of all being, were not present, the universe would cease to be.
Precisely because God’s presence is so foundational, we tend to ignore it, just like we ignore the wonder of electricity and running water until either of them goes out. God is present, always and forever. God is present to us, but we are not always present to God. Think about it like this: when taking care of toddlers, you look away for one minute and they’re balancing on the couch’s armrests. You look at your phone or check the oven timer or glance outside to see if the package has come, and they’ve found half a dozen new and exciting ways to put themselves in danger. The toddlers are present to us, but we’re not always present to them.
Now, I don’t mean to compare God to a toddler, but the level of attention we apply to those two relationships should be similar. I mean, how many times has God’s presence ignited in front of me, and I’ve been staring down at my phone? I think I might catch about one in a hundred times that God sends me a burning bush, and that number is probably generous. More often than not, I realize I was standing in God’s presence much too late to participate in the moment of encounter.
Perhaps I missed a stunning act of generosity or hospitality playing out in front of me. Perhaps I studiously avoided a chance to serve someone whose basic needs were not being met. Perhaps I ignored a call to stand up for what’s right because to do so might have put me at some personal risk. Whatever the case, such opportunities stay with us; they take root in our souls. And at some future moment, they blossom, and we realize that God was calling to us in those opportunities, and we failed to respond. Like I said, too often I realize I was standing in God’s presence much too late to participate in what God was up to right them.
I’m convinced that one goal of spiritual practice is to shorten the length of time between encountering God and realizing you encountered God. Someone once said we live life forward but understand it backward. Then there’s the old axiom, “Hindsight is 20/20.” But spiritual practice – prayer, contemplation, meditation, journaling – can help us to live in the moment, to embrace an encounter with God while it is happening, and not after the fact.
Moses gives us a lesson in such practice in today’s story. Notice first that Moses is at work. He’s tending the sheep when all this happens. So don’t think you can’t encounter God at the office. Moses finds himself on Mount Horeb, and he stumbles upon an odd sight. Exodus tells us, “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.”
Now right here, Moses could have shrugged and gone about his day thinking that he might tell his wife about the bush if he remembered when he got home. But that’s not what Moses does. The text continues, “Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’”
His natural curiosity drives him to look a second time. The sheep are there, milling about, perhaps scared of the nearby fire, and yet Moses takes a moment to pause and really look. He opens his awareness to this strange and arresting sight, not realizing yet what is about to happen. But he’s open now. He’s aware.
Notice what the story says next: “When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’” God did not force the encounter. God was simply present, and when Moses stopped what he was doing to really look, God called out to him. Moses responded, “Here I am.” And his life and the lives of his people were forever changed.
The miracle of Exodus Chapter 3 is not the burning bush; the miracle is that a human being was actually aware he was encountering God during the moment of encounter. Remember: one goal of spiritual practice is to shorten the length of time between encountering God and realizing you encountered God. The shorter that period of time becomes, the more we are capable of participating in God’s mission in real time; the more we can recognize need; the more we can celebrate reconciliation and healing and forgiveness; the more we can be still and know that God is present.
I invite you to find a spiritual practice that supports your own awareness. A breath prayer can keep God on the tip of your tongue all day long. Meditation can clear your mind of distraction so God’s presence can fill a greater portion of it. Journaling everyday – not just when you think you need to – can help you realize when the mundane details of life actually held the glory of God. I promise you they do.
Before every Sunday morning service, the acolytes, chalice bearers, Stacey and I gather in a prayer huddle, and I pray: “Dear God, thank you for bringing us together to serve at your altar. Give us open eyes and open hearts that we may see your glory and be your love in the world this day.” I extend that prayer to all of you. Like Moses, look and then look again. Really look for God’s presence. Look first into your memory, and notice where you missed that presence in the past. And then use that knowledge to increase your awareness in the present, to hone your vision. Open your eyes. Open your hearts. See God’s glory and be God’s love in this world.