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. Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ Then he said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ He 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.
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 taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, 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, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.’ But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’ 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.’
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?’ 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.” ’ 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”:
This is my name for ever,
and this my title for all generations.
A Sign Strong Enough To Move You- Exodus 3:1-15
If you are a shepherd in the area that we now call northwestern Saudi Arabia, but was once called Midian, the chances are that you've seen plenty of crispy, burned out vegetation in your life. Chances are that you recognize the familiar crunch of crisp, dry grass and bushes underneath your feet. You have likely seen plants burn a thousand times, casualties of errant lightning strikes, ill tended camp fires, and flames intentionally set to quickly clear land. It is not likely that this is the first time that you would have seen a piece of shrubbery set alight, smoke filling the air, excess heat licking at your skin. The flame is probably not what surprises you. You've seen it a thousand times before. You probably only watch it out of the corner of your eye to see if might spread. You probably go about your day like normal. Fires happen all the time.
There is a fire burning right now in Centralia, Pennsylvania. It has been burning since 1962. A fire that began at the town dump worked its way down into the ground into a coal seam. The fire would spread across that seam, through a network of mines underneath the town. Noxious fumes made it hard to breath. A giant sinkhole eventually opened up in 1981. From 1984 to 1992, nearly all of the town's 1400 residents moved away. As of this past spring, only 10 people still live there. The fire continues to burn. There are more than 30 mine fires similar to this in Pennsylvania. There are hundreds more around the world. There is a mountain in Australia, one they call Burning Mountain, that has been burning for probably 6,000 years. It is a burning coal seam, too. Fires happen all the time. They burn as long as they have fuel. Shepherds know that. Moses was likely assuming that the fire he saw would soon consume all of its fuel. But this fuel wasn't burning away.
The beginning of the book of Exodus gives some history to ground the story of the shepherd. He is a descendant of people who once traveled to Egypt in order to survive a severe famine. Once, a member of his ethnic group had, through luck and shrewd deployment of his wisdom, managed to become a confidant of the Pharaoh and leverage that privilege into salvation. Inviting his family into Egypt, Joseph was able to make certain that generations of Israelites would survive the famine. More than that, the Israelites thrived and grew strong. But, Joseph eventually died. As did the pharaoh who knew him and was willing to help save his people. A pharaoh rose to power who was afraid of the descendants of the Israelite refugees. This fear bred contempt. Remember when white supremacists marched in Virginia and chanted, "You will not replace us." The pharaoh would have approved of that sentiment.
The children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of refugees who had once been considered neighbors began to be treated as enemies of the state, worthy of the meanest measures of social control. They are enslaved. Their boy children are threatened with extermination. Two brave and cunning midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, saved many of the boys, but pharaoh so afraid that he was willing to throw the ones who had been saved into the river to drown or be eaten by crocodiles. That shepherd I mentioned at the beginning, the one who was watching the fire in Midian, he was an Israelite boy who had been saved. His mom had put him in a floating basket where the pharaoh's daughter found him. At this moment, quite suddenly, another son of Israel has found himself in the Pharoah's household. He grew up knowing he was an outsider in both his adopted family's home and in the community of his ethnic kin. When he snaps one day, killing an Egyptian who had been beating a Hebrew slave, neither of these communities would come to his aid. The Egyptians assumed that his actions proved how unworthy the whole community was. The Israelites were likely afraid he was drawing unnecessary attention to them.
That's how this adopted grandson of the pharaoh, this child of slaves, this man named Moses, wound up living in exile in Midian, married to a priest's daughter, working as a shepherd, watching a bush burn in the wilderness. Up to this point in the story, notice what spurs action in Moses: observing a man being beaten by an Egyptian, hearing threats to his own life, and, in this one part of the story where he meets his wife, observation of men harassing women at a well. Physical danger moves him to act. He is willing to do something when he sees someone else (or when he himself) is the target of physical violence. But, there are many smaller actions and systems that lead up to an explosion of violence. Violence, like fire, can only burn when it has fuel. Moses will notice a fire, but it takes him a while to notice the fuel. This brush fire that he has been casually noticing seems to be the first time that he thinks about the fuel.
In my research this week, I read that Rabbi Lawrence Kushner once said that the burning bush is best understood not as a miracle, but a test. Kushner said, “God wanted to find out whether or not Moses could pay attention to something for more than a few minutes.” Kushner may be right, because there is something different about this event than the other life changing events described in the story. Those other moments of actions are all about the fire: the fight, the threats, the harassment. This story is really about the fuel. The fact that it is never consumed is what takes this event from commonplace to extraordinary, but you miss that if you aren't paying attention. Remember, fires happen all the time. You really have to pay attention to understand why this one is different.
Moses' turn towards the burning bush mirrors God's own turn towards the cries of the enslaved Hebrew people the chapter just before today's reading. According to scholars I read this week, the Hebrew words used to describe both God looking upon the people in the midst of their oppression and Moses' turn towards the fire are related. Moses' behavior, however unintentionally, is patterned after God's. It is at this moment that God first speaks to Moses. It is at this moment, when Moses recognizes the difference in this flame from all the others, that God declares that place holy. God says, "Take off your shoes. Feel this earth beneath your feet. I am the God of your ancestors. I once made them an important promise." And, Moses, upon hearing these words, responds how many of us would, by being terrified and hiding his face from the one who was speaking to him.
God then lays out the plan for what one scholar I read called "the single largest rescue operation in the entire Bible." Much to Moses' surprise, he has a role in it, a key role, in fact. A role for which he feels completely unprepared. He does his best to talk God out of using him. He is certain that hiding is much easier than leading. But, God repeatedly asserts that Moses is the one for the job. Maybe it's the fact that the knows the Pharaoh personally. Maybe it's because he is Hebrew but knows Egyptian culture. Whatever the reason, God is clear: Moses is exactly the man for this job. God promises to help him. With that promise, Moses can no longer turn away. This whole conversation has become a sign that he cannot ignore. It is a sign strong enough to move him to greater action.
If you are like me, all week you've been seeing footage of people moved into action, not by fire but by water. Convoys from Mexico and Louisiana rumble down Texas highways, bringing with them food, water, and fishing boats, ready to haul in people, pets, and possums trapped by the high water that came with Hurricane Harvey. A furniture store owner opened up his warehouse, creating what amounts to the biggest spare bedroom in all of Texas, so people could have a clean, safe, and dry place to stay. At this very moment, firefighters from Rockport, Maine may even be headed to Rockport, Texas to help. In short, I think people are acting like Moses in the earlier part of the story, seeing the explosion of need and stepping in to help.
But, even more, I think this moment can be a burning bush moment, too. It can be a moment where people see the fuel that is keeping the crisis going, and decide to work with God for a people's salvation. While we will always need to help in moments of crisis, we also need to grow better at addressing the contexts that help create the crisis. Nobody could control that 50 inches of rain fell in two days in Southeast Texas. But, had people build a city less dependent on cars and the miles of asphalt they require for parking and driving, the water could drain off easier. When so many people have difficulty affording evacuations, as has been true along coastal Texas and in poorer parts of Houston, if we are paying attention to what can fuel a potential crisis, we as the question: how do communities plan cities and towns that are more storm resistant so fewer people are in danger in the first place?
These are not just questions for people in Texas. Humans affect the climate. The science is very good and very clear. There are only going to be more intense storm seasons in our future on this warming earth. Our burning bushes are these flooded cities... Houston, Rockport, and Fullerton in Texas, Naimey in Niger, Mumbai in India. Let's learn from Moses that we have to pay attention to fuel in order to understand the fire. God is with us, too, and will help us. We'll just get climate scientists and urban planners instead of Aaron and a magic walking staff. We have a part to play. May we be brave enough to play it.
Pastor Chrissy consulted these resources while writing this sermon:
In the Houston area, the communities that were the hardest hit in Harvey were often communities of color. Here's some places you can donate to help rebuild:
Reflections on this week's reading:
Jim Keat: https://www.onscripture.com/burning-bush-boston-common-you-are-standing-holy-ground
Karla Suomala: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3390
Anathea Portier-Young: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2136
Information about city planning and climate change:
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.