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Pentecost 16, 08/31/2008

Sermon on Exodus 3:1-15, by David Hoster


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 forever,

and this my title for all generations."     [NRSV]

The phrase "burning bush" has wormed its way our vocabulary to describe those dramatic "aha" moments when a person sees some major truth for the first time and knows exactly what he or she is meant to do about it.

That sounds so good and normal to us that I hate to tell you this definition is a considerable come-down from the original burning bush.  Yes, the bush in Exodus was burning and yes, like a cartoon light bulb switching on over Moses' head, it indicated enlightenment, and yes, Moses knew exactly what he was meant to do.

Yet the burning bush is not about Moses.  The burning bush is not even really about those slaves crying out for deliverance from their misery.  Rather, the burning bush is about God, and about the very special relationship that God will create with Moses and the Hebrew slaves and all their descendants.  They will be a new, truly unique nation of people who will exist forever in dynamic intimacy with this same God.  

The burning bush is a revelation of who God is and what God is about in our world

A highly flammable object, then, that burns but does not burn up.  The bush is the ultimate example of having your cake and eating it too.  Fire is the quintessence of change and yet the bush does not change. 

You burn your way through your bank account without changing your balance.  (Do I have your attention now?)  You live the passage of years in your life without getting older.  Despite the evidence of every single thing you have ever seen or experienced in life, the burning bush says that with God we do not grow dim and die.

That's a heck of a message and it is the absolute heart and soul of what God is about. 

What exactly is it in our lives that works that way?  Burns but doesn't burn up.  Moves through time but doesn't deteriorate with time?  What is it that God wants us to pay attention to?

Well, first of all, there's Jesus.  A lot of his career was spent going down in flames, from crowds that drifted away, to disciples who didn't get it in his lifetime, to family who were humiliated by  him, to highly respected religious authorities who murdered him.  I guarantee all that would have burned out any seminary graduate, but Jesus is not destroyed.  He rises in a vastly fuller life unpredictable by our experience.  What was it about Jesus that gave him life that does not burn out?

Let's give the Old Testament its due as well-not as the story of any individual in scripture, but in the experience of Israel itself.  Like Jesus, extraordinarily hard living burned away at them:  forty years starving in a desert, often defeated by foes in their Promised Land, corrupt kings, conquered, exiled, colonized, evicted, repeatedly dispersed across the face of the earth, pogroms, expulsions, holocaust.  That would have burned up any other people-Philistines, Midianites, Hittites, Egyptians, Babylonians, Romans:  Gone!  Yet the Jewish people have never burned away.  What is it about the people of Israel that, like Jesus, seems so resistant to death?

The answer is simple.  The primary relationship in the life of Jesus and of Israel is God.  They know, believe in, love and trust God.  They respond to God.  They make themselves accountable to God.  They are tied to God heart and soul.  Other things come and go, but this burning bush they have tied themselves to does not burn out.

What does it mean to be connected to God this tightly?  What does that look like?

Before we can answer that question, let's first admit how deeply conditioned we are to know, believe in, invest ourselves in and trust the truth of the burned out and burned up track.  How many ways does it seem natural to the point of inevitability that we quit on our vitality?

When other people disappoint us, we damp down our feeling for them.  When others criticize us, sometimes we take their denunciation as a measure of our worth and damp down our vitality, but sometimes we take that criticism as a measure of their worth and stake our own happiness on squashing their vitality, not exactly a life-giving proposition.  How often, when we fail, do we take that as a signal to stop trusting ourselves quite so much and to stop hoping for quite so much?   How often have we invested our happiness in things that have a short shelf-life and ended disillusioned?  How many of the compromises we make to get by end up sapping our optimism and our ideals?  How many times can hope be disappointed before fatalism storms in and kills us?  Has the death of somebody near to our heart taken part of ourselves into the grave along with them?

All these things burn us up like real bushes so that, in the end, we're gone.  They are so dramatic, so persistent, so "natural," so physical, that we know them intimately, believe in them, pour our passion into them, trust the truth they tell us, and make our lives accountable to them.  If there is a single message the world gives us, it's that we die.  No choice at all about that.

Yet a bush that calls itself God and burns but does not burn up tells us that we do have a choice.  We can choose not to believe in all these things, not to pour our passion into them, not to trust them for the truth and not to bind our lives to them so tightly that we watch ourselves burn up.  We can choose to know, believe in, love, trust and open our lives to God instead.

So, in the name of God, I ask you these questions:  Why should our ideals be sapped by jerks?  Why should our inevitable human failures of mind and body and heart count against our very souls?  Why should we tie our happiness and even our fate to stuff that get used up?  Why should we consent to the death of somebody we love by surrendering part of ourselves to the grave along with them?  Why do any and all of these things count against God? 

Why?  Because we choose to let them.

And if we choose to let them, then we can choose not to let them!

Moses' mission in Egypt, at the Red Sea, at Sinai, and for forty years in the wilderness is to get these people to tie their souls in accountability to God rather than to Pharaoh.  Moses will be so successful engendering accountability to God that for the next three thousand years, and counting, these people will do something new in human history.  Whenever they catch themselves choosing things other than God and slide into that awful world of bushes that burn and burn up, they wake up and refuse to despair.  They choose God again, choose life over death, and come back to the bush that burns but does not burn up.  Other civilizations surrender to death, but not these people.

So, too, we Christians.  Because of Jesus we, too, can choose to know, believe in, love, trust and make ourselves accountable to God.  We can choose not to burn up.  We can choose life.

I want to be very, very, very clear:  accountability to God is not a harsh, judgmental thing.  God is not the biggest cop, judge, jury and executioner in the universe, ready to crush you for every infraction, minor or major.  That was the Churchlady back in the first grade, not God.

Accountability to God means that whenever you start choosing things other than God and your spirit becomes accountable instead to cynicism or complacency or selfishness or fatalism or self-pity or bitterness or resentment or self-punishment or despair and you do the things that these agencies of death demand-that whenever you feel yourself burning up leaf and branch-you turn back to the light of the bush that burns but does not burn up. 

You turn away from death and come back to God for life-that is accountability to God.  Not punishment.  Not going to hell.  You are accountable to God to cherish life.

Life, hope, optimism, love, faith, joy, goodness are the things we can choose with every breath we take until the last breath we take, and that last breath will not mean, even then, that the bush has burned up and is gone. 

I thought I was going to end by quoting the famous passage from Deuteronomy:  "I lay before you today life and death.  Therefore, choose life."  That sounds harsh and judgmental, though.  You know, life or death, good or evil, heaven or hell. 

I'd rather put it this way.  I lay before you today life.  Just life.  Forget about death.  Live without spending life.  Burn hot with passion without burning up.  So, durn you, choose it.  Choose life.  As our Jewish friend Kinky Friedman says, "Why the hell not?"









Rev. David Hoster
St. George?s Episcopal Church
Austin, Texas, USA

E-Mail: david.w.hoster@gmail.com