Step off the Path – Lectionary 08/30/2020

Exodus 3:1-15

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.

Sermon Text

            This month has been, on the whole, some heavy stuff in our times of worship. We’ve looked at how our obsession with using time to the utmost can, in itself be a waste of time. We’ve looked at how we must come out from our places of comfort and really act in the world. We’ve looked at the traditions we hold dear and the secret sins we hide away and been honest about our need to take them out into the sun and address them freely. Perhaps, the real nature of faith is much weightier than we sometimes imagine. Not just the heights of joy or of praise, but a complex patchwork of God’s work and our own.

            The journey of life is one that is oriented toward God. Even if we get lost along the way, we find ourselves coming back to the path ahead of us. No matter which direction we go, up toward Heaven, down deep in the Earth, from the atom to the super nova we see God standing beside us in our explorations. God is not passively watching, nor walking beside us uninterestedly, but is actively moving in our lives. We have the sense of God moving in the periphery, the flash at the corner of our life experiences that demonstrates something stronger is at work than mere chance or causal cascades.

            Yet, God must be more present than this. The theophanies in scripture cannot be isolated instances never to be repeated again. Even if we do not see God on a burning mountain, or else in a bush that is wholly consumed and yet whole, we must be able to see God somewhere along the way. Where we see God, and what form God takes to us, whether God appears as friend or foe, whatever our eyes see we crave something deeper. The presence of God, the peace of being lost in the immensity of something we can hardly even conceive of. God’s appearance to us is something we seek and something we crave. It also, in some ways, seems like it must be an inevitability.

            The God of Creation, always present and somehow discernable. That immensity of potentiality and freedom that shaped all things – the thing the mind craves and necessarily seeks in some way. If that presence is so close to us, how do we so often feel distant from it? If that presence colors all our life, then why does the monochromatic shadows we often see consume our vision seem at times to be the only hues we can ever know? If God is always just a breath away, then why do we sometimes feel the very Spirit within us become choked without an atmosphere to support it?

            The life of the Christian is oriented toward the realization of God’s presence in our life. All our work in the faith builds toward this blessed or beatific vision of God. We live in community with one another and see in one another the Image of God. We act morally in community together and begin to learn the very heart of God. We come together and become the Body of Christ to the world. All of these things either manifest or direct us toward God’s appearance in the world.

            The miracle of it all is that we are not the initiates of this searching. We encounter God in all these situations because God first began to move toward us. Creation in itself is an invitation to relationship. God creates an entire cosmos, a universe of infinite possibility and complexity, and in the great expanse of all that space and time God seeks after relationship above all else. God models in Godself, God puts forward in the commands of God, and God earnestly looks for and seeks to enjoy, the complete company of all person. As trite as it may seem, the story of creation is one of an ever-expanding invitation and reconciliation.

            For us as the recipients of the Divine Invitation, there are several things to keep in mind. Firstly, we are not always attuned to hear the word of God when it cries out to us. Life is hard, and sometimes the disasters we encounter will push us within ourselves. It is hard to be attentive when we are in pain. Other times the distractions we encounter are more mundane. We have so much work we are convinced must get done, we have too much media to take in, too much entertainment to be had, we are entranced by our nine to five and lost in our own schedule of things.

            This is why God’s call is fundamentally disrupting to the path that we would follow on our own. We are content moving from work, to entertainment, to sleep, to work, to entertainment, to sleep. Or else, if we have more dynamic schedules, we get distracted by projects instead. Even our regular patterns of worship can become blinding to us if they are the only lenses, we use to look for God.

            Moses vision of God in the burning bush stands out because it disrupts his work. Tending sheep at the foot of the Holy Mountain, Moses finds God in something miraculous. A bush that burns but is not consumed. The novelty of this brings him to investigate, and instantly he finds his searching blessed by God calling out, “Moses! Moses!” And his reply is instantaneous, “Here I am!” This refrain, common in the Torah, has many meanings. When you see some one cry out, “Here I am!” in scripture, the implication is that they are offering themselves wholly to the person they are answering. Alternatively, we can understand it as, “Feast your eyes!” or “Behold me!”

            God rewards Moses openness with an openness of God’s own. God reveals the history of Moses’ people. This moment at the foot of the mountain is tied to Abraham’s visions in Haran, in Bethel, and Beersheba. To Jacob and Penuel, and Isaac in the terror of Moriah. This moment, ancient as well as new, terrible as it is magnificent, it consumes and does not consume, it burns and it gives life. Moses looks upon God, and God looks upon Moses.

            The moment that defines this encounter is when Moses sees the splendor of the burning bush and decides to go off course. The movement off of his usual path tending sheep to behold something unbelievable. In the course of our life we encounter many small wonders that can become a theophany to us. However, more generally, we see things at a distance and let them pass by, sometimes regretting the decision later one. Those moment when we are walking somewhere and catch a glimpse of an animal, we glance at it, acknowledge it, and look away, but when we turn back to it, it is gone. Sometimes our discovery will be something else, an art piece that somebody put out only for a day, and when we drive by again it has been sold, stolen, or maybe even thrown away.

            Whatever the thing is that we glimpse, our insistence to keep to our schedule, to our way of things, keeps us from beholding that wonderful incursion into normalcy. The unwillingness to step off the path, whether literal or allegorical, keeps us from encountering something new. In the same way, the life of faith, when we are unwilling to step away from what we have always done, results in us missing out on God’s appearances around us. When we have someone we would not usually talk to suddenly say hello, and we brush them off because we have places to be. When the man with a carboard sign is sitting alongside the sidewalk and we just keep walking because we do not want to talk to them. When we stop listening to someone we disagree with a few words in, rather than hearing them thoroughly and responding to them thoughtfully.

            God appears to us in all these circumstances and in so many more. Yet almost always they will be in detours from our present course. We think that we can only miss God if we are sinning excessively, if we are living a life completely divorced from our calling, but it is as easy to miss God at work as it is to miss anyone else we walk past. Because to hear God’s call, we need to be aware of our surroundings, of the little wonders wrapped plainly around us.

            Imagine, with horror and trepidation, what it would have been like if Moses had been too busy tending sheep to step off his path. If Moses did not investigate the burning bush, then he would have never heard God’s call. If God’s call was never heard then Moses could not be sent to deliver the Hebrews from Pharaoh. If the Hebrews were never freed, they would not be able to reclaim the faith of God and the knowledge of God’s true name. And so on and so on, until the wretchedness of this proposed timeline concludes with no woman named Mary living in Nazareth and no people of Judea for a savior to be born to.

            Of course, God would have made do. God never needs a single person to carry out an action, with the exception of Christ we could say, but that is a discussion unto itself. However, returning to the reality we began with, we know that God is concerned with having a relationship with us. That unity of community, that sort of desire necessitates that God calls to us because God does want us specifically. The great scandal of the faith is that God is generally loving in that God desires relationship with all persons, and particularly loving in that God desires each of us individually as well.

            God, miracle of miracles, wants to see each person step off the path of their own life and into the life God has set before them. It is a twisting path, it is complicated and asks a great deal of us. It is spontaneous and it is ancient, it is near and it is far away. Yet, it is there for us to go to, waiting just a little ways away. It is found in the, “not what we are used to,” and the, “I never would have thought.” What a miraculous thing, when we go off our path to the place we never dreamed of, we find the place we always belonged. More wonderful still, how wonderful that it all leads us round to that Holy Mountain where God dwells. There all peoples, from all nations, will worship and praise God, and love and care for one another. The path is clear then, and rather than being laid out before us, it is all around. So step off the path, and find your way.

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