Are You Paying Attention?

Exodus 3:1-14
October 15, 2017
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

On a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being not very much at all and 10 being extremely so, how oblivious are you? Do you suffer from inattentiveness? Do you have such terrible tunnel vision that you can never see the forest for the trees? Are you drifting through life with your head in the clouds, liable to trip over your own two feet because your mind is always elsewhere? (And if you are saying, “Wait, what was the question?” give yourself a 10.)

In a congregation heavily weighted toward academia, I suspect that there are a number of you who have been accused at some point of being downright oblivious. I recently read a true story of a PhD student, Kevin who had one semester to go before he had to defend his thesis when he met a young woman named Rachel who had entered the same graduate program earlier in the year. They met as part of a research group and hit it off right away, enjoying long talks as they worked in the lab, going out for coffee, pizza, or to a local club on weekends, and even occasionally sharing a bed after a long day. As the semester drew to a close, one of Kevin’s good friends asked him, “So what are you going to do after you finish? Have you and Rachel talked about it?”

Kevin got a little shy smile on his face and said, “I’ve been thinking about it, and I’m considering asking her out on a date.”

His friend said, “A date? Wait, I’m confused. What have you been doing all of these months?”

Kevin said, “What do you mean?”

The friend persisted, “Don’t you see each other every day?”

Kevin said, “Well, yeah…”

“And go out every day for coffee or pizza or an evening drink?”

“Yeah…”

“And you stay overnight together?”

“Well, sometimes, sure but…”

“Dude,” the friend said, “this sounds suspiciously close to a relationship.”

A light suddenly went on in Kevin’s eyes and he said, “Ohhh! Well, that explains this then!” and he showed his friend a text from Rachel that said, “Happy 6 months, baby!” 1

While some of us may be more inclined to obliviousness than others, all of us have had times when we failed to see something right in front of us. We may have been preoccupied with problems at work and failed to notice a child’s needs, or were thinking about the day’s schedule and drove right past our stop. We get so absorbed in our work that we miss a meeting, and how many of us have gone upstairs to fetch something but by the time we get there, we have forgotten what it was? We blame it on a poor memory but in fact, it’s usually a lack of concentration: we had twenty other thoughts on our trip up the stairs and can no longer trace our mental path back to the original thought. I read recently that poor memory may be a sign of superior intelligence and I’d give you the citation but I’ve forgotten where I read it.

Inattentiveness can go by many names: we might say we are preoccupied while others accuse us of neglect or we may call it contemplation while others accuse us of daydreaming. We’ve all been there, some more often than others, but when it comes down to it, our various forms of cluelessness are all types of “not seeing what is right around us.”

In the story from Exodus, Moses is grazing his sheep on a mountain when a bush begins to burn nearby. The flames dance about the branches but no smoke rises from the twigs, no ash drops to the ground because the fire is not consuming the bush. Of course, to notice that the flames are not consuming the bush, you would have to stand there and watch the fire intently for a while noticing that the branches remain undamaged, which is what Moses does. The sheep presumably kept going on up the mountain because the scripture says that Moses “turned aside” to see the bush. He had to turn aside. He had to stop his forward motion. He had to put aside the task at hand, clear his brain of all of the other thoughts rattling around up there, and pay attention to that moment. He had to look — really look — at the bush long enough to notice that the licking flames were not harming it. When we read this story, we focus on the miraculous nature of the fire and wonder what kind of fire could burn without consuming the wood for fuel but Rabbi Lawrence Kushner says, “The burning bush was not a miracle. It was a test. God wanted to find out whether Moses could pay attention to something for more than a few minutes. When Moses did, God spoke. The trick is to pay attention to what is going on around you long enough to behold the miracle without falling asleep. There is another world,” Kushner says, “right here within this one, whenever we pay attention.”

Or as Elizabeth Barrett Browning famously wrote,
“Earth’s crammed with heaven
And every common bush afire with God
But only he who sees takes off his shoes.”

We honor Moses for his leadership and courage in helping God free the Israelites from slavery but none of that would have happened if Moses hadn’t done this one seemingly small thing at the very beginning of his call; he paid attention. Moses turned aside from his business watching sheep to watch the bush. Moses turned aside from his day dreaming and wool gathering to look carefully at the bush. Moses may have even had to turn aside from his sadness at the way his life had unraveled, from his uncertainty about his future, from the cauldron of emotions that consume us as stressed out human beings in order instead to focus on this bush that refused to be consumed and burned with a holy fire.

We all crave experiences of God’s certain presence and a conviction that God is real and involved in our lives, but we’re not going to find what we seek if we aren’t able like Moses to turn aside from whatever’s consuming our brain power and our emotional energy to pay attention to the holy fire around us. Are you paying attention?

Maybe if we are having problems paying attention, it’s because we are not sure what we are looking for. How will we recognize God when God appears?

Many years ago, a merchant ship had an opening for a Morse Code operator, and several applicants applied for the job. They were all assigned to interviews on the same morning. While the group of nervous applicants sat together in the waiting room, people bustled in and out of the communications center, and the rat-a-tat-tat of dots and dashes streamed over the intercom. Suddenly, one of the applicants jumped up, walked into the director’s office, and after a few minutes, walked out with the job. The other applicants exclaimed, “But wait, we never even got interviews. This isn’t fair,” to which the director replied, “Any of you could have gotten the job if you had just paid attention to the message on the intercom.”

“What message?” they asked.

“I sent out a message in Morse Code,” he said, “that read, ‘The first applicant to come into my office will get the job.’

Will we recognize God when God appears? Moses actually wants to know the same thing. He has turned aside and paid attention, and he suspects that he is in the presence of something — someone — powerful but he doesn’t know the exact nature of this experience yet. If the experience of the burning bush is to be more than a one time thing and become instead something on-going and life sustaining, Moses is going to have to know how to recognize God in his day to day life and so Moses asks for clarification.

“What is your name?” Moses says. “Tell me who you are.” In the Hebrew culture, to know someone’s name was to understand something fundamental about their character. We saw that in the stories of Gensis: Isaac means, “laughter,” Abraham means, “the father of many,” and Adam means, “of the earth,” appropriate for a human being that God shapes out of clay. The name Moses, by the way, means to draw out of the water and if you remember the story of his infancy and how the Pharaoh’s daughter found him in a basket in the bulrushes, his name makes sense. And so Moses asks God for God’s name so that Moses will know what kind of God he is dealing with here on the mountain, and God’s response is “Yahweh” which our Bibles translate as “I am who I am.” In English, it sounds as if God is saying, “Never you mind who I am Moses. I am who I am,” but in fact, the word Yahweh is a form of a Hebrew verb that means “to be.” God is saying something like, “I am, I was, I will be, I am being itself. I am the essence of all things and the root of all existence. I am the fundamental matrix of life.” The gospel of John captures the sense of God’s name in John’s opening words, “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”

When God reveals God’s name to Moses, the burning bush becomes not just a cool parlor trick but is a visual representation of the very nature of God’s self: God is the fire; God is the energy that flows through all of life. God is not some distant deity sitting on a throne in the sky demanding sacrifices of beautiful virgins to keep him happy; God is the driving life force that begins in the soil under our feet, pushes up into living roots and branches, and extends to the fusion of burning stars. God is woven into the fabric of the natural world around us leading Isaiah to declare that “even the mountains and the hills shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” (Isaiah 55) We intuitively know this: we experience God as the thread that holds all of life together whenever we are moved by a beautiful sunset or by the sight of a whale breaching on the ocean waves, or when we are moved to compassion by the plight of hungry children in Haiti and the fate of the victims in Nevada or Puerto Rico. What we feel when we turn aside to notice is that these things are imbued with the sacred. Feeding the hungry is for us, not just a nice thing to do; it is a sacred calling because when we pay attention to the earth and all of earth’s inhabitants, we see the being of God coursing through all things. Over the centuries, we in the church have engaged in a great delusion. We tried to dismiss God to some distant throne room in the sky and turn the earth into an inanimate machine that we could plunder as wish, but when we go back to the very beginning of God’s revelation of God’s name, we find that God is not “out there” but God is right here — in us, around us, and dynamically moving through all of life. The earth is sacred, you and I are sacred, and all life is sacred because God is being itself.

Thomas Merton, Trappist monk and author, said, “Life is this simple. We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time. This is not just a fable or a nice story. It is true…. God shows Himself everywhere, in everything — in people and in things and in nature and in events. It becomes very obvious that God is everywhere and in everything and we cannot be without Him. It’s impossible. The only thing is that we don’t see it.”

I suspect that for many of us, our failure to recognize God is not actually because we don’t see it but because we are reluctant to name what we do see as God. We have been taught to listen for a booming voice and watch for lightening bolts from heaven, but no one ever taught us that the way your heart weeps when you read the list of dead in Nevada and your desire to do something to stop the killing is God’s presence. Let’s name it: that is God right there tugging at the ties that bind us one to another. And when your eyes well with tears not of sorrow but of wonder at the remarkable beauty of sunlight dancing on the quaking leaves of aspen trees, the smell of fresh earth, and the sound of a wood thrush fluting its song in the glen, that is God enlivening the land with fire of life. God is present when your heart is lifted by music or when your hands are lifted to help another person, when your passion flares into fire to bring justice to the oppressed and when you break into smiles of delight at the laughter of a child.

In those moments, the bush is burning right in front of your eyes. So let’s turn aside; let’s pay attention, and let’s watch with wonder for God is present and alive in our world.


Footnotes:

1. Not their real names. The story was shared in a forum and didn’t include names so I added some for clarity sake.