The Burning Bush
September 1, 2019
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
When I was a teenager, my family had a dog named Jenny who, in her old age, developed a condition called “selective hearing loss.” When she was outside, enjoying a walk in the yard smelling all of the animals that had visited the area overnight, we simply had to wait until she was ready to come back in because she couldn’t hear us calling her name. If she decided to take a nap right in the middle of the hallway where everyone had to step around her, we would have to physically shake her out of her slumber because she couldn’t hear our demands that she move. On the other hand, open a can of dog food 500 feet away, and she would come running.
To give her the benefit of the doubt, it is possible that her nose enabled her to sense what her ears could no longer hear but we saw enough instances of selective deafness that I think she had simply decided in her old age that she had earned the right to tune out parts of her world that no longer appealed to her.
Dogs are not the only creatures that develop selective hearing loss. My father had an amazing ability to sit in a room full of his own offspring completely oblivious to our squabbles, much to my mother’s frustration. And how many meetings have you attended where your ears stop processing what is being said because the person speaking bores you or annoys you with very predictable complaints? And, of course, every mother knows that she has to call her child’s name at least twice to get his or her attention. Whether wrapped in the reverie of childhood or immersed in the netherworld of texting and Youtube, the people around us are often dwelling in a different landscape than we are and one mere call of their name is not enough to traverse the long distance between the two worlds.
“Moses!” God calls, but Moses remains unresponsive as he stands before the bush, the wind whistling around his robes, his mouth slightly agape as he ponders the flames licking the branches but never charring them. Moses has developed selective hearing loss, and if you think about his life up to that point, it is no surprise: he had a lot to tune out. Raised in Egypt, Moses grew up in Pharaoh’s home knowing all the while that that house had been built with the blood of his own enslaved people. As a young man, the guilt and anger at his situation boiled over into a murderous rage when he saw a slave master beating one of the Hebrews and he struck the taskmaster dead becoming a wanted criminal. Forced to flee Pharaoh’s wrath, Moses escaped to the land of Midian where he married but became dependent on the welfare of his father-in-law unable to take his place as the head of a household as so many other young men his age would have done. When his wife bears a son, Moses bestows on his first born the name Gershom which means “I have been a sojourner in a foreign land.” Every time Moses says his son’s name, Moses expresses his own existential confusion about who he is: wandering stranger in a strange land. No wonder Moses has tuned out!
When are you tempted, like Moses, to tune out? For many of us, it’s when we wake up to news of yet another shooting, or another report of bigotry or injustice in our country. We tune out because the violence feels relentless and we feel so powerless. Other times we tune out for more personal reasons: because we are tired of the busy-ness of our schedules, or the demands of family or job. And then, like Moses, there are also times that we tune out because we’re not sure what role we are supposed to be playing in our world and it is easier to simply stop listening. Our God however, the story reminds us, is a persistent God. No matter how strong our temptation to tune out and drop out, God will not let us go so easily. God doesn’t just call Moses’ name once and then, when Moses doesn’t answer say, “Well, I guess he isn’t interested,” snuff out the bush, and go home. God leaves that bush burning and calls out again from the flame, “Moses!” Finally the voice of God shatters Moses’ isolation and Moses realizes that he is not alone on that mountain; he is instead standing in the presence of the holy.
We tune out because it feels like the needs of the world are too great for these tired, weak, and inadequate people that we are. Moses has come a long way to stand on that mountain and everything on the road to Sinai has convinced him that he is nothing but a screw-up, a sinner, a stranger in a strange land, a nobody. He doesn’t hear God when God first calls because he has no expectation that God might choose to speak to him: after all, he feels like the events of his life pretty much prove how powerless he is to make a difference, and he’s so tired he just wants to curl up on that mountain and watch the pretty flames dance around the bush, but that’s not what God is here for. God is here for our salvation and the salvation of the people. God knows that no matter how safe these cocoons may feel, tuning out leaves us increasingly enslaved to our conviction that our lives are without purpose. God saves us by refusing to allow us to hunker down into the conviction that we are nobodies capable of nothing and instead dares us to step into the belief that we are somebodies who, in partnership with God, can make a real difference in our world. God has come to that mountain to save the Israelites from slavery but also to save Moses from his sense of uselessness. God waves aside Moses’ excuses and his dim view of himself and says, “Moses, I the Lord God, the Almighty, the Creator of the Universe, the Mighty Lord of hosts, I need your help.” It would be like NASA calling you on the phone and saying, “We’ve got everything set to land a person on Mars, and we’ve gone through all the other 7.7 billion people on the earth and the only one that we can find who we believe is capable of accomplishing this space mission is you.” Even if the idea frightens the bejeebers out of you, wouldn’t it be pretty life changing to discover that NASA thinks so much of your capabilities?
While someone even greater than NASA has chosen you. God is speaking your name, again and again, nudging at your cocoon, trying to pierce your protective armor. God is waiting for you to believe in yourself as much as God believes in you, and answer the call.
When God finally gets Moses to listen, God says, “I have been watching Egypt and things down there are a mess. They’re suffering down there; they are dying down there. I’m going to send you to get them out.” Everything Moses had been running away from – all of the misery and despair he had been trying to tune out – comes pouring back upon him and defensively Moses lists all of the reasons that he had tuned out in the first place: “I’m a nobody; I don’t even know your name; no one will believe you really talked to me; I’m a terrible public speaker!” but God parries each with a quick stroke, “I’ll be with you, my name is Yahweh, I’ll give you signs to perform, I’ll send your brother Aaron to do the talking.” What God says to Moses that day is, “You have told me all of the reasons why you should just hunker down and tune out the world but I am going to tell you the one thing you have forgotten that make all of the difference — you aren’t in this alone. I am with you.” As the quote in the bulletin says,“God doesn’t call the qualified; God qualifies the called.”
“The flame of God danced in the bush,” the Bible says, “and it was not consumed.” Hitched to the fire of God, the limitations of our lives are shattered. Moses, the stuttering shepherd, freed a nation from oppression. Rahab, the prostitute, helped the Israelites conquer Jericho. Ruth, a foreigner — an immigrant to Israel — gave birth to the house of David. Peter, a fisherman who had an amazing capacity to be thickheaded at just the wrong moments, founded the church. God is calling you. I don’t know what God is calling you to do or what God is calling you to be, but I know that God is calling you. God is trying to break through the cocoon in which you have swathed yourself, trying to overcome the wrongheaded conviction you have developed that you are too small, too weak, too tired, too inconsequential to make a difference in the world. Maybe God is calling you to do something that feels small to you but that will make a world of difference to another – a word of forgiveness, an attentiveness to someone’s needs, a phone call, a gesture of reconciliation — or maybe God is calling you to a Moses-sized mission asking you to commit yourself to the work of alleviating suffering and injustice. Whatever the call God is making of you, be prepared for this reality: if you don’t answer, God is not going to give up. God will not says, “Oh well, I gave it a shot,” snuff out the bush and go away. God is an annoyingly persistent God who refuses to leave us to our self-pity, our self-doubts, our conviction that we can’t make a difference, and our whining, “Can’t I just watch the ball game and ignore the rest of the world?” because God knows that such a life is not only not good for the world but in the end, no good for us. William Willimon says, “To live the called life is invigorating in a world where all too many people live as if they were answerable to nothing more than their own desires.” We need to be saved from our inclination to tune out, and so we have a Savior who will do just that if we will only listen.
The bush is burning; you are standing on holy ground; and God is calling your name. Listen.