If God wanted to speak with you, what do you think he would do? Maybe I should back up and ask how you feel God speaks with you now. Is it the still, small voice, as we like to say? Or maybe you don't feel like you have heard from God in awhile, or perhaps…ever.
I know what it is like to feel that there is silence on the end of the telephone, or like it never even picks up. You open up the Prayer Book and dial the number, "O God, the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth eternal life, and whose service is perfect freedom." And it rings, and rings… "through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost" Ringing, ringing… "Amen."
And you come to the part where your standard prayers have ended. The "Our Father" has been said, the names on the list of those who are sick have been read dutifully and lovingly, and the phone still seems to be ringing.
I have never gotten a busy signal, but I have known the phone to ring for long periods of time. Sometimes I have wondered if St. Peter or Blessed Mary would just pick up the phone and take a message. Some folks find it easier to ask the saints to pray than to try to get God directly. Have you ever found that to be true? I have. I have asked people to pray for me at times of personal struggle—times when I didn't feel that I could pray for myself. It's too hard to settle down to it…too much is going on. "Will you just please pray for me," and I leave off the rest of the sentence, "because I can't do it right now."
But that's us trying to get God's attention. What if God wanted to get your attention and speak with you. Just think with me about this for a minute. How would God go about it?
I remember listening to Br. Curtis Almquist, who was, for a long time, the Superior of the Society of St. John the Evangelist—one of our Episcopal monasteries—and he was asking us to remember how we felt God has spoken with us in the past, saying that we all have different ways of hearing from God. Maybe when God was trying to communicate he was abrupt—someone close to us marches up and says, "Why don't you just do….blank." And it hit us over the head, and we were taken aback. Maybe even spent a few days in shock, and then slapped our foreheads and said, "Of course! That's what I should do."
For me, God seems to work through my initial refusal. I have to say no first in order to say yes. I have said "absolutely no," to so many things that I have ended up being very blessed in doing. I could list them for you. I said no to getting involved with Karin. I said no—at first, in my heart—to every parish I have ended up serving—including this one! When I was growing up, though I knew in my heart that I would probably end up pursuing ordination, I tried to say no to it many times.
When I was first attracted to the Episcopal Church, at first I thought, it was a spiritual fling..an affair. I was cheating on my Anabaptist upbringing. The Episcopal Church was like the other woman. She had beautiful vestments and a gorgeous liturgy. At times she had bells and incense. Sometimes she was plain; sometimes she was pretty.
And I found myself thinking, "No. This is not for you." And I prayed to God that if the Episcopal Church was just a spiritual version of sowing my wild oats that God would remove all the desire from my heart to be part of it. …And I'm still waiting for God to let me know…!
But let us suppose for a minute that God needed to communicate with you, and be sure that a.) you would not be too scared to listen, and b.) that you would know beyond the shadow of a doubt—in a way that you couldn't shake from your mind—that this was God.
That's what I finally came to about the burning bush. I have known the story of Moses since Sunday school, and the burning bush has always bothered me a little, because I couldn't understand why it was necessary or what it meant.
I have been looking for symbolism ever since I was old enough to consider symbolism. Is the bush a metaphor, like the vine and the branches? Is the fire like the fire that came upon the disciples at Pentecost? And are we meant to carry that symbolism forward or backward from the bush to Pentecost or Pentecost back to the bush? What do we make of the voice?
I have looked in commentaries; I have thought about it on long car rides; I have even spent time trying to imagine the scene as if I was part of the action. And it has made no sense at all.
But the light went on. It is a paradox. It is the coming together of natural and supernatural. A natural bush and fire, and supernaturally, not consumed. The bush is common and uncommon. Something that is not strictly speaking alive or dead. It appears to Moses as a mystery—something that has yet to be fully revealed. Something that cannot be fully revealed except by God.
It is at the same time appealing and scary; dangerous, yet inviting; beautiful and grotesque. In short, the burning bush does not fit into any categories of existence, except that it exists. Kind of like….God!
Through this appealing, confusing, disarming combination of factors Moses is attracted to the bush. Perhaps he is even entranced by it. What does this mean? His curiosity is aroused, but he is not too alarmed, because the bush is not consumed. He's off balance.
He's just enough off balance to be ready to hear something new and wonderful and to consider something that would otherwise be improbable—because a bush that burns and doesn't burn is improbable, if not impossible.
Do you see that? God almost has to do this in order to say, "Hey, Moses…I'm about to ask you to do something that you are going to say, `This is not possible.' And before you can say that, you are going to see what happens when I am involved. What is possible and impossible is not up to you to determine. With me, all things are possible."
I have been around many people who are looking for a sign. A bush that burns and is not consumed—but what they're really looking for is a miracle. The big showy thing that can serve as some indication of God's blessing over a choice or a way of thinking, because they want direction.
I have begun to wonder if it is appropriate to spiritualize the paradox of the burning bush even further out. Let's suppose that this is a metaphor. The burning is aggression, or something disturbing, but the lack of consumption is like mercy. Bear with me here.
Have you ever had someone or some situation come up that was very aggressive or disturbing, and yet, for reasons you could not understand, your feelings weren't hurt, and you could actually embrace it? Something or some comment that might seem on the surface painful or destructive, but it didn't do that. In fact, it made sense. Could it be that that was God doing the impossible to show us what is possible? I don't know.
I do know that this encounter with God is the story of Moses' call to be the one to lead the Israelites out of their slavery in Egypt. And if you want to talk about probable and improbable, it was very improbable that that would ever happen. Yet through the combination of Moses' faith, and God's faithfulness, it did happen.
You and I will likely never see a burning bush, but there are so many other signs like it. So many other times when what seems dangerous or improbable does not destroy as we believed it might.
Do you remember Isaiah's call? It's in the sixth chapter of Isaiah:
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: 'Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.' The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: 'Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!'
Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: 'Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.' Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, 'Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?' And I said, 'Here am I; send me!'"
Did you notice the fire? The fire that burns, but does not destroy?
These are stories of call. God's call to a human being to do something wonderful for God's purposes. So often the stories are read as history, and so often the sermons preached about God calling you or me to something fall on deaf ears, because we're so ready to count the ways that they are dissimilar from our common experience. A burning bush, an angelic visitation, an audible voice in the Temple…
I don't know how to break through the disbelief that God, who called Moses, would ever call me; but I do think that that is the implicit message. God, who called and sent Moses, can call and send you. God, who called and blessed Mary, can call and bless you. Call doesn't have to me priesthood, or diaconate, or missionary. Sometimes call can just mean "this task" that I think maybe I should do or pray about.
The indication of God's presence seems to come from the ironic, paradoxical combination of that which burns and is not consumed. Something that burns within us, like the words of Jesus to Cleopas and the other disciple on the road to Emmaus.
Maybe you have been walking around with a fire inside you. Something that you can't let go... Some impulse for action or devotion that defies all of your most dearly held assumptions about what you should be doing, or what is most authentic to you… And God continues to stoke that fire, which never destroys, but still burns.
When I was a child, on Christmas Eve, my parents and I went to the Christmas Eve service at our church. It has always been my favourite service of the Christian year. We sat in the balcony of our church, because I liked to watch all hand candles being lit at the very end. To watch all these little flickering flames dancing below, like a sea of fire that doesn't consume.
The ushers lit the candles of the people on the aisle and the flame was passed to each person with the words, "Christ is born." The ushers finally came up to the balcony, and my mother received the light, and as she lit my candle she said, "Alexander, Christ is born." And when she said that… It seemed to me that fire of faith which has always burned in her jumped from her heart onto the tiny wick of mine, and I knew… I knew…
I knew that I could run from it as hard as I could, but I would never really get away. Like Psalm 139,
1 O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up…
3 You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
5 You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
7 Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in the grave, you are there.
9 If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11 If I say, 'Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night',
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day…
This is the fire that does not consume—the call of the eternal God to the eternal Church. This is the Holy Faith.
May this fire burn within you. It will never destroy. May God continue to push his fire deeper and deeper, until all that is left is the light of his love.
If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider giving to the church where you feel most at home.
The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.