Part II: What is Vital in Religion?
Rev. Todd Weir – July 15, 2018
(click above on play to listen)
I you were to make a Top 10 list of stories about spiritual encounters in human history, Moses and the burning bush would be on it. You might include the Buddha experiencing enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, Mohammad meeting Gabriel in the cave of Hira, Saul being struck blind on the road to Damascus, Joan of Arc’s visions or St. Theresa of Avila’s vision of an interior castle. Moses would have to be near the top due to the impact of this brief moment on three major world religions. Moses and the book of Exodus are foundational for Judaism. The liberation from slavery is the fundamental act of God, that reveals who God is, God’s power and intention. Passover is the annual observance so people never forget God’s work of Exodus. Passover was also the time of Jesus’s crucifixion and the setting for the Last Supper, which is a sacrament of the whole Christian church. Exodus is the story of hope for the oppressed, especially to slaves in America in the 19thcentury, who sang spirituals like “Go Down Moses.” This moment of connection between one human and the One God has shaped our theology, history and spirituality.
Let’s explore this flaming moment in time, to see what light still flickers for us today. Like many spiritual encounters, this story begins with noticing a wonder in creation, a burning bush. Many of us experience moments of God drawing close in a moment of awe. Noah’s rainbow appears after the rain. Jonathan Edwards wrote an entire book about experiencing God in thunderstorms. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of the power of going to the mountain top, the view from the summit puts the world in proper perspective. From Homer’s rosy-fingered dawn, to sunrise, sunset, a sense of awe brings us closer to God. But there something deeper here than beauty and wonder. This is only the beginning of encountering God. We can’t sufficiently build a faith on sunsets and rainbows.
Moses did not look at the burning bush and say, “A burning bush, very cool! I feel joy and peace and I’m fulfilled. I can’t wait to tell Zipporah about this at dinner. C’mon sheep, let’s go now!” He went closer to explore the wonder, he stayed with it to fully understand and take it in. He was open. In that moment, God slips in and speaks, “Moses! Moses!”
“Here I am,” says Moses. What do you say when you hear your name called but you are not sure who it is? “Hello? Who are you? Where are you?” Did Moses know this was God speaking? To say, “Here I am” takes self-confidence. You want me, here I am! This becomes foundational language of how prophets answer God. Young Samuel hears a voice in the night, and Eli the priest instructs him to say “Here I am.” Isaiah hears the voice of God and answers, “Here I am.”
God now instructs Moses and creates a framework for what is happening. “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” What makes this holy ground and what does God have against foot wear? In Genesis, God makes the ground, separates land from the water on the second day of creation, and says “It is good!” Doesn’t this make all ground holy? All the earth is God’s work. What makes this spot especially holy? Can any one place be more holy than another? Where is this ground and why is it special? The text says Moses is out in the wilderness with the sheep, near Mt. Horeb. Horeb in Hebrew means “wasteland.” Moses is not looking at a rainbow, or at Niagara Falls, or Big Sur or the Northampton Dog Park. He is watching a bush burn in the wasteland. Moses is not in a great religious temple, he is far from the Pyramids of Egypt, there is no Jewish Temple, not even a Jerusalem yet. The Hebrew slaves have only built holy places for Egyptians, but none for themselves. So, their sacred ground will be like their lives, in the wasteland. The ground is holy because God says so, it is the encounter and the voice of God that makes it holy.
To help Moses understand, God says “Take off your shoes, Moses.” How do you feel about taking off your shoes? It feels risky to me. Why don’t you all just take off your shoes right now? Go ahead, right here in church. Did you all wash your feet this morning? Or do you just stand in the shower and figure it will all work out, you are more of a trickle-down washer. Do you like your feet? Some people have beautiful feet, but generally they are a little weird, and so are people who like feet a little too much. Feet and sandals are often connected to humility in the Bible. John the Baptist said of Jesus, “One is coming whom I am not worthy to untie his sandals.” Jesus set to wash his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper, and Peter thought this was all too undignified. Take off your sandals Moses. What did it feel like to Moses as he took off his sandals. Was the sand hot? Were there sharp rocks or thistles on the ground? Or scorpions? He wore sandals for a reason, to protect his feet. His feet and skin are connecting directly to the earth, vulnerable and unprotected.
Remember that Moses’s first response to “I am the God of Abraham…” is fear. Now he has to take off his shoes. This vulnerability, letting go of protection is part of the encounter with God. We have to let go of our defenses to trust and experience God. We defend ourselves with all kinds of mechanisms, protecting our ego from inadequacy. At the top of the list is denial. “This isn’t true, didn’t happen.” Projection. “It is someone else fault.” Repression. “I don’t remember and don’t want to because it is painful.” Intellectualizing. Let’s talk philosophy, history, I have some good statistics! I’ll stay in my head, so I don’t have to feel this.” https://psychcentral.com/lib/15-common-defense-mechanisms/?all=1
True encounters, with any reality, any person, requires us to be vulnerable, to take off our shoes, to not be defensive. Humility. Our feet have to touch the ground, touch the humus, the earth, humus and human have the same word root. Moses, despite his fear, takes off his shoes and is vulnerable before God.
Here comes the calling, what God really wants.
9 The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. 10 So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” Exodus 3:9-10
See how Moses goes from “Here I am, Lord” to “Who am I, Lord?” We were just cueing the music to a favorite hymn, “Here I am Lord, it is me Lord. I have heard you…” Wait a minute, “Who am I Lord, you don’t mean me Lord.” I’mjust plain old Moses. I’m just Todd. I’m just Pauline, Laura, Matthew. Don’t make me your Secretary of State.
Val Hastings, who is the Master Certified Coach who lead my training, tells this story. He had an idea about creating a program where pastors would be trained as coaches, and perhaps it would even be an international program training clergy in Brazil and South Korea, even though he did not speak Portuguese or Korean. Then he thought, wait a minute, I’m just Val. Who am I to do that? Val’s coach challenged him on the meaning of “just Val.” It’s one of the classic limiting self-beliefs. Who am I? I’m just Moses.
I wonder what Moses thought God was going to say. “Oh, right, you are just Moses. My mistake. What was I thinking? Thanks for saving me from a lot of trouble!” I don’t know what God thought of Moses. According to the text God is thinking more about the cries of suffering being heard than Moses’s leadership abilities. Here God removes the sandals too. God is vulnerable. God hurts. God needs. Listen to the verbs God speaks, “I have seenthe misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I knowtheir sufferings.” God sees, God hears, God knows. That is why God is talking to Moses. Because Moses has heard, Moses has seen, Moses has been enraged at the suffering, enough to commit murder, so Moses knows. Who am I, Lord? You are also one who has seen, heard and knows. That’s who. That is why we are here together on this holy ground. We need each other to be whole.
What makes our religion vital? It is our willingness to step on holy ground and encounter the divine. We may begin with curiosity and wonder, then we realize God knows our name. Despite our fears, we become vulnerable and take off our shoes and take down our defenses. God shares something, reveals a vulnerability. Human suffering touches God’s heart. God has need of us to deal with this ache, this pain, and calls to us, empowers us. This is the story of how we become one, one with God, one people, one earth, one hope.