I wonder what part of this story you like the best, or what part is most important? I wonder what part is about you, or about us? Thank you for adding your voices to the voice of this ancient text. It is only when we live with our sacred stories that they come alive for us—that they become living stones marking holy ground.
Beginning in the 4th century, just after Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire, women and men fled from cities and from the established church to the desert wilderness, to claim a life of solitude, simplicity and freedom. These hermits have become known as the Desert Mothers and Fathers. Their “sayings” have been preserved in short, pithy snippets, which have a zen-like quality about them. Moses’ encounter with the burning bush in the desert always reminds me of one of the sayings of the Desert Fathers in which a less-experienced monk sought advice from an elder of the community.
Abbot Lot came to Abbot Joseph and said: Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do? The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said, Why not be totally changed into fire? (The Wisdom of the Desert, by Thomas Merton, p. 50)
Today we stand, with Moses, before a most ordinary bush blazing with a sacred fire. But what happened in Moses’ life to bring him to that place? Last we heard, he was a Hebrew prince coming of age in Pharaoh’s own palace. But now he’s a humble shepherd, keeping his flock out “beyond the wilderness,” which I guess means the middle of nowhere.
Here is Exodus 2:11-15:
One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and saw their forced labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsfolk. He looked this way and that, and seeing no one he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. When he went out the next day, he saw two Hebrews fighting; and he said to the one who was in the wrong, “Why do you strike your fellow Hebrew?” He answered, “Who made you a ruler and judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” Then Moses was afraid and thought, “Surely the thing is known.” When Pharaoh heard of it, he sought to kill Moses.
Moses ran away beyond the reach of Pharaoh to start a new life, to a place called Midian. There, in typical biblical fashion, he met seven sisters by a well. He helped them out, and they in turn introduced him to their father. In no time at all he became part of the family, marrying one of the daughters and spending his days tending his father-in-law’s sheep.
At the burning bush, God unveiled to Moses the divine intention: Moses would return to Egypt and free the Hebrew people from slavery. Moses was afraid and he was also incredibly curious. He threw caution to the wind and asked his most burning question. “Who am I to go to Pharaoh?” “Who am I?” You see, Moses had spent his earliest years, a deeply formative time, with his Hebrew birth-mother and her community. He knew himself to belong to a suffering people, a people whose oppression triggered uncontrollable grief and rage in him. But he had also been adopted into the Pharaoh’s own household. In that place, he was surrounded by people with an almost unimaginable access to power and wealth and he was trained to think and act like one of them.
When Moses approached that startling sight in the desert, God instructed him, “Remove the sandals from your feet for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Of course, taking off one’s shoes is a sign of respect, an expression of humility. Luther College professor of Religion, Karla Suomala suggests another shade of meaning. She remarks that in the Japanese culture one reason people remove shoes when entering a house is so that they can be themselves, so that they can feel at home. She muses: “Is it possible that God tells Moses to take his shoes off because [God] wants Moses to be himself? To remove all pretense? To be vulnerable and open to what God has to say?”
Moses certainly seemed to make himself at home, in the sense that he felt perfectly free to question God. He asked God two big questions, “Who am I to go to Pharaoh?” and “Who should I say has sent me?” God responded by telling Moses the divine name, a name that both reveals and hides God’s identity. It is just four consonants. In Hebrew, yod, heh, vav, heh, or yhwh in English. For Jews, this personal name of God is too sacred to be spoken. The name means something like: “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be” or “I am the one who brings into existence the things that are.” The truth is that the two questions—who am I? and who are you?—belong together. Our identity is intertwined with God’s identity. This is the same truth that our contemplative and mystical traditions teach us. God is a holy fire within us, both an intimate companion and a mystery beyond our understanding.
Today, the choir will sing a piece called “The Prayer of the Children.” Composer Kurt Bestor lived in the former Yugoslavia during the 1970’s. During that time, he had friends of various ethnic identities—Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian. He describes what happened when the civil war broke out, saying:
Serbian brother wouldn’t talk to Croatian sister-in-law. Bosnian mother disowned Serbian son-in-law and so it went. Meanwhile, all I could do was stay glued to the TV back in the US and sink deeper in a sense of hopelessness. Finally, one night I began channeling these deep feelings into a wordless melody. Then little by little I added words: Can you hear..? Can you feel..? I started with these feelings—sensations that the children struggling to live in this difficult time might be feeling. Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian children all felt the same feelings of confusion and sadness and it was for them that I was writing this song.
The nature of God, we learn from the Exodus story, is not simply “to be” but “to be in relationship.” God sees and God hears, the misery of the people, the cries of the children. God’s heart is in tune with pain of the creation. For Moses, too, the children’s cries resonated in his soul. But, in order to heed God’s call toward a world of freedom and justice he had to master the flight or fight instinct that his peoples’ suffering sparked. He had to find a different, more powerful way through the rage and grief. He had to learn to stand his ground, as holy ground. He had to claim the power of being uniquely himself—a prophet both Egyptian and Hebrew, a voice for the voiceless, a conscience for the heartless, a liberator of slave and master alike. Bishop Yvette Flunder, puts it, simply and clearly, “free people free people.” Free people free people. Free people know that their true identity, their true home, is the divine fire of life that blazes within the sacred presence that marks all the ground on which we travel with living stones, which names it holy ground.
With Moses, we stand before a bush, an ordinary bush, ablaze with the energy of life itself. The bush, I think, asks us the same question that one desert monk asked another. “Why not be totally changed into fire?” We humans have a spiritual need to take off our shoes. To stand, skin to skin, with the earth, before God, to be completely ourselves, to come home to holy ground. This is what our living stones campaign is asking of us, actually. Not only to make financial gifts to sustain First Church for the short term and the long term. But also to recognize our own deep need to live with bare feet, and with open hands. We become ourselves, the true selves that God calls us to be, only when we participate, concretely, in the sacred solidarity of our God. No earthly resource is truly mine; everything is ours to share. The sparks of the divine presence are flying around within you and me. Why not be totally changed into fire?