A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber on August 27, 2011, at St Paul’s Church Bantam, Connecticut

We heard this morning about Moses out in the desert watching the sheep. Most of the time keeping the sheep is not an exciting job. They have their minds on grass. Sheep have an ability to concentrate better than most of us. So if you are a shepherd, the sheep will do their thing and your job is to keep them from being distracted by wolves or bears or anything like that.

Watching sheep is like screening baggage at an airport: most of the time it is not exciting to look at pale images of other people’s carry-on stuff. But you aren’t paid for that.  What you’re paid for is the time when something goes wrong:  You see a handgun in the attache case or a wolf about to pounce. That’s when you earn your pay and the job is interesting. But it’s not like that most of the time and I’m sure your mind can wander. I think I’ve heard that they purposely put images of guns and knives on the airport screen every so often to make sure the screeners are still awake.

Moses didn’t have that advantage: just a lot of dull days with nothing much to do. And then suddenly he notices something strange – a bush on fire but the bush seems not to be burning. And then he begins to hear a voice and a summons to change the course of history.

Now there are people who always want to explain the strange stories they find in the Bible to make them less strange. So there are some who would like to suggest that there was a natural gas vent – this is, after all, the Middle East and gas does sometimes make its way up through the layers of rock to escape into the air and those vents do sometimes catch fire and burn a long time. So maybe some dry leaves under the bush caught fire in the sun and the gas vent would make a very bright fire that might use the bush like a wick and that would explain what Moses saw.

But, in fact,  that doesn’t really explain anything.  Who cares why the bush was burning?  What matters was Moses response.  I mean, probably most people, on seeing a burning bush, would get a bucket of water and put it out.  If Moses had done that, the Jews might have stayed in Egypt and God might have chosen Hungarians to do the job.  The point is the response of wonder that turned Moses’ thoughts to God.

A bush doesn’t even have to be on fire to get that response. Have you ever sat on a hillside contemplating a bush – or tree or flower or cloud? Does it take a fire to make you wonder, to fill you with awe? Moses, after all, had a lot to think about.  He’d been raised as a member of Pharaoh’s family but he knew he was a Hebrew and he had killed an Egyptian who had been using violence against one of his fellow Hebrews. And as a result he had fled into exile and had wound up as a shepherd sitting on a hillside with a lot of time to ponder issues of justice and injustice, “the meaning of life” – in capital letters. Why was he here?  What was life all about? Most people have jobs that leave their minds just as free to wander – and a computer screen or a stretch of highway or a boring meeting can provide just as much opportunity to ask, Why am I here, what’s the meaning of it all?

So how many young adults have sat on a hillside thinking about the meaning of life?  Or taken a dull repetitive summer job that doesn’t absorb much mental capacity?  Is it any surprise then that one of them might be ready to respond to God’s call and to understand that the whole meaning of the universe might be found in a simple bush.  If we weren’t so used to seeing bushes, we would see it ourselves.  Each leaf would seem so marvelous that we would begin to think about creation and a Creator and a purpose and begin to think more seriously about why we are here and what we should be doing to carry out the Creator’s purpose.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning said it about as well as it can be said:
Earth’s crammed with heaven
and every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees takes off his shoes,
The rest sit around and pluck blackberries.
Most of us, most of the time, don’t even bother to pick the blackberries. Who has time any more to appreciate the goodness on every side? But Moses had time and saw and understood.  “Earth’s crammed with heaven . . .” and our first challenge is to try to put ourselves more nearly in position to see and to hear God’s voice, God’s call, God’s purpose. We all have a calling – but not very many of us take time to ponder it and understand it.  Whether our calling is to work in a bank or teach school or raise children or work for the state or serve in an ordained ministry, those are all potential callings. And sometimes God just steers us to where we ought to be and we wind up doing it by default. But any work goes better if it’s understood as ministry and any ministry goes better when it is understood to be a way of serving God.

But see for now what was involved in Moses’ call. First, that he came to an awareness of a Creator, a God who is. That’s a breathtaking leap all by itself.  God is.  Most people never get that far. A lot of the primitive gods of this world were thought to be created themselves by other gods who were created by other gods and so on. But Moses had a vision of a God who simply is – not created, not dependent on any source, but a God who is the source, and the only source.  Moses could have gone home right then and have learned something worthwhile. But the story goes on.  The call is not simply to know an all-holy Creator evident in the creation but one with a purpose for human life and one whose purpose is justice.

We still haven’t gotten the message that Moses got that day.  God has a purpose and the purpose is justice. It’s a deep human instinct God has placed in us and yet we get it so wrong so often. 9/11 was about that instinct for justice so badly twisted as to be unrecognizable. There are, after all, reasons for the Arab rage at the west. They’ve been left out of a lot of the good things and not so good things that we take for granted. And you can analyze all you want about the effects of colonialism or a religion that teaches subservience but, whatever the causes may be, there’s a substantial number of people angry at being left out; angry enough to lash out and destroy and to let simple blind hatred over ride any sense of justice for all and compassion for others and the God of mercy that all the great monotheistic faiths proclaim.

But here is Moses, a shepherd with a vision, a vision that still challenges us, who saw a burning bush and understood in that vision who God is and what human life is about.  Few of us, as I said, have the time of peace and quiet that enables that sense of the holy to speak to us, that enables us to see injustice and dedicate ourselves to removing it. We live in a world that’s a battleground between forces of good and evil and evil uses all the resources of our so-called civilization to overwhelm our senses with trivia, to drown out any sense of the holy, any concern for justice.  If you were to make one resolution out of today’s readings and sermon it might be this:  try to find that time for yourself to set aside a few minutes – at least a few minutes – day by day to read the Bible, to pray, to be silent in God’s presence, to contemplate the beauty on all sides and to offer yourself as Moses did to God’s purpose. God’s purpose is spelled out for us in the baptismal commitment “to strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being.”

That was not only Moses calling; it is your calling also.

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