"Summoned: Moses and the Burning Bush"
Scripture – Exodus 3:1-10
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, October 9, 2016

David Brooks tells the story of Frances Perkins and how she was summoned to her life's work. It was March 25th 1911, and Ms. Perkins had been invited to tea with several women in lower Manhattan. Just as they were sitting down, a butler rushed in to announce that there was a fire nearby. The women dashed out to see smoke pouring out of the upper floors of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.

As they gazed skyward, they saw what appeared to be bundles of fabric falling from the windows of the ninth floor and assumed the owners were trying to save their finest fabrics. But as the bundles fell, the horrified onlookers realized it was not fabric, but women and men leaping to their deaths.

The workers were trapped and had no way to escape the blaze other than to jump. Firefighters on the scene held out nets in an attempt to catch people, but not one person who jumped survived.

The fire started on the eighth floor in the heaps of cotton scraps that had built up over two months. The factory manager grabbed some buckets of water to throw on the fire, but the cotton and tissue paper ignited quickly and the fire soon raged out of control.

Most of the workers on the eighth floor were able to evacuate safely, but those on the ninth floor had little warning. The two elevators were slow, the fire escape was blocked, the exit doors were locked and there was no sprinkler system. Most of the 146 people who died were young women who were Italian and Jewish immigrants. The youngest was only fourteen.

For two years prior to the fire, picketers had protested the very conditions that led to the disaster. But the picketers had been harassed by company guards and ignored by most New Yorkers. After the fire, many citizens felt guilty for the way they had gone about their lives – self-absorbed and indifferent to the harsh conditions suffered by people working nearby.

The tragedy struck a chord deep within Frances Perkins. The injustice that had been perpetrated on the workers goaded her to embark on a different course than the genteel life she had intended. Her personal desires took back seat to the cause that called out to her. She would devote her energy to helping the poor and the powerless. She threw herself into state politics and was instrumental in changing a number of worker safety laws.1 It is impossible to calculate how many lives were saved and how many burdens lifted through her efforts.

Centuries earlier, Moses was summoned by a fire. The story says he discerned God's voice calling out to him from a burning bush. His people were suffering at the hands of the Egyptian Pharaoh who was obsessed with leaving his mark on the world by having grand monuments constructed in his name. He forced Hebrew slaves to do his work and he demanded that his taskmasters drive them unmercifully to build edifices to enhance his personal ego.

Moses had been raised in Egypt and had the good fortune of growing up in the Pharaoh's opulent household. However, as he grew older, he could not ignore the chasm between the way he lived and the inhumane conditions under which his people toiled. It gnawed at his soul.

Then, one day while watching his people laboring under the harsh taskmasters he witnessed something he could not bear. An Egyptian began beating a Hebrew unmercifully, and Moses did what most of us think we would do if we witnessed such brutality. He intervened to stop it. He pounced on the man, and in his fury, killed him. He hastily buried the taskmaster in the sand and hoped no one would know. But the next day word was spreading and Moses knew it would soon reach the Pharaoh. So he made a run for it and settled in a distant land.

In time, he married and settled into a comfortable existence tending the sheep of his father-in-law. But one day his serene setting was toppled. Our passage says: the angel of the LORD appeared to Moses in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed."

Some of the stories in the Bible are so eye-popping that rather than engendering faith, they become obstacles to faith. I doubt that getting wrapped up in the particulars of a supernatural event like a burning bush is especially helpful for most of us. If we insist that our passage describes a bush that was literally engulfed in flame yet not having a single leaf charred, and emanating from this pyrotechnic display was the voice of God, then more than a few of us will raise our eyebrows. Do we really believe this?

Plenty of people push the idea that faith in God essentially means to believe in things that defy rational explanation. Examples to support this notion abound in Scripture: God parted the Red Sea so that the Hebrews could make a safe getaway, the human race and animal species were saved from the great flood because they were safely tucked aboard Noah's ark, and Jesus was credited with numerous miracles.

One of the problems with believing things that fly in the face of a scientific understanding of what is and is not possible, is that most of us cannot force our brains to accept what makes no sense to us. The greater problem is that it too easily lets us off the hook. We can piously claim to be at the ready to heed God's call – as soon as God speaks to us out of a burning bush.

That would be a tragedy, because we would miss the point of this passage. When Moses has an encounter with God, he discerns God saying, "I have observed the misery of my people in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings and I have come down to deliver them." This is the core theme that weaves its way through the Bible. God's love and concern for people runs so deep, that God cannot stomach injustice. It stokes the divine anger when anyone is treated unfairly. Whether it is one person acting cruelly to another or the systemic oppression of an entire people, God is inflamed and refuses to remain neutral toward pain and suffering. The burning bush is a marvelous metaphor that represents God's blazing anger at injustice and God's burning desire for all to be treated decently and respectfully.

But, if God is distressed by the injustice the Hebrew slaves are enduring, why doesn't God do something about it? Why not rain down a little fire on the Egyptian taskmasters? Or, at least line Pharaoh's arteries with an oversupply of cholesterol and take the tyrant down with a heart attack?

This is one of the early lessons of Scripture: God does not act unilaterally to combat injustice. God teams up with humans and works through the likes of us to accomplish divine goals.

Moses was enjoying a tranquil existence far from the turmoil of Egypt, but God would not allow him to become indifferent to the suffering of his people. God summoned Moses to head back into the fray and to lead his people out, because God was determined to set the people free.

It is a marvelous story of a pivotal moment that took place more than 3,000 years ago. But what does it have to do with us? This ... God not only calls extraordinary human beings who play dominant roles on the world's stage. God beckons each of us. The calls range from the mundane to the exceptional.

God calls some into a particular line of work. Most Christians take for granted that God challenges some men and women to go into the ministry, but God coaxes people into numerous lines of work. Many will tell you that they felt called to become a doctor, a nurse, a teacher, a therapist, a social worker, or a police officer. Yet, God not only calls some people into specific professions, God beckons each of us numerous times throughout our lives.

Some say, "You need to figure out where your passion lies and what you want out of life and go for it." Others say that "we do not create our own lives; we are summoned by life."2 I would say it differently. I think God summons us through the events of life. Hear me correctly. I am not saying that God creates the event in order to inspire us. God does not create oppressive work environments to see how we will handle it. God does not lift up tyrants to see how we will respond. Life throws us challenges and we must choose how we will answer. Some challenges are devastating and we face the real possibility of being crushed. Will we fight it to a stalemate? Will we triumph over it? Now that this event has happened, God envisions what is best for us and the world, and beckons us to respond in a particular manner. What God urges us to do will always be loving and just, and will advance the common good.

One of the ways God calls us is when our souls are troubled; when something is wrong and we hear a whisper in our souls hounding us to make it right. You may see an event on the news and know you cannot continue to sit still. It could be the racial profiling of young black men or thugs terrorizing a neighborhood or terrorists murdering innocent people. You may travel to another country and be appalled when your eyes are opened to something you had never known – a government robbing people of their land and livelihood. You may drive through an unfamiliar section of Wilmington, and be horrified by the poverty we often overlook.

God also invites us to live anew by tugging on our conscience when we see people who are vulnerable. Teachers are called to help children become better equipped for adulthood. Police officers and firefighters are spurred to protect people from harm. Attorneys are called to defend. Doctors and nurses are inspired to heal. God beckons each of us to respond to suffering.

Tracy Grant is the deputy managing editor of a major newspaper. She says, "Ten years ago, my world as I knew it ended. My husband of 19 years, the father of my two sons, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Over the course of seven months, Bill went from beating me silly on the tennis court to needing my help to bathe." She adds: "It was the best seven months of my life."

She was only 42 when her husband was diagnosed. She had a great job, and two terrific kids, but she says that she had not yet discovered the reason she was put on Earth. She said, "During those seven months, I came to understand that, whatever else I did in my life, nothing would matter more than this."

Soon after her husband was diagnosed, she relentlessly pursued doctors and insurance companies for answers. She had been a good reporter before his diagnosis, but now she was better than ever. She explains why. "There were no bad days. The petty day-in/day-out grievances of an irksome co-worker or a flat tire paled in comparison to the joy of spontaneous laughter or the night sky. She trained herself to see more beauty than bother, to set her internal barometer to be more compassionate than callous."

She says that she may never be as good a person as she was when she cared for her husband, but the best version of herself did not die with him. She has not lost the perspective his illness gave her. She is a better mother, a better friend, a better colleague, a better human being."3

God wants us to listen for the human needs that cry out to us and then partner with God in liberating and healing. God will not coerce you, but God may hound you. God will not force you, but God may annoy you. God will not overpower you, but God may lean on your conscience.

What human needs cry out to you? Where are you being called to position yourself in God's grand plan? We have but a handful of days. What will you choose – spectator or passionate worker for God's kingdom on earth?

NOTES:

  1. David Brooks, The Road to Character, (New York: Random House, 2015), p. 16-35.
  2. Ibid., p.21.
  3. Tracy Grant, "News Hour" Essay, PBS, September 27, 2016.

 

Prayers of the People ~ Sudie Niesen Thompson

Holy God – at the sound of your voice, light first pierced the darkness and creation dawned. At the sound of your voice, prophets and apostles stepped out in faith to herald your new creation. At the sound of your voice, the world turns toward wholeness and the promise that all will be made new. You are still speaking, O God of Life – sometimes in a thundering cry, sometimes in a gentle whisper. Speak to us this day.

Speak your healing Word to all in need of comfort and hope. We lift before you those who are grieving, those who are lonely, those who are sick. Speak into the lives of those who need work and those who need rest; those who live under the threat of violence, and those who face this day with fear or uncertainty. Remind them – remind us – that we are all your beloved children. Speak, Lord, that we may be whole.

As we hear news of the latest disasters, we pray especially for those who have found themselves in harm's way. Be with the people of Haiti, who have lost so much: their homes ... their livelihoods ... so many loved ones. Be with those in our own nation who have fled homes and communities, who now wonder what they will find when they return. And be with those who seek to serve these neighbors in need, who see in such devastation an opportunity for care and compassion. Empower them, O God, to bear witness to your love, your peace, and your hope in the midst of turmoil and suffering.

Holy God, who speaks into the chaos and quiet of life, help us to hear your voice. Help us to hear your voice that comforts and challenges, summons and inspires. Help us to hear your voice, which calls us to service and beckons us closer to you. In your grace, you offer again and again your invitation to know your love, to be loved, and to respond to your call. Open our ears and our hearts, we pray, that we might discern your whisper amidst dissonant and distracting voices, and find our place within your creation. For we trust that yours is the way that leads to life, for ourselves and for all the world. We pray in the name of your son, the Word made flesh, and lift our voices as one to offer the prayer Christ taught us: Our Father, ...