“I must turn aside” 09/29/2019 by Rev. Stacy Swain (Click on title for audio)

Exodus 3: 1-14 and

Mark 12: 28-34

            I have always loved this story from Exodus this morning.  What must it have been like for Moses?  Here he is walking along minding his sheep, when something out of the corner of his eye catches his attention.  He turns aside to take a closer look.  It is a bush that is burning but not consumed.  He cannot believe what it is that he is seeing, so Moses gets a bit closer.  That is when he hears the voice telling him not only to take off his shoes for the place he is standing upon is holy ground, but also that he is to do something that he never, in a thousand years thought he would be capable of doing.  He is going to help bring about the liberation of his people.

            What an extraordinary encounter!

            Anyone here feeling just a bit envious of Moses?  Any of us this morning longing for a burning bush encounter for ourselves?  Anyone longing clarity about what we are to be about in this world of ours?  

            But before we go any further, Let us pray.  Oh great “I AM” make your presence known to us in this time.  And may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, our rock and our redeemer. AMEN


            I can remember learning about this burning bush encounter that Moses is having as a kid in Sunday School.  I remember the picture on our coloring sheet — a bearded Moses throwing his hands up into the air as he gazes on the bush that had those shouting lines radiating out from it.  I remember thinking how amazing it was that God had taken an ordinary bush and through God’s power had transformed it into a “divine speaker phone” so to speak so that God could find a way to talk to Moses.  God was on other side of the universe God residing in God’s heavenly house after all and so God needed to use this bush as a way to reach out and communicate with Moses.  

            And that made sense.  Still does, really.  Because doesn’t it feel like God is very distant? Doesn’t it feel true that that bush was an miraculous anomaly that broke through the normalcy of God’s absence with a moment of presence?

            My Sunday School lessons spelled it out.  God is absent from the world because we humans disappointed God.  There was a time when God dwelt with us in the Garden so long ago, but we blew it by breaking the rules and the consequence of that failing was that God withdrew from this world.

            God withdrew, but the good news, I was told, is that God has not gone away all together.  God has given us a chance to make ourselves acceptable again for God.  If we work really hard, if we are good, then one day we will dwell again with God. 

            This is what I was told.  Did any of you hear something similar growing up?


            Over the many years, however, a different understanding of what the spiritual life, a life of faith could look like has started to take form for me.   I have come to learn from a different strain of thought that has been a minor chord in the teachings of Christianity across the ages.  While traditional doctrine of the church followed what I sketched out above, there was another voice that was speaking a different understanding.  A voice that was never completely silenced.  That voice found expression through the life of St. Francis, whose feast day is celebrated this coming week and who we will celebrate with our blessing of the Animals Service next Sunday at 2:00.  This voice was expressed through St. Francis and then was carried forward in the teachings of the Franciscans and others.

            St. Francis came to see the world not as cut off from the Divine Creator, but instead as a lived expression of the Divine.  For Francis, the created world is the manifestation of the presence of God.  It is the first incarnation.   The presence of God may indeed dwell across the very farthest reach of the cosmos, but there is also Divine presence right here, right now.  The created world is the first sanctuary, it is the first dwelling place of God.  Or as poet, Emily Dickenson puts it: 

Earth is crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;

             Could it be that the very fabric of the created world pulsates with the desire of the Divine to be known?  Could it be that God is beckoning to us every day in so many ways.  If that is true, if the presence of God is in fact very present, then the absence we feel may have more to do with us than with God.  Is there something about us that is distant?  Is there something about us that shuts ourselves off from Divine encounter?

            Do we perhaps not feel worthy enough?  Are we are so buried in shame that we cannot imagine that God would be interested in us?  Maybe we are so tired, so strung out with worry, running so fast we don’t possibly have any time to notice let alone to have the where-with-all to draw closer, to take a deeper look and listen, to take our shoes off once and a while?  Most mornings, don’t we leave the house rather armored up for the day, wrapping ourselves with self protection trying to keep ourselves and those we love safe and on schedule?     


            I received a text this week from one of you who had the opportunity to tour the African American History Museum in Washington D.C.  In the text, you included a picture of a sign that was on display there.  It was of a quote by poet Maya Angelou that read in part “I’m concerned that Americans are losing that place of meeting.”

            Are we losing that place of meeting? – That place of encounter – That Holy Ground of Presence?  Are we so sure that bushes cannot possibly burn without being consumed?   Are we so convinced that love has withdrawn itself from us?

            But what if the world is actually the meeting place with God?  How do we then begin to find a doorway into that place of presence?  How do we find our way out of that which keeps us distant and into a place of encounter? 


            This week I listened to a podcast with the acoustic ecologist Gordon Heywood that was entitled “Silence and the Presence of Everything.”  Right?  I know.  An acoustic ecologist.  An acoustic ecologist is someone who is a listener to the natural world and a recorder of what the natural world has to say.  Gordon Heywood has traveled the world listening and he listens not just to what is sounding but he also listens and records places of deep silence. 

            In the podcast Gordon speaks of a pivotal moment in his young adult years that changed the trajectory of his life.  He was on the road driving from Seattle Washington to Madison, Wisconsin.  It had gotten late and he was tired and so he pulled aside to the side of the road to get some sleep.  He says while he lay there in his car, thunder echoed through the valley, he says he just took it all in.  It was on that day, and now I quote: “that I really discovered what it means to be alive as another animal in a natural place. That changed my life.  And I realized I had one question, and that was, how could I be 27 years old and have never truly listened before? I knew, for me, I was living life incredibly wrong, so I abandoned all my plans, I dropped out of graduate school, I moved to Seattle, took my day job as a bike messenger and only had one goal, and that was to become a better listener.” 


            We do not know what made Moses turn aside that day so long ago.  The text does not tell us.  We don’t really know what made Gordon’s heart so open to hear the voice of the world speaking to him that night.  We don’t really know what prompted the Scribe in our New Testament passage for today to draw near to Jesus to listen to what the second incarnation of God what Jesus the Christ had to say.  We don’t really know, but I can imagine.   

            For if the divine presence is seeded in the created world then as creatures of God, that divine presence is deep within each of us as well.  Presence calls to presence through the language of longing. 

            When Moses was out walking that day, I imagine the longing on his heart.  He, after all, had had quite the complex life up until this point.  This is the Moses whose mom hid him as a baby in the reeds of the Nile River,  in a basket so that he would not be killed by the decree of Pharaoh that called for the murder of  all the Hebrew babies.  This is the Moses that was rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter and raised in Pharaoh’s household.  This is the Moses that when he saw one of Pharaoh’s men mistreating one of the Hebrew slaves, he killed that same man and buried him in the sand and then escaped for his life.  This is the same Moses that is now laying low, and is out walking and tending his father in laws sheep.

            This is the Moses that I imagine is looking back over his live with longing.  Moses whose heart is crying out, knowing what a mess he had made of it all.  This is a broken man.  A man whose heart is crying out with longing so much so that as one commentary I read put it, it was actually the flame of longing in Moses own heart that ignited that bush that day.  It was when Moses’ longing for God met with the longing that God had always had for Moses that that flame ignited and that desert scrub became Holy Ground.

            It is after all, longing that sets the whole Exodus story in motion.  It is the longing on the hearts of the Hebrew people who have been enslaved, it is the cry of their hearts that God hearts that puts the work of liberation in motion.


            Desire, longing, the cry of our hearts – we don’t talk about that too much in church do we?  Somehow talking about desire, longing, the cry of our hearts does not seem proper somehow for a church setting.  Traditionally we seem to prefer obedience, piety, purity, good works.  Desire is messy.  Desire we were taught is what got us into trouble in the garden in the first place. 

            But what if we have gotten it wrong.  What if the doorway to encounter, the place of meeting the holy ground that we seek is actually to be found through the door way of desire, longing, the cry of our hearts? 

            A 13 century Christian mystic ( Mechtild of Magdelburg)  had a vision of God crying out to the Soul of the Human one God created saying:  “I desire you before this world began, I desire you now as you desire me. And where the desires of two come together, there love is perfected.”


            Which commandment is the first of all?” asks the scribe who has drawn near to Jesus.  “Which commandment is the first of all?” he asks as if to give words to the longing in in his own heart to know what it is to truly live.  Jesus turns to him and replies “love.”   You shall love.  You shall love.   


            What do we desire as we set out into this new church year?  What do is our hearts longing for the lives of our children and the life of this beautiful but wounded world?  What is our hearts cry for our own lives?  Can we let that longing burn brightly so that we to may find ourselves saying  “I must turn aside” as Moses did so long ago.  Can we let longing lead us to the place of meeting, the holy ground of presence that is even now longing for us? 

            For when presence meets presence the Holy Work of Liberation can begin.  May it be so.  Amen