Cheap tricks & burning bushes


We are told that a thousand years after Abraham, around 1300 BCE, we would have found those who were to become the People of Israel living as slaves in Egypt. We are told the man who led them out of slavery toward a promised land was a great prophet called Moses. We are told that the festival of Passover commemorates their escape from Egypt. From this, we may conclude Moses was a very important man, perhaps the most important prophet of Judaism.

But wait there’s more. After all, Moses, acting on behalf of Israel, received from God the Torah, traditionally is translated as ‘law’. By this we mean that Moses is said to have given Israel; God’s authoritative teaching, instruction, or guidance. You remember the Ten Commandments? Actually, a knowledgeable Jew will tell you tradition holds there are 613 commandments. These instructions or teachings cover every aspect of life – from family relations to personal hygiene and diet.

But wait there’s more. Many say this time marks the start of Judaism as an organized religion. Before Moses: not much going on besides making bricks for the Egyptians and babies. After Moses: the People of Israel have the Torah, and a Promised Land. They even have a towering figure of authority in the myths that grew to surround Moses. They say he wrote the first five books of the Bible, he was “Moses the Teacher,” the pivotal figure in transforming Judaism into a religion.

But wait there’s more. Look at the miracles Moses is said to have provoked: the Nile River flowed red, a pillar of fire protecting his people as they flee from Pharaoh’s army, parting of the sea, manna in the desert, and water from a stone he strikes with his staff. These are all powerful miracles, designed to reach across the melena and impress us even today. Which raises an interesting question.

Why would God use as modest a sign as a burning bush to recruit a man who one can argue is the greatest teacher of Judaism? Why not make a mountain or two tremble? Why not some lightning and thunder? Jonah got a ride in the belly of a whale. But Moses – all he gets is a measly, small, almost insignificant burning bush. It wasn’t even a big impressive burning bush.

You may remember Rabbi Lawrence Kushner who preached at the service when I became your Vicar. Larry is a Reform rabbi and the scholar-in-residence at Congregation Emanu-El here in San Francisco, California. In his book, God Was in this Place and I, I Didn’t Know, Larry has an answer to this question. He argues:

“The ‘burning bush’ was not a miracle. It was a test. God wanted to find out whether or not Moses could pay attention for more than a few minutes. When Moses did, God spoke.

“The trick is to pay attention to what is going on around you long enough to behold the miracle without falling asleep. There is another world right here within this one, whenever we pay attention.”

“Whenever we pay attention.” He makes it sound so easy. Really paying attention isn’t easy – it is difficult to be fully present in any moment. Yet the present is all we really have.

If we live in the past we are imprisoned by the evil we have done and the evil others have done in our name or unto is. If we live in the future, we await a time that never arrives. The present is the only place we can live – it is the only place we can really live, really be connected to each other and to our creator.

Yet we sabotage ourselves, we fill our lives with deadlines and duties, with routines and requirements, with actions and activities. We pack our to do lists, cram our calendars, and supercharge our connection to the internet.

We can’t converse at table, we have to read the latest news on our phone. We can’t pause and look at a burning bush when walking because our headphones keep us pumped up and we have someplace to go. We would never pass God’s burning bush test.

Yet we still feign surprise when we realize we don’t have time to pray or meditate or rest or read or think or even take a deep breath and simply be. Perhaps part of our frantic pace flows from our discomfort with silence, our unease with simply being still. But there’s more God wants from us.

The story of Moses isn’t about a mystic who lives on a mountaintop and translates divine messages into language we can understand. Remember: God’s test was to see if Moses would notice, if he could pay attention, if he would be curious enough to see why a bush could burn without being consumed.

That curiosity, that willingness to set aside daily life on occasion to see what’s really going on, is what God wants from us. And that is both a relief to those of us who dislike mountaintop mysticism and a challenge to those of us who need to get things done.

God wants us to pay attention, to be open to opportunities to interact with God. No, we’re not going to literally get our own burning bush. Remember what the rabbi said?

“The trick is to pay attention to what is going on around you long enough to behold the miracle without falling asleep. There is another world right here within this one, whenever we pay attention.”

That inner world opens when we connect directly with another human being, see God’s face reflected in the face of someone we love or someone we don’t even know. That door can open to us when we connect with nature, or come to a deeper understanding of ourselves, or do an act of unexpected kindness to another human being.

And it is always there: God is always there, waiting for us see that other world, the one that is “right here within this one, whenever we pay attention.”

Let us pray.

Lord, in a flaming bush you promised deliverance to your people, help us to pay attention so we can see your signs in our own lives. Help us to stay awake and be fully present in the moment and see our chance to share your love and feel your presence. In times of trial and confusion, show us the transforming power of your love that we may live in the hope of your glory. May the church say: Amen.


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