3 Lent C, 2019: Burning Bush Again

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Sebastien Bourdon, Burning Bush

All biblical texts are not equal:
if today’s readings from Exodus and Luke
were power-lifters,
Exodus would in the Heavyweight Class
and Luke in Featherweight.

The gospel for today
is nearly undecipherable in any meaningful way –
and even if it weren’t,
it is overwhelmed by a Hebrew Scripture
that demands its voice be heard.

As I sometimes do,
I am going to act like a radio preacher
and walk through this amazing,
absolutely fantastic,
and astounding text
from Exodus.

These verses form the bedrock
of everything there is to say
about God.

Everything else,
we can say about God
rests upon this single moment of revelation.

Now, because we live in the 21stcentury,
the first silly thing we want to ask is,
Did it really happen?
It’s almost a knee-jerk question,
as if the ability to answer it
is the only thing that would make it credible.
Our minds have been molded to ask such questions
even though it is impossible
for Scripture to answer them.

Instead, because deep inside of us
is buried the ancient memories
of our pre-modern ancestors, we ask:

What is the wisdom embedded here? And,
what is the question
that the text is answering?
If we ask the text those questions,
then the first thing we notice
is that Moses is not among the Hebrews.
He is watching his father-in-law’s sheep,
a man who was the priest
of another religion.
Understand that in this story,
there is no Hebrew religion.
It doesn’t exist yet.
In fact, this is where it begins.
We imagine,
because it was placed as the first book of the Bible,
that all that stuff in Genesis came first.
Nope. It starts here, with Exodus.
Genesis is a later made prequel, like in Star Wars.
The history of the Hebrews
begins on Mount Horeb,
the mountain of a Midianite God.

So, from the very beginning,
our religion, even though we quickly forgot it,
was deeply pluralistic.
Clearly there is more
than one understanding of God
right from the beginning of the story.
That is the first thing to notice about this story:
it is a story about GOD,
not “our” God, because
this God does not belong to us.

Think how different things would be
if that little piece of information had stuck!

The next something to notice
comes about with something weird happening.
The text describes a fire
that does not consume.

Now notice please,
the spookiness is assumed.
The text doesn’t ask how it happens.
It doesn’t ask why it happens.
The text doesn’t even register surprise
with such a bizarre thing taking place.

The text just says
the bush is burning without being consumed
and an angel’s voice issues from it.
No big deal.
Moses, even though he doesn’t know the God
he is about to meet,
and even though he has no experience
with any god other than Pharaoh –
whose household he grew up in –
somehow knows what to do
AND what not to do
when meeting a god.

So, clearly, there were some generally known
rules of etiquette for meeting a god,
kind of like what to do when your hiking
and you encounter a bear.
Moses knows
that for humans to look upon God insures certain death.

That holds another piece of the story
we might want to notice, because
it also hints at some modern physics questions.
The finite cannot see the infinite.
The temporal cannot look upon the eternal.
The part cannot see the whole and survive.

This story does not exactly answer why,
but it does make a case for the physics in place
between the human and the holy:
the very nature of being human,
or being a small part instead of the whole,
is that if we are suddenly placed
in the presence of everything-that-is,
we will go out of existence.

If we want to think about such a big question,
it may be because, if we were to encounter God
in the same time and space and dimension,
we would lose our Self – our part-ness.

When the part is no longer a part
and becomes part of the whole, and it loses its Self.
It goes out of existence.
Which, by the way,
is also the Buddhist concept of Nirvana. Interesting…

So somehow Moses
not only knows what to do,
he also knows what to say:
“Here I am.”
And did you remember that, “Here I am”
is also what Noah said to God,
and what Abram said to God,
and what Samuel said to God,
and, by the way,
it is what Mohammad said to God?

“Here I am” is what the prophet says when God calls.
The text doesn’t tell us
how a prophet knows what to say, but there it is.

So, what we know up to this point,
is that Moses knows the protocol
for what to do and say when entering God’s air-space.

Now remember, there is no such thing as Judaism
at this point, and Christianity
is more than a millennium away.

What we need to notice from the text is that,
when it comes to an encounter with God,
there is no religion.

This is a big point in the text
that we seem to have missed somehow.
When the veil between the holy and the human
gets thin,
there is no religion.
Religion, brand name,
is utterly and totally irrelevant
at that moment.

Religion is about ideas
and rituals
and sacraments
and methodologies
and organizations,
and all those things we need
and we cherish
and we hate.

There is nothing wrong with all that human paraphernalia
but when it comes to an encounter with GOD,
it is utterly irrelevant.
At least one message of this story,
given that Moses is not any kind of religion
and he is on the mountain of a Midianite god
at the beginning of the ancient Hebrew story,
is that an encounter with God,
is beyond all religion
and available to anyone
of any religion.

But that is not the only message tucked in there.
Another message,
is that God is assumed – an encounter with God
is not out of the ordinary.
That may be something useful for us to note.
Ancient and modern poets and prophets
and many a musician and artist,
simply assume an encounter with God
is a natural part of living.

So if this story were an orchestral piece,
all of that is in the first movement.

Then the story shifts.
We leave the realm of human beings
filtered through Moses
and its implications for us,
and we move into the realm of the holy.

In other words,
the text is going to tell us something
about God.

We might imagine that,
because it is the Bible,
such information is normal.

But the Bible is far more about human beings
than it is about God.
God is stingy with information
and self-revelation,
which brings up another point.

Not all religions are alike –
that is a modern, liberal idea that is baloney.
Religions are very different,
and they reflect the very different cultures
within which they arose.

So generally, there are two categories of religion:
Revealed and Unrevealed.
The revealed religions are those that believe
God is the only source to provide information about God.
In other words, God unveils godself
only when and if God chooses to do so.
The word “revelation” means, literally, to unveil.
The UNrevealed religions,
like Buddhism and Hinduism,
believe that wisdom, or divine wisdom
if a god is involved,
can be uncovered by US.
Through our human methodologies
like meditation, yoga, tai chi, fasting,
and any number of disciplines,
humans can unlock the mysteries.
So revealed and unrevealed religions
begin from different assumptions.

As Christians,
rooted as we are in this Exodus text of ancient Israel,
we belong to the “revealed” category:
We know nothing
beyond what God wants us to know about God.
That means this text from Exodus
is God’s first and most elemental revelation
about who God is
and what God is like.
This is the first and core unveiling,
and here is what we learn about God.

First, God tells Moses “who” god is:
The god of Moses’ ancestors.
God begins the introduction,
not with an autobiography of occupations or achievements,
but with a description of God’s relationships.

Again, we might take note
that “who”we are
has to do with who
we are in relationship with,
much more than what we do or did for money.

Next, the text describes how God behaves
and it is astounding.
God sees the misery of the Hebrews in Egypt.
God hears their cries when they are abused.
God feels their suffering.

Then, because God sees and hears and feels,
God acts,
in this case, bringing about their liberation.

Now, because we are modern and post-modern people,
we may need to disengage from the idea
that God actually acts in human history,
whether on behalf of those who are marginalized
or anybody else.
That in itself is a big question.

But first, I want us to ponder this amazing fact.
Prior to this story,
the gods of the ancient world
were not this kind of god.
Prior to this Exodus text,
if you needed something from a god,
like someone to fall in love with you
or to get pregnant,
or to have your crops yield an abundant harvest,
or for your enemy to get the runs and have a miserable day,
you went to the proper god
that had the power to act
in the sphere you needed action.
Then you made a sacrifice at the proper altar
through the appointed priest.

In other words, you had to purchase the desired benefit
with the required sacrifice
and that necessitated what we call money.
Rich people, of which there were a very few,
had greater and better access to those gods
and those benefits, than everyone else.
It seemed quite natural
that the universe operated as a divine hierarchy
since human society did too.

But with the Exodus story
there enters a new God,
or a God newly encountered.
It is not quite the one and only God yet, because
monotheism would take many more generations to form.
But this newly encountered God
is a god who hears the cries of slaves.
Suddenly there appears in the world
a god who sees what is going on
among the marginalized.

Suddenly there appears in the world
a god who actually listens
to the groans of people
who are the dregs of the society.

Suddenly there appears in the world
a god who actually feels – knows personally –
the suffering of the nobodies.

You see?
Whether we think Exodus is an actual historic moment
and mystical encounter with God,
or just the emergence of an historic idea,
this is an amazing turn of events.
Even though everything that human beings can see
would suggest the existence of a God
who only cares about the powerful
and the privileged,
there appeared an ancient text
with a very different narrative:

God sees and hears and knows
the suffering of those who are
beaten and abused and exploited.
And not only that,
what God does,
what God is all about,
is acting in history on their behalf.

What an incredible text.
You see why it is so amazing?