BURNING BUSHES

Exodus 3:1-15burning bush
Luke 13:10-17

Healing can’t wait. Freedom can’t wait. And God won’t wait—not when God’s children are suffering and living and dying in bondage. The God whose name, “Yahweh,” “I AM WHO I AM,” translates into “I am the God who is present in every moment of your history; I am the God who acts, here and now!”—this God won’t wait until a convenient time to heal us, to set us free from the chains of fear and pain and sin that bind us, that bend us over with their weight and tie us into knots and keep us from even imagining the kind of life God wants for us. Nor will this God wait until we’ve got our lives completely ordered and fixed-up before God calls us to go out and heal others, to bring good news and set others free. That’s what today’s Scripture readings tell us, I believe: that the God who called to Moses out of a burning bush and came to be born on earth in a stable and take all the worst that we humans are capable of heaping upon one another, . . . that this God won’t wait, but calls us to be burning bushes today, to be the body of Christ today, to be healed and set free today. God won’t wait, because God loves us and wants something better for all of us than the life we’ve known.

Let’s start by looking at the Gospel lesson, telling us about Jesus healing the woman who’d been bent over, crippled for 18 years. This passage shows us that God won’t wait to bring healing and freedom to God’s people, even when WE may think the timing is inconvenient, or resent the change that it represents.

First note that it’s Jesus who initiates the healing with this woman. The leader of the synagogue scolds the crowd, telling them they shouldn’t come looking for healing on the Sabbath, but it’s Jesus who decided to heal that day. Were all the sick and crippled people supposed to stay home, out of sight and out of mind, on the Sabbath, lest Jesus be moved to help them? The synagogue leader apparently didn’t want to confront Jesus directly, so he instead scolds him indirectly, through his words to the crowd. But Jesus isn’t having any of that nonsense. Jesus turns to the leader of the synagogue directly and says, “You hypocrite! If you had an animal that was tied up, hurting or in need, would you not untie it and lead it to water, to food, to whatever it needed, even if it was on the Sabbath day? Would not compassion outweigh your concern for the rules of Sabbath-keeping? So, then, why should this woman wait even two seconds longer to be healed, to be set free, to be allowed to stand up straight and look you in the eye?”

Now consider what this was like from the woman’s point of view, what she’d been through. She’s there in the synagogue, minding her own religious business, not asking for any help, nor even expecting anything. Probably she’d come to accept that this was all life had to offer her. Perhaps she’d even come to accept other what others often said, that she must’ve done something to deserve this infirmity, this crippling spirit that had tortured her so long. But Jesus insists that she’s important to God, that she’s a child of Abraham, a daughter of the covenant, and that her healing and freedom can’t wait even one more second! That here and now is the only appropriate place and time for her to be set free.

Then, let’s look at Moses’ story, showing us how unexpectedly and even sneakily God’s healing and freedom may break in upon us.
The first thing we notice is how subtly God approaches Moses (not something you associate with God in Exodus!). When we think of God in Exodus, we think of signs and miracles that were anything but subtle: the Plagues of Egypt, the pillar of fire and cloud, the parting of the sea, for instance. Here God reaches out to Moses using a lowly, measly, little bush (not a tree, even, much less a pillar of fire and smoke)—a bush which is on fire, yet not consumed, sitting on a rocky hillside. It’s just enough to stir Moses’ curiosity, to move him slightly outside the rut he’s fallen into. He’s probably told himself that this shepherding job is all there is for him for the rest of his life, that he needs to accept it and relax, that fixing the world’s problems is somebody else’s job. He’s gotten entirely too comfortable expecting little or nothing of himself. But God’s not going to wait for Moses to ‘get his act together’, to put all his childhood issues and identity questions and other problems behind him. No, God subtly, sneakily draws Moses off his path, a little way out of his comfortable rut, by appealing to Moses’ curiosity, his desire to see what’s going on with this little, minor miracle and mystery before him.

The next thing we notice is how unexpectedly God’s call comes upon Moses. God is telling Moses how He’s heard the cries of the Israelites and is determined to end their suffering and bring them out of bondage, and Moses was probably nodding along, thinking, “That’s great—you go do that, God!” But then comes the sneaky, unexpected twist. God concludes by saying, “…so that’s why I’m sending YOU, Moses, to go back to Egypt, confront Pharaoh, and convince him to let my people go!”

Say what?!?

And then, no matter how many excuses Moses comes up with for why this is really a bad idea, God persists. God insists that Moses IS the one God wants to use for this, even though Moses is no more impressive in himself than that puny, stunted little shrub growing there on the hillside. It’s not Moses’ inherent grandness and greatness that’s going to accomplish the task. Rather, it is God’s light and power shining through Moses that will do the trick.

When Moses asks God for a name, a handle, a handy label that can be used to cut God down to size, to make the majesty of God more understandable, more familiar to lowly humans, what Moses gets instead is a description of how God operates. Instead of saying something like, “Well, my name’s ‘Jehovah’, but you can call me ‘Joe’”, God instead lays the full complexity and majesty of God’s being on Moses: “I AM WHO I AM” (or some scholars translate it, “I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE”). God is “I AM”, the God who is being and acting and creating and healing and setting us free, whether or not we’re ready for that to be so.

What’s more, this same God of action calls us to action, to be “burning bushes”, filled with the Spirit of God from our baptism on—the Spirit which burns strong and bright within us, and yet somehow, paradoxically, does not destroy our puny, weak human selves. God won’t wait to call us to proclaim liberty, to shine a light on this world, to feed the hungry, to love the unloved, to welcome the unwelcome and unseen.

Today is the day that God calls us to be the church, to be the Body of Christ here on earth. God won’t wait for us to gain more members, or get more money in the bank, or to sort out any of the problems that we think make us ineligible or incapable. God won’t wait to heal us, to call us to stand up straight, to stand with dignity, secure in the knowledge of God’s love, and to send us forth to be light and love and healing for others in this world.

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Looking for the Why?

By Rev. Lori PattonLooking for Why

Acts 8:14-17
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Psychologist Victor Frankl, a Jew who survived the Nazi concentration camps during World War II, came out of the camps with the conviction that the deepest desire of the human being is not for pleasure, as Freud seemed to think, nor for power, as Alfred Adler believed, but for meaning. People want to know why they live, want to know that their lives have purpose. People need context, a story that they’re a part of.

I think there’s a lot of truth in that.

I mean, from an early age, children want to know WHY things are, and will drive adults crazy with their incessant questioning, “Why, why, why?” Even when we grow up and learn that it’s obnoxious to ask “Why?” all the time, we still want to know “why?” Of necessity, we spend a good deal of our time just learning how life works – how to get a job, how to get food, how to make friends, how to drive a car, how to raise our kids, how to get along with our parents – but what we really want to know is why we live, and why things are as they seem to be. Beyond who we are and how we are, we want to know why we are. Carl Jung seemed to think that this search for ‘Why?’ was a task for the latter half of our lives, something that younger adults don’t need to bother with, but I don’t think that’s true. “Why?” is a question we wrestle with at every stage of life, I think.

Can you think of a time when you felt – perhaps for the first time in your life – that you were where you were meant to be, doing what you were meant to be doing? Perhaps it was because of the work you were doing, perhaps because of a relationship with someone, or some combination of those two – whatever. But if you were lucky enough to have one of those times, what you felt was, “Yes . . . this is right. This is what I’m for – this is why I am, at least for now.” And even if things were difficult, you still felt wonderful, because there was that deep-down sense of peace, of rightness, of not having to be constantly afraid that you belonged somewhere else . . . OR that you didn’t belong anywhere, that there simply was no reason for your life (which is the worst!).

Well, I think that that’s what we’re seeing happen in Luke’s story of the Baptism of Jesus. For Luke, the important part of the story is the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus, when he is praying after his baptism, and the effect that this has on Jesus’ life. In the very next chapter, Luke 4:16-21, Jesus stands in the synagogue and reads the passage from Isaiah 61, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor,” and then says that this passage is true of him.

The coming of the Spirit upon him is an anointing for public ministry. It comes not to make him the Son of God, – for Luke’s birth story makes clear that Jesus was this already and that through Jesus the promise of Isaiah was extended to all of us as sons and daughters of God – but to show him why he was born the Son of God, to show him what he had come to do, and give him the power to begin to do it.

In Luke, as in the rest of scripture, the Holy Spirit comes upon you for a reason – it brings a commission from God, a purpose for your life – it brings meaning and the beginnings of an answer for your “Why?”

Okay, so wonderful. So, we were all supposedly sealed by the Holy Spirit when we were baptized, right? So, what if we don’t feel particularly commissioned or empowered? What if we don’t yet know why we were put here? Or, maybe, we felt at one time that we did know why, but now things have changed, and that original purpose no longer serves or is no longer possible? What then?

If we still feel confused and adrift and full of questions, does that mean that our baptism was a ‘dud’, that it just didn’t ‘take’?

Not at all!

The wonderful thing about the readings from Luke and Acts is that they show that the Holy Spirit didn’t automatically come at the moment of baptism. It came afterward – perhaps considerably afterward, in some cases – and it came in the midst of prayer, in the midst of seeking after God’s will in the community of faith.

In a sense, our baptism is like Jesus’ miraculous birth story: it’s a sign that we are children of God, just as Christ is. But it may take us some time to find out why we have been born children of God, what commission God has for us. There can be years of searching, of wondering, of trying things out, like Jesus staying behind in the Temple when he was twelve years old, until his parents found him and in essence said, “You’re not supposed to go off on your own just yet, kid!”

But it’s important to note that Jesus didn’t just sit at home alone and pray and wait for a suitable revelation from the heavens. He was out seeking his mission, not waiting for it to come and find him. He was out participating in the religious life of his community, by coming out to be baptized, as so many others were doing, and it was after that that the Spirit came to him and filled him with power. It was after that that God told him, “Yes, this is it! now, you’re ready. Go to it, kiddo!”

By participating in the life of our church and our community, by seeking the right road and by praying seriously, we can be sure that – however long our commissioning takes – when it does come to us, we will be at the right place, at the right time to receive it. And if our work is completed, or the relationship which defined our purpose is ended by death or separation, if for some reason it becomes impossible for us to pursue that first purpose any longer and we have to once more seek a “Why?” for our life, I have faith that God will supply our need. I believe that through prayer and active seeking we will find a new commission, a new calling, a new ministry for which we have been anointed. We will find new meaning for our lives.

That still leaves one problem, one question: what if you get tired, or scared, or decide you don’t want to do what you feel God is calling you to do?

When Jesus returned from the Jordan after his baptism, full of the Holy Spirit, he was led straight out into the wilderness, where the devil told him, “Listen, chum, there’s an easier way! You’ve got all this power now, so why not use it to make life more comfortable for yourself? Take a few short-cuts! No one will blame you. You deserve a break, so take it!” Jesus held fast, of course, resisting the temptations that were put before him to trade his mission and birthright as the Son of God for a pot of the devil’s porridge.

But think about the prophet Jonah and how HE responded when God commissioned him to go and prophesy to Nineveh, the wealthy and powerful enemy of his people. Jonah pretty much said, “I’m not stupid, I’m not expendable, and I’m not going! Thanks for thinking of me, God, but you’ll need to look for a more gullible prophet than me for this job!” And Jonah hightailed it in the opposite direction. But from that moment on, nothing seemed to go right for him. and he could find no peace. It got so bad after a while that, when a storm came up, he felt responsible for it, because of his disobedience to God, and he told the sailors to throw him overboard in order to save the rest of them. But God didn’t let Jonah sink and die; God sent a great fish to swallow him and take him to dry land and belch him back up! (Not the easiest way to travel, by the way. Kind of makes being crammed into an economy seat on an airplane look like luxury in comparison, doesn’t it?). So, Jonah went to Nineveh after all, and it wasn’t as bad as he’d feared. In fact, it went a little too well for Jonah’s taste. The people of the city responded so quickly and wholeheartedly to his message that God spared them after all. Which ticked Jonah off! After all that he’d gone through in trying to resist this mission, he was enraged at God for sparing the lives of the humans and animals within the great city. Jonah thought his mission was about bad news and destruction, but it was actually about giving even the enemies of Israel a chance for redemption.

I think the point of the book of Jonah is to show that we can’t ever quite free ourselves from God’s commission, and that carrying out our mission, finding our ‘Why?’ can have unexpected results. There’s no real peace for us apart from obedience to God, and God always leans on the side of hope and redemption, even for the worst of sinners. Being true to your purpose, doing what God has meant for you to do at this point in your life, isn’t always a ‘bed of roses’, of course, but there’s never quite the same restlessness and lack of purpose, lack of meaning – never the same anxious feeling that you ought to be someplace else, doing something different, or be nowhere at all.

Friends, there IS a baptism with the Holy Spirit, a commission from God for each one of us. God always has an answer for our “Why?”, even though – as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13 – we may not see it clearly until we see God face to face at last.

If we have not yet discovered where God wants us to be, or where God is calling us to go next, what God has meant for us to be and do, then we will. Soon.

But whether we have found our purpose or are still seeking, we are all called to work and pray together, in community, eagerly awaiting new visions, new possibilities, new jobs that need doing. We are all called to work together to discern new promptings of the Holy Spirit, telling us how we can best live out the promises of our baptism today.