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Sunday, August 30, 2020 | 11:00 a.m.
Noticing and Acting
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Moses’ day had probably started out as a pretty ordinary one. He was tending the sheep for his father-in-law, as he had done for a few decades, standing out just beyond the wilderness land—a place that had become his refuge since fleeing Pharaoh’s house. As I am sure you’ve surmised by now, a lot has happened in Moses’ life since we encountered his story last week. He is no longer a helpless baby, being drawn up out of the waters in yet another act in a long chain of creative disobedience. He is no longer a child, named and adopted by Pharaoh’s own daughter, an Israelite immigrant raised surrounded by Egyptian power.
Rather, by the time we meet him today he is an adult. A man who is also a fugitive—hiding from the very ones he had been told to call family, Pharaoh and his house. For even though Moses had been raised surrounded by Egyptian power, he never forgot he was not Egyptian, that he did not completely belong or could ever be fully himself. I can imagine he grew tired sometimes of always having to watch how he acted in Egyptian space so as not to be seen as a threat or markedly out of place. We see his outsider reality expressed in the words of scripture in the chapter before today as it states, “One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and saw their forced labor.”
His people—the Israelites, not the Egyptians. And when he saw an Egyptian slave driver beating one of his people, all the rage Moses had stuffed down his entire life flared up, and he killed the slave driver in response. Shortly after that, he realized the word was getting around, and he knew he had to get out of town before Pharaoh got him. So Moses ran to the wilderness, leaving behind everything he knew, setting out into an unfamiliar territory and into an unknown future.
But by the time we meet him in today’s text, standing with his sheep just beyond the wilderness, Moses seems to have settled down a bit. He had gotten married and started a family. He was working in the family business: shepherding. His days had a familiar cadence to them, a routine, a safe rhythm; perhaps Moses had even moved into what Kierkegaard once called “the tranquilization by the trivial.”
And that is precisely when it happened. Moses was just minding his own business or, rather, his father-in-law’s business, when WHOOSH. A bright flame caught his eye. “What in the world?” he must have thought. And that is when he did it. He made the move that I believe opened the door of possibility and challenge. As scripture states, Moses turned aside to get a closer look. He turned aside.
Now, you might wonder why I think that is such a big deal. Of course he turned aside, you could easily surmise. A bush was on fire for goodness’ sake. And you are right. A bush was burning but it was not consumed. That could certainly get our attention. Yet the whole moment could have stopped right then and there with a bush on fire and Moses glancing at it, for as my former seminary professor Ben Campbell Johnson always said, God has a profound respect for human freedom.
That theological understanding implies that Moses could have seen the fire from a distance and then decided to lead the sheep in a different direction out of a concern for their safety. Or he could have seen the fire from a distance, noticed the position of the sun in the sky, and muttered, “Great. I don’t have time to deal with a fire. It’s my turn to give the kids a bath and put them to bed,” turning the opposite way from the bush and continuing on. Or Moses could have pretended to not see anything at all. He could have put his blinders up and ignored that odd sight burning just off of his path of routine and expectation.
After all, from the way I read this passage, it looks like God did not place that burning bush smack dab in front of Moses so he would be forced to respond. Again, God does not force our participation in God’s work. Rather, God chose a bush planted off of Moses’ beaten path. If Moses really wanted to see it, he had to turn aside. He had to make the decision to stop, to turn, and then to follow his curiosity to where the bush burned. For this holy interaction to continue, Moses had to decide to be open to the mystery.
But again you might reply “So what.” So what if Moses had to decide to interrupt his plans and follow his curiosity? The reason I think his decision matters is because of what happened next. Did you hear it? Did you hear what happened when Moses noticed the bush, chose to shake off his tranquilization by the trivial, so he could turn aside and pay attention? God noticed Moses’ noticing, and God called out to him. And that particular sequence of action is a critical part of the story.
God did not set the bush on fire and then yell out, “Hey Moses! Come over here and look! I’m calling you!” Rather, God chose an off-the-beaten-path bush, tucked the Holy Presence into the flame, and then waited to see if Moses would stop what he was doing long enough to notice and to turn aside. Again, scripture: “When the Lord saw that Moses had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush.” It was only when Moses chose to stop, look, and listen did God choose to call.
A friend of mine claims this is an example of one of God’s great and beautiful inefficiencies: this waiting for human beings to turn aside so that God can invite them to join in God’s work in the world. Granted, she concedes, God does not always wait for us. God spoke creation into being without waiting for response. God might even finish renewing creation without waiting for response. But in this story, just like in so many others, God does wait. Story after story in scripture points to God’s intentional inefficiency, God’s choosing to wait for us to turn aside, to notice, and then to respond.
Yet as my friend points out, it is an intentional inefficiency born of relationship, for bound up in the very nature of God is the promise that God not only longs to be, but to be with (Barbara Lundblad, Chicago Sunday Evening Club). For those of us who follow God in the way of Jesus, that “be with” is the whole reason for Incarnation, for God becoming flesh. And here in Hebrew scripture, we see this same desire play out. That is precisely what Moses began to discover that day too, a God who not only desired to respond to the cries of God’s people and to bring them into freedom, but a God who wanted to do all of that with and through Moses.
This narrative theological theme runs throughout scripture. And it makes me wonder if God is still being God in this same way with us. Do you think God still waits for people like us to turn aside, to shake off the tranquilization of the trivial, so we might see the flicker of Holy Presence tucked into things, or people, or situations we might normally avoid, turn away from, or just pretend we did not see? Does God still wait for us to notice before God calls, because God still prefers to be with us in God’s work in the world? Could it be that if we turned aside more often, we also might hear God speak more often? According to this scripture, that’s a real possibility. And it is a possibility that could affect our lives in a whole myriad of ways.
But for today, let me be clear as to where I find my focus. In this particular story of the initial interaction between God and Moses, the work to which God was calling Moses was nothing less than liberation work, freedom work, for as God said, for years God had heard God’s people crying out in their pain, their grief, their anger and rage over their enslavement to the system and the cruelty of Pharaoh. As Walter Brueggemann has preached, we must not forget that “the God of the Bible takes notice of social suffering, in which some are oppressed and others are oppressors, in which some are exploited and others are comfortable because of the exploitation. God notices and God cares, and God acts decisively, because God will not put up with these kinds of dysfunctional social arrangements (Walter Brueggemann, The Threat of Life, p. 20).
And as we just discovered, God wanted to act decisively with and through Moses. “So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” When he heard God speak that call for him, Moses had to have been terrified. Remember his past. He left Pharaoh’s house in part because he had to, in order to save his own life. At that moment he must have been internally berating himself for turning aside and paying attention to that bush aflame with the presence of the Holy!
Yet even with his doubts, Moses still must have known what the midwives knew: that he could not be fully who God had created him to be had he not turned aside, noticed, and responded to God’s call. The very ones whose cries had been heard by God were his people, his family, as well as God’s. He could not turn his back on them. He had already turned aside. There was no turning back. No turning back.
You know where I am going by now, don’t you? I am once again going to talk with you about our call as Christians to keep persistently engaging in the struggle for racial justice, in the fight against racism, a spiritual sludge that has been causing our people, our siblings, to groan, to cry out, and to rage, as they endure it and resist it generation after generation after generation.
And if you still do struggle to intellectually believe that systemic racism exists or that it continues to be a powerful force in our country, or if you think that all this talk about race is too political for the church, or if you are angry because you do not think I have spoken out enough against the looting, or if you are waiting for your Session to take down the banner that says “Black Lives Matter to God and to Us,” all I know to do at this point as your pastor is to offer you the testimony I hear and to ask that you might stop for a moment, shake off any tranquilization by the trivial, turn aside, and listen.
Listen deeply not only to the words but to the heartfelt conviction that lies underneath them—words from our own Fourth Church family, Black church members and staff who are exhausted right now from having to justify to those of us who are White that their experiences are real. Members of our family, our siblings in Christ, who feel like Jacob Blake’s sister who said this week that she has no liquid tears left to shed in the wake of yet another police shooting of another Black man, even though it’s her own brother, because she has been crying her whole life long. I offer you these words because first, they have all given me permission to do so, but second, their testimonies are emblematic of the cries that continue to go up to God in our day and time. And I trust deeply that God hears them and is daily and hourly imploring us to turn aside, to notice the spark of Holy Presence tucked into this struggle, to follow Moses’ lead, and to be an active part of God’s liberating response.
Listen to what Fourth Church community member Dr. Clyde Yancy wrote for an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association this past June: “As a child, racism makes you feel lost and afraid; as a young adult racism leaves you on the outside looking in; as a young aspiring professional, racism makes you start at the back, work twice as hard, for half as much; as a mature adult, racism makes your soul grieve” (Clyde Yancy, “Academic Medicine and Black Lives Matter,” JAMA, 30 June 2020).
Pay attention to what Elder Ken Gaines wrote to me and to our Clerk of Session last week as he expressed support to keep our banner up: “I am an African American man who got ‘the talk’ from my mother when I was a child. The ‘talk’ was regarding how to stay safe as a Black youth in urban Chicago. I gave the same talk to my two young sons who are now grown men—that is, rules of the road for growing up Black in Chicago and in our nation. Now, I have two baby grandsons. I do not want to fear for them or for their lives; yet, I do not want to have them need to heed‘the talk’ in order to live and be well in America in 2020. Black lives do matter—they matter to me and to my children and grandchildren. They matter to my friends and my community . . . and Black lives matter to God.”
Notice what was expressed to me by a Black mother this week after she heard Jacob Blake’s mother call for peace in the wake of her son’s shooting: “I watched her, and I was in awe. I am the mother of a young adult Black son and daughter, and I am afraid for their safety every day, and my fear is only increasing. I don’t think I would be able to do what Mrs. Blake did today. I do not yet have enough faith to offer that kind of grace.”
Friends, these are just a few of the voices who continue to cry out to God in the words of the psalmist: “How long, O Lord. How long?”; who continue to cry out to us, their siblings in Christ, in the words of the prophet Jeremiah, “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.” These are the cries of our people, and God has heard them and God is once again waiting for us to do as Moses did—to notice, to turn aside, to pay attention, and then to respond with the actions of our lives.
Because, as Walter Brueggemann preached, “God does God’s work, to be sure; but the story of the Bible is the story of enlisting and recruiting human agents to do the things that God has promised” (Walter Brueggemann, The Threat of Life, p. 20). I believe with every fiber of my being that God is enlisting and recruiting us into this ongoing work of liberation and freedom for all God’s children. We have got to be in this for the long haul as a church and as disciples. We cannot rest until turning aside becomes second nature to us and the whole world has caught fire with the power of God’s love. For God hears the cries of God’s people and God is noticing whether or not we are noticing too and if we are ready to do something about it. Amen.