I am going to begin with a line of poetry from Elizabeth Barrett Browning and then ask you some “what if” questions. By now most of you probably know me well enough to know that when I start in on the “what if” questions I want us to hear the text in new ways, to risk thinking new and different ideas, to push against the usual interpretations and stretch ourselves.
In her poem “Aurora Leigh,” Browning writes: “Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God.” So here’s what I wonder.
- What if burning bushes are a dime a dozen? Maybe the burning bush is not unique to Moses. The rabbis of old say that others passed by the bush while it was burning but only Moses turned aside.
- What if the miracle of the burning bush isn’t that it wasn’t consumed by the fire, but that Moses turned aside? Maybe turning aside to see this thing is the real miracle of this story.
- What if the burning bush is a part of each of our lives? Maybe the only question is whether we will turn aside.
- What if every burning bush is a call asking for and awaiting a response from us? Maybe the Caller of this call, God, not only wants but needs a response from Moses and from you and me.
You probably know where I am headed with this. I think there are burning bushes in each of our lives, throughout our lives. The question is not whether there is a burning bush in our life but whether we will turn aside and respond to the call being made upon us.
Burning bushes are those circumstances or events that interrupt life and grab our attention. They are not part of our plans. They take us by surprise. They stop us in our tracks and cause us to turn aside. We take a second look. Sometimes we are brought up short, speechless, at a loss for words. Burning bushes come to us as an overflow and an excess, sometimes in positive and welcome ways and other times not.
Regardless of how it comes to us the burning bush shatters the horizon of our expectation. Here’s what I mean by that. We all live within a horizon of expectation. It’s that part of life that can be reasonably planned and counted on. It holds a future that is mostly foreseeable. We mostly know what tomorrow will bring. Our expectations will likely be met. But we don’t know what lies beyond or is coming toward our horizon. Within our horizon life is relatively stable, which means it is also relatively unstable. There is risk and potential for instability, for something to shatter the horizon of our expectation, something that we could not see coming. Moses never thought it possible for a bush to be on fire but not be burned up. He never expected or planned on being the one to bring God’s people out of Egypt. Those were beyond his horizon of expectation.
In each of our lives there are experiences that shatter our horizon of expectation. They are events, conversations and words, happenings that were unplanned, unexpected, unforeseeable, and they always ask something of us, a response. They are those times that leave us weeping and asking, “Why?” They are those experiences when the excess is just too great and we have no words, only tears of joy. They are those times when we can’t wait to share with someone what has happened and we say, “Not in my wildest dreams could I have imagined or guessed that this would be my life.” They are those times when we shake our head in disbelief and say, “No, that’s not possible; it can’t be.” And sometimes we throw up our hands and say, “God only knows.” When and how has any of this happened in your life? What have been the burning bushes for you?
In today’s gospel (Luke 13:1-9) the Tower of Siloam falling, the suffering of the Galileans at the hands of Pilate, the fig tree that produced no fruit are burning bushes. Each shatters a horizon of expectation. That does not mean, however, that God caused those things to happen. It means that God calls in every place and situation. God calls with the promise of life, more life, new life. And each calling awaits a response.
The burning bush doesn’t reveal God to be a Supreme Being, a Super Hero, or the Big Guy in the Sky. Instead it reveals God to be more like a call, a solicitation, an asking, an insistence. In burning bush experiences God calls more than God does or accomplishes. The doing and accomplishing are for us.
God says to Moses (Exodus 3:1-15), “I have observed the misery of my people.” “I have heard their cry.” “I know their suffering, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians.” Now it sounds like we’re getting somewhere. God is coming to rescue God’s people. But listen to what God next says to Moses. “So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of the land of Egypt.”
“I have come down to deliver them,” God says. “So come, I will send you,” God says to Moses.
God is going to deliver God’s people by sending Moses. Moses is to give existence to God’s call for deliverance. Moses is to make real and enact God’s desire for the people. What if that’s how God is working in our lives too? You remember I told you that the rabbis say others passed by the burning bush but did not turn aside? What if they too were to have given existence to God’s call, God’s insistence, that the Israelites be freed from Egypt? I wonder when you and I have not turned aside. When have we failed or refused to respond to the call on our lives?
The burning bush story is one of call and response. Something is being called for in the name of God. And I can’t help but believe that call and response is also the story of our lives. Something is being asked of us in the name of God.
The burning bush experience does not happen apart from or in spite of every day life but in the midst of life, in the keeping of our flocks. That’s what Moses was doing when this happened. He was keeping the flock of his father in law. He was doing the ordinary routine things of his life, the same things he did the day before, the week before, and the month before. Burning bushes show up as we keep our flocks of routine and every day life; marriage, parenting, work, friendships, errands, church, reading the news, household tasks.
In what ways is the horizon of your expectation being shattered today? It could be as ordinary as a fig tree that produces no fruit or as tragic as a falling tower, and everything in between. What is interrupting, disrupting, erupting, in your life today and asking for a response? What is being called for? How will you respond?
This is where I often get stuck; on the response. What’s the right response? I want to get it right, don’t you? But what if there isn’t one right answer? What if we can’t know for sure? What if the “right” response is whatever brings forth life, more life, new life? And what if that looks different in each of our lives?
Here’s why ask all that. The vineyard owner responds to the barren fig tree by wanting to cut it down. The gardener responds by wanting to dig around and fertilize the tree. The text, however doesn’t tell us who is right or what happens. What if both are right? What if being right isn’t even the measure? Maybe life is the only measure, and the measure of life is life without measure. And Moses? How does Moses know if he’ll get it right? He doesn’t. He doesn’t know any more than we do. There will, however, be a sign. The sign, God says, will come after the people have been delivered, not before. It’s as if God is saying you’ll look back on all this and see I was there all along. And isn’t that a pretty accurate description of life? We live life forward, uncertain and not knowing, but we only begin to understand and make sense of it in retrospect.
What if there are no guarantees and the best, the most, we can do is to respond hoping against hope, loving and “faithing” our way forward? What if that’s how we approached every burning bush in our life? And what if we saw “every common bush afire with God?”