- Exodus 3:1-15; Matthew 16:21-28
Moses is minding his own business. He is tending his father-in-law’s flock when, so says the text, “he led his flock beyond the wilderness.” Beyond the wilderness? In other words, he is way out of bounds, far beyond civilization, out in the marginal places. Perhaps somewhere far up the west coast, far from voice mail and internet access. Or maybe down an alley littered with needles and broken lives. Or maybe it is an inner place, beyond the wilderness of grief, in a place of great risk and possibility. This is what Moses discovers. He learns that beyond the wilderness lies the mountain of God, the place where an angel of the LORD appears in a flame of fire. It is an odd discovery. There is a bush on fire, a tumbleweed across the valley. At first he does not take much notice of it. But he looks again later and sees that it is still burning. And later it is burning still. The bush draws him closer. It should be consumed by the fire but it just keeps on burning. My friend Doug was raised in the Presbyterian church. It is from the Presbyterians that we in The United Church of Canada have received the burning bush as one of the four symbols on our church crest. Doug is the one who taught me that this is how Presbyterians think of the church. They notice that it is always in the process of falling apart, burning up, surely dying out … and yet, against all logic and against all odds, the church continues to burn. It is not consumed. It draws us in closer, close enough to hear the voice - the voice that is not the voice of the church but the voice of God.
This is the surprising thing. The church, our life together, our faith does not begin with us. It is not the case that a group of like minded people got together and decided that it would be a really good idea to create a church. After all, the world needs a place to think about God, to talk about God, to seek God. But, no. This is not how it happened or how it happens. It happens like this. We are minding our own business. We are tending our father-in-law’s (or our mother-in-law’s) flock - we are busy with keeping some food on the table and the bills paid and our heads above water - when something odd catches our eye, when a peculiar voice speaks in our ear, when a profound yearning will not let our soul rest. At first we think it will go away, burn out, fade into the background. But it does not. It does not go away, does not burn out will not fade into the background. It is what draws us here, to this font and this book and this table … and to one another. It is what we name “The Call.” This is the odd thing about us. We live in response to the One who calls to us. It means that our life is a vocation - it is a calling. It is not a career choice or a lifestyle option. Our life is a saying ‘yes’ to One who has called us into a life we would not have otherwise dreamed of. To be honest, it is also a life of saying ‘no’ and ‘maybe’ as often as we say ‘yes’ to the call. But the call will not be silenced, the bush will not be consumed, no matter how often our ‘yes’ sounds more like ‘maybe’ or looks like running the other way.
Moses discovers that the location of the call, the place where the voice speaks, is holy ground. This place beyond the wilderness that is at once terrifying and exhilarating is a place of awe. When Moses hears the voice he answers: “Here I am.” He is prepared to be addressed. He does not run in the opposite direction. He will listen. But he will be careful. He will not get too close. He knows that this is risky. That his life is on the line. That when God is close the voltage is high. It is like that here at times. We gather, glad to be together, forgetting that what we do is filled with risk, beyond the wilderness. And then … and then the Voice comes with unmistakable voltage calling us to a life that we would not have dreamed of otherwise.
It turns out that God’s call to Moses is the result of a cry of desperation from the people God has been calling into existence through Abraham and Sara, Isaac and Rebecah, Jacob and Rachel. “I have observed the misery of my people … I have heard their cry … I know their sufferings … and I have come down to deliver them.” I have seen, I have heard, I know, I have come down. This is the good news in shorthand. This is the voice of the God who comes in response to the cry for liberation, for healing, for life. But there is more. There is another shoe to drop. God is recruiting Moses to take the lead. It turns out that the God who speaks and calls in response to the cry of suffering and injustice engages human agents to join in the fray. Moses had no idea that this was to be his life … that he was to have a calling. Now he knows.
But Moses is not so sure. He hems and haws. “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” It is a back and forth negotiation. Moses resists as best he can. God promises not to leave Moses on his own - “I will be with you” - and offers a peculiar sign of this as proof: “When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.” The sign of God’s faithfulness, it turns out, is all in the future. Trust me, says God. I will give a sign of my trustworthiness after you have risked your life for me. Moses continues to bargain. “When I say to the Israelites that the God of our ancestors has sent me and they ask me ‘What is his name’ what shall I say to them?” God does not disappoint but provides Moses with intimate knowledge of the divine: “My name is YHWH.” It is a Hebrew verb. It means something like “I am up to what I am up to.” This God is a force, an active agent in history, a mysterious other who is known by action. This name, like the site of the burning bush beyond the wilderness, is holy. It is awesome and wondrous. This is the reason that to this day Jewish readers of scripture never pronounce the name but, instead, replace the word YHWH with the title “Adonai” - LORD (signified by capital letters in English translations).
The call continues. The bush has not been consumed. The cry still goes up: the cry of misery; the cry of suffering; the cry of longing. And the voice of YHWH - the LORD - still stops some short and calls some to lead, to engage, to respond, to act. It is the reason that the Ministry Profile and Search Committee has begun the work of calling a new congregational minister. You will not be hiring a new minister. You won’t be head-hunting for a new minister. You won’t even be searching for a new minister. You will be calling a new minister. First and foremost, this call is a call to God. It is a cry for help, a cry for God to come alongside to sustain and grow the life of this congregation. And then, we hope and pray, God will call a leader - a minister - and send him or her to you. Yes, there will be contract details to sort out. Yes, it will look a lot like the hiring of a new staff member. But, God willing, it will be much more than that. God willing, your new minister will know deep down that joining you is a calling that is not only in response to your cry but is, ultimately, a response to the One whose call cannot be ignored.
Yet all this talk of the calling of a minister can be problematic for us. It can shift the focus away from the primary call in this community. The primary calling is not that of the minister. The primary calling in the church is communal. It is the call which the church hears, and responds to, as a collective. Not everyone hears a personal call. Even those who do have a personal calling often experience the call more powerfully in some seasons of life than in others. But to find yourself drawn into the life of the church - of the community of Jesus - is to be called into a new existence with a new purpose and a new direction in life. This is the reason that the font is central here. It reminds us of our entry into this new life together. At the font we die to the old ways of life that promised life but led to death. Here we are born into a way of life in which we learn to bear one another’s suffering. Here we walk alongside the One who has heard the cries of misery and who has come to bring healing and liberation and reconciliation. He calls us to follow and invites us to the Lord’s Table where he gives his body and blood for the healing of the world. All who hunger for healing, all who hunger for wholeness, all who hunger for justice are called to the banquet table of God’s goodness. But it does not end with dinner. At the table Jesus sends those he has called as his agents, his ambassadors, his servants (ie: his ministers) in the world. Scattered in classrooms and in offices, in homes and in the streets, Jesus commissions us to be a people prepared to offer our lives and life-blood, our passion and energy, to those whose cry - in wailing ache and in whispered prayers - daily reaches the ears and heart of God.
The LORD has heard the cry and has come down. The LORD is here, at the table, broken and poured out in love for a world in need. The LORD calls, here and now ... calls you and calls me to participate in a great mission of compassion and of liberation. There is high voltage here. The bush is burning. The voice is calling. The LORD is near. This is holy ground.