Moses does not have an easy life, at least from the little information we get from the biblical text. Sure, he grows up in the palace but only after being rescued – or we might call it kidnapped, as a child from his enslaved family. He is raised by the enslavers, as one of them. As an adult, he finally comes to identify with his own people and his rage is so intense he murders one of the oppressors – then has to run away to save his life.
All he wants to do is find a life that is safe and comfortable. He marries, settles into a routine, with a new family of his choosing. He keeps his head down and takes care of his father-in-law’s herd. He minds his own business, which now is sheep. He is finally living the good life.
Then, the text tells us, Moses leads his sheep into the wilderness. In the bible, things happen in the wilderness – strange things, hard things, God-type things. This time is no different – especially since he is at Horeb – “the mountain of God.”
Moses sees a bush that burns but doesn’t burn up. It not only doesn’t burn up, he hears a voice through it.
This voice, that says it is God, seems to know an awful lot about the situation of Moses’ people, the people he has left behind. The voice makes promises that seem too good to be true, promises that sound great. Promises that cannot happen on their own, promises that require something of Moses.
Moses isn’t looking for something to do, he has a life. He is finally comfortable – though he still periodically looks over his shoulder, hoping there are no palace guards sneaking up behind him.
And here comes God, talking to him, asking him, telling him, that there is more for him to do. That it is not enough for him to escape slavery, he needs to go get his people. It is not enough that he is called Moses, which means “taken out” (of the water.) Now he is being called to return to the place that scares him and “take out” all of his people – to freedom. God will lead all of them to live in a land of abundance, a land that will now be theirs.
I will never forget the time we read this text in seminary. A Native American woman in the class noted the problems with this text, how the land promised to Moses already had people living on it: the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. She helped us see that this formational text for Jews and Christians has permitted, even encouraged with God’s blessing, land to be violently stolen and cleared of the people who already lived there. She helped us understand that who is reading the text and their location makes a difference in how the text is understood. How the text sounds depends on our context. How the text is understood depends on who is reading it.
Moses could have ignored that burning bush. Shepherds before him may have seen it and ignored it. But on this day Moses sees the burning bush, that burns but does not destroy, the bush that speaks but has no mouth. Moses pays attention to the burning bush, steps back when it says step back, takes off his shoes when it calls the ground hallowed. Moses also asks for some kind of identification, asks for the name of this voice. The answer comes: I AM, the God who has been, who is now and will forever be.
As a child, this burning bush and the I AM baffled me. Now I understand metaphors; it might even be said I go overboard thinking everything is metaphor. ———————
It has been an exciting ten days for WalktheWalk2020. African American faith leaders called out white faith leaders to speak against white supremacy and the white leaders responded with this walk. I was grateful to walk the first day, 11 miles out of Charlottesville. When I got hot and tired I thought of the enslaved people who walked so many more miles to freedom, fleeing police, originally called slave catchers. Our predominantly white group had a police escort – even as we protested police killings.
On Friday morning, we walked the last 8 miles, from Alexandria into Washington DC, arriving at the Jefferson Memorial only to recite the same prayer we started with in Charlottesville, the prayer you heard in the video, asking for forgiveness and deliverance from racism. If I didn’t get it before, I got it that day: walking the walk to eradicate racism and white supremacy is not a journey of miles, it is journey that never ends – at least in my lifetime.
This group of predominately white people walking with signs that said Black Lives Matter were sort of a burning bush along Route 29 in Virginia. When people wondered who we were, we chanted and called out the names of those who have died by police violence. The group called ahead to a church along the highway to ask if we could park the support vehicles and have lunch in the parking lot. When the church did a little research and found out who the group was, the church said no. No matter, the group set up for lunch by the side of the road. This pilgrimage was a bush that burned but did not burn up, did not destroy.
WalktheWalk2020 was not the only group taking the long way to DC for the anniversary March on Washington. Over 100 people rode their bikes from New York to Washington DC, for the “Get your knee off our necks” rally. About 50 adults and children from Milwaukee, walked 750 miles to the gathering on the Mall. Along the way the group was yelled at, accused of shoplifting, arrested, blocked from gas stations and even shot at near Bedford, PA. Locally there was a Unity walk from Hyattsville to the border of DC, with some people walking all the way to the Mall. People from all over the country gathered, joined together to create a large burning bush that burns but does not destroy. Could you hear the voice calling out?
In these days, in this country, as the election approaches, the bush that burns but does not destroy seems to be growing, spreading: in city streets and in small towns, on murals and yard signs. The voice that calls from the burning bush is unpredictable, it can show up anywhere. The I AM calls out to those who will listen. This ‘burning bush that does not destroy’ points toward the problem of injustice, to inequity. This burning bush continues to call people to freedom.
Some people, even some who call themselves Christians, would rather ignore this burning bush. Or maybe they can’t hear the voice calling from it. Maybe they are not close enough to the wilderness to even encounter the burning bush.
Burning is not just a metaphor. In some places across the country, there is burning that does destroy, fires set out of anger by people or by nature. Not all that burns calls out, “I AM AS I AM, you are made in my image.” This burning that destroys is dangerous and scary.
Alarmingly, there are pockets of vocal, well-armed, people across the country who feel they cannot in good conscience ignore the burning bush; they are determined to put the fire out. They do not see the burning bush as a sign that points to the I AM in whose image we are all made. They see a capricious flame, liable to pop up anywhere. They feel the heat and it terrifies them. They do not understand the bush that burns but does not destroy. Passion without violence doesn’t seem to be part of their experience or vocabulary.
How this situation looks depends on where you stand in relationship to the burning bush, if you are even near the burning bush. Context matters. Who you stand with, who we stand next to, affects how we hear the I AM when it calls to us.
Moses tries to hide his face from the voice. He is afraid because he doesn’t know what or who this is. Once the voice identifies itself as the God of his ancestors, the God who knows all his ancestors by name, Moses finds his own voice. His own voice – is full of excuses for why he cannot do what the God Voice asks. But as the story is told, this I AM does not take ‘no’ for an answer. The I AM persists in the face of Moses’ excuses.
As much as Moses resists the voice from the Burning Bush, the call from the bush is just the beginning. It is holy ground but he can not stay there. It is the start of a generations-long, precarious and difficult journey toward freedom for him and the people he will finally claim as his own.
As a congregation that is predominantly white, we have to be mindful of how we read this story, how we internalize this story. We will have to watch attentively for the burning bush, listen carefully for the voice. Will we resist the voice? Make excuses as Moses does?
The freedom to which we are called will look different than the freedom for African Americans, Latinx, Indigenous, Asian peoples. It may be a freedom not to lead, a freedom to follow, a freedom to fail.
The burning bush calls to us from hallowed ground. Hearing that voice, I AM AS I AM, is not the end; it is only the beginning of a long road to freedom and fullness of life.