Texts from the Common English Version of the Bible
Exodus 3:1-15; Matthew 16:21-28
“Moses saw that the bush was on fire, but it was not burning up.” I’m sure many of us would find it hard to imagine a bush that is on fire but isn’t being destroyed. So is it any wonder that Moses…who had thought he was simply moving his father-in-law’s flock to another area to graze…would be drawn to such a curious sight? We can also imagine how unnerving it must have been for Moses to hear, from this fiery bush, God calling him by name. And perhaps we can sense the power of this moment when God, in the manifestation of this flaming bush, tells Moses not to come any closer. “Take off your sandals—the ground where you are standing is holy.” Moses is in the presence of a power beyond all powers and is about to receive the charge to confront an earthly power and take a stand on behalf of his oppressed Israelites in Egypt.
Let’s remember that Moses was simply tending sheep and goats. According to the mythology, he was a Hebrew baby boy who was rescued by the Egyptian king’s daughter. He was also supposedly a stutterer, and he had run away after killing an Egyptian who he saw abusing his fellow Israelites. In other words, Moses was not some perfect and polished figure. Now, he’s being tapped to go beyond himself to do extraordinary and mighty works of justice.
In the reading we had from today’s Gospel, Jesus talks of the trials he is about to face as he heads toward Jerusalem. He rebukes Peter for trying to put up a fight over Jesus’ destiny. And he reminds Peter, and all the others with him: “If any of you want to be my followers, you must forget about yourself. You must take up your cross and follow me.” Forget yourself, take up your cross, follow me. Those are words that can really leave a lump in the throat.
Three images: a burning bush, sacred ground, the cross.
In his book, “The Bush Was Blazing But Not Consumed,” the Rev. Eric Law uses the burning bush image from Exodus as his jumping off point to talk about how faith communities can build multicultural relations within their churches. He notes that a bush that’s on fire ought to be disintegrating into ashes. That’s what happens when fire meets leaves and branches, right? The fact that this bush can be on fire and NOT be destroyed is Law’s metaphor for God amid heated tensions, or flaming rage and anger. Think about it: God is showing up in the form of this burning bush because God has heard the cry of the Israelites. They are oppressed. They are under the thumb of the Egyptians. Their passions are all aflame and God is in that heat but God is not destroyed. Instead, this fire has consecrated the ground on which Moses is standing.
This burning has become, as Law describes it, a holy fire and an example of how people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds can have passions and experiences that can be blazing, but through commitment to a listening process, faith communities can become places where multiculturalism thrives. If, however, a community doesn’t engage in the honest and sometimes difficult work of a true listening process, the danger is that it will stoke those same burning embers of the past into an unholy fire that will not only burn the bush but will take the whole house down with it as well. Since the Rev. Law works as a consultant on multiculturalism, he has seen examples of when a faith community gets it right…and has also witnessed those who get it wrong. Often, the ones that fail are the ones that weren’t really invested in listening to anyone but themselves and whatever was their predominant racial and ethnic outlook.
We can take that example beyond faith communities…and even beyond the continued difficulties that we face in our country on race and ethnicity. We seem to be isolating ourselves from each other based on whatever differences we have or that we perceive to have. We seek out media sources that confirm our worldview. We stop talking to each other. We unfriend each other on Facebook. We retreat to our corners and refuse to engage with anyone we don’t like. This probably feels safer.
But it really isn’t. Because whether we like it or not, that same burning bush is steadily glowing and alight and is consecrating the ground upon which we stand even today. Especially for those who feel strongly that stewardship of the earth is important, we are constantly reminded that the same God who told Moses to stand on sacred ground and hear the command to go speak truth to power on behalf of the people is always reminding us that we must do the same. And this fire in the bush is also the fire in the belly that will give us the power to speak and to know that we, too, are on sacred ground when we stand for justice for the earth and all that inherit this planet.
So what about the cross? Well, it is all fine and dandy to feel that flaming righteousness as we stand for justice, peace, equality and fairness for all people. That makes for great bumper stickers and talking points. But it also is liable to meet with resistance, push back, or worse violence. It’s a whole lot safer to “like” a rally or march event on Facebook than to actually attend it. We can say “Black Lives Matter” but will we actually talk to people in positions of authority about why we believe it’s important to listen to the pleas of black people about why they don’t think they matter, and then join with our brothers and sisters in changing the culture to make them true equals? Again saying it is one thing, but when Jesus tells Peter and the disciples that they must “forget about yourself” and “take up your cross and follow me,” he is being just as fiery as that burning bush and is telling them…and us so many centuries later…that if we, who stand on this sacred ground, want to be true to his mission of love and justice, we must put our trust in God and go sometimes to those places we do not want to go. We must engage in those issues and with those people whom we would just assume avoid. It is not enough simply to stand on the sacred ground and hear the call to action. We must be ready to keep going forward and actually act on behalf of justice for others and not just ourselves. May we be ready.