Meadowbrook Congregational Church
Rev. Art Ritter
August 30, 2020
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”
But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.” But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’“ God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.
History was made this week when a baseball card, specifically a Mike Trout autographed rookie card, sold for a record-setting 3.93 million dollars. The card, the only one of its kind produced, and in mint condition, was issued in 2009. The seller of the card originally purchased it in 2018 for $400,000.
When I was a child I collected baseball cards. I had my personal collection inside of some old cigar boxes that were probably worth as much as the baseball cards themselves. Most of my cards were those collected from the back of cereal boxes. I didn’t have many of the fancy ones from the bubble gum packs. My parents weren’t too keen on letting us chew bubble gum so the only Topps baseball cards I got was when I sneaked down to the dime store after piano lessons and brought a pack with the 15 cents I was saving. Once I moved away from home for college, I don’t know what happened to my baseball cards. I think my mother disposed of them quietly before I knew there were missing. Perhaps I had something of value there although I tend to doubt it. Certainly I had nothing as sacred as a Mike Trout autographed rookie card.
I read something this week from a man who used to collect baseball cards with his brothers. They would play games with the cards, dividing them up into teams and building their own all-star squads. Like many of us they would take them to school and trade for better players. The man’s older brother was a big collector and had a special group of cards that he set aside, players that he really liked or players that he judged to be future stars. He told his younger brother that he could play with any of his cards but he must not touch these special cards. One day the younger brother decided to surprise his brother by putting all of the special cards into a three ring binder. He carefully trimmed the cards so they would fit evenly and then glued the backs of the card to some notebook paper with holes in the side. He then proudly presented the binder as a gift to his brother. Needless to say, the older brother was furious. Not knowing the value of the cards, his little brother had destroyed his holy items. The man telling the story particularly remembers how good the Hank Aaron rookie card looked glue to the cheap notebook paper. It is currently selling on Ebay for over $100,000.
I lived in Salt Lake City UT for nine years. I remember when Laura and I visited Salt Lake about three years before we moved there. We couldn’t take our eyes off those majestic Wasatch mountains. The gray and purple color contrasted with the blue of the sky and actually left you breathless. Then we moved to the Salt Lake area. Every day I was able to view the beautiful Wasatch peaks right outside my living room window. Every day I was able to almost reach out and touch those mountains as I drove Amelia to school and myself to work. Yet after about a month of living there, those beautiful mountains almost blended into the background of the rest of life. They became routine instead of special. They became ordinary instead of holy. I took them for granted instead of pausing to notice their beauty. Several years ago when Laura and I returned to Salt Lake City for the National Association’s annual meeting and conference, the first words out of mouths were, “I had forgotten how beautiful this place is! Just look at those mountains!” Once again we couldn’t take our eyes off the Wasatch and were genuinely moved by their presence on the east side of the valley.
Sometimes we fail to see the beauty, the sacredness, or the importance in things. Our daily routine dulls our senses as to our blessings. Our assumptions about power overlook things small or quiet. Our belief that God might be working in another place or at another time or in another person can blind us to the opportunity we have to respond to God’s call in this very moment.
This morning’s Scripture lesson is the call of Moses from the book of Exodus. I am planning on having a Zoom study on Exodus beginning in the month of September so hopefully this morning’s sermon is a preview of coming attractions. Having fled from Pharaoh after killing an abusive Egyptian overlord, Moses’ life had been completely changed. He had been transformed from an adopted prince of Egypt to a shepherd tending his father-in-law’s flock in the faraway Midian desert.
` Now this wasn’t just an ordinary out of the way place. The first verse of our reading this morning says, “He led his flock beyond the wilderness.” Beyond the wilderness. It doesn’t get any further away from important than that. Looking for pasture in that beyond the wilderness place, Moses inadvertently camped at the foot of Mount Horeb, the mountain of God, a place that would figure prominently in the history of God’s people. Moses didn’t have a clue about what a special place he had chosen to lay his head, until he saw that curious sight. A bush was on fire and it was not consumed. It just kept burning and burning. Our reading says that “the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the bush.” But Moses didn’t see the angel. All he saw was the burning bush. At first, it didn’t appear that Moses was particularly awestruck. He was merely curious. “I must turn aside and look at this great sight and see why the bush is not burned up.”
Calvin Seminary’s Stan Mast writes, “That is how this epic theophany began- with a curious sight. It is fascinating and telling how often the story makes reference to seeing. Maybe after all those years of invisibility, God needed to be seen to be believed….Using the curious sight to gain Moses’ attention, God now has something to say, something that will change Moses’ life and the history of the world.”
God and Moses then engaged in a conversation. God called Moses by name. God identified the moment as holy and sacred. God identified Godself. And then God got down to business. God was ready to act, to deliver God’s people from their bondage in Egypt. But God wasn’t going to do this alone. God was going to act through a mere mortal, a flawed one at that. This would be God’s way of working in history. Sure, we have a few stories in our sacred text where God flashes unrelenting divine power. But here God began this pattern of using human beings, usually humans who aren’t very excited about their role in divine projects. Our God is a God who keeps promises but who keep those promises by working with and through the members of the community of the faithful.
Moses was minding his own business. Moses was in a place so far away from the holy that it was described as beyond the wilderness. Perhaps Moses thought he had everything in his life planned out for a man on the run, a man wanted by the powers that be. Yet in that distant and perhaps all too familiar place, something changed. God appeared. God spoke. God could be seen. God talked and reached out to Moses in such a way that his life and the life of his people would never be the same. Ordinary experience became holy ground.
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman sadly suggests that our modern age is a place where we can live with the “heresy of the uncalled life.” In his words, an uncalled life is a life that does not recognize the holy ground on which it is lived. An uncalled life is an autonomous existence in which there is not intrusion, no disruption or refinement, no surprise appearance or utterance of the Holy.
Could it be that until the current pandemic, there were no bushes on fire for us? Could it be that we were so immersed into our normal lives and routine, living today as if tomorrow will be the same that we never noticed the presence of the divine? Could it be that until our experience was interrupted by COVID 19, we seldom if ever thought about what was truly important, sacred, or holy? We were so busy doing all things in that place beyond the wilderness that we failed to notice the mountain of God that stood right us. I believe that in the midst of pandemic, our senses are more attune to the idea that we stand on holy ground. Today we are more likely to see burning bushes and hear the voice of God that speaks to us.
In her book, An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor writes that reverence is one of the essential moves a human being must learn to make if they want to live a life of wisdom. She says “Reverence is the recognition of something greater than the self-something that is beyond human creation or control, that transcends human understanding….Reverence stands in awe of something- something that dwarfs the self, that allows human beings to sense the full extent of our limits- so that we can begin to see one another more reverently as well.”
Reverence is the awareness of holy ground. The story of Moses teaches us that reverence requires a willingness to pay attention to small things, to live mindfully through the ordinary, to participate fully even in insignificant things. Reverence means a willingness to be open to detours and side trips. What made Moses reverent was his willingness to turn aside. Whatever else he was supposed to be doing and wherever else he was supposed to be going could wait. Moses recognized the moment, understood he was standing on holy ground, and saw a revelation of the divine in the midst of his ordinary life. He took off his shoes and listened to what God had to say.