25 October 2011

Remaing Open

Exodus 3: 1-15

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost/ 23rd October 2011

There are moments in our lives when we know everything is about to change; a moment that demarcates the leaving behind of former times, former ways, and embracing something new, a moment of before and after. Moments when you realize that from hereafter everything will be different. There are moments of extraordinary insight and revelation that transform us.  The biblical witness is unabashedly clear that such moments do occur, often.  The Church’s witness has always been that such moments can occur, do occur to us, occur all around us.  Although in our skeptical day perhaps the Church’s witness is somewhat ambiguous on this point. Maybe this is one of the reasons why we’re declining in the West.  Have we lost confidence that an encounter with the Holy is possible any more?  Are we even open to the prospect that an encounter with the Holy is possible?

            To be honest, it’s easy to simply go about our lives believing that we really don’t need an encounter with the Holy.  Sure, we can believe in God, think of God “up there” or somewhere, ordering our days, keeping watch, but then just go on about our lives without really giving thought to something larger than ourselves. We can just go about our business, following our career paths, raising our children, pursuing happiness, our American pastime. We can invoke God now and again, go to worship now and again, but then carry on as if God wasn’t really involved in our lives or really cares.

            This is how I image Moses managing Jethro’s flock.  By this point Moses has already led a full life.  Here he’s kind of hiding away from all that took place in Egypt.  The former Egyptian prince is now a shepherd, living out in the country, leading a quiet of life of anonymity, attending to work and family. He sets out for the wilderness with the sheep to Horeb, the mountain of God.  It was there, minding his own business, going about his life when Yahweh’s messenger appears to him in a flame of fire from inside a bush.  The bush, as we know was burning yet not consumed. That should have been the first tip-off that something odd was up, something out of the ordinary.  Could he believe his eyes?  Would he?

            Push the “Pause” button here.  You probably have an image of all of this playing out in your head.  Maybe you’re watching this scene unfold in a movie, maybe “The Ten Commandments.”  Push pause.  Stop and consider.  So much hinges on what Moses will do in that moment. We know what he does, but put yourself in his position for moment.  Imagine yourself up there on Mt. Horeb with the sheep, probably tired, hungry, cold, bored, in the deafening silence, maybe scared, perhaps slowly losing your grip on reality with no one to talk to except the sheep–maybe the sheep start to answer you back.  Then you see it– a bush containing a flame, a large flame, large enough to consume the bush, and yet the bush isn’t burning. That would be unsettling. Any sense of normalcy starts to breakdown.  You’re pushed to the edge.  You have several options here.  First, you can ignore it altogether.  You could just look the other way.  Or, two, you can acknowledge that, yes, something bizarre is happening there, but then choose to deny it, mind your own business, willfully ignore it, and walk away from it in the opposite direction.  Or, you could decide to be brave, embrace the mystery, turn toward it, satisfy your curiosity.

            Now hit the “Play” button.  We know that’s exactly what Moses did.  Curious about this strange sight Moses “turned aside”–with no sense of what he’s about to get himself mixed up in, he moves toward the bush. With this turn, in the split second of this decision, nothing will be the same again for him.  That’s the moment that marks before and after in his life, the end of his former life and the beginning of a new life, for what he was about to experience and the call he’s about to receive will transform his life and the life of the world for centuries to come.  Once he turns there’s no turning back, no reversal.  It all hinges on that moment when Moses “turned aside.”  Because, the text says, when Yahweh, watching what Moses will do – off the wings, as if Yahweh isn’t sure what will happen next – once Yahweh sees Moses turning toward the bush, then God calls out to him,  “Moses, Moses!”  Moses answers, “Here I am.”  God replies to Moses, “Come no closer here. Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place you are standing on is holy ground.”  And God said, “I am the God of your father, the God Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid face, for he was afraid to look upon the holiness of God.

            The epiphany, the burning bush, yields what scholars call a theophany, an appearance of God, an encounter with the Holy that will forever change our awareness of God and shape the patterns of history.  Yahweh commissions Moses to go back to the place of death, to Egypt; Yahweh calls him to face his past in order to liberate the Israelites – and in the process liberate himself.  This is what God loves to do. The way out, the exodus, is always through, through the pain, through the past, through suffering and death, and not by avoiding the pain and the past, suffering and death.  Full of doubt and excuses Moses resists.  He doesn’t even know much about this God; Moses wants to know by what authority he will go back to Egypt.  That’s when we’re given the name, given a glimpse into the very being of God, a name that itself is connected with Being – “I AM.”   In Hebrew: “’Ehyeh-‘Asher-‘Ehyeh.”  I-Am-Who-I-Am, or, in other words, I-Will-Be-Who-I-Will-Be.

            We can’t underestimate the power and significance of both epiphany and theophany here.  By turning aside Moses opened himself up to the calling of God.  Moses now “understands that he…has been summoned to step out of his everyday routine and see his life as part of a larger destiny, unfolding beyond his personal purposes.”  Jewish theologian Michael Fishbane writes, “Now all is mission, consumed by the consciousness of being sent.” And sent by a God whose name is not nameable, a God who can’t be controlled or defined or managed or domesticated, I Will Be Whoever I Will Be.  God as the Wholly Other. A “no nameable name is given to this primordial divine manifestation,” Fishbane claims.  “Out of the depths the Divine breaks into human consciousness, but it cannot be fixed or formulated; it can only be attested to as a compelling presence, come to be as it will be, again and again, and changing a person’s life.” Fishbane’s comments on this text are sublime and important:  “The connection of this name with the fiery configuration that addressed Moses was momentary; but the truth he experienced went beyond this particular occurrence.  From the divine side [of this experience], God “shall be” as God shall be, we are told, and one can say nothing further about it.  Whereas from the human side, a person must simply be attentive to the vastness all around,…; and [the vastness] may be experienced with such acuity as to seem supernatural to one’s normal sensibility.”[1]

            What’s the point here?  The vastness of God is all around us. Moses’ encounter calls us to be ever attentive to the Divine voice in our lives, the vastness in which we live.  If we exist in the vastness of God, then our daily lives, too, are participating in God’s being.  “…for in every feature of the world something of the unseeable face of God may be perceived, and something of the all-unsayable name of God may be named.”[2]  To know this requires that we, like Moses, remain open.  This does not mean we have the power to control God, but in order for us to experience God’s presence, hear God’s call in our lives, we need to be open with a kind of holy curiosity.  We are asked to live with the possibility that any bush can become a burning bush summoning us forth toward a new destiny, calling us into a larger world of God’s grace.  God’s Being is “being” all the time around us.  God’s Being envelopes us, indeed our being – the very fact that we have being – is participating in God’s being and if this should stop we would stop.  We are called to be open to it, become ever more attentive to it, become aware of it, be receptive to the many epiphanies and theophanies that can and do occur around us all the time. 

            This is really what Nanette Sawyer is getting at in her discussion of hospitality that we’ve been talking about as a congregation recently.  This might sound like a weird segue, but it isn’t.   Hospitality really means being open.  It consists of three aspects, she claims, receptivity, reverence, and generosity.  When all three are at play we are being hospitable. We often associate hospitality with the way we treat a stranger or guest in our home or in church.  Sawyer shows that receptivity, reverence, generosity can also to be directed toward our neighbor, the one beside you.  And we are called to be hospitable toward ourselves.  But she makes the critically important point that hospitality really begins when we are receptive of and extend reverence and generosity toward God.[3]  When Moses turned aside he was being receptive to what God was about to show him.  He was offering a kind of hospitality toward God, as well as reverence (when he took of his shoes and covered his face), and generosity (when he responded with his life to God’s call).

            Receptivity is another way of remaining open.  And, boy, do we have struggles with this.  Last week I was on a five-day retreat in West Virginia with the Franciscan Richard Rohr.  Many times he talked about experiencing the presence of God.  While we can’t say when God is going to show up, there are things we can do to prepare ourselves for the possibility.  He said when the mind is open and the heart is open and when our bodies are open, when all three are open, we become most receptive to and open to the presence of God. Meditate on this a bit and you’ll soon discover, as I did, just how much of our minds, hearts, and bodies are not open, but blocked, shut down, closed off, fearful, hurtful, full of pain, acting and thinking with an over-protectiveness caused by fear that walls-off the world and God.  Our suspicious, skeptical, negative, critical default modes are used to protect us from being hurt further.  I wonder how much we miss of life, miss of God, because we’re not open? 

            Being open is a way of saying, “Yes.”  Being receptive is a way of saying, “Yes.”  Being closed likes to say, “No.” When Moses turned aside, he said, “Yes.” Being receptive to our neighbor, to the stranger, to ourselves, to God are all ways we say, “Yes!” Yes–I acknowledge your presence, I recognize you, I honor you, I will draw close to you.  I will risk getting to know you with a holy curiosity, even if it means that such an encounter could dismantle my worldview, question my values, unsettle my faith, and change the purpose and destiny of my life. 

            Will we risk the possibility of being changed?  Will we take the risk and be receptive to God’s voice?  Will we be open, can we remain open long enough to receive a summons, hear a message, receive a word, an insight, a calling that just might possibly change our lives?  Are we willing to be transformed?

            Perhaps we can risk being open to God, can say “Yes” to God’s presence in our lives when we remember that God has already received us, God has already opened God’s life to every single one of us, that God has already said to every one of us, “Yes!”, particularly through God’s great “Yes” in Jesus Christ.  As Paul said, “…in [Christ] it is always ‘Yes.’  For in Christ every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes.’  For this reason it is through him that we can say ‘Amen,’”–which can be translated, “Yes”–“to the glory of God” (2 Cor. 1:19b-20).

[1] Michael Fishbane, Sacred Attunement:  A Jewish Theology (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2008), 53-54.
[2] Fishbane, 54.
[3] Nanette Sawyer, Hospitality–The Sacred Art:  Discovering the Hidden Spiritual Power of Invitation and Welcome (Skylight Paths Publishing, 2007).

Image:  Byzantine mosaic, St. Catherine's Monastery, Sinai (Egypt).

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