I love the story of Moses—it just draws me in. When we drop in this morning, Moses has fled Egypt after killing a man and taken refuge in Midian where he married a Midianite woman, Zipporah. Presumably he planned to spend the rest of his life in this comfortable place living a comfortable existence. But then one day, as we just heard, he is out tending his father-in-law’s sheep and God interrupts Moses’ plans in the form of a burning bush. At first Moses likely just glances, maybe wondering why just this one bush is on fire and everything around it is not. But when he takes a hard look he realizes that while the bush is actually on fire, it isn’t being burned up at all. Not a single twig is consumed. Once the bush has Moses’ full attention, it starts to speak! “Moses, Moses”. “Who me?” “Yes you. Take off your sandals”. Moses somewhat reluctantly complies realizing this is no ordinary bush but a mouthpiece for God. The bush, God goes on to tell Moses that he, Moses, is to leave this comfortable new life he has established, and go back to Egypt, go and free God’s people from their enslavement. Now Moses, realizing that a return to Egypt would likely end up with him in prison or worse, pushes back—looking for a promise that everything will be fine. But God won’t promise that. What God does promise is presence—I will be with you, is all the promise Moses gets. Now, I don’t know about you, but if I had just heard God speak from a burning bush, and from said bush ask me leave my home and risk everything, I would be much more interested in a promise of protection than a promise of presence.
What God was asking Moses to do was to leave his comfortable, settled life, take a risk, to change. Moses was quite happy where he was, but then God burst onto the scene in a fiery way and everything changed. Which seems to be God’s way, doesn’t it? Life is all settled—I am feeling quite comfortable where I am— no bushes chatting with me as I go to work—no fires that don’t burn— and then, bam, a bush (often cleverly disguised as a person or an unexpected event) calls my name as I walk past and I am asked to, compelled to, change. My first move is to do a Moses, to push back. Sometimes I succeed in staying put, and sometimes, through the grace of God, I move—I change. And even when the change seems like a good one, part of me doesn’t like it. I worry that I will be “burned up, consumed” by it.
We here at St. Peter’s are having an ongoing conversation about a significant change—about building a new building—one that will give us space to do what we do in deeper, richer ways, and that will allow us to do some new things too—allow the Spirit to ignite us in ways known and unknown. And that is exciting. And it is scary. Being part of a community that is changing is hard. Change is hard. And part of us wants to hang onto the way things are. Yet the truth is, that even in a new building, St. Peter’s will still be St. Peter’s. Much of what we all love will still be here. Those whom we love will still be here. But there will also be new things, new people. And so we worry if this particular fire of change will burn us up—consume us. Will we still be us? That is a perfectly understandable worry. And while I am always hesitant to make church related promises, I can promise that the essence of us, the essence of St. Peter’s will still be here, we will still be us. And I can promise you that whatever happens God will be with us, and that just as Moses found out, the promise of presence is actually a much better deal than the promise of protection. The urge for protection usually leads to a closed in hunkered down stance—it is a dead end. Presence gives us the strength and courage to change, to lean into life. Presence gives us confidence, the confidence that comes from knowing we are not alone—that the pillar of fire is leading us on and will not leave us to stumble on in the dark. Presence gives us the confidence that God’s particular fire, just as with the burning bush, will not destroy us —but will bring new life and new growth. And as much as we might be wary of the idea of God’s fire, one of those curious Biblical truths is that throughout holy Scripture, fire is one of the most reliable sign of the presence of God—the bush that burns but is not consumed, the pillar leading the people Israel, the fire enveloping the mountain top when Moses speaks with God and receives the 10 Commandments, the presence of God sustaining Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego thought the fiery furnace.
I am acutely aware that fires can be painful, destructive, and deadly, especially as we watch with horror the disastrous fires occurring in Northern California. But what Moses saw, what God seeks to do in us is different. It is fire that wants to be among us, within us, that wants to speak to us, guide us, instruct us, save us. It is the fire of a potter who wants to make useful vessels out of damp clay or of a jeweler who wants to refine pure gold from rough ore. It is the fire of transformative love— a love that melds and changes us without consuming us, a love that seeks to light us on fire so that we, individually and collectively as the church become beacons of God in this hurting world, burning bushes scattered about the landscape through which God still speaks and acts. I have a sneaky feeling that is exactly what God was up to with Moses. That perhaps the point was not to get Moses to go and do a task, but rather the points was that Moses himself would become the vehicle through which God spoke—a burning bush in human form— lit up from within, aflame with the holy presence, on fire, but not consumed. And what if you and I, the members of St. Peter’s are called to be that too? Individual fires that light up in the world, speak a word from God to the world, as we go about our daily lives and, when we come together as church, what if God’s dream is that we become one huge bonfire that lights up the neighborhood, the city and beyond?
There is an old story about a saint named Abbott Joseph, one of the spiritual masters of the 4th century who were known as the desert fathers and mothers. Abbot Joseph was in charge of a large community of monks living in the desert, and his main job was to instruct the young monks who came to him for spiritual guidance. One day one of those monks came to see him. He told Abbott Joseph that he was quite comfortable with his routine, with his life—he kept his rule, his fast, prayer, meditation, and contemplative silence—and he even tried hard to cleanse his heart of thoughts. Life was about as good as its gets for a young monk. Yet he had a nagging sense that God might be asking a little more of him, though he hadn’t much of a clue what that might be. And he wasn’t quite sure he really wanted an answer. But with some trepidation he asked Abbott Joseph, “What more should I do?” Abbott Joseph looked at him for a long moment, then rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became ten lamps of fire. He said, “Why not be totally changed into fire?” Why not?