Bushes and Crosses

The Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Ark.
August 28, 2011
Proper 17, Year A, Track 1

Exodus 3:1-15Moses 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.”

Matthew 16:21-28Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

***

Some have said that the real miracle of Moses and the burning bush is that Moses stopped to look in the first place. He might have been too busy to notice. Or too much in a hurry to stop. Instead, he turned aside from whatever he might have been preoccupied with so he could look more deeply at something odd – a bush that appeared to be on fire but not consumed. Moses paused for a moment. The scripture says, “When the LORD saw that (Moses) had turned aside, God called to him out of the bush…”

Poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning writes, “Earth’s crammed with heaven, / And every common bush afire with God: / But only he who sees, takes off his shoes, / The rest sit round it, and pluck blackberries …”

“Earth’s crammed with heaven.” You never know when you might be surprised by revelation. All of creation is infused with divine life. God is trying to get our attention. Can we be alert, awake enough to see?

I’ve started reading the newly published memoir written by our associate priest Lynne Spellman – it’s a great book, by the way – and she tells of a wonderfully odd burning-bush moment. She was alone in her basement garage, lifting weights. “Not the most likely time for an experience of God,” she says. But it was a time of solitude. She writes this: “Suddenly it seemed to me that, beyond my seeing, something Holy was present. That night I found myself unexpectedly, inexplicably, in the presence of love, intense love, and I was sure that it was not my love.”
Last weekend Fred Burnham was with us talking about the terrifying moment when he and a circle of friends were certain that they were going to die, surrounded by the dust and percussion of the World Trade Center falling just a few feet away from them. Fred then experienced what he called a profound “circle of love,” casting out all fear, and bonding them together in an eternal sense of belongingness. He sensed an overwhelming divine presence, infinitely loving, connecting him to all humanity, to all creation. He says he is spending the rest of his life living to understand that experience and to live out of its reality. That’s a burning bush experience, isn’t it?

***

I think all of us have burning bush experiences. They are rarely as dramatic as what happened to Fred Burnham. More often they are as common as blackberries and lifting weights. There are times when Something More breaks through our consciousness, and if we are wise, we will stop, pay attention, and be changed.

After Moses paused to take off his shoes, he experienced a knowing and a call. His “knowing” was an encounter with mystery. He was given a partial understanding of God – God’s Name: I AM Who I AM. But that Name only points to an indefinable mystery of Being that we can never claim to define, and certainly can never control. Beware of people who think they understand God.

Then the knowable but indefinable God sent Moses on a mission. Moses was to return to Egypt to help free God’s people. In essence, he was told to organize a labor movement. And he was to do that in the place from which he had fled earlier under an indictment for murder.

That’s a tough call. At that point in his life, things were going well in the desert for Moses. He worked for his wealthy father-in-law, had a loving wife and family. Stable, secure, unthreatened. After the burning-bush, Moses left all of that comfort and went on a wild, roller-coaster ride – challenging Pharaoh, negotiating the wilderness, leading a rebellious people, and facing his own temper. If he were to experience peace after that day of the burning bush, it was to be a different kind of peace. In Christian language, we would say Moses picked up his cross and carried it.

***

I think this sort of thing happens a lot. God catches our attention through something wonderful or glorious or mysterious, and our consciousness is opened. Then God calls us to some form of service that has an aspect of carrying the cross in it.

Lynne’s book is about her cross-carrying journey of self-discovery that included opening a door which “stored a grief too great to grieve.” Fred left an institution that he had built into international acclaim, letting it slip into something less, maybe even nothing, while he moved into a new place of reflection on the interconnectedness of being.

***

So often, our burning bushes and our crosses are related.

I think when we experience the burning-bush of the divine, we are often led into the wilderness, like Moses, or we find our cross to carry, like Christ.

I also think the relationship goes in the other direction. I think that it is our crosses that often lead us into enlightenment. I have known people who have been stuck in dark places who find that it is in the dark that they discover their deepest meaning and direction.
Spiritual writer Thomas Moore is “convinced that depression is not a biological event but always a meaningful one.” He says this about depression:

The soul presents itself in a variety of colors, including all the shades of blue, gray, and black. To care for the soul, we must observe the full range of all its colorings, and resist the temptation to approve only of white, red, and orange – the brilliant colors…. Some feelings and thoughts seem to emerge only in a dark mood. Suppress the mood, and you will suppress those ideas and reflection.… Melancholy gives the soul an opportunity to express a side of its nature that is as valid as any other, but is hidden out of our distaste for its darkness and bitterness.”

When Jesus told the disciples of the path of suffering that lay ahead for him, Peter rebuked Jesus. Peter and the other disciples wanted only the pretty colors of glory and of kingdoms. “Get behind me, Satan,” Jesus replied. Sometimes it is only through the dark night that we can get to a new dawn.

A friend of mine quit his job to care for his father 24-7, living at home with Alzheimer’s. I’ve seen the research. I know that what he did is one of the most difficult and depressing things anyone can do. After his dad’s death, my friend told me staying home and caring for his dad had been the most important action of his life. He said to me, smiling radiantly, “I’ve learned two things. (1) I’m not afraid to die anymore, and (2) I’m not afraid of Alzheimer’s. By the time I know I have it, I won’t care.” I can tell you, that was of utmost meaning to him.

***

Our attention can be grasped by either the burning bush or the cross – the brilliance or the darkness.

Whenever we experience a burning bush – a sense of blessing or presence – we might ask ourselves how that might be connected with a calling to carry a cross.

Whenever we experience a cross – a burden or calling that costs us dearly – we might ask ourselves how that might be connected with God’s radiant, divine presence.

Both the cross and the bush do similar things. They both take us out of ourselves, out of our self-centered tendencies toward narcissism. Our burning bushes overwhelm us with the great I AM. Our crosses overwhelm us with that which is greater than we can control.

Both the cross and the bush are encounters that take us outside of our narcissism into community. The bush invites us into the mysterious community of the Holy Trinity, the mysterious interrelatedness of the community of God. The cross calls us to give our life away to the mystery of our greater interrelationships with others. Basically, both bush and cross are about loving and being loved.

***

At various times in our life we find ourselves at one end of this continuum or another. When we are filled with light, with intimations of immortalities, we might look for a cross we are called to carry. When we are suffering or stuck in a place of darkness or threat, we might look for the light of new birth that God is accomplishing in us and through us.

I think our burning bushes and our crosses are related.

Where are you on that continuum? What radiance or darkness does God invite you to encounter? Your feet are on holy ground. There are bushes burning everywhere. There are crosses to be carried everywhere. God and God’s love are in it all.