August 30, 2020 - Sermon - Rev. Hamilton Throckmorton

This service was livestreamed due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Sermon Text

Scripture:  Exodus 3:1-15                             


     Sometimes, when I’m leading an encounter with a biblical passage, I employ a style called “lectio divina.” In lectio divina, a passage is read aloud, and then participants are invited to mention what it is they noticed as it was read. It’s a way of engaging the imagination, and of trusting our instincts. If you noticed something, the thinking goes, it’s important. Once, after reading a passage in such a class, my former, now retired, colleague Dan DeWeese said that the word he had noticed was “the.” Just “the.” And he wasn’t trying to be funny. There was something significant about that word in the passage we were reading, and his noticing of that word helped open up the meaning of the whole passage.

     If you and I were engaging in an encounter with today’s passage from Exodus, what would we say we had noticed? One of us might say they noticed the oddity of a bush burning but not being consumed. Another might say they were struck by Moses being asked to take off his shoes because the ground on which he was standing was holy ground. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone said they were struck by God’s mysterious answer to the question about what the divine name is: “I am who I am,” says God. Or, as it’s sometimes translated, “I will be who I will be.” Or even, “I will create what I will create.” No matter how you slice it, though, that name is, as Winston Churchill once said about Russia, “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” An inscrutable name, certainly. But at the same time, a name full of infinite possibility.

     At its heart, though, this is a story about vocation. Moses is here called by God. His life is about to be uprooted in order that he might do something wildly important for God. Bushes burning, and feet bared, and God named: all the vivid images of the story serve to convey to us that what God asks of Moses is of paramount importance. 

     As much as we might like to explain the goings-on of this tale in a rationalistic age such as ours, this story has no interest in making sense on a literal or scientific level. It has no desire to explain a bush catching fire but not burning up, or an angel speaking from the midst of the blaze. The story has an interest only in declaring that something marvelously grace-filled is happening. Every other attempt to explain the story so that it will “make sense” is a literary and spiritual dead end. The bush burns to make Moses turn and pay attention. The bush burns to shout, ‘Here is God.’ The bush burns to remind Moses—and us—that not a moment goes by that God is not in it, that not a square inch exists that doesn’t scream of God’s radiance, that not a second goes by that God is not imploring us to follow. The story is ultimately testimony to a luminous energy and Spirit that envelop us and beckon us to follow.

     And the question that comes to us all is: do you see it? Can you get out of your preoccupation with your tasks and your challenges and your moods and your worries and your social calculations and your resentments enough to see the bush burning right there where you are now—in your living room, at your kitchen table, on your patio or porch, in your car, at your work space? Can you see beneath the apparent ordinariness of your life to take in, in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ singing words, the “charged . . . grandeur of God”?

     In these COVID times, when so many of us go through our days much narrowed, with repetition and smaller horizons the order of the day, it can sometimes be challenging not to be dulled by rote habit and repetitive routine. And yet it’s possible. In Emma Donoghue’s riveting novel, Room, a woman is held captive in a small outbuilding by the man who has raped her. She has a child in that tiny space, and for years, she finds ways to keep her son’s life exciting. All he knows is that tiny space, and even hemmed in as he is, she helps him see himself as bathed in elegance and wonder. Even there, the bush burns.

     And so it does for us. A hawk flies overhead. A hot shower soothes our aching muscles. A pesto and tomato sandwich electrifies our taste buds. A friend calls when we’re lonely. A child or grandchild opens our eyes and hearts to the wonder of a dandelion or a rainbow. The bush burns.

     Some of you will remember a video I showed a number of months ago about Brother David Steindl-Rast. In his book called Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer, Brother David issues a clarion call to live from a core of gratitude, and to remember, every day, the simple wonders that have come to us. Nothing is truer than that all of life is a gift. The older I get, the more aware I am of how precious is each and every minute, and of what a gift is even the most ordinary of moments. We are not going to get any of this time back, so there is nothing more crucial than to give thanks for it all. This life is a shower of gifts. In a world that is so often smudged by callousness and profiteering and pettiness, notice the bush burning in your life, take off your shoes at the wonder of it all, and say thank you for gifts and blessings that simply never cease.

     I learned this week of what’s called the Divine Game of Pinzatski. Arthur, a retired math and physics professor, and his spouse Ellen Pinzatski came up with this game years ago while they were on a yearly camping trip. The idea was that one of them would point to any object they came across and the other one had to say what it taught them about God. So a fire might remind them of God’s purity and warmth. And moss might bring to mind God’s tenderness. If you’re COVID-cooped, you can do this with a partner or family member. If you’re alone, you can even play the game by yourself. Just point to something and let your imagination reveal to you something of the character of God. That hawk, that shower, that sandwich, that phone call, that precious child—it’s all part of God’s boundless grandeur. The bush is burning. Take off your shoes. It’s holy ground.

     Remember, though, this is a call story. Moses is called to something God has in store for him. Moses is beckoned, in a sense, to be God’s caretaker of beauty and rightness. If every inch of ground on which we stand is holy and grand, then no sort of callous disregard of any of it will suffice. “Moses, Moses,” says God. “Come” (Exodus 3:4, 10).

     We tend to think of “calling” as something that has to do with our jobs. People, we say, are called to be a lawyer or a doctor, an engineer or a teacher—and, we might add, a truck driver or a house cleaner. In the Bible, though, calling isn’t really about the jobs we work at. It’s about a task. Moses is called to a specific task for a particular time and place. He’s called to lead the people Israel from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the promised land. It’s a huge challenge, of course. But it’s not a job—Moses’ job, after all, is as a shepherd. His calling, though, is about something specific he’s appointed to do for God. 

     It’s worth noting that Moses tries to beg off this task he’s given. “Who am I?” he asks self-effacingly, afraid, perhaps, that he is not up to the task. He may be thinking he’d be just as happy staying home in relative peace, even an enslaved, captive peace. But God says, ‘No—come with me.’

     The key to the whole thing is that, whether Moses is cowed by the challenge in front of him, whether he is successful or not, the heart of the matter is that God promises to go with him. Moses never walks alone. He walks with God standing alongside him, empowered to do what he didn’t think was possible.

     This is God’s task, this journey toward freedom. God is the one who dreams it. God is the one who initiates it. But it does not, and cannot, happen without Moses leading his compatriots in the march toward the promised land. All true vocations are partnerships—between God and us. God gives us the task. We carry it out. And God goes with us. That’s vocation in a nutshell. God says ‘Do this to make the world a better place.’ We say “Here I am” (3:4). And then we go together.

     Maybe your vocation today is to bake brownies for the family down the street that just lost an income. Maybe your vocation is to sit with your child who is undone by a return to such a different way of schooling, and to put an arm around them, and to listen to them tell you about it. Maybe your vocation is to call five Federated people this week just to connect and let them know you’re thinking about them and holding them in prayer.

     And maybe your vocation, maybe the vocation of all of us, is to take in how deeply undone our Black and Brown sisters and brothers are by this culture in which we live, and to vow to do something different. When the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, WI, follows such a long line of shooting and killing of Black people, the fear and pain of so many people of color, and particularly Black people, becomes all-but-overwhelming. We who are white can say all we want, ‘Well, Blake had a knife and he was defying police orders.’ But no one walking away from an encounter deserves to be shot in the back seven times. In what world would that be what God wanted? In what twisted universe could we defend such behavior as what God is seeking?

     No, the endless shootings of Black people, along with the myriad cultural ways their possibilities are circumscribed and their opportunities are limited, prompt the vocation God is issuing to all of us: such atrocious behavior is heartless sacrilege. And it will not stop but by you and me responding to a sacred beckoning: no more, says God. No more jokes and innuendo and generalization. No more redlining and relentless suspicion and assumptions of guilt. No more economic disparity and job discrimination and facile rejoinders of “All lives matter” to the necessary and crucial truth of this moment, that “Black Lives Matter.”

     Black person after Black person this week has articulated what it’s like to live in this culture. So many of them live in constant fear. When LeBron James says, “We are scared as Black people in America”; when a Black colleague of my wife Mary tells her that, when he leaves his house in the morning, he’s never sure if he will return that evening; when Los Angeles Clippers NBA coach Doc Rivers weeps in a press conference the other evening and says, “It’s amazing to me why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back”—when Black person after Black person testifies to their feeling of being squeezed and dehumanized and devalued, this isn’t whining. This is the assertion of a truth that much of white America would rather not see. And if this situation doesn’t present us with holy vocation, then nothing does. No world that God wants could possibly acquiesce to such callous disregard of life and love and justice. Calling is plain: we are beckoned to be angels, messengers, incarnations of the holy love of God that promises never to let us or any of her children go.

     As with Moses, our calling is our task. It grows out of a sense of gratitude. And it reaches out to make a difference for the world. We can see that vocation lived out in any number of ways. A couple of weeks ago, a couple from Parma, Melanie and Tyler Tapajna got married. Because of the pandemic, though, they couldn’t have the big reception for 150 people that they had planned. Instead, on August 15, they had an intimate ceremony. And then, with the money they had planned to spend on a reception, the Tapajnas contacted Laura’s Home, a nonprofit that feeds and houses homeless women and children, and asked for permission to donate prepared food. Their only other request was that they be allowed to help serve the meal to residents on their wedding day. So, in their wedding dress and tuxedo, after the ceremony, they went to Laura’s Home, put on masks, gloves and hairnets, and helped serve the meal. Rich Trickel, CEO of Cleveland’s City Mission, said it was “an unbelievable act of generosity.” “I mean, who does that?” he asked.

     Who does that? Someone who hears a holy stirring deep inside and decides to go along with it, that’s who. The bush burned in that moment. It would have been entirely appropriate to doff shoes in that moment. For the ground on which they were standing was holy ground. The great “I am” had called. Vocation had been lived out. They and God had done their work together. May it always be so.