May 21- sermon- Betsy Wooster

Sermon Text...


May 21, 2023 Sermon                    Fire on the Mountain                         Rev. Betsy Wooster



In our continuation of the theme of Transformative encounters in the Bible, today we hear the story of God appearing to Moses in the center of a burning/non burning bush. Let’s listen to the story from the book of Exodus, chapter 3, verses 1-7a & 9-14:


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. 2There 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.  3

Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.”  4 When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And Moses said, “Here I am.” 

5 Then God said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” 

6 God 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.


7a Then the LORD said,

9 The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them.  10 So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”

11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”  12 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.” 

13 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?”  14 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.’”


Let us pray:

God of bright fire and flame, we are surprised by awe when you show yourself to us. We are rendered almost numb when your glory enfolds us. Sometimes it is hard to believe that you are speaking to us, as we often feel unprepared to do your bidding. But when we stay in the moment long enough to pay attention, to talk with you, it is our awe, our experience of reverence, that changes us from being afraid to being empowered…give us the courage to take off our sandals, and look at the ground under our feet. Amen.




Transformational experiences in our lives tend to happen when something appears to us unbidden. Even if we are searching for something new, something that might refresh our lives, the actual experiences of transformation often happen when we least expect them, because something confronts us that we hadn’t imagined.

How did Moses get on that mountain, where he encountered God? Let’s back up. Moses was born in Egypt at a dangerous time for the Hebrew people. The Egyptians feared the Hebrew people were growing too numerous, and that they could become dangerous to Egypt, and so they enslaved and oppressed them.


And eventually, as the Hebrew people continued to multiply, Pharoah ordered the Hebrew mid-wives to kill any newborn baby boy. But, thanks be to God, the mid-wives didn’t go along with it, telling Pharoah that “all the newborn baby boys were born before we could even get there!”

You may remember the story of baby Moses being placed in a basket on the Nile River by his Hebrew mother, in an attempt to save him from being killed by the Egyptians. It turns out that while his big sister is looking on, he is found in the river by Pharoah’s daughter, who takes pity on the baby and asks the sister, (not knowing who she is) to find a Hebrew woman to be the child’s wetnurse.


And here’s the great twist in this story, the sister goes and gets her mother, and brings her to the child. And so, it is Moses’ own mother who nurses and cares for him for years to come. As promised, years later she takes him back to Pharoah’s daughter, who then takes the boy as her own and Moses, now presumed to be Egyptian, grew into manhood in Pharoah’s family.

The Hebrew people were by now fully enslaved by Pharoah. One day, when Moses saw a Hebrew worker being abused by an Egyptian slave master, he intervened and killed the Egyptian. Frightened for his own life, he escaped Egypt and went to Midian, where he eventually married Zipporah, the daughter of the priest of Midian. And that’s how Moses got to Mount Horeb.


He had settled in a place away from the danger and oppression in Egypt. He was tending to the flock of his father-in-law and took them out to the mountain to graze. Life must have seemed pretty good for Moses. Sometimes, a transformational encounter will happen when life has become stable and comfortable.


This is where we catch up with today’s story, as Moses encounters not only a fire blazing in the bush that doesn’t actually burn up the bush, he encounters the voice of God calling his name from the fire. Whew…. we’ve gone from the comfortable to the astonishing.


“Moses, Moses!” God calls. Somehow, Moses had the presence of mind to reply, “here I am!” It’s almost like your mother calling your name when you’ve run into the woods without telling her, and feeling caught red-handed you call out, “here I am.’ Moses was right to be skeptical, because now God really gets on a roll. 


“Come no closer. Take off your sandals. Look at the holy ground beneath your feet. I am the God of your father and of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” God says to Moses. Now in the silence, Moses hides his face, a reflection of his understanding that one could not look on God’s face and live.  So, things have really taken a turn since Moses headed out that morning to tend the flock.

Moses has encountered God directly, finding himself in a divine intervention so unexpected that he had to shield his eyes to survive it. One can only imagine that Moses must have gone from being incredulous, to alarmed at what he heard next from God. “I have heard misery and cries of my people in Egypt, God tells him, and I am sending you, Moses, to Pharoah.”


Okay, let’s stop here for a second. Moses escaped death as an infant because the mid-wives lied to Pharoah about why they “couldn’t” kill the baby boys. He then grew up undercover in Pharoah’s own household and later killed an Egyptian soldier who was beating a Hebrew slave in broad daylight, which then of course led to Pharoah finding out and vowing to kill Moses, so Moses fled to Midian on the northwest shore the Arabian Peninsula.

Given all of that, while standing on holy ground in Midian, staring at the flames and perhaps wondering if he had lost his mind, Moses’ response to God, after God told him he needed to go back to face Pharoah and free the Hebrew people, was pretty understandable.


Here is what Moses said, and I paraphrase: “Uh, no. Who am I to go to Pharoah??” Moses’ unspoken words here might be something like “You’ve got to be crazy God! You know what I’ve been through. You helped me find my way to Midian; I just barely escaped with my life from that guy. I can’t go back there and argue your case. I’ll fail, and I’ll die, and your people will suffer more because of it.”

In other words, Moses is saying NO, or at least trying to. There’s a great line by theologian James Kugel about this part of the story. Kugel says this about Moses first saying no to God: 

“This exchange is just the beginning…Moses continues to defer and dither for the rest of the chapter, offering one excuse after another…but God continues to insist. Finally, after much back and forth, Moses pleads “O my Lord, just send someone else?’”


The next words Moses hears from the voice in the flames are “I will be with you.” And going on, God says, when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will again worship on this mountain.”

God is telling Moses that the holy ground under his feet will be there waiting for him and for all the Hebrew people. God isn’t saying if you succeed this is what will happen. God is saying, “I will be with you,” and you WILL succeed, and you will return to this holy ground.


God’s command is unequivocal. You will succeed.  And you’d better look down at your feet and realize that the holy ground you stand on is not just here in this place. Every step you walk, to Egypt and back, is holy ground because I am with you in each and every step. Here, there, and back again.


In other words, the ground of the earth under our feet is, by definition, always holy.  Moses was transformed in this moment, and I find myself wondering if this is why this story is in our scriptures to begin with, so that it is our story too. It helps to reveal to us that God’s essence is always in the ground underneath our feet. We can see the earth with a new reverence, a reverence that changes us, that fills us with awe.


The truth of the matter is that “knowing God occurs in the places beyond our theology.” Like Moses, we can get so caught up in our own sagas, that we fail over and over again to experience awe. In the presence of God, might we, like Moses, be just as likely to argue our case, rather than allowing God’s voice to transform us? Perhaps, but if this story is for us as much as it was for Moses, then God is telling us that we will find ourselves on Holy ground, because God is with us and will not leave, even if it means being patient until we pay attention to the extraordinary dirt on which we stand. And should we fail to do that, perhaps with some exasperation God may show up right in front of us in the fire, or in the storm, or in the radiance of the sun, until we cannot help but fall down on our knees at the wonder of it all.


With our knees on the earth, we are close enough to smell the soil, feel the softness of the grass, see the droplets of dew, or rain glistening in the sunlight – the things we are so used to that we often don’t find them extraordinary anymore.


I’m not sure that we even have it in our lexicon to consider them holy. Is dirt holy? Are the blades of the Spring grass holy? Is the sunset in it’s vibrant pink and orange glow holy? Is the Spring rain holy? Moses, Moses! God calls out, commanding us to take off our sandals, to feel our feet sink into the ground, right where we are standing, and experience the awe and wonder of creation that we have so often missed because we forgot that it is holy: Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor describes this as this spiritual practice of going barefoot.



Every patch of earth, every splash of water, every glint of the sun. All are imbued with the glory of God. As we become more attentive to see that holy ground is everywhere, we discover that there are more and more places for transformation. And so, it turns out, that Midian, Moses’ place of rest and restoration, was just the beginning of his discovery of holy ground.

The walk back to Egypt was holy, the courage to confront Pharoah again was holy, the escape through the red sea was holy, the years in the wilderness were holy.  Moses’ eventual return in the cloud to Mt. Horeb with the Hebrew people was holy.


It is the holy that transforms us if we are paying attention. It is the holy that calls us to take off our sandals, anywhere that we are, and feel the earth under our feet right in the very spot we are standing. Such a simple place, where we already standing, that is to say, where we are right now. A place we may consider ordinary, is anything but ordinary, for it is the very place where God has promised to meet us. Amen.