Sermon preached at St. Mary’s Catholic Church for the Micah Ministries Ecumenical Lenten service: Wednesday, February 24, 2016, by the Rev. Joseph H. Hensley, Jr.
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Good day to you all. Thank you to St. Mary’s for hosting this community Lent prayer service. It is good to be here. Something we have been doing at St. George’s Episcopal Church during Lent is taking a moment whenever we gather for church meetings to make sure we introduce ourselves and share a little bit of lives. So I’d like to begin today by asking you to turn to your neighbor and introduce yourself if you don’t know them and just share one word. One word that describes what you are bringing into this space today. My name is Joe. My word is excited. Part of becoming a more open and loving community is the willingness to open ourselves to listen and to share. Thank you for sharing and for listening.
In the reading we heard from Exodus, Moses is also invited to open himself up. Moses is invited to take a risk. The scripture tells us that Moses was keeping a flock of sheep beyond the wilderness. Now you all may remember that the reason Moses was out there with the flock was because he had run away from Egypt after killing an overseer. He was keeping his head down. He was staying out of trouble. Then he sees this burning bush.
This is a pretty famous story. If you have heard it before, you have probably imagined what that burning bush looked like. There is, of course, the famous depiction of the bush in the movie The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston. For many of us that image has been “burned” into our memory. There is a bush and it is lit from behind with a nice warm glow. Kind of like a cozy campfire. But with all respect to Cecil B. Demille, if God were to appear in a fire, I don’t think it would be a glowing bush. It would be more like a bush-fire, a wild fire, a fire that could potentially get out of control, a fire that would make most shepherds run in the other direction.
But for whatever reason, Moses does not behave like most shepherds and takes an extra moment to look and see that this is no ordinary fire. It burns in the bushes but it is not burning up the bushes. And then Moses does this extraordinary thing. He turns aside. He makes a detour. He somehow has the courage and the curiosity to walk toward the fire, to approach the mystery of a blaze that does not consume, to go toward what is hot and strong and intense. It is when Moses takes that detour and walks toward the fire that God calls and Moses responds, “Here I am.”
This is a turning point, a moment of opportunity. When we begin the story, Moses is keeping his head down, tending the flock, staying out of trouble. Now God has got his attention, and Moses is present. “Here I am.” You wonder if God had tried before to get Moses’ attention, and Moses was just clueless. Maybe there had been a talking snake or a miraculous spring of water, but Moses just thought, “Oh the heat must be getting to me.” So then God tries the burning bush, and Moses finally turns aside. I say that, because although there’s this moment of opportunity, Moses pretty quickly retreats. “Who am I that I should go to pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” “Who am I?”
Many of us have stood in Moses’ position. God gets our attention for a moment and the next moment we are ready to put our heads down and go back to tending the flock. The churches, God love them, have also often stood in Moses’ position. We mind our own business, tend our own flocks, stay out of trouble. Then by some miracle of grace we find the courage and curiosity to turn aside, take a risk, and walk toward the fire. Walk into some hot territory. I’ve been in Fredericksburg a year or so now, and I have heard stories about the times when the congregations in this town have been willing to walk toward the fire. It seems to me that the founding of Micah Ministries was such a time. A time to step onto the holy ground of speaking for those who had no voice. A time to step into the heat of public debate about how to be compassionate neighbors. A time to be on the holy ground of learning to be in relationship with neighbors living on the edges. We are gathered here today because of our congregations’ continuing commitment to Micah and its mission. And we are so blessed that Micah provides the coordination of services and the expertise and the encouragement to be in relationship as we learn to live with neighbors on the edges.
The churches in Fredericksburg have had their moments of walking toward the fire. We have probably even experienced some transformation. But we also have had our moments of retreating back to our separate flocks, of putting our heads down and trying to stay out of trouble. During this season of Lent we are invited to repent. And that word “repent” literally means to turn around, to change direction, to take a detour. How might God be calling us to turn again toward the fire and say, “Here I am”? The bushfire of God is an awesome and frightening thing. Moses hid his face. We can remember though that God’s bush-fire might cook but it does not consume. It might be fierce, but it does not destroy. It might heat us up but it will not burn us down. God is calling us to a fire!
In the one year that I have been in Fredericksburg, (I know I’m new here), I have listened as the community has argued about how we are to respond to our neighbors living on the edges. And it has been tempting at times to say that God is calling us, like God called Moses, to go to Pharoah and say “let my people go.” Go to the authorities and demand justice. But then I step back and look around, and I say, “who really needs to be set free?” Maybe it’s not just the folks “over there” or the folks we call “needy.” When we have such difficulty even talking about what it means to be neighbors, are we not all in bondage? It could be that God is calling us to cry for our own freedom. This may be another opportunity to turn aside, to turn around and step toward the heat of conversations about why this is so hard. Why are we often so divided? We are in a political season that has the potential to separate us into red and blue camps. I might even call them prison camps, because they will be hard to break out of. As churches, as the people who believe that God has made us brothers and sisters in Christ, can we find ways to have conversations that open us up instead of shutting us down? With God’s help, I know we can! I know many of you have stories about entering, with God’s help, into relationships across party lines, economic lines, race lines, religious lines, any lines that keep us apart, because our God is that great! Maybe you can tell some of those stories over lunch today. Yes, it is hot and scary territory. It may seem like a bush-fire that could get out of control in a hurry. But if God is in the fire, and I do believe that God is in the fire, then it will not overwhelm us. When God is in the fire, we may find that our difficult conversations become holy ground. We can learn to take off our shoes, remove our protective layers, and stand vulnerable before God and each other. We can learn to listen just as God listens to the cries of God’s people. That is the path to freedom. God is calling us with a bush-fire of transforming grace. May we have the grace, the courage, and the imagination to turn aside, to listen, and say “Here I am!”