A reflection on Exodus 3:1-17
Summer has arrived. Season of ripe blueberries and blackberries. Season of summer camp — that beautiful tradition of ours. I’ve been thinking about summer camp this week because I paid a visit to our own Camp Adams, and also because I’ve been reading an email from a friend named Jody, who just returned from a trip to the camp where she spent her childhood summers over 40 years ago. Jody loved that place with all her heart, and she was thrilled to return for a visit this summer. On the surface, she wrote, the landscape looked unchanged. Looking out from her cabin door, she saw the same rolling hills, the same dark-green lake spread out beneath the sky. But then she began to look a little closer. Because Jody, like Moses, is the kind of person who likes to turn aside and pay close attention. Even as a kid, Jody spent her summers at that camp peering under rocks and rotting logs to see what lived beneath them. She spent those summers digging at the edges of the lake to see what was hatching out of that muddy ground. And so on this trip back to the landscape of her childhood, Jody did the same thing: she turned over rocks and stared for a long time at the ordinary earth beneath her feet. And that’s when she noticed something very strange indeed: there were no bugs. Nothing creeping or sliming from beneath the rocks. Nothing buzzing through the torn window screens at night to bite her. Nothing hatching out in the muddy shallows of the lake.
Who else but Jody, the noticer, would have noticed such a thing? Certainly not the summer tourists who are happy to be wearing less bug spray. Not the real estate developers who are busy selling off bugless tracts of land. The person who noticed was the one who had spent her childhood summers turning aside to look more closely at that holy ground: scratching mosquito bites, marveling at stonefly cases, paying attention to things other people walked right by. Jody—the one who turned aside—was the one who saw the truth and wrote an email to tell it to the world. The bugs are gone, she tells us. Farmers are spraying insecticides all over that land, and the teeming life that once creeped over the earth and hatched from that patch of holy ground is gone.
This is not the kind of thing we tend to notice when we’re speeding down the interstate. This is the kind of holiness, the kind of wholeness, that we only notice if we turn aside to watch, very closely, the place that we love.
Which is not unlike what what happens to Moses this morning as he leads his flocks through the most ordinary of places: a vast wilderness so dry that brushfires happen all the time. But Moses, apparently, is the kind of person who pays attention, because as he walks by, he notices something different about this particular fire: that bush is on fire all right, but it is not being consumed by the flames. Let’s stop right here for a minute. How long do you suppose a person would have to stare at a burning bush in order to realize that it is not being consumed? That’s some pretty close attention to be paying to a brush fire—more attention than most of us ever give to anything at all. But even this is not enough for Moses. Our story tells us that even after he notices that the bush is not being consumed, Moses turns aside to look even more closely, to see if he can figure out why that bush is not being consumed. And that’s when the really big event happens. When the LORD saw that Moses had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And Moses answered, “Here I am.”
I think this is a very interesting sequence of events. If God really wanted to make sure that Moses stopped and paid attention, it sure seems like God could have just called out from the bush in the first place. “Moses. Yo! Over here. It’s me, God!” That would get your attention, right? But that’s not what happens. Instead, God waits until Moses—of his own free will—comes over to take a closer look. And then, only after God sees that Moses has turned aside, does God make the big announcement: “THE PLACE ON WHICH YOU ARE STANDING IS HOLY GROUND.”
And this is where Moses’ experience, and Jody’s experience, and ours, all come together. For us human beings, attention—the discipline or spiritual practice of paying attention—must come first. Close attention to the details of a burning bush; close attention to a place we have loved since childhood; close attention to a planet that is even now burning—cities all over the world breaking record high temperatures; wildfires burning in Northwestern forests; ice caps melting—this is the spiritual practice of paying close attention to a planet that even now is burning, and suffering. And then, only after we’ve paid close and painful attention to what’s going on right before our eyes—only then does the holy reveal itself to us.
And that’s the moment when everything begins to change. Because this revelation of holiness has a purpose. The sudden realization that even now we are standing on holy ground is not the end of the story: it’s only the beginning! And that’s because the holy ground we discover always contains a call. Just as it did for Moses. This world is holy, and there is something we have to do about it. “Moses!” God calls from the bush. “I have observed the misery of my people, and I have a job for you.” And Moses answers, “Here I am.”
“Here I am.” Once Moses has said those fateful words, there’s no going back. I’m pretty sure Moses wished he could go back—he’s not exactly thrilled about having a chat with Pharaoh. But once Moses has heard God calling to him out of that bush, he knows there is work in this world that only he—only Moses—can do. And that’s his call.
Here in this summer of our own reckoning, this summer of our awakening to the holiness of a planet that needs us, our ancient story suggests that if we want to know how God is calling us—if we want to know what work in all the world God might have in mind for us–then it is a good idea to turn aside. It’s a good idea to pay some close attention to the places and things that might seem ordinary or unimportant, but that are just waiting to reveal their holiness, if only someone—if only we—would turn aside and notice them.
The ground you are spraying is holy, Jody writes. And it is dying. And right there lies her very own, particular call—a call to save a piece of this holy, burning world that Jody has a chance of saving, but only because she is the one who turned aside long enough for its holiness to reveal itself to her. “Jody!” calls the Lord of hosts. And Jody answers: “Here I am.”
And I wonder if we have done the same. I wonder if we have turned aside long enough—if we have stared at the rivers, and the trees, and the fish that our own soul loves long enough to hear their particular call to us.
I can’t tell you what your particular call is. But if you want to hear it, if you believe that the God who called Moses is still speaking through the body of the world; if you believe that the God who called Moses has yet not finished calling God’s people to recognize and save—and save—what is holy in this world; if you believe that the God who called Moses has not yet finished calling God’s people to do justice—ecological justice as well as social justice—in the name of all that is holy in this world…then I urge you to take some time every day to turn aside. To stop and to listen for the call of the thing that is longing to reveal its secret holiness only to you.
It might not be a flashy or famous holy thing. In fact, there is a good chance that what longs to reveal its holiness to you is an ordinary thing that no one else seems to notice; a thing that others take for granted. Like those bugs that Jody loved as a child. Like that ordinary, stubborn people of Israel that God loved: a people whom Pharaoh was using up and throwing away. A people God called holy.
Moses was the only one who turned aside to watch that burning bush and hear its call. Jody is the only one to hear the call of the beloved, dying landscape of her childhood camp. And I believe that there is something in this world, something you yourself cannot bear to see destroyed; something you cannot bear to see lost to the fires of progress or to the engines of empire and greed. I’m willing to bet that there is some secret holiness burning in the body of the world that only you can turn aside and see, and save—because it’s burning for you.
And you can be sure that when you turn aside to answer that call, you will not be alone.
Because if Moses’ story has anything to tell us, it is that God does not issue a call and then leave us all alone to do something about it. I will be with you, God tells Moses. If anybody asks who sent you, tell them it is I, says God, the one who made this world and called it holy and good. Tell them it is I–the God who loves this holy world too much to let it burn.
Turn aside, says the Lord of hosts. Take off your shoes. And together—together—we will yet save the ones nobody notices.
Stoneflies. Polar bears. Spotted salamanders. White oaks. The ones who have no vote, and no voice. The ones who are always holy to God. Amen.