A Flame in the Desert
I never thought much about fire before I moved to Colorado. In the lush, green landscape of the east, forest fires are few. I couldn’t believe my eyes the first time I drove through Four Mile Canyon to Gold Hill and returned through Sunshine Canyon. The devastation from several years ago still looked fresh and frightening. Last year, Leroy and I decided to create a fire pit at our cabin in South Park. We spent an entire week of vacation preparing a spot in the meadow just beyond our aspen grove. We gathered massive rocks from around the neighborhood to create a ring in the middle of a broad, gravel circle. A long rock-lined path through the woods was made to connect the fire pit with the cabin. It was a lot of work! When it was all done, we drove to the local fire station to get a fire permit and received a list of regulations for fire-building in Park County. We learned that we could only start a fire between ten a.m. and two p.m. and that all fires had to be extinguished by six p.m. So much for roasting marshmallows under the stars! We had to buy a one hundred foot hose to reach the fire pit. And we are required to call the fire department before we start a fire and then again after it is extinguished. That assumes there is no fire ban in place. We have made exactly one fire in two years, because it’s just not worth it! The regulations are important, though, for protecting life and property.
I wonder what Moses thought when he saw a bush burning near Mount Horeb. There was probably a sign nearby that said “Fire danger is HIGH today.” The odd thing about the fire was that it didn’t burn out. The flames just kept shooting into the air with no sign of stopping. I’ve mentioned before from this pulpit that I have seen the purported burning bush in Egypt. It is contained within the walls of the oldest monastery in the world at the base of Mt. Horeb which is also known as Mt. Sinai. Twenty-seven monks make sure that it is always in good condition for tourists, and they swear that they never have to water it. They also say that it is the original bush, now thousands of years old, and not replacement shrubbery. They do acknowledge that it was moved several yards when the Chapel of the Burning Bush was built to commemorate Moses’ encounter with God in the desert. Those who visit are required to remove their shoes, just as Moses was told by God to take off his shoes because he was on holy ground.
I guess Moses needed to see a mysterious fire and hear an audible voice to be ready for the momentous job God was about to give to him. Things were tough for the Jewish people in Egypt. The glory days of Joseph and his brothers were over, and now their descendants worked as slaves serving the Pharaoh. The Scripture here in Exodus 3 says that God remarked to Moses that the cry of the Israelites had been heard, that their suffering was known to God. Walter Brueggemann, a progressive theologian, writes that it is significant that the slaves, not God, provided the initial impetus for the exodus confrontation. God responded to the lament of the people by appointing Moses as their leader, and Moses ultimately confronted Pharaoh with the demand for freedom.
It all started with the groans of people who labored unjustly, making bricks out of mud and straw and then being required to make bricks without straw just to make their lives more miserable. If there was ever a need for a labor movement and the organization of workers, it was then and there. Moses brought the people together to resist injustice, and though they didn’t form a union, they did present demands and made their case clearly as God sent plagues to convince the Pharaoh to release them. The modern day labor movement, starting in the late nineteenth century has early parallels here, as does the earlier abolition movement. The United Church of Christ has a long history of supporting labor and the right of worker to organize for fair working conditions and compensation. This weekend we honor those who have worked for justice as well as all who labor.
The struggle to work and to provide for one’s family obviously has a long history and is common to people everywhere. When an obvious injustice is placed upon workers, whether it is making bricks without straw or the forced labor of children or unequal pay for equal work, it is a matter that calls people of faith to speak up and use their influence for good. The Israelites were a displaced people. The arrived in Egypt by circumstance. Those who labored and groaned and whose cries were heard by God were the children of those who came to Egypt from Canaan. As they made bricks, they longed for a better life. For them, a better future did not exist in Egypt, but instead by returning to the land they had come from.
Today, the children of undocumented immigrants also labor. Eight hundred thousand young men and women known as “dreamers” are anxiously waiting to hear whether a contract with our government will allow them to stay in our country with their families. Most of these young adults are employed in excellent jobs or are attending college. I believe their cries for a good life in the only land they have ever known are heard by God, and certainly they are heard by us as we hear their stories and observe their plight. Unlike the Israelites in Egypt, they want to stay where they are. But like them, they desire freedom and the ability to work and prosper. How our country deals with immigrants and their children is not just a political issue, it is a matter of both compassion and justice. And therefore it is a matter of faith. How does your faith, and how do the stories contained in the Scripture, inform you thoughts and your actions in the face of DACA and its potential dissolution?
Moses stood on holy ground. I was thinking about that a bit this week while seeing the horrific images of water covering huge swaths of Texas. There wasn’t much ground left to stand on. Like Moses, a lot of people took off their shoes. Some stayed barefoot, but most replaced shoes with boots and whatever could protect them from the dangers beneath and within the water. It’s still holy ground, though. And holy water, though mixed with chemicals and all manner of critters. All of creation is holy, even if the wind displaces it and reminds us of how small we are in the face of nature’s blasts.
There has been a lot of discussion this week about what is and what is not a proper response to the disaster in Texas. I’ve heard more than I can stand about proper first lady footwear and the pace of megachurches in opening their doors to the masses. I think it’s human nature to criticize and second guess. I also think that our sense of being overwhelmed by the needs of others causes us to rush to judgment, saying “I don’t know what I can do here in Colorado to help those who suffer in Texas, but I feel better when I pretend that I know better than others what is happening there.” People are always going to fail in their efforts. And they are going to do amazing and heroic things as well. I hope that our church will have opportunity in the future to assist in the long process of rebuilding. One friend who attends a church in Galveston has already reached out to me and invited a group to come when we are ready. There will be other opportunities as well. Wherever we walk or serve or love is holy ground. The voice of God was heard by Moses in the desert, saying that God had heard the cries of the people and that God knew their suffering and had come to deliver them. God comes to those who groan under heavy loads whenever we lend our own hand or give generously.
Moses wasn’t too happy to be the object of God’s attention. The cause of delivering the Israelites from misery was noble, but Moses had enormous self-doubts and was sure he’d be laughed at by both Pharaoh and his own people. Moses needed reassurance and told God that someone better, greater, and generally more qualified should be chosen instead. God responded by reminding Moses that he bore God’s own name, and that was enough. God said, “My name is I AM. Tell people that I AM sent you.” It’s an interesting title that God chose to identify God’s self. I like to think of it this way: God was saying:
I AM: powerful.
I AM: compassionate.
I AM: resourceful.
I AM: enough.
We are often lacking what we need to make the difference in the world that God desires of us. And it’s OK, because God is what we cannot be on our own. And together we are what we cannot be individually.
Where is a flame burning in the desert today? What is God doing to get your attention? What is the sign that God is calling you to something that is bigger and more difficult than you think you are capable of? Don’t be afraid to come closer to the fire and look into it long enough to listen to the voice you need to hear. God says to you “I am the great I AM.” And what you will also hear is that you, too, are powerful and compassionate, and resourceful. And together with God and those around you, you have enough of what you need to follow God’s call into new areas of life and service.
The fire is burning. Say yes to God’s call today. Amen.