Bare Feet and Holy Ground
Exodus 3: 1-15
It’s a story about calling. It’s a story about a nomad finding home, people, and purpose. About doing the improbable, crazy, hard thing God asks. It’s about the deliverance of God’s own people. And the whole thing starts with turning aside.
I’m talking, of course, about college.
I know the UVA website doesn’t say this and your parents might not yet be aware that this is where all that tuition money is headed. I realize you may have some pretty strong and set ideas of your own about what college is for. That’s fine. Moses had his own quirky ideas, too. And God is both persistent and patient.
We are going to leave parts of the story for another day and focus on verses 3-5. Let’s listen again: There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses! Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then [God] said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”
So, Moses was out beyond even the wilderness – way the heck out there – and figured he’d be left to live out life as he pleased. (Some people think that’s what college is for but they’re wrong.) And then this nearby bush starts to burn without really burning and he decides to see what’s up over there. It’s as simple as that.
“I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” You may be wondering what else there was to look at way out there beyond the wilderness. No smartphone, no ipod, no companions other than the flock he was tending. No 7’11 along the way. Just out there, beyond. So of course he’d decide to take in the sight of a burning bush, right? What choice did he have? It was the only show in town, right?
We’ve had several thousand years worth of living with this story. Though it still sounds fantastical and I suspect none of us has encountered a literal burning bush along any of our paths, it also sounds familiar. This is one of our family stories. We hear “burning bush” and we think, Oh, God’s about to show up. But Moses didn’t have his own story to go on. He hadn’t heard of anything like this and he was out beyond the wilderness, alone, relatively defenseless, with a job to do and somewhere to get before nightfall.
My point here being: he had a choice. Even though there wasn’t much else to do or listen to or be entertained by, he could easily have chosen not to turn aside. Just keep walking. Try to get to safety and flame-free shrubbery by nightfall. But he sees this unexplainable sight, at once scary and appealing. And he makes the conscious decision to stop and turn aside and take a look. I have got to take a closer look at that bush and see what’s going on there. What a sight!
I heard one of the best spiritual discernment questions this week, listening to the radio in my car. They were talking about something else altogether when the man asked, “What’s worth your attention?” (“Here and Now,” 8/19/11; http://hereandnow.wbur.org/). What’s worth your attention? We are offered so many things to look at and, if we don’t ask this, we may miss the crackling bush for a furious round of “Angry Birds” or the millionth rerun of Gilmore Girls. What’s worth your attention?
Here’s where I think our earlier version of Moses and his surroundings may have been off. Sure, he didn’t have electronic gadgets to keep his head buried in while hanging out with the flock and he was definitely in a remote place. But there was plenty to distract him. He was likely looking out for snakes and scorpions, making sure predators weren’t circling the flock. He had to pay attention to the lay of the land and look for spots of greenery to indicate where water might be. And he could have been entirely occupied in this own thoughts. You know how that is, when you spend an amazing amount of time re-hashing something that has happened or pre-planning something that might happen. Moses could have been really busy with any or all of those other things – there was plenty of competition for his attention, even out there beyond the wilderness.
Even when Moses stumbled upon the bush, he could have easily chosen not to pay attention to it. Time is money! Got to get on with the business at hand! But what did he do? He turned aside. He stopped what he was doing and where he thought he was going and took a closer look. He gave his attention to this crazy sight and ended up seeing God, ended up standing on holy ground.
The reason that this question is such a deep and helpful tool for spiritual discernment is, partially, because we rarely think to ask it. What’s worth your attention? Often we give our attention without thinking about it at all. Whatever the next thing is that happens. Whomever the next one is to text or call. Whatever pops up on my screen and bids me to click it.
In one way, being here at college might be like this for you. I know it took a lot of effort and attention for each of you to apply and be accepted. But, if you are at all like I was, college was an expected life step. I grew up thinking, like a little mantra I never knew I’d memorized: High school, college, career, marriage, family. That was supposed to be the order and I didn’t really question it. I just kept moving to the next step.
So what am I getting at here? What I’m saying is that it’s easy to pay attention to whatever claims your attention, and to float along on the sea of attention-grabbing moments, screens, people. What I’m saying is that the hard but necessary and faithful path involves questions like What’s worth your attention? What I’m saying is that, if you don’t ask yourself this question and decide for yourself what is worth your time, attention, money, lifeblood, love…then you’ll be paying attention – spending all your attention, time, money, lifeblood, and love — on whatever or whomever arrives on the scene first.
It is only after Moses decides to turn aside and pay attention to that bush that God speaks to him. It’s only after Moses makes a decision about what’s worth his attention in that moment and chooses the bush that God calls him by name and points out the very important fact that he is standing on holy ground.
Moses turns aside not just to look but the “see why the bush is not burned up.” He’s not looking for God; he’s following his curiosity. And it leads him to holy ground. Maybe this is how it will be for you as you get further into your major. Something will prick your interest. Maybe your turning aside will sound like this: But what if I could create a different kind of replacement shoulder joint? Or, How is it that Jane Eyre can be so spunky as a woman living in that time? Or, I want to learn how to engineer bridges that withstand earthquakes (now that it seems we live in an earthquake zone!)…
Some of those blazing bushes will happen like that, in the middle of class or homework. Sometimes they will look like a homeless person asking for help on the Corner or the Downtown Mall. A story of suffering in the news. A phone call or a Facebook message from a lonely friend. Sometimes it’s the dignity and humanity in the faces of those serving your meals in the dining halls or cleaning the toilets in your dorms.
Here’s what so many people get wrong about the church: We are not a club of people who have all the answers. We are a curious bunch with a lot of questions. We don’t have a map to God but we know there is holy ground around here and we know God likes to show up. We try to pay attention. We’re willing to follow our curiosity, to talk to bushes, to gather around a Table where there is room for everyone who shows up.
You’re on holy ground. Wesley is a place like this and at our best we help each other see the blazing bushes and to hear God’s voice. It’s not the only place. All ground has this potential. Notice where you are. Turn aside from the mere spectacles and see the wonders, the bushes on fire. What would happen if you nomads went through the wilderness of college asking yourselves What’s worth my attention?
We are offered so many shiny things to look at. It’s easy to just keep looking without really seeing much of anything. But I’m here to tell you that even in the middle of Grounds, right here in Charlottesville, there are bushes on fire, waiting for your attention. Right here in your college years God is catching things on fire to get your attention. What are you looking at?
Thanks be to God!
© Deborah E. Lewis 2011