The Burning Bush and Grace Church: A Sermon for Proper 17, Year A

Most of you know that we are embarking on a capital campaign in a few weeks in order to renovate and upgrade our facilities. We’ve been talking about this for several years now, gone through several iterations of plans, but now we’re on the brink of the campaign itself. Excitement is building and over the next few weeks you will hear more about the campaign itself, how you can be involved, and more about what precisely we hope to do as we renovate our historic facilities.

There also has been a good bit of conversation about why we are doing this. Is it appropriate to use our financial resources to beautify our buildings when many people are struggling economically and there is so much need, so much suffering here in Madison and throughout the world? We have been given an awesome responsibility here at Grace Church. The people who founded this congregation 175 years ago and built this nave on the corner of W. Wash and N. Carroll St. over a century and a half ago had a vision of what an Episcopal congregation was and what it might do. Located here, across from the state capitol, in the heart of a new city, our forebears wanted this building and this congregation to witness to Jesus Christ in this place. We have done that for all of these years.

Church, as I’ve said repeatedly, looks very different in the second decade of the twenty-first century than it looked fifty or a hundred, or a hundred-seventy five years ago. Religion no longer plays the role in our society or in our own lives that it once did. But that doesn’t mean the yearning and desire that is at the heart of every human person to connect with God is gone. No, it means that the noise of our culture and our busy lives tends to drown out that deep yearning, and often we seek to fill it by other less-satisfying means, addictions of one sort or another, the struggle for wealth, or success, or the next iphone model. For some of us most of the time, and for all of us occasionally, something will happen in our lives, bring us up short, and remind us of the God-shaped hole at the center of our being. One of the realities of our age is that for many who are caught up short by something in their lives, whether it’s personal misfortune or tragedy, or whatever, or simply a sense that there’s more to life than the rat race, or the desire for fun and adventure. The reality of our age is that for many people in our culture, church may not be the first place they go in search of the divine. In fact, it’s increasingly that for many secular people church would be the last place they would go in quest of deeper meaning.

So what do we do in such circumstances? All of our God-talk, all of our welcome means nothing to someone who assumes the marketing is not directed at them, or has no understanding of our vocabulary. To open our doors is one thing, to get people to enter is quite another. To open our building to outside groups, to make our facilities hospitable to all kinds of people and all kinds of activity, is not just about enhancing our revenue, it’s about breaking down the increasingly high boundary between people of faith and our secular culture. We may not get new members, or “pledging units” from such efforts although that’s already happening, just look around. We can touch and change lives. When people walk in for a Grace Presents concert, or a wedding, or even a dance, they are encountering sacred space, they are opening themselves to touch the divine. And the more we can do that, the greater impact we will have on our community.

Think about it. We’ve heard part of the story of Moses today. Last week, we learned of his birth and his miraculous rescue by Pharaoh’s daughter. This week, the narrative jumps ahead. Moses is now an adult. He’s had to flee Egypt because he became aware of his Hebrew origin, noticed the oppression of the Hebrew people and rashly struck out against a slave driver who was whipping someone. After killing the man, he fled from Egypt to Midian, where he settled down. He got married and worked for his father-in-law. He probably thought he had put his past life in Egypt behind him.

But no, God had other plans for him. One day, while he’s watching the flocks, Moses notices something odd occurring, a bush that is burning but isn’t consumed by the fire. He walks over to check it out, and suddenly hears God’s voice: “Take off your sandals you are on holy ground.” Indeed, Moses is at Mt. Horeb, the mountain of God, which is also called in scripture, and probably more familiar to you as Mt. Sinai; yes, that Mt. Sinai, where later in the story God will give Moses and the Hebrews the ten commandments and all of the Torah.

This amazing experience is a theophany a manifestation or appearance of God. In some ways, it’s similar to other theophanies that we’ve seen this summer—Jacob’s dream, for example. But it’s also unique. What’s fairly typical is Moses’ response—he tries to hide his face because he is afraid of God’s awesome power and majesty. What’s not so typical is what God reveals about Godself. First, that God is not God of the powerful and mighty, but rather the God of the oppressed. God has heard the cry and knows the suffering of the Israelites in Egypt.

The second thing that’s unique is God’s self-revelation. Moses asks, “If I come to the Israelites and tell them the God of their ancestors has sent me to you and they ask me, ‘what is his name?’ What shall I tell them?” God’s response is both simple and enigmatic: “I am who I am” or I will be who I will be. Our translation can’t express the significance of this statement because in the Hebrew it appears as four letters, transliterated as YHWH or Yahweh, the tetragrammaton, the name of God that isn’t pronounced by Jews to this day.

As important as all of this is about understanding the nature of God, what’s most important may be the other piece of it, God’s hearing of the suffering of the Israelites, and God’s response, to call Moses to help deliver them. For theophanies, typically are not just about a peak experience, an awesome display of God’s power and the human response of fear and trembling. Theophanies, usually are also about call. God is calling Moses away from his settled life and the flocks of his father-in-law Jethro. God called Moses into uncertainty and danger. It wasn’t something Moses wanted to do. In fact, if you read the whole story, you’ll notice that Moses does everything he can to avoid the call. He complains about his lack of eloquence and worries that they won’t believe him. But God sends him anyways.

We have an amazing opportunity here at Grace. It’s rarely more apparent than on days like today when Capitol Square will be crowded with people enjoying Taste of Madison. Thousands, tens of thousands will walk by our doors. Some of them may be curious; some of them are searching for God. Many of them, like Moses, probably aren’t. I pray that the life of our congregation, our renovated and beautiful spaces, can be like a burning bush, giving light, giving hope, used by God to draw people to Godself.








2 thoughts on “The Burning Bush and Grace Church: A Sermon for Proper 17, Year A

  1. Jonathan, so much of your commentary can be applied to most of our parishes both large and small. Most of us do not have the crowds of onlookers, the curious or just tired, who come through your doors. Especially in small towns like ours, few people ever just stop by the church. Attempts to attract their attention often seem forced and artificial, yet the same principles apply that you describe so well. We all need to find ways to engage the “nones” in their daily work and their everyday lives where the joys and sorrows of life take place. I look forward to hearing more about how Grace – Madison addresses the challenge.

    • Bruce, Yes, the situation for rural and small town churches is quite different and in many ways the challenges much greater. I don’t have any answers. This afternoon, I saw Calvary, a movie about a priest in rural Ireland dealing with the aftermath of the sexual abuse scandal. I’m still processing it but I hope to write something about grace and hope in post-Christianity.

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