Benediction Online

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Burning with God

Exodus 3:1-15Psalm 63:1-81 Corinthians 10:1-13

There are times when we feel proud to be members of St. Benedict’s. There are times when we feel proud to Episcopalians or at least NOT some other church, when we see the problems the Catholics are having or hear about preachers who mask hatred as piety. Because this is what works pretty well for us in our search for God, we tend to think that it’s superior to other Christian paths – even if they work really well for someone else.

It’s easy to become complacent – to think that because we’re members of this thriving spiritual community we are somehow better, or need to focus less on discerning God’s call than our neighbors. Both the Gospel and the New Testament lesson point to the dangers of complacency. Don’t imagine, say Paul and Jesus, that because you are a disciple of Christ, or an Episcopalian, or a member of St Benedict’s that you can sit back and think that you’re ok. Or as my father would have said, “Don’t be cocky.”

Buildings fall down and kill people every day. It could be you.

The Protestant Reformation brought an important corrective to Christian thought. It emphasized the gift of God in Jesus – that we can do nothing to earn God’s love or to be reconciled to God. God is the one who offers us the gift of life – we are only the ones who say please and thank you. One distortion which can grow from that insight is to say that since God is forgiving and there is nothing I can do to ensure my salvation, I don’t have to be overly concerned about what I do.

Wrong! Jesus tells his followers to repent lest they too perish. Of course we are all mortal so “perishing” doesn’t just refer to physical death. In Jesus’ terms, to live or die without a deep connection to Spirit is to perish.

Which brings us to that wonderful first reading where Moses sees the burning bush; “the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, 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 he said, "Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground." 

We too are standing on holy ground, because this is a place where people meet with God. But so is your car, your shower, Farmer’s Market, the back bay. Wherever God reveals herself is holy ground, and God reveals herself to us in innumerable ways as long as we have eyes to see her.

When Moses saw the burning bush, he turned aside. He paid attention and went to look at it. When he realized that this was a manifestation of the Great High God, Yahweh, I AM WHO I AM, he hid his face because he was afraid to look on God. He understood the solemnity and awe of the moment. Most of us can think of one or two or maybe more awesome moments when we have realized that we are in God’s presence in some especially intense way and we have felt that awe. But so often we domesticate God, making the great I AM little more than a household god to whom we pay our respects but who makes no real difference to our lives.

Yet it is the central encounter with the divine, our own burning bush, which can provide the energy and the drive to push us forward to greater and greater acts of love and compassion and liberation.

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 he said, "Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground." 

Thus began Moses call to set his people free – in an experience of the holy.

Holiness is sometimes interpreted as a set of rules. Don’t get drunk. Don’t tell lies. Don’t cheat or steal. Don’t have sex outside marriage. Don’t talk to people who do these things. Keep yourself holy and separate – never eat seafood. Don’t celebrate birthdays. Make sure your women are suitably covered… endless religious and ethical rules. If you do all these things and stay holy then buildings won’t fall on you and you will prosper. But we know from Job that bad, even awful, incomprehensible things do happen to good people.

Greek philosophers pondered the virtuous life – was it, they wondered, a life lived according to an ethical system that made a person virtuous, or was a virtuous life one lived by a virtuous person?

I think that Jesus’ teaching is very clear – a holy life is one lived by a holy person. A holy person is one who has glimpsed God in the burning bush – or who has at least glimpsed the bush – and has turned aside.  To repent is to make a complete change in direction – to turn away from small ego desires and towards the holiness of God.

It isn’t something you do just once in your life. Repentance is a daily, even a moment by moment task. Whatever we are doing we can do it as an act of worship. That is the heart of holiness. Every time we do or think something which is not compassionate, gentle, and worshipful, we create an opportunity to repent.

Because we are called to live in imitation of Christ, in fact more than that, we are called to live filled with the Christ-life and the Christ-light. So every action, every thought is to be consecrated to God, just as every aspect of Jesus’ life was consecrated to God. This is not easy. It is not, we might say, for sissies. But it is life lived to the highest. It is life more abundant.

The Belgian mystic Ruysbroeck describes this life as “ministering to the world without in love and mercy, while inwardly abiding in simplicity, in stillness and in utter peace.”

Of course we fall short. Even Moses didn’t live a holy life every moment every day. But it is the striving towards holiness - the ability to get up, repent and carry on -  that leads up deeper into the mystery of the burning bush. Deeper into the life of the God who burns in us yet never completely consumes us, the God who is the I AM of the universe.
Tragedy happens. Buildings collapse, sinkholes open up. People commit atrocious acts of brutality and hatred on one another. We all die. Living a holy life does not let you off or protect you from the horrors of living on this planet anymore than it prevents you enjoying the beauty and the riches.

But living a holy life means that you will not perish, because you will become one with the God who manifests in the burning bush. You will become one with the God who burns and burns and yet the bush is not destroyed.

As the desert father Abba Jospeh said, “Why not become entirely fire?”

It starts today.


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