Before I speak, I’m going to lead us in a moment of prayer and remembrance over some of our griefs in this season. If you have suffered the loss of a loved one this year, I’d love to hear from you in the weeks to come, so we can include you in our prayers as well.
We have had much to grieve already this year, losses of many types. But today, we grieve together the loss of sacred human life, remembering those in our community who have died so far this year.
-We remember community leader, and friend of our church, Justice Ismail Laher, who died on May 8th, as well as his wife Zuleika who died in February.
-We remember Manny Nicolas’ cousin William Joseph, who died on April 25th.
-We remember Robert Lenkauskas’s wife, Georgette, who died in North Cambridge on Monday, April 20th.
-We remember Cloie Andrysiak’s cousin Rachel Emond, who died on April 17th, and Cloie’s father Donald Harnois, who died on March 27th.
-We remember John Porco’s sister Jody Porco, who died on April 7th.
-We remember Caroline Beal’s father Matt Beal, who died on March 6th.
-We remember Malik Latif’s wife Abida, who died on March 4th.
-And we remember Laidy and Eduardo’s dear friends Mr. Li and Cesar Velasquez, who died recently as well.
We also remember the names and lives of some of the Black Americans who have been killed by citizen or state white supremacist violence. They may not be part of our local community, but their deaths remind us of the work we have to do in ridding our nation of the old and grave sin of white supremacy that lives on and chokes us still. Today…
We remember Ahmaud Arbery, killed on February 23rd.
We remember Breona Taylor, killed on March 13th.
We remember Sean Reed, killed on May 6th.
We decry the injustice of their deaths and lament the racism and violence in our nation that contributes to the degrading and loss of sacred human life.
For all these, beloved by God and remembered by us, we pray. Friends, I invite you to hold before you the names and memory of those we have lost and those in our community who mourn as we pray.
God of life, Source of our life and breath, God who creates and protects nourishes all life,
We hold our grief at death before you today.
We celebrate the lives and memory of these sisters and brothers and siblings we have lost, thanking you for their lives and legacy.
God of Resurrection, who has conquered death, and who brings life out of death still,
We remember those we have lost and ask you to welcome them into your eternal embrace.
May your light forever shine upon them, and may you give us the blessing of reunion on the day of resurrection.
And God of comfort and hope, be present with kindness and grace to all those of us who mourn,
That we can carry on in hope and strength, That we can remember and honor those we have lost,
And That their legacy will remain in our hearts and in our minds and in our action for a better world.
This we pray in Jesus’ name,
Signs of Life: God of Un-Consuming Fire (Or, How is it that God is Powerful?)
So one of the questions we’re asking a lot these days is where is God when things are hard? If God is the one who controls and guides all events in history, then … let’s be honest, on those terms, God is doing a really bad job this year. And this century.
Even in a time in history when we can explain so many things without God, we still blame God a lot when things go wrong. Or if we don’t, then judging by the amount of racism and hate crimes in this country, and the foolish scapegoating garbage some people keep saying, we still like to blame things on people we imagine to be our enemies, or even God’s enemies.
But as people of faith – people interested in walking in the world with the hope and experience that God is with us, and that God matters, we have got to step back instead and ask: where is God in all this? And specifically, what does it mean that God is with us and is in some way powerful?
Recently I’ve been reading a lot of the writing of the psychologist Richard Back, who’s been writing a lot about the thinking of a Chrisitan theologian named Katherine Sonderegger. They’ll be our guides a bit today.
But before them, we’ll start with the mystical experience Moses has in the wilderness that really kicks off the great liberation narrative of the Exodus.
Here’s our scripture reading from Exodus, which will help us think about God with us, and what God’s power is and isn’t like.
Exodus 3:1-7 (NRSV)
3 Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 There 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. 3 Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” 4 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.” 5 Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” 6 He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
Our narrator presents this story here so innocently. A guy named Moses is out in the desert, taking care of his sheep or his goats, working in his very religious father-in-the law’s family business, when God appears and speaks to him.
There’s more of course. Moses isn’t just an ordinary guy. He’s been on this extraordinary midlife journey of ethnic identity. A Jew, a child of slaves, raised in the ruling class, majority, privileged Egyptian culture, Moses has started to ask: who am I? And how am I to be in the world? Like most immigrants or children of immigrants or people of color tend to ask in the US: what does it mean to be resident or citizen of this land and culture which persists in casting me as less or other?
There are questions of identity:
How am I to be? Do I accept or conform to that image? Do I align with my own people or do I assimilate to the ways of others? Where can I be safe? Where will I belong? Moses was still asking all these questions.
And questions of purpose:
Do I withdraw or flee for my own safety? Just take care of me and mine? Or is there a part for me to play in the transformation of this place? What is my work to do in this world?
And while he hadn’t fled a pandemic, Moses had fled a crisis, with none of these questions resolved.
And there in the wilderness, Moses is confronted by a God that at turns seems stunningly powerful and active, while also kind of weak and passive. A God who is present in the world in power, but whose direct impact is hard to see. A God who is powerful, but not in the ways we normally think about power.
See, when we think about God’s power, we normally work our way backwards to God. We think about powerful bosses or parents or forces, and we sort of widen out that scope of power and try to make it nicer or wiser too, and then bam, that must be what God is like. Even the metaphors of the Bible do this.
God is kind of like a king – in charge, laying down the law, but doing it for everyone’s good.
Or God is kind of like a father – laying down the rules for the household.
Or like a shepherd – a boss of the sheep, guiding them to what’s best and whacking them on the head with his staff when they stray off.
And metaphors are fine for what they’re worth, but all metaphors break down. They’re limited. When we take these metaphors too literally, we end up with what the Bible calls idolatry – believing in a God that we made in our image, instead of relating to a God that made all of us in God’s image.
What Katherine Sonderegger and other really great thinkers about God helps us do is see where some of our ideas about God have broken down and see where encounters like this one at the burning bush point us toward truer and more helpful, more life-giving conceptions of God.
If we think about God’s power as God being in control, then when we have a pandemic, or when that pandemic further reveals all kinds of awful injustice and pain in the world, or when we see a brutal hate crime, or when our kids or our friends or our very own lives go off track, then we have some hard choices.
We can say:
-God, you suck at being in control. You’re either mean, or you’re a failure, or you are bad at your job.
-Or we can think God might be nice, but God’s not actually powerful at all. Or maybe God was powerful enough to make this whole world, but God’s not all that engaged any more. “God is watching us, from a distance.” Which is supposed to be comforting, but really isn’t.
-Or we can lose faith entirely. We can slowly drift toward thinking God isn’t real, that God doesn’t exist, or that God may exist but isn’t good or doesn’t matter.
Unless, unless God comes to us in the burning bush, and we can start to relate to a God that is powerful on very different terms. Three things to tease out here today, before I close with an invitation.
1) At the burning bush, we find a God whose power is kind of like the sun.
The sun is super-powerful: hotter than hell, the source of all life, sustainer of everything. But it’s not like we experience the sun as dominating us, causing any immediate change or action, taking over anything’s will.
Richard Beck here, writing about the burning bush through the theology of Katherine Sonderegger.
The bush burns with divine Fire, but the bush is not consumed. God’s power doesn’t displace, override, meddle, or interfere with the natural life and creaturely integrity of the bush. A botanist, as a botanist, wouldn’t find anything strange going on with the bush as a plant. And yet, God’s Power is Present in and flashes forth from the bush.
In a similar way, for Sonderegger, all of creation is like the burning bush. God’s Power is everywhere present in creation, a power, like with the burning bush, that flashes out and becomes visible at times. God’s power isn’t like a Cosmic CEO who dips in and out of creation to interfere with the causal flux. God is, rather, that Hidden Presence and Fire that burns everywhere, yet doesn’t consume or displace creation.
God is real, God is present, God is the source and sustainer of life. God is at work for good, for healing, for beauty. But God’s not doing that by overriding anyone or anything’s will. God’s not dominating or controling. God is shining.
All the bad that we see in the world isn’t God’s fault at all. It’s our fault. And it’s someone else’s fault. A lot of someone else’s faults. And it’s disordered atoms and disordered weather systems’ fault. And it’s evolution gone off track’s fault. And it’s the fault of systems and culture we’ve set in motion and that seem too powerful and broken to change’s fault. God is too loving to dominate or control this all into order with a snap of God’s finger. God can’t do that. God isn’t like that.
God is real and present as a sustainer of life and a force for good and for truth, for healing and for beauty. God will help get us where we need to go together, but we won’t get there with only God doing the work.
2) Secondly, God’s not just like the sun. God is fire, but God is fire that does not consume. Moses would have been used to seeing a brush fire in the desert, I expect. Hot days, cold nights, lots of dry vegetation. Moses knew fires; he’d have set many himself at the end of a long day.
But this caught his eye, because this fire burned hot and bright and beautiful but it did not consume.
Katherine Songeregger again:, God’s power isn’t hands off or distant. Here is God burning with fire and speaking to Moses. God is present. God is in personal relationship. And yet, God does not violate or coerce. God doesn’t do things against anyone’s will.
This paradox continues through the whole Exodus account, as the ancient writers aren’t always sure how to describe who is doing what.
Right after the six verses I read today, God says: I have observed the misery of my people. I have heard their cry. I am going to deliver them, to lead them out of oppression and violence and into a good and peaceful place. I will do it, God says. But then God says: Moses, I need you to lead the people. Moses, go do it, and I’ll be with you.
Which is it? Is it God who will do it, or is it Moses? It’s both. Because God is real. God is powerful. God is a fire. But God is a fire that does not consume. God won’t coerce or violate, won’t control or override anyone’s will.
Which takes me to the third and final thought today about God’s power, which is that:
3) At the burning bush, we learn of a God who is a partner, but usually only if we let God be. There’s that beautiful line in this story, so quick it’s easy to miss, that God is burning in the bush, but not consuming it, and that God only starts to speak to Moses after Moses notices. Moses says: woah, this beautiful and unusual burning bush. And God thinks: here is someone who is paying attention. And then God calls his name, and Moses answers, and the sandals come off on this holy ground, and off we go from there.
The point is that God doesn’t force our attention, but God welcomes it. God doesn’t dominate or coerce, God calls. Sonderegger says: We come because we are drawn.
Here’s where this leaves me today.
We are in hard times, but they are not hard times that God has caused or let happen. Disordered creation has done this, and here we are. But a powerful God is with us still.
My friends, God is real and powerful and is very much with us. God is beautiful and strong as the sun, fierce and bright like fire. But God is not about to single-handedly consume or change anything without human partners in the work.
But my friends, sisters and brothers and siblings, we can do hard things. With the help of God and friends, we too can burn with creative, loving force in the world. We can partner with God to love and nurture. We can partner together, with the inner strength and the inspiration of God, to heal and to do justice, and to remake and transform things and times and cultures and systems for good.
With the help of God and friends, we can do it. For the next several weeks, starting tomorrow, in my weekly Word of the Day on our youtube channel and social media, I’ll be sharing thoughts about a Rule of Life, about a creative, life-giving, God-seeing way in the world we can be rediscovering together. Join me in paying attention to an opportunity of this season. We can do it.
But for today, let me end by praying with us. Katherine Sonderegger ends her meditation on God as unconsuming fire with these beautiful words:
God descends down through the individuals and kinds He has made with His own Life, His own Vitality and Truth, so that they catch Fire, they combust with the Life that is Divine–yet remain their own kind, the bush not consumed.