Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you,
O Lord, my rock, and my redeemer.
This past Monday, I received in my email an old Jewish morning prayer. It dates from the 16th century and Jewish tradition calls for this prayer to be said when one first opens your eyes, before you get out of bed. The prayer is only four short sentences, talking to God.
I gratefully acknowledge Your Face;
Spirit lives and endures.
You return my soul to me with compassion;
How great is your faith in me!
It seems the last line of this morning prayer – “How great is your faith in me!” and a line from our collect are connected - “bring forth in us the fruit of good works.” These words can also be used to frame our readings for today as we reflect on these questions,
“Where is God?” and “What must we do?”
So here we are, together - on ZOOM, again. What brought us to this point is not easily forgotten. The first case of COVID in Oklahoma was reported on March 7; and the first Oklahoma death eleven days later, the shutdown on March 24.
For many this period has been spent “attending” Church by looking at a computer monitor. For too many it has meant the loss of jobs, stretched finances, and unsettled futures. It has included the illness or loss of loved ones, fellow parishioners, and friends.
We have not been allowed to reach out, to support, to comfort or to be comforted. For many of us, the losses can be close to unbearable.
And we cry out – “Where is God?”
At this same time, while we manage our isolation and distance ourselves from illness, we also see the disorder within our country, within our society. The taking of George Floyd’s life on May 25th, and just this week, the assault against Jacob Blake, are recent, horrific examples. For many, these events have brought an awareness of a pandemic of a different kind, a pandemic of inequities within our country. Too often the opportunities offered and assumed to be available for all, have been withheld systematically from many. The history of these injustices begins over 400 years ago in August 1619 in the Colony of Virginia when Africans were sold into slavery.
And if we listen, we can hear them cry… Where is God?
Still, our opening prayer calls for our rejoicing at the morning light— How great is Your faith in me. In the Book of Exodus, we read of the fulfillment of the divine promise to increase the children of Jacob, who become the Israelites. And while Israel grew into a great nation, they find themselves in Egypt where the practices of oppression and genocide are the norm.
We hear their cry, “Where is God?”
I think an answer exists in our opening reading. Today, we hear the story of the burning bush. As “Moses kept the flock of his father-in-law,” we might imagine Moses on a beautiful, sunny day, keeping these sheep.
We would expect that Moses wasn’t looking for a miracle—just as we likely would not set our sights on a miracle, either. Moses was only trying to get through this ordinary day.
But God had other plans.
“There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush.”
Now it’s common in Scripture to use winds, fires, and earthquakes to serve as messengers of God. In these situations, God is present with his people. And in this lesson, we also learn of God’s motives for appearing. God is not deaf. God has been listening to the cries of his people. We read, “the Lord said, ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry…” and later, “The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them.”
But “Moses looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.”
Most of us have heard the story of the flaming bush—but a bush on fire that is not consumed? As a person anchored in the physical sciences, I know that a flaming bush that is not consumed is really not possible! That’s just not the way of the world! My guess is, Moses was grounded in the physical world too—not grounded in the physical sciences, but as a shepherd, Moses met nature every day. And Moses surely knew that fire burns things up! We might imagine Moses being surprised, maybe even afraid.
As I reflect on this image of a burning bush not consumed by flame, I am encouraged to see that this is a symbol of God’s unquenchable fire of Love. This flaming bush which remains unconsumed reflects God’s undying care for us.
It reflects his unfailing desire to reassure us. God tells us he will always be with us. After Moses’ surprise and fear, I wonder if he may not have also felt reassured, felt loved.
In this fire that does not consume, I also see the Church. Here too is where God’s Spirit will always reside, regardless of pandemics, financial instability, or social unrest. Today we find our lives and even the church engulfed in unprecedented situations—but like the bush, the Church is not consumed by it.
Maybe when we look, we find our own burning bush. Early this week, I was reminded of God’s unchanging love and presence while sitting at my desk. I was looking out the window, the stars were visible. As I sat there, I saw what I thought was the North Star. After several days of looking every morning, my observation was confirmed. It struck me that the North Star represented a burning bush to me.
It reminded me of God’s promise to be with us--always! When I see the North Star, I imagine the generations that have gone before and the future generations that have and will look on that same star. God’s love was with them, is with us, and always will be. Even in the darkest times, God’s love is with us.
So, given these signs and promises, how will we respond? Our Gospel lesson for today gives us guidance. In St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus teaches his disciples for the first time that God’s purpose involves Jesus’ death and resurrection. Peter responds, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”
But Jesus’ response is to say to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Suffering and death were not the future Peter envisioned for the Messiah, and they were not the future he envisioned for himself, either. But Jesus knows he is not going to Jerusalem in search of death... Jesus was going to Jerusalem...in search of life! Jesus tells us, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Saving one’s life means conforming to the injustices of the present, for opting for our self-interests. It is giving in to the flesh. It is focusing on human things, not divine things. We try to hold on to our lives.
The moment we start to fear death, it will not be long before we start to fear life. …the moment we start to fear death, it will not be long before we start to fear life.
Let us also recognize that Jesus directing Peter to get behind him is no accident. To place Peter behind Jesus is to place him in a position of following Jesus. Have no doubt: Peter was a leader, and he was also a devoted follower of Jesus—a servant-leader.
This is our place, our position and calling, too. Jesus calls us to be his disciples, Jesus’ servant-leaders.
Like Moses, we spend much of our time “just keeping the flock,” doing our jobs, tending our relationships, our lives. And like Moses and the Israelites, we too to cry out,
“Where are we? When will it end? Where is God?”
The burning bush that is not consumed reminds us that God is always present with us. Where is God? God is always with us! God is presence in our lives, in our Church, in those around us. God is in the temple that is our world, an unspoken statement of his presence.
God is expressing his faith in us—in me and you! How great is God’s faith in me! In you! God affirms this every morning.
And with this awareness comes our call to action. God – though Jesus has given us a road map. Jesus has demonstrated how to model love for all. He calls us to discipleship, to follow.
Let us be present to God
Let us extend the love of God to all.
~ Deacon Intern Todd Olberding, St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church