The world is on fire. At least that’s how I often feel when I watch the news or read articles on the internet and social media. Across this country and across the globe there are always fires smoldering somewhere, ready to erupt into flames in the form of hatred and anger and violence. Innocent people just trying to do their job are gunned down senselessly in broad daylight. Children are kidnapped and sold into prostitution and slavery around the world. Sacred, historical temples are demolished to rubble for no rational reason.
Difference breeds violence. For some reason it’s too difficult to understand someone, to get to know someone, to be in conversation with someone. Instead, human beings enable ignorance to grow into fear. And we allow fear to breed mistrust. And we channel mistrust to stoke our anger. And sure enough, soon enough our anger boils over into hatred and destruction.
The world is on fire. Make no mistake, however. What we are witnessing in 2015 is not new. Something similar happened back in the time of Moses…
Back in the days of Exodus, Moses was living in Egypt and watching every day as his Hebrew brothers and sisters were oppressed, abused, and mistreated by their Egyptian masters. Those days in Egypt were frustrating and unjust and sure enough, soon enough, violence begat more violence. With Moses squarely in the middle.
One day out in the field, Moses witnessed one of his Hebrew kin killed by an Egyptian. He looked one way and then the other until he was convinced the coast was clear and no one would see what he was about to do. Quickly and brutally Moses rose up, killed the Egyptian perpetrator, and buried him before anyone noticed. When power is out of balance and one group of people uses and abuses another, the moral compass skews and twists. Anger burns and boils over, the fire rages, and in this story the end result was Moses killing one of his captors.
The very next day Moses set out to arbitrate between two members of his own community who were fighting with each other over a dispute. But Moses no longer had the credibility he needed. The two who were fighting called Moses up short. “Who are you to talk to us?” they confronted Moses. “You yourself killed the Egyptian.”
Afraid for his reputation, afraid he would be exposed and his murder made public, afraid of the reprisals he expected from the Egyptians as a consequence of his actions…maybe even afraid that his own impulses would turn him toward violence again in the future…Moses ran away.
Moses didn’t know exactly where he was fleeing. Yet it didn’t ultimately matter. He was escaping the bad memories. Escaping a world where he had no power to make any changes. Away from the cruelty of his captors and the kind of routine violence he witnessed every day. On the run and into hiding.
Somewhere in the land of Midian, Moses finally settled down and went about creating a quiet life for himself. With his Hebrew brothers and sisters back in Egypt, Moses no longer had to come to terms with the suffering of his own people. The only thing Moses failed to take into account was God. For even though Moses had fled from the land of bondage, God continued to hear and to see the despair of Moses’ brothers and sisters, God’s own chosen people. And despite Moses’ best efforts at anonymity, God decided to fight fire with fire.
Moses was out tending his flock one day, peaceful, secure, content. Maybe he was in denial. But at least he was far enough from Egypt to put that life chapter in the back of his mind…
Suddenly, however, an angel sent by God appeared in a bush in a flame of fire bearing a message. It was sticky and hot in Midian, likely even hotter than it’s been here in South Windsor all week. Still despite the heat of the day and the heat of the flames, the burning bush was not consumed.
Out of the bush, God spoke. “Moses, remove the sandals from your feet for the place where you are standing is holy ground. I am the God of your ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel and Leah.” As Moses listened to the talking, flaming bush, he was both entranced and terrified.
“I have seen the misery of my people who are still in Egypt,” God continued, “and I am sending you back to Egypt to bring my people out of the land of slavery and captivity.”
“Nooooooo! Send me anywhere but Egypt… I can’t go back to the place where my worst memories unfolded. If I go back to Egypt my violent act will be exposed and the Egyptians will exact revenge on me. Besides I don’t want to hear the cries of my people anymore. I’m afraid, I’m tired, and I’ve had enough.”
Moses was sure his protestations would put him in the good graces of a loving, supportive God. But he was mistaken. Instead of a reprieve, a last minute pardon, any word of sympathy, God threw Moses out into a world on fire.
As far as God was concerned, somebody had to deliver God’s people from slavery. And God chose Moses to fight fire with fire. To fight the fire of injustice and hatred and oppression with a different kind of fire. Not fire that destroys and brings death and inflames hatred and division and breeds violence. Rather the kind of fire that longs for life, that illuminates peace, that burns away all that discriminates and subjugates and alienates. God’s holy fire rages whenever God’s people are in distress.
It was that kind of holy fire ablaze in the burning bush. And God told Moses to take that holy fire back with him to the land of Egypt.
“But who am I to do that?” Moses pleaded. It was a last gasp effort to beg for God’s clemency. And it’s hard to second guess the question. It’s a “the world is too big and I’m too small” question. It’s a “the problems are too significant and I’m too insignificant” question. The world is filled with too much hatred and injustice and suffering and I’m pretty much helpless to do something about it. That’s what Moses tried to say. And by the way while Moses was arguing his case, why couldn’t God just go find someone else?
The question Moses asked out in the Midian wilderness has a familiar ring to it. “Who am I?” was the way Moses voiced it. “Who are we?” is a question we often ask in the 2015 church. Who are we to go out into a world that frightens us and overwhelms us? It’s a whole lot easier and safer and less stressful to stay in denial in our quiet sanctuary and building. Churches are often referred to by names such as “house of bread” or “house of prayer” or “house of God.” Sometimes the more fitting name might be “house of fear.”
But like the bush that burned and was not consumed, God’s fire does not extinguish. And God’s call does not cease either. “Go back into the world,” God tells us. “I know you are afraid and I know you’d rather hide and hope someone else steps up instead.”
For the Christian church and its people, however, there will be no Godly reprieve. God will continue sending you and me out to find the marginalized, to see the invisible, to fight for the victimized, to empower the dehumanized. God will keep calling us to work for justice in a world engulfed in the flames of injustice. Fighting fire with God’s holy fire…
Looking back, the only loose end in today’s story of the burning bush is that God didn’t really answer the key question. Standing out there in front of the talking, burning bush, Moses needed clarification. “Who am I? Who am I to do these things for you, God?”
And God’s response…? “I will be with you.” God could have added so many other things. Who are you Moses? You are a person who walks with God. You are a person who does not need to be afraid. You will learn to love the fire. You will embrace the call to be my spokesperson in a broken world that needs to hear my voice. You are my sign of hope.
God never went there though. And as a result of God’s lack of clarity, the question Moses asked long ago still lingers in the hearts and minds of God’s people today. “Who are we…who are we to do these things for you, God?”
The funny thing if we’re waiting to hear something different I doubt God’s answer will change. “I will be with you.” Right there fighting the fires by your side. “I will be with you.” Amen.