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turn aside
a sermon preached by Erin Dunigan

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. 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.

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.”                                                      – Exodus 3:1-5

 

…..

 What made him Moses was his willingness to turn aside…

It’s a quote from Barbara Brown Taylor’s latest book, An Altar in the World. I had to stop and re-read that line.

What made him Moses was his willingness to turn aside…

Even if you are not familiar with all of the details of Moses’ life, my guess is that most of us have at least some sense of his rather important place in the story of the Bible.  

Moses is the one to whom God’s name is revealed. Moses is the one who goes to Pharaoh and says let my people go  enough times that finally Pharoah does. Moses is the one who leads the people out of Eypt, from their lives of slavery, and on the journey toward the promised land. Moses is the one who meets God on the mountain top and to whom are given the 10 commandments.

Moses has a pretty big role, when it comes to the stories of the Bible.

I wonder…. What if Moses had been talking on his cell phone? Or texting? Would he have walked right by the burning bush without even noticing it?

What made him Moses was his willingness to turn aside…

One of my favorite modern day theologians is travel writer Rick Steves.

I first encountered him while living in Scotland, doing a lot of traveling around Western Europe. He says this:

We travel to enjoy differences—to become temporary locals. You’ll experience frustrations. Certain truths that we find self evident—ice in your drinks or venti-sized coffees are suddenly not so. One of the eye opening realizations is that there are logical, civil, and even better alternatives.

Globe trotting destroys ethnocentricity. It helps you understand and appreciate different cultures. Travel changes people. It broadens perspectives and teaches new ways to measure quality of life. The prized souvenirs are the strands of different cultures that become knit into your own character.

After graduating from seminary I spent a year living in Scotland. It was a wonderful year, but it also took some ajdustment, living in a new culture—even if they did presumably speak the same language.

One day I was walking out of a photography store, happily looking at my freshly printed photos, when I was stopped in my tracks—literally—by the shop door, which I had just run into. It wasn’t that I didn’t see the door, I did. With the photos in one hand, I put the other on the door handle and pushed.

Part of what I like about travel and experiencing different cultures is that it helps me to see things that I had never known or noticed before—both in the new culture, but it also helps me to see my own culture more clearly.

What became clear that day as I literally ran into the door as I tried to push it open was that, actually I needed to pull the door. I had been awkwardly leaving shops for weeks before this. I had never bothered to notice that in the United States you most often push the door to exit. 

There’s nothing like immersing yourself in a new or different place for helping heighten your ability to, but also your need to pay attention.

Moses had traveled a long way from home.  The text says he was out beyond the wilderness—even farther than the boonies—at Mt. Horeb, the mountain of God. This mountain, by the way, is also called Mt. Sinai, and is the place to which he will return later to receive the stone tablets of the 10 commandments.

But for now he is just Moses. Fairly ordinary.  A guy not leading people, but sheep.  

Who knows how long he had been out there. Was he lonely? Tired? Hungry? Bored?

The thing is, Moses was a long way from home, if home were to be considered Midian.  But Midian was not even his true home.

Moses, as those who have grown up with the Sunday school tale know, was an Israelite. Because the pharaoh had ordered it, all baby boys born to the Israelites were to be killed. So Moses’ mother put him in a basket of reeds and into the river where he happened to be found by none other than the daughter of Pharaoh. She took pity on the baby and rescued him, raising him as her own son in the house of Pharaoh.

Everything was going well until one day, Moses possibly wrestling with the issues of his identity—an Israelite, a member of an oppressed group of people, growing up in the house of Pharaoh, the source of his people’s oppression.  One day he saw an Egyptian beating one of the Hebrews and so Moses decided to intervene. He did so, and killed the Egyptian. This, as you might expect, did not sit well with Pharaoh, so Moses was forced to flee. He fled to Midian.

So when we find Moses by the burning bush he had traveled a long way from home—if he even knew where home might be.

…..

A few weeks ago I was in Mexico and was invited by my friends, Jose and Vita, to come over to their house for fish tacos. I’ve known them a long time, and have shared many meals with them, and many conversations, though always either at my house or the house of other Americans in the community. My Spanish is pretty good, and they both have fairly good English, so communication is rarely a problem.

But this Friday night was the first time I had ever been to their house. Jose came to pick me up, as their house is on a rather steep hillside, with pot holed dirt roads and he thought it would be easier than me finding it and finding my way. That also meant that I would go home whenever he took me home.

Everything was going well. We arrived. I greeted Vita. Their son Alejandro came through the door. I know him, greeted him. Then their nephew Beto came in. I know him as well, and greeted him.

And then all of a sudden the door burst open and in came their daughter, son in law and their little baby—who all live in the States—followed by family members who were all excited to greet them and welcome them ‘home.’ At once the house was full of people, all speaking Spanish, at the same time, rapidly. Suddenly, I had no idea what anyone was saying, or what was going on. I didn’t understand a word.

Though I was an invited guest, and most definitely welcomed, I was also a stranger. It made me realize how they must feel like so much of the time when they are invited to my house, or the house of other Americans, full of people talking all at once, in English.

I also realized that it also heightened my senses of observation, since I felt very, very lost. I had to pay more attention, because I could take nothing for granted.

Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbit of Great Britain says: “The Hebrew Bible in one verse commands ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ but in no fewer than 36 places commands us to love the stranger.”

When we allow ourselves to be strangers we are in the position of receiving hospitality from another. We are not in control. 

The Hebrew Bible says to welcome the stranger because you remember what it was like to be a stranger…if we are never in that position, how can we possibly remember what it is like?

Moses was a stranger. 

From the moment he was picked up out of the river by Pharaoh’s daughter, he was an Israelite living in the house of Pharaoh. When he was forced to flee he became even a stranger from his adopted identity. In the land of Midian he was in a new place, with different customs, different ways, amongst people who followed a different God.  Moses was a stranger.

I wonder. Did this make him more able to notice the burning bush?

Did this help him to pay attention?

Was this part of what allowed him on that day, to see the burning bush, and not to walk on by, but to stop, to take notice, and to turn aside?

In the book of Luke, on the day of Jesus’ resurrection, there is a story of two people walking along the road to Emmaus. A stranger joins them. They don’t know it, but it is Jesus. He walks with them until they arrive at their destination. He acts as though he will keep going, but they insist that he stop with them and accept their hospitality. It is when they sit down to eat, as he breaks the bread, that they realize who he is.

In the story of Abraham and Sarah, it is the strangers they welcome who end up being the messengers of God who announce the good news that Sarah will bear a child.

Why do we welcome the stranger? Why do we turn aside?

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.”

Yes, Moses  was far from home and yes Moses was a stranger and yes, these are both qualities we might do well to welcome into our lives and cultivate.

But the thing is, you don’t have to go far from home…

Moses was also doing what he probably did most every day—he was tending the sheep. It wasn’t a religious holiday. He didn’t go to church or even some special sacred place. It’s not that God can’t be found in these places. But Moses encountered God there, out beyond the wilderness, in the midst of his normal and perhaps even mundane daily task.

We can learn to be mindful, to pay attention, here and now.

Barbara Brown Taylor also says this:  “The practice of paying attention really does take time. Most of us move so quickly that our surroundings become no more than the blurred scenery we fly past on our way to somewhere else.”

What if we were to take a moment to turn aside?

I invite you, right where you are, right where you are sitting, to take off your shoes. If you have your holy socks on, all the better—we’re in church. You don’t have to do this, no one is going to force you. But if you are willing, reach down, take off your shoes. Rest your feet on the ground.  Let them feel the touch of the floor.

As Kelly comes forward to sing, I invite you to sit in stillness. Close your eyes if you’d like. But give yourself these moments to simply be present. Be mindful. If thoughts come to you, allow them to simply pass right on by. Invite God into the space, but don’t fill it up with words or with prayers or other noise. Feel the holy ground beneath your feet as you sit and listen.

What made him Moses was his willingness to turn aside… Who knows who you and I might become, if we but turn aside?

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