Sermon preached for the Seventeenth Sunday of Ordinary Time at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.
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.” 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.
Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”
But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’:
This is my name forever,
and this my title for all generations.
I have a dim memory, from when I was about twelve, of standing outside my cousins’ house, helping them load their backpacks and sleeping bags into my mom’s minivan. It was after dinner, and it should have been dark. But the sky was this awful orange color, because the woods behind their house were burning.
The wildfire was still far off, but the air was smoky and sort of acidic, and everything about the world felt wrong. I love the woods at night, but the insects were all too loud and the birds were all too quiet. My family had moved to a different part of town by then but we had lived with my grandparents for a while at the base of the mountain, and it felt like home that was in danger. The adults assured us that there was almost no chance that the fire would make it that far, but still, that orange glow against the horizon didn’t look anywhere near contained. I remember wondering if I’d ever see my grandparents’ house again.
The adults were right, by the way, as they so often are. The fire was contained and put out long before it got near my family’s mountain. My cousins went home after school the next day to my aunt giving her house a good airing out. Salem didn’t lose any houses in that fire, just lots of acres of woodland.
I don’t think I’ve ever connected that story with this one from Exodus before. I love the story of the burning bush, and I’ve always thought of it more like the fire in a fireplace, like the one that same aunt and uncle always have at their house for Christmas Eve. God appearing in the burning bush seems friendly somehow, even hospitable. Take off your shoes and cozy on up.
But this is not a cozy story, and not only because it centers around a wildfire, but because it is a story about God calling Moses to do something near impossible and definitely dangerous. This is the story of God coming out of the blue to say—hey you! Yes, you. I’m about to change your life. It’s about to get a whole lot harder.
One of the gifts in my life, especially in travelling through the ordination process, has been the chance to hear how Christians across the church have experienced a call to do God’s work—not just as pastors, but as educators, mission co-workers, musicians, elders, chaplains, teachers, and so on. Some folks report being terrified by their call, others excited. But at some point most folks confess that they feel overwhelmed by everything God is asking them to do.
Do you ever feel that? When you think about your own call to be a Christian, to follow in the way of Christ, does it get overwhelming? Love your enemy and heal the sick and feed the hungry and welcome the stranger and count your blessings and confess your sin and take up your cross and work for justice and don’t forget to sign up to bring something to the church picnic? Does it ever feel like too much?
There have been lots of studies done on the burnout rate among clergy, the speed with which pastors find themselves drained by the ministry they once felt drawn to. For the most part, these clergy don’t leave the church because they didn’t love their work enough, but because they lost themselves in it to the point where there was nothing left. It didn’t feed them; it consumed them. They love God, but following God’s call left them feeling all burnt up.
There are fewer studies for church members, but I suspect similar dynamics are in play. It takes energy to be Christian. It really does. It takes energy to keep praying and singing and believing and loving. It takes energy to teach Sunday School and fold bulletins and keep up the building. It takes energy to get yourself to church at 10AM on a Labor Day weekend when surely you could be curled up with the paper and a cup of coffee. It takes energy to look at each situation we find ourselves in and ask, not “what do I want to do here?” but “what does God want me to do here?”. And it takes energy to refuse to shut our eyes to the pain of the world, pain that God is always prodding us to heal.
We desperately want our hearts to be on fire for God, but sometimes it seems like we’re just burning out instead.
Which is why I think God shows up the way God does in this passage. God shows up as a fire that does not destroy. As a bush that burns, but is not consumed.
God does not want us to burn out trying to follow our call. God is not interested in making us shriveled husks of ourselves. God will call us to do really, really, really hard stuff, yes—but God does not call us to self-destruct while we do it.
It feels obvious, when I say it like that. But the church has such a long tradition of asking folks to sacrifice themselves to God’s service that I think it needs to be said. God is the fire that burns in us, that animates us, that gives us heat and strength and power. God is not the fire that leaves us dry and brittle and empty inside.
Again, we talk about this a lot in the clergy profession. As a new pastor, I’m part of no fewer than three groups whose goal is to prevent pastor burnout, and I’m grateful for the wisdom those groups impart. Beyond all the tips and tricks, though, I’ve found that there are three anchors that help keep us from burning up and burning out in our work: knowing our call, knowing ourselves, and knowing our God.
Know what your call is.
God is beautifully specific about Moses’ call. “I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” It is an overwhelming, near impossible, possibly deadly job, but at least Moses knows what he’ll be doing. It would be nice if all of us got such specific instructions!
Some folks are blessed with a very specific call, with a strong sense of exactly what God wants them to do and where and how. Most of us don’t get that. Most of us have a more general call—to love, to serve, to pray, to encourage—but the details get left up to us to figure out. And it’s tempting to just sort of coast along on that general sense of call, but I think it’s worth it to explore a little deeper. When we know what our call is, we waste less energy trying to constantly figure it out. The author Frederich Beuchner defined call as “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” As you pray and serve, look for the places where doing God’s work fills you with joy. That may just guide you to your calling.
One last word about call, and I want you to hear this: you are not called to be all things to all people. The body of Christ is big and varied and together we can cover it all, but individually, you are allowed to have things you are not called to do. I was talking with a friend recently who is a hospital chaplain in the ICUs and emergency rooms. Her ministry runs on the knife-edge of adrenaline, and God made her heart and brain to function that way, while my heart and brain would crash and burn within months. At the same time, she told me that she would be exhausted to preach every week. Neither of us would be of most use to God’s people in each other’s careers. But we have each found the thing that fills us with life. We know what we are called to do, and what we are not called to do, and that lets us prioritize where we spend our spiritual energy.
Know who you are.
It follows almost immediately that to know what our calling is, we have to know who we are. After God calls Moses to free the Hebrews, his very first response is to ask “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” I think many of us have asked God a similar question. Who am I to do your work? Really—what do I have to offer you?
I think, at this point in his life, Moses isn’t really sure who he is. He has been a Hebrew among Egyptians and an Egyptian among Hebrews. He has been a child of Pharoah’s court and a fugitive from Pharoah’s punishment. He has lived in the center of the world’s most powerful kingdom and he has worked at his father-in-law’s family business. For many years, he has lived away from Egypt. It’s no wonder that Moses asks “Who am I?”
It is difficult to answer questions about what we are called to if we haven’t taken the time to tell our own stories, learn our own strengths, figure out what gives us energy and what drains us. God made you unique, and to learn about yourself is therefore to honor that God-given uniqueness. It’s easy to fall into roles, in the church, at work, in our families, without ever stopping to realize if they fit us or not. Knowing who we are, what we have to offer, can keep us from taking on a task that chafes at us—or, alternatively, can help us change how we respond to that task so that we come from a position of personal strength.
First and foremost, though, who we are is God’s children. God reminds Moses that God is the God of Moses’ father, of Moses’ people. That means we are not God. We are not the saviors here. We belong to the One who loves us and cherishes us whether or not we are getting things right. When we are exhausted, we can always fall back into God’s arms; God never turns us away.
Know who your God is.
Which is why it’s so important to know who our God is. This one seems almost too easy. God is God. But for so many folks, their idea of God is skewed to the point where God becomes a source of guilt for not having done enough, or a source of fear for not being good enough. These folks can’t find rest in God because they can’t believe God wants them to rest. But after all, the whole purpose of Moses’ call is to free the Hebrews from their taskmasters. God wants their freedom, and their peace. God’s not gunning for the suffering of God’s people, but their freedom. That goes for us, too.
This is the first time in scripture that God gives out a name, and it’s a strange and beautiful one. We translate it I AM—in the Hebrew it looks like four consonants that are unpronounceable together. And it means simply, that God is who God is, and I think that’s a model for us too, like the bush, that we can be who we are, and not try to be someone else. We can let us be us and God be God.
There were times in my ordination process that were particularly stressful; times when I was pushed past my comfort zone, to the edges of what I feel capable of. Sometimes that was a very good thing, but still, it was like I could see that orange glow in the sky, and know that the fire was burning out of control not too far away. What helped me recenter myself was a simple mantra, one that could be repeated in the car or waiting for a committee meeting: I am called. I am Carol. I am God’s.
You are called. You are you. You are God’s.
We all have work to do that drains us, whether it’s a difficult project at work or getting through the afternoon with a screaming toddler or keeping up with the news of a world that seems to be getting harsher every day. But knowing who we are and whose we are can help us from getting burned out. We can draw strength from God’s fire. We don’t have to let it consume us.
One last tip for avoiding burnout from Moses: he took the time to enter sacred space. He took the time to stand on holy ground. He took the time to talk with God.
And that is why it is so important that we gather here, in this sanctuary, to worship and pray and yes, to sit and rest. That’s why it’s so important that we take this hour—and other hours in the week, too—to stop and refill ourselves with God’s peace and God’s presence. God calls us to do hard work—radically hard work—and we cannot do it alone.
But if we take the time to rest and center ourselves, the time to figure out what it is we’re meant to do, and what it is we aren’t, then God will show up in us.
Then we get to be the ones that burn but aren’t consumed.
We get to be the bright beacons in someone else’s wilderness, pointing the way to freedom.
By God’s grace, we get to be the miracles.
So burn for God. Burn and do not be consumed. Amen.