Turning Aside, Turning Towards
Exodus 3: 1-15
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.
7 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, 8 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. 9 The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. 10 So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”
11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” 12 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.”
13 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?” 14 God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.”[a] He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”
15 God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD,[b] 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.
While I was on vacation, Hope and I went camping for three days. We just went to Kitty Coleman campground, 15 minutes from home, but it was lovely. We spent our time reading, eating, swimming and walking. As we drove home, both of us said how nice it had been to get away. We didn't think about Covid or school or anything serious.
Canadians always love getting away in summer, but I think this year many people have been feeling more stress than usual so there was an even stronger need to “get away” in some form or another.
But now it's September, and there is a sense of it being time to get back into routine, except we don't know what our routine is. Normally in the church we would be having Sundaes on Sunday around now to celebrate the renewal of the church year, committees would be getting going, small groups would starting up again, there would be new directions, new projects.
This year is different. Quite a few committees and small groups are active, but it looks different, we are having to discern new ways of being. We are a lot like Mose in today's story, out in the wilderness, being asked to take a new path, a new direction in life, being asked to enter into the unknown with God.
I think that the story of Moses encountering God in the burning bush has a lot to teach us at this time in our lives and our world, and not only because sometimes it feels that world is literally on fire right now.
Looking at the story, it seems to me there are two key moments – when Moses turns aside to look at the bush and takes off his shoes, and when he turns toward God's call, not exactly agreeing to do what God is asking, but at least listening to what God has to say.
As we regroup as a church family this fall, it's important for us to have a sense of turning aside from the busyness and stresses of our lives, and taking time for faith. Because let's face it, there are a lot of distractions out there.
If you are a parent or a teacher, you are faced with a back to school plan that is, how can I put it, less than reassuring. Worry over that extends to grandparents who see their grandchildren on a regular basis, and who are therefore impacted by what happens at school.
Many people have adapted their social lives to doing outdoor gatherings, but as the weather cools, there is worry about how we will be able to socialize when we can't meet outdoors so easily. All sorts of Covid related worries fill our minds and dominate our lives.
And then there's the news! As I said earlier, sometimes it literally feels like the world is on fire and that adds a whole other layer of stress to our lives.
So now more than ever we need to find ways to turn aside from all that stress and craziness, to take off our shoes and just be with God, realizing that holy ground is everywhere, and therefore we can take off our shoes to experience it anywhere. We can turn aside through traditional prayer or meditation, through being in the wilderness or the garden, through music or art or hugs or my favorite, kayaking.
Hopefully our worship services also help you turn aside, because turning aside to be with God isn't just an individual thing, it's important to do it together as a community as well, even if it's virtual rather than in person.
But of course, we can't just stay turned aside all the time. After turning aside, Moses was called by God to turn towards God's people, the people whose cries God had heard and whose pain God knew, and told to go to Pharaoh and set those people free. In the same way, we are called to turn towards God's people who are in pain today.
The hard part is figuring out what that looks like, isn't it? In some ways it was easier for Moses, or at least it was more straightforward. Go to Pharaoh, demand that he set God's people free. Not only is the modern equivalent of Pharaoh not obvious, but we are aware of so many more people who are oppressed in so many different ways. How do we know where to start or what to do?
It's easy to feel overwhelmed right now. Covid is bad enough, but being close neighbours with the United States adds a whole other layer of anxiety and fear. Think this cartoon says it all:
It was 7 years ago that Robin Williams said about Canada: “You are the kindest country in the world. You are like a really nice apartment over a meth lab.” If he were alive today he would probably add, and the meth lab is on fire.
This is not to say Canada is “better” than the United States. We have our own issues and as we have talked about before, in many ways the growing awareness of racism and how destructive it is on so many levels in the US is waking Canadians up to our own racism and its destructiveness.
But the growing chaos in the United States is affecting us in many ways. I have talked to numerous people in the past few weeks who are feeling anxious and stressed by what they see in the news about the US, about rampant Covid cases, and growing anger and conflict over racial tension, and fears for the next election. These are people of faith who want to turn towards God's people who are in pain and being oppressed, but who haven't got a clue where to start and feel overwhelmed every time they watch the news or even go on FaceBook.
This is where we sometimes need to turn aside in order to turn towards.
It's okay to turn aside from the news to quite a degree. I remember a dear woman in Nova Scotia who had CNN on all day. She was feeling overwhelmed by all the terrible news. Finally I discovered that she didn't realize most of news was repeated over and over again throughout the day. She thought each report on a fire or a shooting was a new one! So I said, Lila, just watch CBC or CTV at 6pm, that's all you need to stay current, because of course as a good United Church member, she wanted to know what was happening in the world and pray about it. Her stress levels went down significantly after that.
Turning towards God's hurting people doesn't mean you have to feel responsible for everything. When you're feeling overwhelmed by the news, it's important to find ways of dealing with that stress. The first step is figuring out what you can control and what you can't, what actually impacts you and what doesn't.
For example, the American election is stressful and scary, but we have no role in it and while it may have some impact on us, it isn't direct or life changing. When I realized I was spending more mental energy worrying about the American postal system and how changes to it were affecting their election than I was spending on climate change or housing, I knew was time to take break from articles about it. I can actually make a difference with climate change and housing, but there's nothing I can do about the American postal system. Reading about it stressed me out with no purpose.
However my approach to issues around race in the US, such as the protests in Wisconsin over the shooting of Jacob Blake, a young Black man last week, is different. I still try not to get too wrapped up in details. There is nothing I can do about how Trump is handling it and making things worse. But what I can do is continue to grow my own awareness of racism in Canada and of greater societal racism, and see where I can make changes in my attitudes and actions and perhaps help others to do so too.
Then there's that great equalizer and source of stress, Covid. We can't avoid that one, can we. We need to stay informed so we know what is safe, what changes are happening in our society.
In terms of turning towards those who are hurting because of it, there is actually quite a bit we can do. Emotional support for those who are feeling overwhelmed and scared is essential. Teacher friends of mine say just having someone to talk to about their fears and concerns is really helpful to them. If someone you know is feeling scared and overwhelmed about Covid, you don't have to come up with any solutions, just listen to them. Let them know you care about them and their feelings.
It's also really important to just to follow the darned guidelines! I know we're getting tired of them, but it's so important to respect them, When you think you just can't take any more distancing or sanitizing, take a deep breath, remind yourself “I'm not just doing this for myself, I'm doing this for others, especially those who are more vulnerable.” As a society we've gotten tired of being thoughtful, many of us just want to focus on our own needs, but now more than ever we have to keep the big picture in mind.
Our faith journey is a constant movement back and forth between turning aside and turning towards. We see that in Moses throughout the whole Exodus story, he leads the people, he goes away to talk with God, he comes back to lead again. We also see that he is not alone in the journey, at one point he designates 50 elders to help him.
This is a journey where we need our faith community. Church offers us many opportunities to turn aside and turn towards. During worship services we try to do both. Even during Covid times we try to offer other opportunities for both, through the social justice committee, book groups, other groups, and we will be doing vespers and more. It's hard for any of us alone to face the fires of our times, but together we can find the strength and wisdom to find our way.
And of course, just as Moses, we are not alone in our journey. Remember the beauty of God's name, “I am who I am”, also translated “I will be what I will be,” or even more comforting, “I am the one who endures.” There is such a wonderful sense of constancy and connection to that name.
No matter what may come our way in 2020 and beyond, whether we are turning aside or turning towards, God will be our constant, the one who is with us.