I’ve always been a walker. I always go on walks to clear my head, to process thoughts, to pray, to be with God. As a child I meandered in the abandoned lots behind the apartment complexes our family occupied. Or I walked down the side of the long highway to the mall and back. In seminary, my best friend and I used to walk across New York City for hours in the middle of the night, our path always inevitably drawn into the bright lights of times square which felt so much like the heart of everything and whose glow could be so easily traced from so many blocks away. Now that I live in Portland, I follow roses. When I’m walking through the blocks in my neighborhood I let my eyes wander until they catch some marvelous splash of flame-tipped peach or smoldering red, and wherever the color spot may be I let myself veer from my path to get a closer look. I cannot help but literally stop and smell the roses here in Portland, but of course its so much more than their aroma. It is color, it is light. It is the sight of lady bugs and aphids in their own competing thirsts. It is the wonder of a rising bud, knowing that it can open in such seemingly perpetual self-disclosure. Whether it be to bright flashing lights or colorful blooms, Times Square or my neighbor’s garden, I am drawn in every time, and I often find myself in awe of the broader world beyond me. I feel, in these moments, like the poet Mary Oliver, who writes, “My work is loving the world./ Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird- /equal seekers of sweetness… Are my boots old?Is my coat torn? Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me/ keep my mind on what matters,/ which is my work,// which is mostly standing still and learning to be/ astonished.”
I do not know whether to call this attraction of my attention miraculous or not. When Moses is drawn aside from the flock he is pasturing this morning, it is for a sight that defies the laws of nature. A fire burns without consuming. This is peculiar enough for him to stop what he is doing and take a closer look. When God sees that he is paying attention, God speaks to him personally. I’ve sometimes wished for God to speak to me so directly, but I have to admit this has never happened. As a priest and a chaplain and even as a preschool teacher, I have heard many stories from people’s lives about times when they have experienced the voice and presence of God unequivocally. I have heard stories of when miraculous healing occurred against all odds, when life sprang up from near-death. I have heard stories about recovery from addiction which began with the resolute intervention of a higher power. I have heard people talk about experiencing moments in their lives that seemed to shimmer with perfect clarity about their purpose and role in life. For each of these, I have also heard many stories where healing did not come, where God seemed to be silent, and where days and years have passed by in ordinary, uninspired ambiguity. In one of my favorite John Donne poems, he prays, “Batter my heart, three-personed God, for you as yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend.” In other words: I could really stand a clear word from you God, but if I’m going to hear it over the din of this world you’ll need to shout, and right now you only seem to be whispering. Please, command my full attention, show me the path to take, give me a sign. It doesn’t even have to be a burning bush, I’d settle for a heart on fire most days.
I don’t know whether the story of Moses’ encounter with God would have made as lasting a scriptural impression if he had simply been drawn aside by the natural beauty of a bush and not it’s miraculously non-consuming flame. I do know that once God has Moses’ attention, he lets him know that he has been paying attention, too. He has been paying attention to outcry of his people. Nahum Sarna notes here that the word for outcry, “tsa-ah-kah” is one of the most powerful in the Hebrew language. He says this is a word “pervaded by moral outrage and soul-stirring passion, it denotes the anguished cry of the oppressed, the agonized plea of the helpless victim.” In other words, once Moses has begun to pay attention to something miraculously awe-inspiring, God lets him know that he has been paying attention to something painful. While we are attracted to flashing beauty and light, moments of great awe-inspiring insight and health and wholeness, God has been paying attention to the things we might rather avoid, places that need healing, people who need justice, prayers that have remained unanswered and unheard. And like Peter, when Jesus sets his own gaze upon suffering, Moses balks. Moses thinks God’s aim is too grand for him. I imagine that Moses, like Peter, would have preferred to gaze upon the miraculously unnatural glory of God than upon the systemic, violent suffering of his own people.
And wouldn’t we all? Don’t voices of complaint get old? Especially now in the age of social media, it really only takes a week or two for a particular issue to completely exhaust our attention. We habituate to the things we think we know. We grow accustomed to our own helplessness. We would rather the shouts be dimmed to a whisper, so as not to compete with the volume of our own priorities. As the complaint of our black brothers and sisters has risen this summer over being systematically and inequitably targeted simply for the color of their skin, some have have remained silent, some have tried to divert the conversation away from race, and at least one school district in Illinois has banned conversation of Fergusson and Michael Brown from its classrooms. It may be a good time to remember what God does when God hears outcry. God draws near. God draws Moses in. God incarnates a response.
Incarnating a response may be the perfect medicine for our current media culture, so much of which is consumed in isolation behind computer and television screens. What are the things we can do to make our response to the cries we hear real and tangible? In our forum next week we’ll speak about specific ways that we can process and respond to the news of Ferguson in concrete and tangible ways. God’s call to us, God’s draw on our attention may not always be miraculous, it may come in the simple attention paid to the natural beauty of the world, but it is always clear in its direction, towards those people who are crying out in anguish for our help. God is in both, the miraculous beauty and the agonizing pain, and through the incarnation of his son, and of this church, he will raise both to greater glory.