March 25, 2018

Burning Bush Moment: Palm Sunday

Since the First Sunday in Lent we have been looking at ‘burning bush moments’ when Jesus’ encounter with someone or some situation dramatically changed the story. Today is Palm Sunday, the start of Holy Week when in Christian churches around the world, the final events of Jesus life will be remembered in various way. There will be worship services, music, enactments, videos, sunrise services, vigils, prayers, and other activities.
Probably some participants at these activities will find themselves confronted with a ‘burning bush moment’-a time when God comes close and lives are changed. Maybe it will be you.

What about the men and women who were present during the events of that first Holy Week?

It started out normally enough with Jesus and his followers on the way to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. One of the disciples goes to the city to find a room for them to hold the special meal, just like hundreds of others in the city and across Israel. Another disciple borrows a donkey for Jesus to ride. Then the dynamic of the day changes. Other pilgrims on the way to Jerusalem recognize Jesus and start shouting ‘Hosanna’.

Some of us are old enough to remember the song “Hosanna” from Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), which sets the stage for the conflict between Jesus and the Temple authorities. And it seems a revival of the show will be on TV on Easter Sunday. 
As the events of the day and week continue, Jesus washes his disciples’ feet and institutes what we now celebrate as Eucharist (Communion, Mass, Last Supper). This is remembered on Thursday of Holy Week during Maundy Thursday services. There will be foot washing ceremonies, rites honoring the sacrament, and probably other remembrances. Many churches will take time to revisit the time in the Garden of Gethsemane when the disciples cannot stay awake with Jesus before he is arrested. The Gospels tell us that ‘the disciples deserted him and fled’. We modern disciples are invited to ‘watch and pray’.

Then we come to the tragedy of Good Friday when Jesus is condemned and crucified. Only the women and John the Apostle are known to be at the cross. After his death, Jesus in buried by Joseph of Arimathea and the women in Joseph’s tomb. Imagine the despair.

Where in those events can we relate to any ‘burning bush moments’?

In the dramatic entrance into Jerusalem, maybe some in the crowd had a glimpse of someone greater than a ‘superstar’. Perhaps in the washing of their feet, some of the disciples felt a nudge of the institution of a new order where the teacher serves the students, where the leader is slave to those who should serve. Could it be that Pilate wanted to believe that more than a man stood before him as he asked, ‘what is Truth’? The Centurion in charge of the crucifixion recognized the ‘burning bush’. He states, ‘truly this is the son of God’. Joseph of Arimathea honors the man he had hoped was more than a man by offering his own grave. Did he have an inkling of the events to come?

Where will you meet Jesus in a burning bush moment this week? Try to take time to notice the “Earth [that is] is crammed with heaven,/And every bush is aflame with God”. Let yourself “see, [and] take off [your] shoes." (Elizabeth Barrett Browning. If you are aware you will see beyond the blackberries in the bush! 

March 18, 2018

Burning Bush Moment: In the Storm

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s quote, “Earth is crammed with heaven,/And every bush is aflame with God/But only those who see, take off their shoes/The rest sit around it and pluck blackberries” has been our touchstone throughout this series. It can be fairly easy to find a bush that burns in the day to day living. It just takes pausing to look around. When we are sick, like Simon’s mother-in-law, we can find a burning bush in getting well. In our times of seeking, we can, with Nicodemus find a burning bush when we get answers. Martha, in her busyness of preparing dinner had a hard time seeing the burning bush, but she was changed anyway.

As we continue our Lent search for burning bushes, we might ask where do we find a burning bush when all hope seems lost? Where do we look for a burning bush when we are adrift in a storm? Jesus and his disciples were in just that situation. We hear the story in Mark 4:35-41, also Matthew 8: 23-27, Luke 8: 22-25.

When evening had come, Jesus said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’”
Jesus Stilling the Tempest, James Tissot
It must have been a terrible storm. Remember many of the disciples were fishermen, used to the wind and waves on the water. For them to be frightened, the ‘great gale’ must have been pretty bad. Yet, in the middle of this storm, Jesus is ‘asleep on a cushion’. Sometimes there are storms in our lives and we feel like God is asleep or maybe not even in the boat. We think all hope is lost and are afraid. 

Because of the storm, the disciples lost their courage and their ability to remember Who is in charge. CS Lewis reminds us, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means, at the point of highest reality.”

There are scary times when we can all lose our center, our confidence, our courage. Then Jesus steps in and calms the storm and encourages “your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.” (2 Thessalonians 2:17) Ann Voskamp notes, “Courage births all virtue. Courage mothers everything good in the world. Without courage, everything good, in us and in the world, stillbirths…Needing courage is another way of saying Christ is needed…When you’re between God and a hard place, it’s God’s presence that transforms every hard place…Whatever place you’re in is a place of God. And when you’re in a place of God, you cannot displace your courage. Christ is for you, with you, in you!”

When Jesus asks the frightened men, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” he was offering the lifeline of courage. As Voskamp says, “You’ve got this—because Grace has you and Courage is in you and Christ is with you, so a tender and brazen joy could be even in this place.” Even in the storms of life, when things seem desperate, the light of the burning bush points the way and offers courage.

I think that after the storm was over, the disciples would have said a prayer of thanksgiving. Perhaps similar to this one from d365, a daily meditation, adapted from a Jewish Sabbath prayer. I offer it to you for use in your times of stress when it seems that God is absent, until you turn and discover that really God is there all along ready to speak the word of peace.

“Days pass and the years vanish and we walk sightless among miracles. Lord, fill my eyes with seeing and my mind with knowing. Let there be moments when your Presence, like lightning, illumines the darkness in which I walk. Help me to see, wherever I gaze, that the bush burns, unconsumed. And I, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness and exclaim in wonder, ‘How filled with awe is this place and I did not know it.’”
Next week is Palm Sunday and the beginning of Holy Week. Where might we find burning bush moments in remembering those events? 

March 11, 2018

Burning Bush Moment: Martha

This Lent we’ve been looking at Burning Bush moments. Times when someone’s heart is changed because of an encounter with a ‘burning bush’ in the form of Jesus. Burning bushes can come in different forms. For SimonPeter’s mother-in-law it was her healing. Nicodemus faced his burning bush when he talked to Jesus. Burning bush moments transform our hearts and we are born anew.

This week, we’re looking at Martha of Bethany. Her burning bush moment came when she was frazzled and frustrated. In Luke we hear her story, “Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’” (Luke 10:38-42)

Martha often gets pointed to as someone who couldn’t take time to be holy and pay attention to Jesus. I think rather she, like many of us, was ‘distracted by her many tasks’, and didn’t see the burning bush in front of her. As we’ve noted throughout this series, Elizabeth Barrett Browning stated, “Earth is crammed with heaven,/And every bush is aflame with God/But only those who see, take off their shoes/The rest sit around it and pluck blackberries.” Martha was so busy ‘plucking blackberries’, that is doing the work of preparing for the guests, that she missed the burning bush. 

It’s easy to be so focused on getting a task accomplished that you don’t see God in the work at all. Sometimes that happens when you are doing ‘church’ work, and sometimes when you are just getting things done. The end result becomes more important than pausing to look around for a burning bush in the area that might just be pointing in a different direction. That’s what seems to have happened with Martha. She’s entirely focused on being a good (or even great) hostess and doesn’t have time to see the ‘burning bush’. Very often, burning bushes require you to look up from your work to see them. Rarely do they spring up in some ‘important’ task. You have to take the time to see the ‘bush aflame with God’.

Like Martha, we get lots of second chances from God. Sometimes an encounter with a burning bush gives you a new insight. You may understand something about your relationship with God, or simply realize that you aren’t the same person you were a couple years ago. Martha was truly changed by her encounter with Jesus and later she can proclaim, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” (John 11:27)  This art by Corwin Knapp Linson shows that moment when Martha confronts Jesus. 

Our encounter with a burning bush may give us the joy of seeing what was dead brought back to life. Martha’s brother, Lazarus was dead. Then Jesus called him to come out of the grave. “The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’” (John 11:44) Jesus comes to our dead dreams and tells us, “unbind them and let them go”.

There is always something new waiting on the other side of a burning bush moment. For Martha it was an understanding of Jesus and God’s power. Martha was changed, just as we all are when we recognize the burning bush in our path.

When have you encountered Jesus and the Spirit’s flame and been changed, renewed, even resurrected? 

March 4, 2018

Burning Bush Moment: Nicodemus

“Earth is crammed with heaven,/And every bush is aflame with God/But only those who see, take off their shoes/The rest sit around it and pluck blackberries,” said Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Every so often we are aware when a burning bush pops up in front of us. Sometimes we have to go check to see if it’s really a burning bush or just a mirage.

Nicodemus was a ‘leader of the Jews’. He was a Pharisee, which was one of the two leading religious parties in Israel. The Pharisees were strict adherents to the Law. The other group, the Sadducees, was a bit more relaxed in observance and, even worse to some minds, they were willing to cooperate with Rome in the effort to keep the peace.

Nicodemus seems to have been more open minded than some Pharisees. He thought that just maybe the rabbi from Nazareth was a burning bush, so he went to see him. However, he was careful and went at night so his visit wouldn’t be seen by his compatriots.  

The Pharisee starts the conversation by hedging a bit. “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” (John 3:2) Jesus doesn’t give him a straight answer. Often God seems to demand that we make our own decisions about faith and our response to the burning bush in front of us.

Jesus’s response, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” confuses Nicodemus. He responds, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:3-4)

It seems a logical question. Perhaps that is really what happens when we confront a burning bush moment. We are reborn just a little bit. As Jesus explains, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit…The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 5-8)
Burning bushes are like the wind, we don’t know their origin, but we experience them in our lives when we are aware that “Earth is crammed with heaven” (Browning) It can be hard to recognize the bush burning, even when it’s right in front of you, though. Nicodemus is confused, and Jesus goes on to tell him, “If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:12-16)

Then Jesus continues, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him…light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil…But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” (John 3:17-21)

In the light of our burning bushes, we find that our deeds are exposed. What we see in that light may cause us to realign our priorities so that what we see is holy. Perhaps it starts with looking for the burning bushes in what we do every day. Instead of seeing endless emails as a challenge, perhaps in the light of the burning bush we can see them as opportunities to reach out in love across the internet, with uplifting and friendly responses rather than terse statements. While sitting in traffic, perhaps looking for the burning bushes and considering the humanity of those around us could help us stay calm. When faced with conflict or tragedy, perhaps we look for the burning bushes of hope. Fred Rogers is quoted as saying, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

When you look, you can see burning bushes in every situation. You can find God’s presence in all things. Let’s look for them this week.