"There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush ... Then Moses said, 'I must turn aside and look"
Some of our best moments happen sideways.
Moments that catch us by surprise, wiggling in from the side, bypassing our expectations and defenses.
Have you ever noticed that some conversations just seem to work better side-by-side than they do head on? Perhaps when you’re driving beside someone in a car. Or when you’re walking together shoulder to shoulder rather than standing face-to-face?
Maybe you’re a parent, and maybe you’ve noticed that sometimes with your children, or even with your partner, it’s better to come at a situation sideways rather than confront it directly. Sometimes telling a story opens up a dialogue with our teenager when the direct approach, “don’t do that,” would simply result in a stand-off.
Jesus’ parables are great examples of sideways conversations. Rather than tell us what to think and do, he tells us stories, riddles even. He invites us in, engages us in conversation and reflection, and he uses stories to open us up and to transform us. The sideways approach engages us at times when a direct approach might make us defensive. As the poet Emily Dickinson would say, “tell all the truth but tell it slant.”
One of my best moments happened sideways.
It was the first day of my pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago, a steep climb on a narrow country lane that would lead up and over the Pyrenees mountains. Several thousand steps up the steep slope, on my left, was a farmer’s field, freshly turned with big clumps of rich black earth protruding at assorted angles. By some accident of geography the earth was at eye-level on the uphill side as I walked. I smelled the field before I saw it, deep and earthy, pungent with manure, the scent reaching my nose on a slight shift of the breeze. I glanced left, and as I did the rising sun cast its rays on damp clumps of earth, causing them to dance and shimmer before my eyes, the deepest black shining and sparkling like a diamond.
It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. It was a moment of transcendence, a moment shot through with glory, one of those moments when time disappears if only for an instant. It caught me by surprise; I hadn’t been looking, in fact if the smell on the breeze hadn’t beckoned me to glance sideways, I would have missed it altogether.
Some of our best moments happen sideways. One of Moses’ best moments happened when he turned aside to look at the burning bush.
It started out a day like any other. Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, looking for something green for the sheep to eat. He’d wandered a little farther than usual, beyond the wilderness. As he walked along, he saw something out of the corner of his eye, off to one side, a bush, blazing, yet not consumed. The sheep, of course, just kept on walking. Moses could have kept going too, in fact, maybe that’s what he should done, it was, after all, his job to keep track of the sheep, no time for sightseeing along the way. But he didn’t. Instead he turned aside to look at the bush.
When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses’. And Moses said, “Here I am.”
Makes you wonder, doesn’t it, how long that bush had been burning? How many people had walked past it and not bothered to turn sideways? The problem with sideways moments is that sometimes we miss them altogether as we continue down life’s path. But Moses turned aside.
And then the most amazing, most wonderful thing happens. Not the burning bush, though I suppose that in itself is pretty wonderful and amazing. No, what really amazes me about what happens next is that God and Moses have a conversation. A dialogue. A back and forth discussion with questions and answers, objections and reassurances. They actually have a conversation where they get to know each other.
I don’t think that would have happened in a head-on encounter. If God had simply appeared on Moses’ path, face-to-face, blocking his way forward, and told him “I’m sending you to Pharoah,” I think Moses would have turned and run the other way. Or maybe he would have been overwhelmed, and would have simply acquiesced and said “Yes, sir.” But that would have been too bad, because if that had happened we would never have heard this amazing conversation.
When Moses sees the bush off to the side, he gets to choose whether to turn towards it or not. There is a sense of agency here. The Moses that turns sideways has made a choice, he’s authentic, he’s really Moses. When God tells him to take off his shoes, we can understand that in a couple of ways. Often we see this as an act of respect or reverence. But it’s also an invitation to Moses to make himself at home in God’s presence. That’s what we do when we enter someone’s home in a relaxed way – we take off our shoes and stay a while. Moses, who has never really had a home anywhere, who has always lived as an alien in a foreign land, is being invited to be at home with God.
And that’s when that incredible conversation begins. God introduces himself, “I am the God of your father, of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” and then he tells Moses what’s on his mind: “I have observed the misery of my people, I have heard their cry, I know their sufferings, and so I’ve come down to deliver them and to bring them up out of Egypt.” God is concerned about what’s going on, he’s been listening, he wants to do something. We begin to get a sense of what God is like. We begin, Moses begins, to know God.
“Moses, come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites out of Egypt.”
Now, you and I both know that when God says something like that the correct answer is, “Yes, sir!” But Moses objects. Moses says to God, “but who am I to do this?”
And God says, actually the most important thing is not who you are, but who I am. You just need to know that I will be with you and that I am sending you.
But again Moses objects. He wants to know more about God, he needs more assurance. Look God, if I go to the Israelites, they may ask me about you, they may ask “What is his name?” So what shall I tell them? What’s your name? Asking for a friend.
And God responds: Ehyeh asher ehyeh. I am who I am. I will be who I will be. Tell them “I am”, Yahweh, has sent you.
And still Moses is not convinced, and still he objects:
“What if they don’t believe me?”
“They’ll believe you. Watch this!”
“I don’t speak very well.”
“I’ll send Aaron with you. He speaks fluently, and I’ll be with your mouth and his mouth.”
It really is the most amazing conversation. Who would have ever expected that one of the most foundational moments for our faith would be this dialogue between Moses and Yahweh? Who would have thought that what God really wants is to have a conversation with us? That God is not a command and control sort of God, but more of a “hey, let’s talk, let’s get to know each other” sort of God. A God who comes at you not in your face, but sideways – because God wants dialogue, conversation, even arguments, because God wants us to get to know her and she wants to be in relationship with us, as we are, barefoot in the sand.
Of course, at a certain point Yahweh has to draw this conversation to a close. God is still God after all. “Moses, I’ve heard your objections, enough already. You’re going.” And Moses goes. But this will not be the last time that Moses argues with God. And it all started with a sideways glance.
Some of our best moments happen sideways, because that’s how some of the most amazing conversations begin, including our conversations with God.
So the next time you see something out of the corner of your eye, off to the side, over there, maybe you should turn aside and have a look.
Homily: September 6 2020, St. Albans
Readings: Exodus 3.1-15;
Image by Jeremy Hiebert, Creative Commons