Fires and Faith

Homily for Proper 17, Year A
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church (Virtual Worship in the Time of Pandemic)
Richmond, VA

Track 1 Lessons:

Exodus 3:1-15
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

There have been so many fires this week.  My friends in California have been struggling to breathe in air heavy-laden with smoke and ash.  This is fire season, and they are making the best of it from a lifetime of learning.  But in a pandemic, evacuation is exceedingly more difficult.  A friend wondered on social media which mask, one to keep the smoke out, or one to keep the coronavirus at bay, would be the safer way to move through the day.

There are fires of risk and fear.  My week has been wrapped in the emotional baggage wrought by this viral pandemic on the lives of students and faculty on a college campus.  Plans made on paper suddenly ignite when exposed to real world flames.  Whether higher education or K-12, it feels like every decision…even ones we agonize over and spend months preparing for…are quickly engulfed by flames of personal choice and public health.

And then there are the fires of injustice, flames of which are ripping through communities and this nation after yet another young, black man, Jacob Blake, was shot in the back while walking away from police in Kenosha, Wisconsin.  Every act of state sanctioned violence and the continued blatant disregard for black lives fan the flames of this fire and further exposes how widespread and devastating it has become. To quote Michael Paul Williams in the Richmond Times-Dispatch yesterday, “To be Black in America today is to be traumatized by a steady stream of videos showing Black people being killed or otherwise abused by law enforcement on camera.”  There are protests in the streets and walkouts from the NBA.  Each time yet another manifestation of this injustice flares up, the outcry is like a fist raised to the heavens crying out, “How long, O Lord, how long?”

There are so many fires burning in this world in which we live.  So today I wonder if we, like Moses, can allow ourselves not to flee these fires, but to see them, and draw near.

As our lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures opens today, we encounter Moses in his early adulthood.  Quick recap:  Moses was born of an enslaved Israelite family and saved from forced male infanticide by being put into a basket in the river; with the intervention of a few wise family members and midwives he was raised by the daughter of Pharaoh with close ties to his birth family. Moses, as a hot-headed youth, went to observe his own people toiling in the fields and killed an Egyptian who was beating enslaved Hebrew people, just like him. Knowing his own life was now in danger, Moses fled Egypt.  He was still a fugitive in Midian when he encountered the daughters of the priestly family who were attacked by shepherds while drawing water from the well.  He fought them off, was spoken highly of by the daughters and was subsequently welcomed into the family through marriage. Meanwhile, Moses’ own people were still enslaved in Egypt and their ruling captor, Pharaoh, had just died.  Immediately before the lesson we read today, God’s enslaved people were crying out.  Holy Scriptures tell us: God heard their groaning, remembered the covenant of belovedness, looked upon them and took notice.

All that is the context in which we enter today’s lesson.  Moses…former captive, vigilante and fugitive…was going about a much calmer and stable livelihood now: herding cattle for his new father-in-law the Priest of Midian.  Moses moved with the flock beyond their usual grazing wilderness, toward the Mountain of God.  While on this journey, he noticed a bush caught on fire.  Moses…with his eyes still set toward the holy…saw this clearly for what it was: Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When God saw that Moses had taken notice, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And Moses said, “Here I am.”

This is a really remarkable story. So often we hear this story referred to as Moses encountering the burning bush.  But I think it’s fairer to say: Moses approaches the burning bush and encounters God.  I mean, it isn’t as if Moses is distracted by the fire.  Moses has seen fires. He is drawn to this fire while nearing the Mountain of God and he is aware of God’s presence from the first glimpse.  Moses is prepared to stand on this holy ground and say: Here I am.

As the story unfolds, we are reminded that these divine actions of seeing, drawing near and responding to the holy are revealed to Moses who is uniquely prepared to experience them.  God speaks to Moses from the heart of the flames, conveying love for the people of Israel:  I have observed their misery…I have heard their cries…I have known their suffering and I have come to deliver them.  God reminds Moses that he isn’t being sent to free his people from bondage alone; Moses is going with God, who was, and is, and will always be the great I AM.

God’s presence in a bush wasn’t a ploy to get Moses’ attention: Moses had already been paying attention.  In that holy moment, on that holy ground: God made God’s self known, even in the midst of what typically consumes and destroys.

Likewise, God is made manifest in the fires of our lives, making the very ground on which we live and work and serve and promote justice with God’s help holy ground.

This is what Jesus is trying so hard to teach his disciples.  The portion of Matthew’s Gospel which we’ve been reading across these recent Sundays is all about people recognizing God in the person of Jesus.  In last week’s lesson, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”  The revelation from the mouth of Simon Peter was definitive:  You are the Messiah, the Son of God!  Jesus proclaims his name as Peter from that moment onward, the rock on whom the church will be built.  Peter, Petros, the rock.

But in this week’s portion of the Gospel lesson, Jesus further reveals himself to his disciples by describing the injustice that will indeed surround him, like a fire:  there will be the flames of suffering and death but he will not be destroyed, or consumed.  It is too much for Peter to hear about the pain and death of Jesus, who is both friend and Messiah.  He pulls Jesus aside and says “Forbid it Lord, that it should ever happen to you!”

What Peter sees as destructive fire, Jesus presents as a holy necessity; the fire that burns, but does not consume.  Jesus speaks to Peter from the flames of Peter’s own human fear: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

I can viscerally feel how Peter must have felt in that moment, engulfed by the flames of his emotion: first in imagining the suffering of his friend, and then in this stern rebuke.  Here he was, named as the Rock.  He was trying to support Jesus…isn’t that what rocks do?

When Peter saw the harsh flames of injustice, he became afraid.  Like the tentative steps on the water, the human fear of drowning or dying was too distracting for Peter to see the unwavering presence of God.  So behind the seemingly reassuring words he uttered to Jesus, there was a dismissiveness of the divine, a rejection of suffering and mortality, a futile attempt to douse the fire.  We do this, too:  we personalize issues which are larger than we are, we try to smooth things over and tamp down the flames so we can prevent damage to those we love. But we can be so caught up in the flames that we fail to notice that God is present.

Jesus…fully God and yet still fully human is present for Peter and for his disciples and for all of us, too.  Jesus sees our misery, hears our cries, knows our sufferings, and comes to deliver us.  In biblical narratives, that delivery isn’t always on our terms, but is always in the loving hands of a loving God who remains with us and shows us what to do.

God was present with Moses and on the whole journey of the Israelites through the wilderness and into the promised land.  Jesus reminds his disciples that God will be with them, all along the journey of their discipleship, too: If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?

And God is present with us, too.  Even and perhaps especially now when the fires of this world are ravaging us.  We’re given some powerful images, words and stories this week for navigating these times in which we find ourselves.  Setting our minds on human things is destroying us…the fires of hatred, injustice, and fear have plenty of fuel on which to be fed.  But God is present with us in these flames.  God sees us, and hears us and responds.

God has said I AM through the life, death and resurrection of God’s own self, through Jesus Christ.  We don’t have to be afraid.  We don’t need to rely on our own merits, throwing thimbles full of water at giant flames and inevitably becoming overwhelmed.  We have the opportunity to align with the One who is not consumed, to take off our shoes and bare our souls in recognition that we are on the holy ground to which God calls us.

Our Baptism into Christ aligns us with God’s eternal self.  God says, I AM.  Our response, “here I am” is an act of faith, and a radical act of commitment to that which is eternal.  And, like a gift, God helps us imagine the eternal actions of solidarity to which we are called, nestled among our readings today in the Epistle:

“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.  Live peaceably with all; do not avenge yourself; give food and water to your enemies; do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Yes, the fires are burning, but God…I AM…is with us and will show us what to do.

This is holy ground, my friends.

How will we respond?

We know how:

Here, I am.


burning bush

David Holleman, Revelation: The Burning Bush, stained glass with epoxy edge gluing mounted on plate glass. Dedicated in the 1960s in memory of Sarah Rosen, Harry Fishman, and Anna and Louis Kurtzman, Temple Beth El, Quincy, MA. Now in the collection of the Cincinnati Skirball Museum of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

About harasprice

Professor of Social Work and Priest in The Episcopal Church, parent, teacher, learner, writer, advocate, and grateful traveller along this journey through life
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