Watching the Burning Bush Burn

Does God have a big toe? No, this is not a philosophical query for us to muse over this morning; Does God Have a Big Toe? is the name of a children’s book of Midrash written by Rabbi Marc Gellman. It is, as all Midrash is, a collection of stories about stories, stories that use imagination and humor and not a little whimsy to help us wonder about the infinite mind and loving heart of God.

One of the chapters in Does God Have a Big Toe? tells the story of Moses and the burning bush. Or, I should say, it tells a story about the story of Moses and the burning bush. In this story, God is sitting with all the company of heaven trying to decide how to choose the right person to the people of Israel out of bondage. God decides, wisely, of course, that the most important quality for this leader is patience. God knows that the process of freeing the Israelites will not be quick and easy – God needs a leader who will never give up, a leader who will never pitch a fit, take his toys, and go home. God needs a leader who knows what it is to work and to wait – a leader filled to the brim with patience.

But how, God wonders, do I best determine someone’s level of patience? It’s not such an easy quality to judge. Suggestions come in from all sides. Gabriel presents God with a wad of string and suggests that the person who could untangle all of that mess would surely have the patience to wait out Pharoah and the wandering in the wilderness. But God thinks that sounds too boring and says that someone who doesn’t mind boring things is not quite the same as someone who is patient. Michael suggests a Rubik’s Cube, but God says that a person who can solve a Rubik’s Cube would need persistence more than patience – again, not quite the same thing. Plus, the Rubik’s Cube hasn’t been invited yet.

Finally God decides on the perfect patience test. God sets a bush on fire in the wilderness and waits. Shepherd after shepherd sees the bush burning, shrugs his shepherdy shoulders, and walks away. After all, the story tells us, bushes are ordinary. Even bushes that catch fire are kind of ordinary. But one shepherd, the shepherd named Moses, sees the bush burning and comes closer to look. He sits down, settles in, and watches the bush burn. And slowly he starts to notice that this burning bush is actually far from ordinary. The burning leaves are not turning to ash, the burning branches are not falling off – the burning bush is not actually burning up. Moses sees the miracle that all of the other shepherds missed because he has the patience to sit and wait a while, watching the burning bush burn.* And once God sees this, God knows that Moses is the one.

I love this story. I think it has just the right mixture of fun and fundamentals. It’s creative and engaging but it is also completely true to the heart of the story in Exodus. And it helps me to see something about that story that I’ve never seen before. I’ve heard lots of sermons about the importance of Moses’s capacity for observation. Moses is the one who notices the bush, Moses is the one who is paying attention, Moses is the one who is open to God’s calling. I’ve probably even preached sermons like this, maybe even sermons with another, less-observant shepherd who missed the bush because he was distracted by that one klutzy sheep who was forever falling down ravines, or the strap of his sandal that was rubbing in a most uncomfortable way. And I’m sure these sermons were fine, but really – how hard is it to notice something that’s on fire? In the middle of nowhere, with nothing else around but hot rocks and a hard sky, how hard is it to notice flames shooting up into the air, the smell of smoke, the crackling sound of a bush ablaze?

Not so hard, perhaps. But how hard is it to stop and just look at a burning bush? How hard is it to observe it, watch it, let it be what it will be – burning now, in the present, I burn as I burn? That’s pretty hard. Pretty hard to avoid reacting to the sight of a fire – you know, the angel of the Lord appeared to Moses in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, the bush was blazing, and Moses said, “I must run like the dickens to find some water to splash all over that bush.” It also might be pretty hard to avoid being bored by the sight of a fire in the middle of nowhere – the angel of the Lord appeared, the bush was blazing, and Moses said, “Well, I guess that isn’t really going to hurt anything out here, so as long as my klutzy sheep stays the heck outta there, I’ll just keep moseying along.”

But that’s not what Moses said, and that’s not what Moses did. Moses stopped and waited to see what God wanted him to see. And it must have been hard to that have that kind of patience, that kind of curiosity, that kind of openness to not only see but wait; to not only notice but watch. How long did it take him to notice that something unusual was going on there? 5 minutes? 10? How long did he sit and feel the heat on his face before he saw that the heat wasn’t getting any stronger, or any weaker, it just was. How long did he watch before he heard God’s voice calling his name?

Patience is a virtue. I’m sure you’ve all heard that phrase again and again. It was a favorite of my parents, although if my memory serves it was most often invoked not in praise but as a solemn reminder when my brother and I were being particularly unvirtuous. It’s funny how patience is the virtue that became the idiom. You never hear the phrase “Temperance is a virtue!” or “Chastity is a virtue!” Only patience.

Perhaps that is because patience is so difficult; we need the reminder of a phrase that pops up in our everyday speech. Patience is a virtue, and patience takes practice. It would be easy to moan about how patience is particularly difficult for us now, in a time when information sharing has sped up to such a pace that to much of the world, email seems slow. But patience is a virtue isn’t a phrase that has popped up since the creation of Twitter. Patience is a virtue is a phrase that people have been saying for generations, reminding themselves of over and over again for centuries. Patience has never been easy. Men and women waiting for news of desperate importance may have gotten used to having to wait for ocean liners or the pony express, but I’m guessing they weren’t any more patient about it than we are. They may have had more stamina than we do, but stamina and patience are not exactly the same thing. Patience has never been easy.    

But patience is a virtue. Not just an unfortunate reality, not just something we’d might as well try to cultivate to help keep our blood pressure down. Patience is a virtue, patience with our families, with our friends, with our enemies, with uncertainty, with unknowns, with our fears and our longings and with ourselves, patience is a way that we come to know God. Patience draws us closer to God, because when we are patient, eventually we realize that we are not actually waiting for God to show up; we are waiting to see how God is already there, how God is already with us, in the midst of whatever wilderness we find ourselves walking through. When we have the patience to watch the burning bush burn, we get this remarkable gift – God, calling our names, showing us that God has been there all along. We just know it now because we took a moment to be still.  

And patience is not only our calling; it is also our birthright. We are given the gift of patience as we are made in the image and likeness of a God who has, literally, infinite patience. We are made in the image of a God who set a burning bush to burn to see who would have the patience to watch. We are made in the image of a God who sent his Son to live in human flesh to transform the world one person at a time. We are made in the image of a God who lets fruitless fig trees live for one more year – and not just lets them live, but nurtures and pampers them so that they will have a fighting chance. We are made in the image of a God who gives us this season of Lent, year after year, to center down, again, to repent, again, to follow the path home, again.

We are made in the image and likeness of the great I am, the ever-present God, who has no where else to be but this very moment. And God knows the patience that we need, and God knows how hard it is for us to find it sometimes. But fear not. God will keep putting burning bushes in our paths to remind us to sit and watch with Him a while, to grow our patience until it begins to bear good fruit in the world. If we miss a few bushes along the way, it’s okay. God will find us again. He has, He is, infinite patience.

*"Watching the Burning Bush Burn" is the title of the chapter in Does God Have a Big Toe? written by Rabbi Marc Gellman and illustrated by Oscar de Mejo.

Preached by Mother Erika Takacs

6 March 2016, Lent III

Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia

Posted on March 2, 2016 .