The Practice of Paying Attention
June 14, 2020
Our scripture reading today comes from Exodus 3:1-12. Hear the word of the Lord:
Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. 3 And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” 4 When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” 5 Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” 6 And he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
7 Then the Lord said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, 8 and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 9 And now, behold, the cry of the people of Israel has come to me, and I have also seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them. 10 Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.” 11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” 12 He said, “But I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.”
At this point in our story Moses is a nobody. He is not yet known as the leader who led the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. He is not yet known as the man who saw God’s face on Mt. Sinai and delivered the Ten Commandments to a people desperately in need of some direction. That’s much later on in the story. Right now, Moses is a nobody. He’s a shepherd who watches over his father-in-law’s sheep in the middle of nowhere as he hides behind the anonymity provided by wilderness living. After all, it was many years ago that he escaped from his murder charges back in Egypt. He ran away hoping to find a new life away from all the drama. We can imagine he likes his ordinary life of shepherding. Each day is much the same; Moses knows what to expect as he watches over his father-in-law’s flock.
But on this particular day, Moses finds himself encountering Something transcendent—Something that interrupts his ordinary life and peels back the curtain to reveal the reality that Moses is called to a life that is so much more than fulfilling daily obligations and familiar routines.
As Moses leads his flock down a wilderness road, he comes to Mt. Horeb – literally meaning Mount “wasteland.” This is the last place you would expect to find God. And going about his usual rhythm of tending the flock, this work requires much of Moses’ attention. He must be hypervigilant for any other creatures lurking who may like a tasty sheep for a treat, and he must be careful to watch for stray sheep wandering from the safety of the flock. It’s no cake walk being a shepherd. And yet, something catches Moses’ eye. Out of the corner of his eye he notices a bush on fire. The bush was not right in front of Moses, however. It must have been off to the side somewhere, because Moses says to himself, “I will turn aside to see this great sight.”
The bush required Moses to take a time-out from his normal routine; it required him to pause from his important work of watching over the sheep. Moses could have just glanced at the bush, said, “Oh how pretty,” and kept right on driving his sheep. He didn’t know that God was in the bush after all. Moses could’ve decided to come check on the bush again later when he had more time and when he wasn’t so busy. He could have. But he didn’t. And that’s what made him Moses.
What made him Moses was his willingness to turn aside, to pay attention to something other than what was right in front of him. It was his willingness to hit the pause button on what he was doing and where he was going. Because Moses didn’t live life with his blinders on, only focused on the ground in front of him and the road he was travelling, he encountered God in an unexpected place.
God calls to Moses from the burning bush, “Moses, Moses!” Moses responds, “Here I am.” God instructs Moses to remove his sandals, because he is on holy ground. This wilderness place on Mt. “Wasteland” has become holy. And as Moses removes his sandals, he also removes all pretenses, all protections. It’s disarming to walk around bare foot; there’s less protection, more exposure. In some cultures removing one’s shoes is a sign of intimacy and vulnerability. By removing his sandals Moses takes the first step in opening himself to God’s calling—a calling beyond the comfortable structures of his daily routines and busyness.
And God reassures Moses that he is the God of his forefathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He is the God of promises. And as the God of promises, he enlists Moses’ help in freeing God’s people, the Israelites, from a life of bondage, injustice and mistreatment. God tells Moses that Israelite lives matter and enlists Moses’ help in liberating them from their oppressors. God is clear that he is in the business of liberation and healing. Moses is invited to join this important work.
To be sure, we have our doubts about whether this regular old shepherd is the man for the job. Moses has his doubts too. He tries on every excuse in the book to get out of this difficult work God is calling him to. But in the end, God’s call wins out, and the rest is history.
But remember that this story all began with Moses turning aside from his task at hand and stepping off his well-trodden path to notice a burning bush. Had Moses kept on walking, had Moses not taken the time and care to notice the burning bush, then he would not be the Moses we all learned about in Sunday school. He would just be Moses, the shepherd. There’s nothing wrong with being a shepherd, but God was calling him not to be a shepherd of sheep, but of his people, Israel. God called to Moses from the burning bush and called him to a life much grander than the one he had settled for in his wilderness anonymity.
I have never seen a burning bush. But I have seen an entire island turn golden once. Meghan and I were in Scotland with her parents and our itinerary for one particular day was jam-packed. We had to get up early in the morning to drive onto one ferry to get to the Isle of Mull, a gorgeous Hebridean Isle off the west coast of Scotland. And then we had to drive from one end of the island to the other on a single-track road wide enough for only one car at a time in order to get to another boat which would ferry us to another island, the Isle of Iona.
Early that morning as we prepared to make sure we caught our first ferry, I was not exactly looking forward to the day ahead. My mind was filled with logistics and time frames, calculating exactly how long we had to spend on this isle before we had to go to the next isle, all while making sure we made it back for the final ferry.
We finally made it to the Isle of Iona, a tiny island about two miles wide. And when we made it the rest of the family wanted to go climb to the tallest point on the isle, Dun hill. I anxiously checked my watch and tried to calculate whether we actually had time to or not. Eventually they won out and I reluctantly tagged along, anxious about whether we would make it back in time for our ferry. As we hiked up the hill my mind was distracted by running through the rest of our itinerary again. But as we crested the hill, I looked out upon the Isle and for the first time that day I actually payed attention. And it was beautiful. The entire island was golden with the sun’s light that pierced through the thick Scottish clouds. I noticed for the first time the beauty of things I had missed during my preoccupied hike up. I noticed the rolling glens speckled with sheep and gorse bushes. I noticed the gorgeous coastline with pockets of bright blue sea. And I would have missed it all if my family hadn’t insisted that we turn aside and step off the well-trodden path.
It took a moment of beauty like that for God to get my attention, and after that I soaked in all the beauty I could. That day I believe I encountered something transcendent, something divine on a tiny isle turned golden. I wasn’t even bothered when we missed our ferry. I had encountered something more beautiful, more transcendent than all the worries and routines I let my head be consumed with.
It’s moments like these, burning bushes like these that God uses to catch our attention and beckon us off our well-trodden path to pay attention to something more than the ground in front of us. Sometimes we experience the burning bush in nature, sometimes in a person, and sometimes it can come in the form of world events that we don’t quite understand. The way God gets our attention doesn’t matter; the important part is that like Moses we turn aside to pay attention to what God is up to.
Moses was invited into God’s plan for liberation. And friends, right now we’re living in a time when God is doing some more liberation work. Our black brothers and sisters are in a fight for their lives against systems of injustice that form the foundations of our nation. They have been in this fight for a long time – for about 400 years actually. The same amount of time the Israelites were in Egyptian bondage. I know this may be difficult for some of us to recognize, but God is doing a new work in our midst right now. We must be careful not to miss the burning bush that stands as an invitation to join in on God’s work of liberation. We must be careful to do more than just notice the bush, say “Oh how pretty” and keep on walking.
It is tempting to just keep on walking by the burning bush. It’s easy to keep moving on with life as normal. It’s more comfortable to not have to think too hard about what the Black Lives Matter movement and protests are telling us. But friends, God is beckoning us to step off the well-trodden path, to notice the burning bush and to join him in his work of liberation.
I spent most of my time in college trying to ignore the burning bush. I was convinced that racism was dead, because I had never seen it. People told me that racism was still very much alive and well in every system and facet of our society. I chose not to believe them because I had the privilege and luxury not to. But then we moved to New Jersey and God made the bush so aflame that I couldn’t ignore it any longer. I had to step off my well-trodden comfortable path. I had to begin to pay attention to new realities and stories that conflicted with my old ones. Like Moses, I hid my face and tried on every excuse in the book to try to get out of this difficult work of liberation. I still find myself making some of the same excuses, because this is a difficult work God is calling us to. I have the privilege to step away from this calling if I choose to. Our brothers and sisters of color don’t share that same privilege.
Friends, the bush is on fire and God is doing everything to get our attention to invite us into the challenging and beautiful work of liberation. If you decide to respond to God’s call, then we can follow Moses’ lead in doing three things.
First, pay attention. Don’t just notice the bush from the corner of your eye, but go and take a closer look at it. Take the time to educate yourself on what it is like being a black person in America. Educate yourself about what it means to be white. Learn about all the foundational systems of our nation that are racist through and through – our criminal justice system, our educational system, our urban development and policing systems. Ask me and I can point you to resources. Paying attention is all about stepping outside of our own lives to listen to stories and perspectives that are different than our own. As pastor and theologian Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “The practice of paying attention is as simple as looking twice at people and things you might just as easily ignore.”
Second, Moses removes his sandals. In doing so, he removes all pretenses, all protections and effectively presents himself to God saying “Here I am, in all my vulnerability. Do with me what you will.” Talking about issues of race is difficult and uncomfortable work for most of us. It can trigger all sorts of defenses in us. Perhaps even this sermon has triggered some of those defenses. It is not easy to acknowledge that we are all products of a racist society that has never properly dealt with its racist history. It is deeply uncomfortable to acknowledge that the color of our skin determines much of what our experience, success and well-being in America will be. These are hard truths to swallow, so we often come up with reasons and excuses to avoid swallowing them.
But I would encourage you to let the sandals come off. Allow yourself to be open to unfamiliar and uncomfortable perspectives. As a white man I recognize that I can walk away from the hard work of justice anytime I want, because my fate and well-being isn’t tied to it. This is a really hard truth to recognize. The sandals must come off if I am ever going to be able to recognize the ways that my privilege and my silence is part of the problem. The challenging work of liberation begins in my own heart.
So let yourself sit in the discomfort and be open to how God may be speaking to you from the bush. We cannot join God in his liberation mission until we’ve done the hard work of removing our sandals and entering into the vulnerability and humility and wrestling in our own hearts.
Finally, Moses is encouraged by God. Overwhelmed by the news that God is calling him to liberation work, Moses’ initial reaction is one of trepidation and feeling unworthy. Moses says to God in the bush, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” Moses is talking back to God! But God doesn’t scold him or condemn him; God gently reassures Moses saying, “I will be with you.” Friends, we do not enter this struggle for the liberation of our brothers and sisters of color alone, and we do not enter it without hope. Liberation work is God’s work. The bush is on fire and God is trying to get our attention. The only question that remains: How will we respond?