Sunday, June 12, 2011

Burning Bushes and Other Such Foolishness

Sermon, Sunday, June 12, 2010
by Katie Mulligan
(Pentecost Sunday)

Scripture Readings: Exodus 3:1-15 and Acts 2:1-21

James Loder, who was a professor of pastoral care at Princeton Seminary for many years, wrote a book called The Logic of the Spirit. While I have some doubts that the Spirit can be logically understood any more than we might understand the wind or the whims of a cat, I loved his attempt to do so. His opening chapter is titled, “What is a Lifetime, and Why Do I Live It?” He writes this:
When they turned up the sound on the monitor, I could hear her tiny heart like the galloping of a stallion: “I will be born,” “I will be born,” “I will be born.” Between her valiant, heartfelt determination to be thrust into this world and the eventual cry of shock and distress on arrival would come the mother’s excruciating pain, her struggle to keep pushing, the wrong drug to relieve pain, near loss of the mother’s pulse, “Emergency!” then the recovery, and finally the quivering, squalling, wrinkled, red-blotched voyager had arrived. Through pain, blood, shock, and near death, Julie had come. But come where? To do what? And why?
If my daughter had died giving birth, we would all ask “Why?” but she lived and gave birth to a beautiful little girl, so we do not ask why; we are all much too grateful to God that it came out right. However, behind the whys of both the sudden loss of life and the stunning arrival of new life lies the persistent question: Why do we live? Why do we cherish life with such passion? Why, when there is every reason to despair, do we continue to affirm life; and what happens when that affirmation goes sour and the passion to die becomes unstoppable? These questions all have to do with the human spirit and the fundamental two-part question behind this book: “What is a lifetime?” and “Why do I live it?” (1)
So this is the fundamental two-part question for each of us here this morning: “What is a lifetime?” and “Why do I live it?” And for our church: “What is a lifetime, for a church?” and “Why do we live it?” I paired these two scriptures together this morning: Moses and the burning bush with the disciples at Pentecost. It seems a natural pairing to me, as some of our Spirit-filled moments come alone in the wilderness (like Moses with the burning bush), while others happen as we gather together in fellowship (like that first Pentecost). The Spirit is sometimes sneaky and sometimes blatantly, obnoxiously PRESENT.

Let us begin with sneaky. Burning bushes, the quiet love of a friend, tiny flowers in a place they should not be, a small chapel in the woods, a small act of kindness that causes a person to pause. The way a phrase floats on the wind to hit our ear in the exact right way, and then stays with us for days and years to come. Indeed, the way one word might define an entire decade or even a lifetime. My word has been “rootless”, and is perhaps now “longing”. What is yours? What one word frames these questions for you: “What is a lifetime?” and “Why do I live it?” What is your burning bush? Where do you remove your shoes in reverence? How and why do the words “I am who I am” settle over you? In what place of indescribable significance do you see the presence of God?

And now let us think of how God is a showoff. Sunsets, soaring trees, the birth of a child, spectacular healings. An entire field filled with wildflowers that nobody planted or asked to grow, and yet there they are! Moments of beauty and joy between lovers when it seems the heavens themselves dance ecstatically.

There is a Honda car commercial from years ago that features one of their cars disassembled. The pieces are placed just so, as a Rube Goldberg machine, designed to shut the trunk of the assembled car next to it. The commercial begins with a small cog rolling along, smacking into the next cog, which hits another car part of some sort, which lightly taps a nail that spins to tap another and then another nail…a car seat folds up just so, a bucket of oil dripped into a pan…windshield wiper fluid triggers the wipers scrunching across the floor to trip a mobile made of the window panes of the car…a spring drops down to push the pin that presses the button on the car keys to close the trunk…and the announcer’s voice says, “Isn’t it nice…when things...just work?”

So many days it all just goes wrong, but sometimes, just sometimes, everything moves in exactly the right way. I picture God with arms folded, smiling smugly, “Yeah, see, I know what I’m doing.” I picture God dancing at Pentecost, moving those disciples to speak in languages they didn’t know, dancing in the streets, acting like fools. The Almighty is a Showoff.

Consider these stories for a moment.

A Presbyterian woman I know confessed quietly one day that she had never felt the Spirit’s presence. She said that in a lifetime that had last some 60 or 70 years, not once had she noticed anything that looked or sounded like the stories she reads in the Bible or hears from others. She longed for such a spiritual experience, and yet stubbornly, God remained quiet. She wondered if she would go an entire lifetime without such an experience. She wept with sorrow for that. Surely, I said, that must make it difficult to believe at times. She looked startled. She laughed. She shook her head and said, “God is who God is, who am I to say?” And then she went back to the church work she loves. What will be her burning bush? What sacred ground will prompt her to remove her shoes and sink into the soil with her bare feet, soaking in the Spirit? I do not know. But when I worked with her, she was the burning bush, so entwined in love and service for others that the Spirit shone through her. I cannot say whether she was consumed by that flame, but I can say that where she goes, God is also present.

Consider a youth retreat. Saturday afternoon’s confessional circle. All manner of things had been shared—sorrows and tragedy, all of the brokenness one can muster in 16 years of life—which as it turns out, is considerable. 60 students sharing their deepest longings and desire for God’s presence, sharing their deepest fears that God is not present. Confessions of their own trespasses and those that had been committed against them. Every retreat we gathered at Saturday dinner exhausted and grieving, perhaps not unlike the disciples, 50 days after Jesus’ death. And then we would go into worship and begin to sing. We sang the songs we’d always sung, with the older students carrying the melodies and harmonies with strength and the younger new ones joining in tentatively. We prayed, we read scripture. Somebody preached. And then we broke bread and dipped it into juice, on their knees they came forward with their grief and sorrow, inviting God to be present. And somehow She was. By Saturday at 10, we moved out of worship and into feasting in the dining hall, which had been transformed by former students into a place of beauty. Sometimes that lady who had never felt the Spirit came up the mountain and helped transform the dining hall while the students worshipped. And they danced and sang and celebrated loudly. You could barely hear yourself think above the noise of those students eating. From the outside, surely it looked like we were drunk. But what we were drunk on was the overwhelming knowledge that in the midst of all of our brokenness, the mundane and the grossly tragic, the Spirit rested upon us with passion and tenderness. Whatever path we would take from there, we would not be alone, no matter the decisions we made (good or bad), no matter the circumstances that came upon us (good or bad), no matter the people we spent time with (good or bad); the Spirit has a way of its own, it will be who it will be, it is what it is, the Spirit has been where and who it is, regardless of whether we see it.

I have cited this passage before from Miroslav Volf, but I give it to you again:
Christians believe…that neither what we do nor what we suffer defines us at the deepest level…Even more, by opening ourselves to God’s love through faith, our bodies and selves become sanctified spaces, God’s “temples”, as the Apostle Paul puts it…The flame of God’s presence, which gives us new identity, then burns in us inextinguishably. Though like buildings devastated by wind and flood, our bodies and souls may be come ravaged, yet we continue to be God’s temple—at times a temple in ruins, but a sacred space nonetheless. Absolutely nothing defines a Christian more than the abiding flame of God’s presence, and that flame bathes in a warm glow everything we do or suffer. (2)
So wherever you are this morning, in whatever state of being, may the Spirit wash over your ravaged self. May you be sacred space no matter what you have done and no matter what has been done to you. For God is who God is, and no amount of human tampering can alter that. I offer you this prayer in closing from Sr. Patricia Schnapp

In the upper room
Pentecostal wind
swirled like a tornado of grace
and fiery tongues
burned language into stutterers.

O Spirit,
stir our passion again!
Light wildfires
and spin them past
our tame intentions.

Huff and puff till you blow down
the shutters we hide in,
scarred by earlier zests,
more cowardly and cynical
than once upon a time

when we inhaled your fire
and gulped your windstorms
like tap water
     and laughed at those who counseled caution. (3)

(1) James Edwin Loder, The Logic of the Spirit: Human Development in Theological Perspective (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1998), 3.

(2) Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2006), 79.

(3) Sr. Patricia Schnapp, "Pentecost" (RSM AdrianMich.) accessed 06/12/2011


  1. Really interesting use of that commercial. The motor geek in me has one correction: the nails were actually engine valves. The idea behind the ad was that the Rube Goldberg machine was made from parts of the car advertised.

  2. I've always loved Gibran's line "life's longing for itself". I visualize a heavy stream of light that moves independent yet in harmony with our physical selves. It just is, whether God ordained or empirical. Or both.