Burning Bush Moments - Are We Consumed or Ablaze?
by Kelly C. Martini
At the beginning of October, Kelly C. Martini, communications director and information officer for the Women’s Division, addressed North Alabama United Methodist Women at their annual meeting. Their theme was “Many Sparks, One Flame” and this was Ms. Martini’s Saturday morning message.
In keeping with the theme of “many sparks, one flame,” I’m entitling today’s speech, “Burning Bush Moments: Are we Consumed or Ablaze?” The scripture passage I’ll be reading from is a familiar story to us – about Moses, who never thought of himself as a leader, and God’s revelation to him through a burning bush.
I will read from a different version than we normally do – Eugene Petersen’s “The Message.” Exodus 3: 1-12:
1Moses was shepherding the flock of Jethro, his father--in-law, the priest of Midian. He led the flock to the west end of the wilderness and came to the mountain of God, Horeb. 2The angel of GOD appeared to him in flames of fire blazing out of the middle of a bush. He looked. The bush was blazing away but it didn't burn up.
3Moses said, "What's going on here? I can't believe this! Amazing! Why doesn't the bush burn up?"
4GOD saw that he had stopped to look. God called to him from out of the bush, "Moses! Moses!"
He said, "Yes? I'm right here!"
5God said, "Don't come any closer. Remove your sandals from your feet. You're standing on holy ground."
6Then he said, "I am the God of your father: The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob."
Moses hid his face, afraid to look at God.
7GOD said, "I've taken a good, long look at the affliction of my people in Egypt. I've heard their cries for deliverance from their slave masters; I know all about their pain. 8And now I have come down to help them, pry them loose from the grip of Egypt, get them out of that country and bring them to a good land with wide-open spaces, a land lush with milk and honey, the land of the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Amorite, the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite.
9"The Israelite cry for help has come to me, and I've seen for myself how cruelly they're being treated by the Egyptians. 10It's time for you to go back: I'm sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the People of Israel, out of Egypt."
11Moses answered God, "But why me? What makes you think that I could ever go to Pharaoh and lead the children of Israel out of Egypt?"
12"I'll be with you," God said.
A colleague of mine, Carol Barton, stood before a group of workers in New York City the other day. The group called themselves, “Break the Chains” and they were a beautiful mix of people – African Americans, Latinos, Asians, Caucasians, new immigrants, second-generation immigrants. They had one thing in common. Their jobs were going to undocumented immigrants in this country, and it was legal because of federally sponsored guest worker programs and the Employer Sanctions provision of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). The demonstrators were calling this, “a modern-day slave law.”
The issue is complex, and there are several sides to this issue with which Christians must struggle. There is the side of the corporation trying to be competitive in an economy that is going down hill fast. There is the side of the U.S. laborer – many times a person of color or legal immigrant --who could lose his or her job and does not have the skills or education to go elsewhere or get an equal paying job. And there’s the side of the undocumented worker – who can be hired for below minimum wage, who can be penalized or fired if he/she demands safe working conditions or benefits, and who can be deported quickly if he or she objects to unfair labor practices.
The racial and economic justice issues run deep. The legalized labor practices have pitted documented workers against undocumented workers in competition for jobs. Some could argue that the post-slavery era would be its parallel, when the poor white folk were taught that they were better than the poor African-American folk, in order to keep them both oppressed. The poor white folk felt a superiority, so they often performed the most horrific acts against people of color, while the wealthy racists could stand back and watch. Today, documented workers lose jobs. Undocumented workers are exploited. Employers make money. And the tensions build as racial, ethnic, economic and social disparities increase, similar to the post-slavery era.
We could see similar tensions if we turned on our television after Katrina. The wealthy folks were saying, why didn’t people leave the gulf coast when they were told to evacuate. Or they were acting surprised that so many people would be displaced after they left the Houston astrodome. The poor folks – many who were people of color – were asking, “how were we supposed to leave?” They didn’t have cars. Or, “who is going to benefit from the fact that we just lost our homes? Will it be us?” The media expanded the divide. When the poor white people were televised taking food or supplies from stores, announcers said they were trying to survive. When the African-Americans did it, they were looting. Our leaders became aware of a racial and economic divide in our country? At least for a couple days.
They quickly came up with band-aid solutions and moved on to other issues, hoping the public would forget that the problems ran much, much deeper.
The danger in recognition of the divide, and only putting band-aid solutions on the wound, then ignoring it, is that we think we’ve solved an issue, when we really haven’t. At some point, the fire of rage can consume us or consume those who are the oppressed.
Remember the pictures of the violence breaking out in New Orleans after Katrina. Think deeply. To the people left in that city, it appeared that they were forgotten. They didn’t know what was going on beyond their flooded, destroyed homes. There was no television or radio to tell them that people were considering their rescue. There was no food or water, medicine or relief supplies for them. They were the poor of the city -- left there in a state of desperation. They were being consumed by the fires of injustice and rage set in. This was the first group of people who risked being consumed by the fire.
Eric Law, in his book The Bush Was Blazing But Not Consumed remembers the day in 1992 when the Rodney King verdict was announced. The four police officers, accused of beating Rodney King, an African American man, had been acquitted. As Mr. Law sat in a West Hollywood Diner with his friend, the television was showing the riots following the verdict – buildings on fire, windows being smashed, gun shots and violence on the streets. Patrons paid little attention -- until the television announced that the Beverly Center was “bracing itself for the invading riot.”1 Suddenly, patrons realized that the riots were only ten blocks away – moving into “their neighborhood.” The economic and racial tensions that had been building in L.A. were moving into a space that had been insulated from the realities around it.
Those who protected themselves from the suffering of their brothers and sisters in the next neighborhood, were about to be consumed in the fire of rage. They suddenly faced years of injustice that had tormented their neighbors and was burning out of control. This is the second group who be consumed by the fire of rage.
The third group that could be consumed is the advocates themselves, the people of faith working for change, and United Methodist Women who want to respond. Hurricane Katrina brought the racial and economic injustices to light again. The Break the Chains alliance lifted the laborer’s voices last week. United Methodist Women have been working for justice for years.
We’ve called out for equality in education, knowing that a school in a rural area may not educate as well as a school in the suburbs or that schools in the inner-city can be as segregated as they were before Brown versus Board of education. We’ve cried loudly for the enslaved people in Burma who are forced into labor by a tyrannical government. We’ve studied the Charter for Racial Justice and made personal and unit-wide commitments to work to end institutional racism. We’ve advocated for changes in the Patriot Act so that brothers and sisters of South Asian and Arab descent can share the human rights and freedoms we do. We’ve educated ourselves by studying interfaith relations, refugees and global migration, the justice system, and cultures that are different from ours. The list of United Methodist Women’s work on racial and economic injustice is long!
But at what point, can the work consume us? At what point is the fire so hot that we must get away or get burned?
Was Moses asking the same question when he came upon the burning bush? He couldn’t look directly at it, another version of the scripture says. He looked at it from the side. He was probably scared to death!
But then, a voice spoke to him from the burning bush. “Remove your sandals. You’re standing on holy ground.” And Moses could do nothing but listen.
He had to face the fire while God gave him directions. God had heard the cries of the oppressed people in Egypt. Now, Moses would carry out God’s plans. He would deliver the slaves from their pain and bonds and he would lead them to the “land of milk and honey.”
Instead of being consumed by the fire of rage and injustice, Moses found that God was with him. God led him. And suddenly, Moses could not turn away.
God speaks to us. We must listen.
There is such a thing as donor fatigue where people have given money, then dropped off in their giving because the situation appears grim or hopeless. One could argue that there is media fatigue, where a story like Katrina or Iraq has run for long enough. The public becomes tired of it. In response, the media stops running the story. Suffering goes on.
As United Methodist Women, we can become absorbed in the amount of justice issues out there that involve women, children or youth. And we run the risk of exhaustion as we try to fix the problems of the world.
But if we become exhausted or lose our focus, we may have lost sight of God in our midst. God is calling us to look at the fire. He wants us to listen. God has a plan. And God ends the story with Good News, “I’ll be with you.”
If we believe in this good news, that we’re not alone in the battle against injustice, then we’ll be able to face the fire raging around us. We’ll be able to work with the margins of society for real solutions – not just charity – but for change. When we do this, the light of God will shine from within us and will transfer to those who have lost a sense of hope or feel abandoned, isolated, or pitted against another in a game of greed.
It will extinguish the rage that is building within those who are oppressed. They will be able to come together, like the laborers in New York City – and instead of being angry – work for reconciliation and fairness. They will be able to come together to educate the poorest people so that they can find better jobs, improve schools within their communities so children have a chance at a better life, and create micro-credit opportunities so they can create their own small businesses and benefit from the fruits of their labor. Our belief that God is with us will give others a sense of hope.
And when we believe God is with us, we can educate others. We can make the economically secure neighborhood, that has isolated itself, look at their brothers and sisters beyond the false boundaries. We can educate them to the plight of the children next door so that they can look deeply at the issues of poverty and racial injustices, challenging them to address the issues with dialogue, reflection and thought. And we can give those people hope – God will be with them too, when they’re daring to look at the fire and work for freedom of those who are oppressed.
If we were never to face the fire, we could never grow. There is so much to learn about our brothers and sisters, their joys and pain, their personhood and spirit. When we open ourselves to hearing their stories, we may be surprised at how we see God inside them.
In the Buddhist tradition, there is a greeting, “Namaste.” It means the “spirit in me meets the spirit in you.” It’s a beautiful image. Think about it. The spirit in me meets the spirit in you. We could easily adopt Namaste to our own faith tradition. As we face the fires of injustice and pain around us, we realize God is with us, because we can see God’s spirit in a sister next to us, in a brother around the world, or in a voice blazing in the fire.
The fire then does not consume us, it sets us ablaze with the love of God. It spreads warmth and hope.
I’ve experienced this – not once, but many times in my work with United Methodist Women. As a matter of fact, I often say that at the time when I’m ready to quit or I’m frustrated with the baby steps we take for justice or the letters from angry people or the amount of issues before us – I encounter God… and many times, I encounter God in another person. It’s then that I’m reminded of God’s promise that God will be with us.
These are God’s children. These are women affected by United Methodist Women’s work. These are people empowered by United Methodist Women’s gifts to mission. These are people in whom I’ve seen God, and they are sparks in the flame of God’s work and love here on earth. These sparks have been reminders for me of the warmth that United Methodist Women bring to the world. Those sparks create a fire that shines around the world for all to see God’s love, warmth, and quest for justice.
Ablaze for Change, Not Quick Fixes
Now remember the story of Moses and the words God spoke to him. “I have come down to help them, pry them loose from the grip of Egypt, get them out of that country and bring them to a good land with wide-open spaces, a land lush with milk and honey…”
Giving money is charity. It’s something that’s absolutely needed. But it can’t be the final gift. We must move beyond charity, prying the enslaved loose from the grip that binds them, getting them out of a situation that keeps them in poverty or enslavement, and moving them into a land of milk and honey.
United Methodist Women do this in many ways through their mission programs, projects, education and advocacy on behalf of women and children. But the work must continue.
Long after the media has left the damaged sites of the hurricane, United Methodist Women will re-build community centers and neighborhood houses to help the most afflicted people in the community and to empower them to rise above their situation. We’ll continue to hear stories of women who were empowered like Penny Rose of the Navajo Center. We’ll continue to hear about the children in the poorest sections of New Orleans and Mississippi who went against the odds, because of United Methodist Women, then went to college or graduate school. And because of the empowerment these women and children experienced, we’ll hear how they gave back to others in need. We’ll continue to advocate with the documented and undocumented workers so that they all receive justice, safe working conditions, fair wages, and decent human rights.
We are Ablaze for mission. We believe in more than quick fixes to situations, but that issues have many sides and we need to look deeply at the issues before responding. Then, when we respond, we look at long-term solutions that empower God’s children.
Most importantly, amidst all the suffering, we know that God is with us – no matter how much we would like to isolate ourselves, like Moses in the fields with his flock. God finds us and speaks to us, directing us to free his people. It’s our choice. We can be consumed by the flames in our world. Or we can learn all we can about the issues, discern God’s call to us, study the teachings of his son, and respond so that God’s people are freed.
1 Law, Eric H.F. The Bush was Blazing but not Consumed. St. Louis, Mo.: Chalice Press 1996, pg. 2.
Date posted: Nov 02, 2005