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Gift, What Gift?

“Gift, What Gift?”

June 2, 2024 - Cobleskill United Methodist Church, Pastor Anna Blinn Cole

Exodus 3:1-15, 4:10-16

Second Sunday after Pentecost

Exodus 3:1-15, 4:10-16

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. 

Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ 

Then the Lord said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground. 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.

Then the Lord said, ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from 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 country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.’ 

But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’ The Lord said, ‘I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.’

But Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you”, and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’ 

But Moses said to the Lord, ‘O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.’ Then the Lord said to him, ‘Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak.’ 

But he said, ‘O my Lord, please send someone else.’ 

Then the anger of the Lord was kindled against Moses and he said, ‘What of your brother Aaron the Levite? I know that he can speak fluently; even now he is coming out to meet you, and when he sees you his heart will be glad. You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth; and I will be with your mouth and with his mouth, and will teach you what you shall do. He indeed shall speak for you to the people; he shall serve as a mouth for you, and you shall serve as God for him.

Who would have thought that acres of pine trees and sand in the middle of Albany County could be so interesting?  I can’t tell you how many times I drove by the scruffy fields of pine trees before ever stopping and learning about the Pine Bush Preserve or walking its trails.  It doesn’t look magnificent like some of our national treasurers, but perhaps it’s for that reason that when you really stop to look, its rarity and beauty becomes even more impressive.  You see, it’s a rare ecosystem because of its sandy deposit left by the glaciers millions of years ago.    And because of the scruffy pine trees and wide meadows of hot sandy soil, forest fires are not only a common occurrence in pine barren ecosystems, they are actually critical to the survival of these ecosystems.  

The fire clears out the underbrush and its heat activates certain species of plants that only flourish under these conditions…just like we saw during children’s time in the video.  Pine trees, yes.  But also much more rare plants like the lupine, a beautiful flowering plant with a large root system which provides the only habitat for the now endangered Karner Blue butterfly.  The fire is critical for both the ordinary pine tree and extraordinary Karner Blue, both members of this ecosystem, to thrive.  

Nature has a lot to teach us.  You might even call the natural world “God’s First Testament.”  There’s something poetically beautiful about the way fire- a force that can often seem disruptive and harmful – can actually be an activator for what is new to emerge.  

We are in the season of Pentecost now, and the remnants of our party two weeks ago are still scattered across the altar.  The flame balloons have lasted longer than I thought they would and I’m glad, because the fires of Pentecost aren’t meant to be so quickly forgotten.  In Pentecost we talk about how God gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit, a presence of comfort and encouragement meant to give us resilience as Jesus-followers.  The sign of this Holy Spirit being with us on Pentecost is fire because this divine presence with us is a burning, bright light, giving off warmth and energy -and, get this- activating what unrealized gifts have laid dormant.  

Nature can be a powerful teacher when we stop and pay attention. In this morning’s scripture we heard the other most famous fire story in the bible.  Moses and the burning bush.  But the story is puzzling, if we’re honest.  Moses notices a strange sight.  He’s just walking along and out of the corner of his eye, he sees a bush caught on fire.  He stops and turns.  He doesn’t run the opposite direction as I might have been tempted to do.  He goes closer.  Something about this fire is different.  The scripture doesn’t tell us one single thing about how the fire started, why the bush was burning, why it never burned completely up, or if the fire was ever put out.  But what we do know is that in the fire Moses found God.  And out of the burning, he receives a gift.

In this week’s Saturday email, I had fun imagining a conversation between me and you in my head where I asked you how many gifts you got for Pentecost.  And you said… ?   Right, I imagined this question being weird.  And it is.  Pentecost is not a traditional gift-giving holiday.  There is no flame-themed wrapping paper that I know of, although that would be very fun.  We don’t typically have helium flame balloons in our houses under which we look for gifts on Pentecost morning.  

But!  Do you remember how in the Pine Bush, it’s only when the flames come through – whether they are a controlled burn in 2024 or a natural burn in the millennia past- it’s only when the flames come through that something significant happens “under those flames.”  Something changes.  The fire activates what has laid dormant.  The fire gives a gift.  And something new emerges from the ashes.   The fire gives the gift of ecosystem diversity, many new things sprouting and growing into new found possibilities.

When Moses found God speaking to him out of the fire, he too was changed.  He, too, was left with a gift.  For Moses, it was the gift of leadership.  For Moses, through the flames, God was helping him to identify that the present moment was the moment he had been preparing for all of his life.  You may remember the Moses story from Sunday School.  He had been born in Egypt to Hebrew people living under captivity; secretly given up by his Hebrew mother in little basket floating down the river so that he could land in the hands of Pharoah’s family where he would be emersed in the culture.  As Moses grew he realized his unique position.  A man who knew Egyptian culture and yet still felt deeply the pangs of injustice as he watched his people endure slavery in Egypt.  After trying once to stand up to this injustice he fled, afraid.  And this is where God finds him.  His gift of leadership lying dormant.  God comes to Moses in the flames of the burning bush and reminds him of what he maybe already knew deep down inside.  There was something inside him that was worth sharing.  It was time for him to come out.  To stand up to Pharaoh and lead his people out of their bondage.

We are thousands of years removed from Moses.  His story comes to us from a culture and circumstances that feel very, very different.  And yet, is there not a universal truth here about the power of God to expose in us some potential we did not know we had?  Is there not a universal truth here that God can speak to us still through the power of fire as we behold the lessons nature can teach us.  That sometimes the underbrush needs to be cleaned out so that we can see who we really are. Sometimes we need to be distracted from our normal patterns so that we can glimpse the divine call to us.  So that what is lying deep inside of us can be activated to grow and bloom and bear fruit.  

Gifts at Pentecost?  You bet.  You got one; I got one; he got one; she got one.  Pentecost is the gift-giving holiday because Pentecost is about empowerment.  God sending God’s activating energy to us, so that we might carry the vision of a better, more just, more kind, more peaceful world forward.  The only way to see God’s kin-dom come, as we pray every week, is to accept that we are the ones God’s been waiting for to do this holy work.  And through the Holy Spirit, God has given you exactly what you need to be the person God wants you to be.  And that, my friends, is your gift.  

The beautiful thing about gifts is that, like a rare ecosystem, everyone’s is different and purposeful.  The mysterious thing about gifts, though, is that we could be 9, 39, or 56 or 94 and still be figuring out what the gifts are that God has given us.  

This figuring out, this discernment of what it is God activates within you is sacred work.  And over the course of the next 4 weeks we’ll work together on figuring out what our gifts are.  Our services will be interactive and conversational, we’ll continue working together to build something new out of the ashes of fire, and the best part of all of this:  None of us have to build God’s kin-dom alone.  We’re in this together.  When we question whether or not we have what it takes, there will be people in our lives, like Aaron for Moses, whose gifts will compliment our gifts.  Kingdom work is collaborative work.  Your gifts and my gifts, working together in a conspiracy to make this earth look a little more like heaven. 

Grace and Peace,

Pastor Anna

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