On Highland Games Sunday, we reach into the early days of Canmore and the early days of this Church. Canmore Presbyterian Church was founded in 1891 and with its young minister, Rev Charles Gordon it understood the responsibility of being the first Church in town: in a town that was roughly 90% male, focused entirely on mining, it was their task as Church to share the good news of Jesus Christ and within that, to make sure that there was something else to do in town rather than just working all day in the mine and drinking away your earnings at the pub.
Download PDF: Sermon_03September2023
It’s also a day when I consider some of my own history. As a young student minister in the early 1980s, I had the great gift of knowing and loving parishioners born in the late 1800s and early 1900s. I always marveled at the changes their generation had seen: the introduction of electricity, running water, cars, radios, tractors rather than horse-drawn ploughs, not to mention living through two World Wars…the list went on and on. That wonder and respect continued with my parents’ generation, a generation shaped by growing up in the depression, the impacts of World War II, the societal changes of the baby boom, and the newfound ability of the middle-class to travel and to enjoy their retirement – so much changed in their lifetime as well.
For the most part, the changes in my lifetime have mostly been technological refinements of things introduced earlier, but there are a few bigger changes I’ve seen as well. One of those has been the rise and fall of respect and disrespect around religion. As Canada has become increasingly multi-cultural – and, in my opinion, WAY more interesting – I sensed at first a lot of respectful engagement with the other. As people of faith learned more about one another’s experience of the sacred, we not only grew in our knowledge of the other but deepened our understanding of our own faith traditions. Add to that, a new willingness to face history as we had previously understood it and revisit the interactions between the Indigenous peoples of this land, and settlers of European heritage, it felt like we were getting someplace important.
For a variety of factors, beyond my ability to understand or even catalogue, these hopeful signs have been marred and even overshadowed by a recent rise in intolerance. One of those forms of intolerance, especially in Canada, is a belittling of anyone expressing a religious commitment. This often piggybacks with racism, misogyny and homophobia, in dangerous and predictable ways, but there’s another subset, aimed directly at believers by people who actually share many of our beliefs about social justice. Some of this sniping, no question, we have earned, but many open-minded folks of all religions get lumped in with the extremists, and the sacred journey of love gets misrepresented and slammed.
In my growing-up years, participation in organized Christianity was already slipping, but it wasn’t a big deal: your family went to Church pretty much every Sunday, most often to one of the mainline Churches, or you went at Christmas and Easter, or you didn’t go at all, or were of a different religious background, and wherever you fit was wherever you fit. But now, if you check out virtually any online forum, from general news sites to the wide, wide world of sports, as soon as someone makes a comment that even implies the existence of God or a sacred realm, some troll will hop right in and mock them and their imaginary friend, with lots of upvotes.
Imagine, then, the response to this morning’s reading from the book of Exodus as Moses, now in the land of Midian, encounters something startling and beyond belief: a bush which not only bursts into flame and continues to burn without consuming itself, but speaks. It calls Moses to go back to Egypt to liberate the oppressed Hebrew people. For those keen on satirizing religion and even spirituality, this is top-notch stuff: a religion that includes a flaming, talking plant telling us what to do.
Yet as extreme as this encounter may be, if we listen to the words of the exchange, rather than getting all caught up in its weirdness, it actually tempers extremism rather than promoting it. Moses, awestruck by this experience but concerned that he would be disregarded or made fun of if he told anyone this wild tale, insists that this manifestation of God state its name. But instead of stating one of the expected names, the answer given to Moses is “I AM who I AM” or in some translations, “I will be who I will be.” Such a seemingly evasive answer wasn’t going to make things easier for Moses, but as I look back at this legendary tale of God’s self-declaration, the fact that God chooses to identify as “I AM” gives me something big to work with.
What does it mean for us as a faith community, to gather in the name of a God whose essence is “existence” or what we might call “is-ness”? Moses wants something tangible and God says “no: if I give you a name, I know what you’re going to do with that. You’re going to assign to me a bunch of human characteristics that make me just like you. You’re going to find the opposite of me and create an enemy that you can fight with and say it’s being done in my name. You’re going to try your best to confine me.” And rather than giving Moses et al the leeway to play these games, God says, “I am the God called I AM. I AM who I AM, I will be who I will be.” God is God, and get ready for a journey with God who, by definition, will adapt, move, transform. I AM who I AM. I will be who I will be.
I do not envy Moses the task of sharing this news with others, especially as he was struggling with is identity, trying to figure out how much of him was Egyptian, the culture he was raised in, how much was Midianite, the culture of his spouse, and how much of him was Hebrew, the oppressed people of his birth whom his heart was drawn to. And yet, regardless of how the news would be received, even at the risk of being mocked by the equivalent of today’s keyboard warriors, this experience – whether taken literally or figuratively – was pivotal for Moses and his people and continues to have an impact on people of faith.
Menachem Feldman, writing for Chabad.org, offers this interpretation, from a Jewish standpoint: “Moses experienced the Divine revelation, not for himself, but for the sake of the Jewish people, whom he would lead out of Egypt…to become the nation of G‑d, a nation charged with the mission of making G‑d’s vision for this world a reality. It follows, then, that the burning bush was not merely a way to grab Moses’ attention, but rather it was the symbolic mission statement of the nation that would be born at Sinai, immediately following the Exodus.
“The first message that G‑d communicates to Moses is this: In order to connect to G‑d one must reveal the fire burning within the human heart”.
The burning bush, then, was for our Israelite forebears a symbol of the way that God would live in and amongst the people. They would not be allowed to make idols, for that would play into the idea that God is static and limited; when it came time to leave their Egyptian servitude, the fiery imagery would continue, as God would guide the people as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night; and as they considered God’s place in their heart, it must be like a fire that will not go out.
The burning bush has been significant for Christians as well. On the United Church Crest – which you see up here on the pulpit, and at the peak of the roof outside the Church – the burning bush has a prominent place. Among the densely packed imagery on the crest we have symbols of the three main branches of Canadian Christianity that came together in 1925 to form the United Church of Canada: the dove of the Holy Spirit, representing the Methodists, the open Bible of the Congregationalists, and the burning bush of Presbyterians. Local Union Churches were remembered in the inaugural service but, alas, not on the crest.
Searching for the connection between the Presbyterians and the Burning Bush, it appears to go back to John Calvin, and his experience of the early Protestant Church being heavily persecuted by the powers that be. Aaron Denlinger deftly sums it up like so: the Burning Bush symbolizes “the suffering of the church in this age, the abiding and preserving presence of God in the midst of the church, and, ultimately, the self-revelation of God to God’s people.” For me, the importance of the Burning Bush on our Crest is two-fold: first, it is that “unquenchable fire of the heart” mentioned by Menachem Feldman, an intensity in our God-connection that states that our relationship with God is not something soft, gentle or optional, but foundational to the way we make our choices and live our lives; and second, it reminds us that the moment that we think we have got God figured out, the moment that we feel we have successfully tamed and shaped God in a way that suits us, God’s self-understanding, “I AM,” stands before us, stating “I am not a figment of your imagination, people, but neither am I subject to your whims and your arrogance and your prejudices. I AM the source of creation and creativity, I AM the source and essence of love, I AM the source and fuel of justice and kindness, I AM the one who calls you and to whom you are accountable, I AM the source of life and light, the one who will keep you moving toward life in all its fullness”.
On this day, I give thanks for the heritage that is before us. I have been blessed by the Church folk I have known over the past forty years, their ability to adapt to extraordinary change, and I pray that some of their resilience will stick to me as I face the challenges of these days. I think of the early days of this congregation, and every time I do so I am in awe of the fire of Christian service that burned within Rev Charles Gordon and the first leaders of the Church. Casting my mind back to that time reminds me of the outward orientation of this congregation, present since day one, which is so important to our being a healthy and helpful part of this community. And then I imagine all of these smaller connections within the great big story of our Judaeo-Christian forebears in the faith, and am reminded of the God who will not be contained or limited by human limitation. The one who would not give Moses a tidy answer but instead declared “I AM who I AM, I will be who I will be” is still engaged and active in this world, causing us to live lives fuelled by transforming love and liberating justice. May these aspects of our heritage continue to encourage and inspire our words and actions, as we seek faithful presence in Banff, Canmore and surrounding communities, and as we understand our place in the big picture of God’s abiding love. Amen.
References cited or consulted:
The United Church of Canada. https://united-church.ca/community-and-faith/welcome-united-church-canada/united-church-crest
© 2023 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church. Preached in Canmore.