When my wife and I were in our first years of marriage, we didn’t have a lot of money. One Christmas, we decided not to buy gifts for one another, but make them instead. Her gift to me was most memorable: a book of coupons.
One was a coupon for “Extra time browsing at Barnes & Noble”, another was a “Get out of doing the dishes” coupon, but my favorite one came with the promise that it was “infinitely renewable”. It said: “Shut up and hug me.”
When she gave it to me, she explained what it meant: “Any time you see me getting so caught up in something important I’m doing (or something that I think needs to be done) that I forget to stop, look you in the eye, and really be there with you, you can hand me this coupon and expect an immediate response. And you can use it as many times as you like.” That was a beautiful gift.
We all need that sometimes: somebody to walk up and throw down a coupon (or something like it) that calls us back to who we really are and what life is really about.
Life is hard. Life is complicated. Life is busy. I’ve got news for you (and it may come as a shock): That to-do list you’re working on? You’ll never reach the end of it. Some people think they’ll get there when they retire, but all my retired friends keep telling me, “I’m still so busy; I don’t know when I had time to work!” There will always be some reason to be worried about one more thing hanging over your head and keeping you from just being in the present moment with yourself, with God, and with the people you love.
Jesus knew about our tendency to get caught up like this, which is why he warned his followers:
Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?
And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?
‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.
He’s telling us to let go of our need to control everything and just be in the moment, but most of us have a hard time doing that, for some reason.
There is a phrase that people use when the busyness of life starts to get out of hand. They say, “I’m running around like a chicken with its head cut off.” I think that’s an especially relevant image. After all, a chicken with its head cut off is flopping around frantically, but it’s not really alive anymore. In the same way, I think there are a lot of people who do a lot of running around in life, but they aren’t really living.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus asks us a very pointed question: “What will it profit [you] if [you] gain the whole world but forfeit [your] life?” Some older versions of the Bible translate that last word as soul: “That which makes you a human being and gives meaning to your existence.”
Are you really living a meaningful life or just running around like a chicken with its head cut off? Are you gaining the world but losing your soul?
It’s moments like these when we need someone to come up to us and hand us a piece of paper that says, “Shut up and hug me.” We need to be called back to our true selves, to who we really are inside, and to what that means for how we are to live our lives in a meaningful way. We need God to get our attention and help us to “turn aside” from our own little projects and agendas so that we can be part of God’s larger work of establishing justice and peace on the earth.
In this morning’s Old Testament reading, we encounter Moses at one of those “turning aside” moments in life when he hears God say to him, “Shut up and hug me.” The text tells us that Moses was just keeping his head down and doing his job, “keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian”. It was a job and it kept his family fed, but it was far less than the epic destiny that God had in store for him.
The text says that Moses “led his flock beyond the wilderness”, which is an interesting way of putting things. One of my seminary professors had a theory that this was not just a geographical location, but a spiritual one. Moses is in a dry and dead place. Like so many people today, he was surviving, but not really living. He was in a kind of spiritual no-man’s land.
How did he get there? By trying to play the hero. He had grown up between two worlds: a Hebrew slave raised in the court of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. He saw his people’s oppression under the empire: from slavery to genocide. One day, he decided that enough was enough, so he murdered one of the Egyptian overseers who was abusing one of the slaves. Moses thought this would be his big opportunity to incite a revolution and lead his people into glorious freedom… but things didn’t exactly go according to plan.
Instead of rising up and following him, the Hebrew people turned on him, threatening to turn him in to the authorities. Moses fled for his life, a fugitive from justice, running away with his tail tucked between his legs. Eventually, he found a home and settled down into a lowly shepherd’s life somewhere “beyond the wilderness”: beyond hope, beyond dreams, beyond redemption.
With the pain of past failures that he could not change, Moses kept his head down, did his job, and tried to forget about his old life in Egypt, with its dreams of liberation and revolution. You can almost hear him muttering under his breath as he walks with the sheep, “Nothing changes. Keep your head down. It was a stupid idea, anyway.” He was trying to make his daily routine drown out the pain of his deeply unsatisfied life.
But that’s where God shows up: in the most unlikely of places. One would have expected the divine fire to fall when Moses killed the Egyptian or tried to talk to the Hebrews the next day, but God decided to wait until Moses was alone, “beyond the wilderness.”
It begins with a burning bush: one of the most memorable images in the Bible. God reached out to Moses and opened his eyes so that something very dull and ordinary, like a bush, was suddenly filled with the brilliant fire of divine energy.
Now, scholars differ as to what actually happened in that moment, but here’s my hunch: Moses saw nothing out of the ordinary. Archbishop Desmond Tutu says, “God spoke to Moses through a burning bush… every bush is a burning bush.” So is every tree, every rock, every mountain, every ocean, every sky, every animal, and every person.
If we were to look at our world with our spiritual eyes wide open, we would see that spark of divine fire in everything and everyone. God is always with us, within us, and around us. If we, as people of faith, were to live our daily lives with an awareness of that reality, I think it would probably look to us like the bushes were on fire too.
So, why don’t we see it? I think it’s because we’re so caught up in our little plans and big ideas, in the ten thousand things that need attending to on a daily basis. We don’t notice God because we’re too busy and too hurt to lift our inner vision any higher than the immediate task in front of us that needs doing right now.
What made Moses so different? When he saw the burning bush, he “turned aside” to take a closer look. It was this small gesture that made the difference. Moses was willing to be distracted. Maybe we could call it A.D.D. Spirituality. We don’t see God because we’re focused and intent on our own little projects and agendas. Moses saw God because he was open to being sidetracked and co-opted into God’s plan for the world.
Moses “turned aside” to see this interesting bush, and suddenly a whole new dimension of reality was open to him: he realized that he was standing on holy ground (as all of us are); he realized that God is with him; he learned the secret divine name: I AM WHO I AM; and, most of all, he came to a renewed understanding of what it was that God wanted him to do with his life and how he fit into the divine plan for creation.
Moses turned aside, he was willing to be distracted, and so he was open to that moment when God showed up in the middle of his busy life with an infinitely renewable coupon that said, “Shut up and hug me… come back to who you really are and what is most important in life… turn aside to a world on fire and experience the reality of my presence with you in all things.”
Every bush is a burning bush. All ground is holy ground. All of heaven and earth are full of God’s glory. God is who God is and God’s plan is way bigger than our plans.
Here at North Church, we’ve built our entire ministry on the willingness to “turn aside” and be distracted by God’s plan over our plans. We might not have the biggest budget or the fanciest programs, but we know what it means to spend an hour with someone over a cup of coffee. We know that God sometimes speaks through a Bible study that gets off-topic or a meeting that runs over. We have seen the fire of God burning brightly in the eyes of a woman who has no place to stay or a father who can’t work up the courage to ask for a meal for his kids.
We have come to realize that God is who God is and people are who they are, so we might as well accept them as such, and in so doing, we experience the love of God, who comes to us day in and day out as we run around like chickens with their heads cut off, distracts us from all those ten thousand little things that need doing, gets in our face, and says to us, “Hey! Shut up and hug me.”