Lampstands, Not Burning Bushes
This sermon served as the opening message for the 5 day training The Fire of Faith: Rekindling My Congregation. The training was designed to highlight how the disciplines and attitudes of congregation based community organizing, when turned inward on the congregation, can serve as tools to strengthen the congregation. You can download the file here.
A man was once on his knees, searching for something he lost. A neighbor came along and saw him, so he asked:
“What are you searching for?” “My key. I’ve lost it.”
His neighbor got on his knees, too, and both men searched for the lost key. After a while, the neighbor asked: “Where did you lose it?” “At home.” “Then why are you searching for it here?” “Because the light is better here.”
Those of us who are seekers are drawn to the light so much so that we have to kindle our own fires of faith as we look for lost objects far away from the place where they were lost.
The last time I kindled a fire, it was about 3 weeks ago in my backyard. It was a liminal moment filled with sacred potential. In preparation for Passover, my family and I had spent 2 full days cleaning every surface in our kitchen, changing our dishes from the regular dishes to the special Passover dishes we use every year. Our goal was both practical and spiritual at the same time. In keeping with the biblical mandate, we had to physically get rid of the leaven from our house, in preparation for the Festival of Matzah, unleavened bread. In keeping with the spiritual mandate, we had to get rid of the puffy stuff in our lives that would keep us from once again experiencing redemption.
So we lit a fire in our backyard, recited a 2,000 year old blessing, and burned the last remnants of bread just before we began our annual redemption journey out of Egypt.
Kindling that fire in Pittsburgh, PA, I was reminded of the fire that started it all on Mount Sinai. It was the fire that inspired Moses to stand before Pharaoh and declare “Let My people go!” It is the fire that we congregation based community organizers are drawn to like, well, moths to the light. It is warming, it is sacred, it is inspirational. It is attractive and compelling for us all.
It was just another day when Moses came across that burning bush. He was just doing his job, being a shepherd like many of us. The Rabbis teach us:
The Holy One tested Moses by means of the flock, as our masters explained: When Moses our teacher was tending Jethro’s flock in the wilderness, a lamb scampered off, and Moses followed it, until it approached a shelter under a rock. As the lamb reached the shelter, it came upon a pool of water and stopped to drink.
When Moses caught up with it, he said, “I did not know that you ran away because you were thirsty. Now you must be tired.” So he hoisted the lamb on his shoulder and started walking back with it.
The Holy One then said: Because you showed such compassion in tending the flock of a mortal, as you live, you shall become shepherd of Israel, the flock that is Mine.
Exodus Rabbah 2:2 (9th-12th Centuries CE)
Moses found the fire of faith while he was giving individual attention to a single lamb in his flock. Let me rephrase that. Moses our shepherd found the light by looking after an individual soul.
Moses found the fire of faith because he was willing to chase just one of his flock…
His test did not end when he arrived at the bush. My teacher Rabbi Larry Kushner explains:
Creation is the process of waking up. Take the story of Moses and the burning bush. Most people were taught that this story is about God performing a miracle to get Moses’ attention. Now if you were God, how would you get someone’s attention? Maybe split the Red Sea, maybe set up a pillar of fire–big time stuff. But why make a bush catch fire and not get burned up? Why would God do that?
I was once sitting at home in Boston in front of the fire, and I made this discovery. Do you know how long you have to watch wood burn before you know whether or not it’s being consumed? Five minutes, which means there could be a miracle going on in your fireplace but you wouldn’t know it unless you watched for five minutes.
The burning bush was not a miracle, it was a test. God wanted to see if God was dealing with somebody who would pay attention for five minutes. So creation begins with opening your eyes and paying attention. And when we pay attention, we discover the world, and when we discover the world, we discover that everything is connected—or at least a lot more things are connected than we had previously thought. We get a sense that there’s something else going on. God didn’t create the world once and for all; God continuously creates the world. The process goes on all the time, and we try to be aware of it.
Rabbi Larry Kushner (20th/21st Century)
Moses found the fire of faith because he was willing to chase just one of his flock… Moses found the fire of faith because he was willing to spend the time paying attention to the details of God’s creation.
That bush was really quite something. I don’t know about you, but seeing such a sign of God’s presence in our lives, I would want to go back to it again and again and again. In fact, Torah teaches us that we were to go back to it:
12 And God said, “I will be with you; that shall be your sign that it was I who sent you. And when you have freed the people from Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain.”
Yes, we would go back to that mountain as the medieval Rabbi Nachmonides teaches us:
God said to Moses, “Do not fear Pharaoh because I will be with you in order to save you. This, the fire of the bush, is the sign for the people because I sent you to them. When you take the people out of Egypt they will worship Me on this mountain, and after that receive their calling to walk in My commandments.”
Nachmanides (13th Century CE)
Moses found the fire of faith because he was willing to chase just one of his flock… Moses found the fire of faith because he was willing to spend the time paying attention to the details of God’s creation… Moses found the fire of faith at the burning bush knowing that he would lead his people back to the mountain where the fire would light their way to a life of religious commitment.
After all, those of us who are seekers, like the man looking for his key, are drawn to the light so much so that we have to kindle our own fires of faith as we look for lost objects far away from the place where they were lost.
A sacred thing happened on our way back to Mt. Sinai. It was a long journey back through 10 plagues and an obstinate Pharaoh. There was a watch night when the angel passed through and families celebrated the first Passover ever. There were doors painted with blood and wagons loaded with spoils. Our sandals were on our feet and our loins were girded unwilling to be one moment late for the redemption. With no time to waste we baked the bread, matzah, on our backs and that bread has become the symbol of the bread we will share with all who are hungry. Let them come and eat. When we were squeezed between the sea and an army the waters parted in the most redemptive moment in all of human history. “Free. Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”
Miriam and Moses led us in song on our way back to the place where the fire originally burned in a bush.
And the women dancing with their timbrels
Followed Miriam as she sang her song
Sing a song to the One whom we’ve exalted
Miriam and the women danced, danced the whole night long.
And Miriam was a weaver of unique variety
The tapestry she wove was one which sang our history
With every strand and every thread she crafted her delight
A woman touched with spirit she dances toward the light.
Mi chamocha ba’elim Adonai. Mi kamocha ne’edar bakodesh
Nora tehilot oseh feleh, Nora tehilot oseh feleh.
Who is like You Adonai among the gods who are worshiped.
Who is like You magnificent in holiness. You are awesome in praise. You do wonders.
Miriam danced toward the light… and so do we.
On our way back to Sinai, you see, we became a sacred community, seekers of the light.
You would think, in his excitement to share with us where he first saw the light, that Moses would take us back to the mountain and point out to us the very place where the bush burned: “Look at it it’s right over there. It’s still burning. I swear. That’s where God inspired me to stand before Pharaoh. That’s where the bush burned! That’s where the fire burns!”
But we never hear about that bush again. Not in anticipation of seeing it, not in disappointment of not seeing it, nothing.
Rather, we turn our attention away from the bush. We are not going to wait for a fire to miraculously appear for us again. No, not us. Rather, we seekers are going to take the responsibility of rekindling the fire of faith in our own congregations on our own lampstands, on our own menorot.
Standing there in the place where the bush burned unconsumed, Moses is commanded to build a lampstand that looks a lot like a bush. Listen to the language:
31 You shall make a lampstand of pure gold; the lampstand shall be made of hammered work; its base and its shaft, its cups, calyxes (flower cups), and petals shall be of one piece. 32 Six branches shall issue from its sides; three branches from one side of the lampstand and three branches from the other side of the lampstand.33 On one branch there shall be three cups shaped like almond-blossoms, each with calyx and petals, and on the next branch there shall be three cups shaped like almond-blossoms, each with calyx and petals; so for all six branches issuing from the lampstand.
It has branches, petals, calyxes and almond blossoms. The lampstand itself on which we are to kindle the fire of faith looks like a bush.
The effect must have been to create a …[bush] with light from each branch reflecting from the shiny surface of the central shaft. To those who saw it, that brilliant, golden bush, with the light glowing from its center, must have been a reminder of that first moment when Moses heard God’s voice coming from a bush lit at its center with eternal flames.
Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser
The lampstand we are to place in the desert tabernacle…
the lampstand we are to place in Solomon’s Temple…
the lampstand we are to place in Ezra and Nehemiah’s Temple…
the lampstand Judah Maccabbee was to relight in his day…
the lamps we are to light today in our sanctuaries are reminiscent of the burning bush and the fire that drove Moses to confront Pharaoh, except for one small fact.
Moses’ burning bush was a God given miracle. He didn’t have to gather the wood or the kindling. He didn’t have to beat the olives into oil. He didn’t even have to have flick his bic. Moses didn’t have to do nothing, except be in the sacred light. It was already aflame when he approached it.
Our lampstand, our menorah, however, has no light until we give it light. It needs our light. Torah teaches:
20 You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly. 21 Aaron and his sons shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting, outside the curtain which is over [the Ark of] the Pact, [to burn] from evening to morning before the Lord. It shall be a due from the Israelites for all time, throughout the ages.
It is very simple for those of us who are seekers of the light. We have to regularly kindle the light throughout the ages. Regularly kindling lights is a discipline and an attitude.
We all know it well: the art of sacred community is not found in a light that burns forever nor in a light that miraculously appears.
The art of sacred community is found in the discipline and attitude of regularly kindling the fire of faith throughout the ages.
A Chassidic Rabbi teaches: Add oil to the lamp before the light dies, for if it does, the oil will do no good. Not one of us wants the light to die and we are concerned that it might in this generation. That is why we do what we do. That is why we are here this week. After all, those of us who are seekers are drawn to the light so much so that we have to kindle our own fires of faith.
Our journey for this week and beyond is not about the burning bush, a miraculous light that inspires us to stand before Pharaoh. Our journey for this week and beyond is about the lampstand and how we have to embrace the discipline and attitude of regularly kindle the fire of faith from generation to generation, from community to community, from denominations to denomination inspiring ourselves and others to seek out the light.
Just as Moses found the fire of faith because he was willing to chase just one of his flock… so may we kindle the fire of faith in intentional relationship with the individuals in our congregations.
Just as Moses found the fire of faith because he was willing to spend the time paying attention to the details of God’s creation… so may we be covenantal partners with God seeing to all the details of sacred community.
Just as Moses found the fire of faith at the burning bush knowing that he would lead his people back to the mountain where the fire would light their way to a disciplined life of religious commitment… so may we continue to light fires in our sanctuaries so that each and every one of us and all of those upon whom we shed our light will know that it is better to search for the lost key in the place where sacred lights are regularly lit and in the place where God’s community lives.
After all, those of us who are seekers are drawn to the light so much so that we have to kindle our own fires of faith.
Rabbi Ron Symons, Temple Sinai, Pittsburgh, PA;
President, Gamaliel National Clergy Caucus – National Clergy Team Training, April 2012