Worship | Soul Work and the Great Work | August 29



The video above includes the full service, except for the time for sharing.

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Sermon: When the plant talks back

Text: Exodus 3:1-14

Speaker: Joel Miller


This past week I stood in this very spot several times, looking around, imagining, remembering….  Mostly to practice not crying.  Not that I mind crying in public, not a problem, it just makes it hard to talk.  Along with the three-month Sabbatical, it’s been a year and a half since I’ve been a part of this here.  So there’s that.  And then there was this hope I had, fantasy really, that this end of summer time, more than “Hey, I’m back”, was going to be a much fuller “Hey, we’re back” – celebrating being on the other side of the biggest challenges of this pandemic.  Which is not the case.  So, there’s that too. 

So here we are, and “here” is many places.  And “we,” by God’s grace, is still one body, held together in spiritual and cosmic union in Christ.

Today and next week I do want to bring forward some of what I thought about and worked on during the Sabbatical, first through this Exodus story of Moses and the burning bush, and next week with the gospel story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman.  I assure you the Sabbatical had plenty of time for play and doing things entirely unrelated to church, including this new thing we discovered called weekend trips out of town.  Highly recommended, in moderation. 

But I did have roughly half of the Sabbatical for study and creation of some materials for what I hope to become an annual offering at CMC – a small group of adults, young and old going deeper into whatever life transitions they find themselves in.  Marking those passages in a ritualized kind of way.

So let’s get right into it, with this Moses story as a guide.

On a day like any other day, Moses was in the wilderness, tending the flock of sheep of his father-in-law Jethro.  

This is the not the Moses who had stood before Pharaoh as plague and pestilence brought a hardened king to his knees and an oppressive empire to the brink of collapse.  This is not the Moses who had stretched out his hand over the Red Sea so his people could pass through on dry land, free from their bondage.  This is not the Moses who had struck the rock in the desert, and water flowed for the multitudes.  Not the Moses who’d ascended Mt. Sinai, communed with God, and descended with the stone tablets, the ten words, the commandments, the Torah. 

That Moses, larger than life and legend, does not yet exist. 

This is before all that, with those things just at the edge of the horizon, although Moses doesn’t know it.  This begins, for Moses, as a day like any other day. 

The liberating work that will soon define Moses’ life is mentioned by Thomas Berry as an example of what he calls “The Great Work” of Israel, its vital contribution to the human family. 

Berry was a Catholic philosopher who became increasingly drawn to spirituality in communion with the natural world, informed by the deep time evolutionary story of the universe.  His preferred title for himself was a “geologian.”

With Moses and Israel he also suggests that other cultures have had their Great Work, imperfect and incomplete as they all may be – including the Great Work of classical Greece in exploring the human mind, the creation of the western humanist tradition.  The Great Work of India, as he writes, “to lead human thought into spiritual experiences of time and eternity.”  The Great Work of various First Peoples of North America, to establish a multitude of models of how humans can, in his words, “become integral with the larger context of our existence here on the planet Earth.” (Quotes from The Great Work, pp. 1-2)       

Thomas Berry goes on to suggest that there is a Great Work of our time, now involving all people and cultures who share this planet.  Again, his words, as he wrote them in 1999:
“The Great Work now, as we move into a new millennium, is to carry out the transition from a period of human devastation of the Earth to a period when humans would be present to the planet in a mutually beneficial manner.” (p. 3)

For Berry this was deeply spiritual work, involving a shift in religious consciousness, politics and law, education, economy, and certainly our understanding of what it means to be human.  It’s called the Great Work not just because it’s a really great thing to do, but because of its great scope. 

Joanna Macy, scholar and activist, has a similar notion she calls the Great Turning, which she contrasts with Great Unraveling.   

I’m mentioning this because for a number of years now this idea of the Great Work, the Great Turning, has served as a backdrop for my own thinking.  And a backdrop for this summer’s Sabbatical.

For me, the question behind the question of How do we mark adulthood transitions through reflection and ritual is How do we access the spiritual, communal, psychological, practical resources we need to be participants in the Great Work?  How do we make these inevitable life transitions we all experience, planned or imposed, in ordinary or extraordinary circumstances, in such a way that most fully enables us to serve the Great Work through the unique gifts of this particular time and situation of life we find ourselves in, all the way up to our elders whose gifts are much more about being than doing?

To put it in biblical language, How do we participate in the kind of abundant life which Jesus lived and spoke, so that other life around us flourishes rather than degrades?    

A mentor once pointed out that you only really get to pursue one or two main questions in life.  And  that cluster of questions around the Great Work increasingly feels to me like the meta-question out of which flows all other questions worth asking…

So Moses…

As this story comes to us, there is no indication Moses was searching for his life purpose.  No indication he was searching for a Divine encounter, a revelation, certainly not attempting to access the spiritual, communal, psychological and practical resources he needed to participate in the Great Work.  He’s doing what had to be done, tending the family flock of sheep, just like he had no doubt done for many years since becoming a fugitive from Egypt where he was born and raised. 

But today, he’s going to have an encounter with the angel of the Lord who appears to him in a flame of fire out of a bush that stays aflame but is not consumed.  Or, as the story seems to indicate later, Moses has a direct encounter with the Divine itself, which reveals itself to Moses under the name “I am who I am,” or “I will be who I will be,” either translation is possible, which the Israelites will refer to as Yahweh, and then will substitute other names because you dare not speak directly of the holy name.  Now referred to rather casually and blandly as God. 

Moses meets God. 

Take off your sandals Moses, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground. 

This is indeed a day worth remembering. 

Or, from another angle, this is the day Moses talks to a plant, and the plant talks back.  We can only imagine what this scene might have looked like for a bystander, but there’s a distinct possibility that had that onlooker pulled out their cell phone and hit record, this would very much look like Moses was having an in depth, at times argumentative, life shaping conversation…with a plant. 

Which elevates this plant, and perhaps all plants, to a pretty high status. 

Jesus gave his teachings to settled, agricultural folks and likened seeds and harvests to the kin-dom of heaven.  Moses the nomadic herder encounters a wild growing bush in the wild bush and learns something of the uncontainable, undomesticated liberating Spirit over which Pharaoh has no power.  “I will be what I will be” says the god-plant.      

The Great Work of Israel was to follow a god who sided with the poor and enslaved over the gods of Egypt and empire, a god who disrupted a harmful status quo rather than upheld it.  The god of Moses and the Israelites, the God of the Hebrew prophets, the God Jesus claimed, the God who claims us, is a God of liberation.  And a turning point in the story of liberation, the event that activates its possibilities, is mediated through a plant.  As if the plant is a main character in the drama.  As if all of creation has a stake in the story of liberation.  Recruiting us into the Great Work.

What are the plants trying to tell us, and are we listening? 

Last fall, much to my delight, I discovered two young tulip poplar trees at the back of our property.  They were pushing up above the honeysuckle I thought had completely claimed the area.  I found myself quickly adopting them as family, clearing the honeysuckle, putting guards around their trunks to protect from deer.  Already imagining a future of them watching over the backyard and all the people and creatures who share it. 

This summer, for the first project-focused week of the Sabbatical, I had a retreat at the Arc of Appalachia in southern Ohio.  Lots of reading, with time for hiking in the surrounding mature forest.  One of the trails included an offshoot protected by cliff edges on both sides almost converging at the back where a creek and small water fall flowed through.  It was at least five degrees cooler than the main path on a hot June day – a place of gracious hospitality.  I decided to read and write there for a while.  Looking up I realized I had sat right beside two young tulip trees.  And suddenly this place was home, and home was this place, me adopting the trees and them adopting me, an invitation from them to be the kind of sheltering hospitality they were showing me.

It wasn’t exactly a direct encounter with the Great I Am or a life-defining moment of purpose, but I’d call it a conversation.  One that’s still lingering with me, and one I don’t think I would have been able to hear a dozen years ago. 

What I’d like to suggest is that the plants are recruiting.  Or rather, the plants are faithfully doing their part in the Great Work that the ultimate Mystery we call God is unfolding, and despite the devastation we have wrought, the invitation still stands for us to join this God of liberation and abundant hospitality. 

For Moses it was as challenging as encountering the impossible – a bush aflame yet not consumed, charged with the grandeur of God, as the poet writes, yet still fully itself.  Moses being asked, impossibly, to be like that bush.  Aflame with God, fully himself, free from the inner tyranny of Pharaoh’s control, free to be the one giving the invitation to others to join him and God and this plant in the Great Work. 

But today, Moses hasn’t done any of that.  All he did today was notice some non-human living entity in a new way, turn towards it, take off his sandals, dig his toes into holy ground, and listen to the invitation.