In the portion of the story of Exodus which we hear on the third Sunday of Lent, Moses is a fugitive from the law. Having murdered a man in Egypt, he has crossed into the Sinai desert and is putting as many miles behind him as he can when suddenly his eye is drawn to something burning at the side of the road. He slows enough to see it and then stops in his tracks when he realizes that the burning bush he sees right before his eyes is aflame without being consumed. Now it’s no rare sight to see something on fire out in the desert. Those who have journeyed in dry lands and desert places know well how easily the dry brush can catch fire, seemingly spontaneously. But what catches on fire on a hot and dry day doesn’t burn very long before it burns up, and is no more. The bush Moses saw…it burned, and it burned, and it kept on burning without being consumed. And as Moses realized that he must be standing in the presence of God, he heard a voice telling him “Take off your shoes, for the ground you are standing on is holy.” And to this day, my sisters in religious life who come from Ghana take off their shoes when they come forward to receive communion, for the ground on which they are standing is holy. Holy ground, because it marks the point of the union of heaven and earth, the encounter of the human — the encounter of a human being — with the divine.
It is holy ground also, this burning bush, because it marks a turning point. For Moses that is the point in his journey at which he knows he is going the wrong direction. We’ve all been there; whether or not we have GPS, we have passed by a turn or diverted in the wrong direction, and even though doubting our own judgment we have continued to travel on what we increasingly become convinced must be the wrong road. For Moses, the right road is the road back to Egypt. He cannot run from his problems and he cannot run from his destiny. He must return to the place from which he just fled, gather up his people, and bring them with him back into the desert. He cannot do this alone. Nor can we. “Turn back, O man,” goes the old Lenten hymn, “forswear thy foolish ways.” The burning bush marks the point of Moses turning back, upon which the entire further history of Israel depends.
In our time the burning bush has come to symbolize even more: the burnt offering, or Holocaust, of God’s people Israel who have entered the flame and miraculously have survived to make the desert bloom through their industry, their sacrifice and their sheer determination. By extension the burning bush shows us the light of other modern martyrs, those whose lives have been taken from us but whose light and power will never be diminished by the evil powers of this world. Today in this parish and throughout the world we remember and honor one such burning and shining light on the 39th anniversary of his martyrdom, Oscar Romero of El Salvador, an ordinary parish priest who rose through the ranks to become the archbishop killed by gunmen in his own cathedral in 1980, one who said, ”If they kill me, I will rise again in my people. Si me matan, resuscitare en mi pueblo.” His people are here today, here at Saint Matthew’s/San Mateo, and through them and through us Oscar Romero remains a burning and a shining light in the deserts of Chihuahua and Coahuila and Sonora and Arizona. We take time this day with Moses to turn aside, and to see this great sight, and to embrace the people in whom the light of God’s presence continues to burn, right here and right now.