Holy Ground

Passage: Exodus 3:1-15
Date: October 13, 2019
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
Guest Preacher:

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Several years ago, I was back East for a college reunion and was very happy to get together with some of my oldest and dearest friends. While we were walking around campus, my friend Emily asked a favor. Emily and I had roomed together for two years in college and one year after; I was a bridesmaid in her wedding; we shared a lot of life together. So Emily says to me, “Do you think some time this weekend we could duck into the chapel and you could baptize my kids?”

I looked my beautiful friend straight in the eye and said with much love in my heart, “No.” She was fine with that, but I felt the need to explain the Presbyterian understanding of baptism, that it’s about a community welcoming the baptized and pledging to walk alongside that person in their faith journey. And I asked her why she wanted the kids baptized when they did not participate in any kind of church in their hometown. She said something along the lines of “it would be nice.”

We live in interesting times, my friends, when the sacred and the secular are quite blurred, when things you and I might hold dear are not things others hold dear, and when there is often a lack of mutual respect about what another considers sacred or holy. Which is why I find this story about Moses and the burning bush strangely timely.

It’s strangely timely because it is a strange story and a pretty specific one and it’s odd to think that a story about something that happened thousands of years ago could touch us today.

We’ve skipped a few chapters in Exodus. Moses, the baby saved from the river, has grown up in Pharaoh’s household. One day he sees an Egyptian beating an Israelite, and in a rage, Moses kills the Egyptian and becomes a fugitive. By the time this story takes place, Moses has been living in the region of Midian for 40 years. He has married, and he tends his father-in-law’s sheep.

He goes out “beyond the wilderness.” Beyond the wilderness is out in the middle of nowhere, a place of unknowns, a place that has no safeguards. On the slopes of Mt. Horeb (which is also Mt. Sinai) Moses sees a bush that is burning. And then he notices that it is burning and burning but it is not burning up.

I wonder how many times Moses had taken the sheep out beyond the wilderness, how many times they had wandered up the slopes of the mountain, and how many times Moses had passed that burning bush and not noticed it.

We’re like that, aren’t we? We walk by the same thing, the same place, day after day after day, and then one day, we notice it. It becomes alive to us, somehow; it has a message for us that we weren’t ready for until that particular moment.

Maybe that’s how it was for Moses and that burning bush. He had passed by it before, but until that moment – until he was ready to see, or until God was ready for him to see it, until he was bored out of his mind tending his father-in-law’s sheep, until he was starting to get anxious about his fellow Israelites back in Egypt – until then, he didn’t see it. But at that acceptable time, Moses did see the burning bush. He met God. And everything changed.

“Take off your sandals,” God commands Moses, “for you are standing on holy ground.” Now one would think, in the presence of fire, one would want to protect the feet. But no – God commands Moses to go barefoot in the presence of the divine, which was customary back then. In those days, one removed one’s sandals as a sign of respect and humility. And maybe God wanted Moses to get in touch with the holy, to soak it in from the soles of his feet. God had not spoken to anyone since the patriarch Jacob, grandson of Abraham and father of Joseph. This moment is a big deal, not just for Moses but also for God. God is ready to get things going, to fulfill the promise made the Moses’ ancestors. The ground is indeed holy.

In those days – really, throughout the Bible – something is holy when God is present. We might say the same thing, that a place or an event is holy because we experienced God there. This sanctuary is holy for some – it’s holy because something luminous happened and a person felt God had touched them. But this place is holy for some because something happened here – their child was baptized, or their beloved was memorialized, or they met the love of their life here. Often holy things happen when we least expect it, when we’re out grazing the sheep, or we’re at the grocery store, or we’re listening to a sermon go on and on and on.

But I think about my friend Emily, and her odd request for baptism, and those who are agnostic at best or maybe even atheist who nonetheless will say they experience the holy. And that makes this story strangely timely.

We live in interesting times, especially here in the Pacific Northwest, or in what some researchers have dubbed “Cascadia” – Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. A recent study showed that the “Nones” – people having no religious affiliation – have grown in this area from 20% at the turn of the century to 32% this year, and that number is higher among young adults. However, for many in Cascadia, nature, the great outdoors, the environment is like a religion.

As the study reported, “Religion’s primary way of making common cause was environmentalism, which in our view had become the region’s dominant worldview — its civil religion if you will. A gospel of sustainability and biodiversity was strongly in evidence in the Catholic and mainline Protestant churches, the non-Christian and New Age faiths, and among the Nones themselves.” If you go to Crown Point on a sunny day and look up the gorge, it’s hard not to have a sense of the holy in that vista. Remember how we felt when the gorge was on fire a few years ago – our sacred space was being desecrated. The coast is that way too – looking out past Haystack Rock into the vast Pacific, you get a sense of the eternal.

Orthodox theologians would jump in at this point and remind us that God is not Mt. Hood, that God is not Nehalem Bay – that those natural beauties point us to the handiwork of God but are not, in and of themselves, divine. Our None friends might take issue with that, as might our indigenous, First People neighbors, as might some people here in the sanctuary this morning who don’t get too concerned about theological orthodoxy.

Does it matter that we have holy things? And does it matter why we consider those things holy? If you and I disagree on what is holy, does that disagreement undo the holiness?

Think for a moment about a place you consider to be holy ground.

One of my holy places is the room where my dad died almost two years ago. It’s a room in the health center of the retirement community where my folks have lived, and now every time I visit my mom and drive by that room, I get really quiet. It’s a room with a sliding glass door on one side that opens up to a tiny patio with a butterfly bush where the bushtits like to flit. When Dad was dying, it was resplendent in purple, and the birds were quite merry, at odds with the deep sadness we were all going through. But in that room, with that view, my dad took his last breath, and in that room he traveled from this life to the next. I choose to believe that God was in that room, in the weeks before Dad died, and in the minutes after. So that place is holy to me.

I acknowledge that for some people, it’s just a room. And sometimes I want to shout, “Don’t you know my dad died there?” And sometimes I just quietly nod and know that that person and I don’t have a common experience.

It’s hard when people don’t revere the same things we do. Who knows how many other shepherds saw that burning bush and ignored it or tried to douse the flames? Who knows how many shepherds walked by whom God did not speak to? 

All of which gets me to the question: how do we live with such different understandings of the holy? In the great temple in Jerusalem was a room known as the holiest of holies, so sacred that only the high priest could enter and only once a year. Our Roman Catholic kin believe that Jesus is physically present in the consecrated bread and wine, so that no crumb can fall to the ground and all the wine must be drunk. Here, we don’t put flowers on the communion table.

Let me offer two suggestions to all of this.

The first is of a theological nature. If indeed God is the Creator of all that is – however you understand that statement – then God made everything, and a bit of God the Creator Artist is in everything, the way an art detective might find Rembrandt’s fingerprint in a vast oil painting, or the way Maya Angelou’s life weaves throughout her poetry. So that makes all of creation holy – the oceans and icebergs, the skyscrapers of steel and cement that are made out of natural elements and the architect’s and engineer’s God-given talent and skill. It’s all holy.

The second suggestion is of a social nature. Maybe no thing is holy – no mountain, no river, no sanctuary, no hospital bed. Maybe what is holy is relationship – the relationship between you and God, the relationship between you and me. Maybe the holiest thing we will ever encounter is not a burning bush but a human being, a person created in the image of God, a person created to love, and person who, like us, is on this journey of grace.

It’s what C.S. Lewis described in my favorite sermon, “The Weight of Glory.” “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship… It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.

“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit.”

Jesus put it this way.“Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Friends, take off your shoes: you are indeed on holy ground.