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The Third Sunday in Lent
February 28, 2016
The Old Testament: Exodus 3:1-15
Sermon: "On Holy Ground"
The Very Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
Watch the complete video of this service on our YouTube Channel
The Old Testament:
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, "I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up." When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, "Moses, Moses!" And he said, "Here I am." Then he said, "Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground." He said further, "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
Then the Lord said, "I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt." But Moses said to God, "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?" He said, "I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain."
But Moses said to God, "If I come to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' what shall I say to them?" God said to Moses, "I am who I am." He said further, "Thus you shall say to the Israelites, 'I am has sent me to you.'" God also said to Moses, "Thus you shall say to the Israelites, 'The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you':
This is my name forever,
and this my title for all generations.”
On Holy Ground
Holy places can be very odd. If you’ve traveled much, then you’ve probably visited many holy places: shrines, temples, cathedrals, synagogues, mosques, and pilgrimage sites. By odd, I mean the differing customs that visitors and adherents alike are expected to observe.
For instance, if you should visit the Golden Temple in India, there is an expectation that all men will wrap and tie a cloth about their heads that resembles a turban, while women will be expected to be bare-headed. And, both must remove their shoes. At most traditional cathedrals, on the other hand, women are to cover their heads, while men go bare-headed, but both may keep their shoes. At the Wailing Wall at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, all may keep their shoes, but both men and women are expected to cover their heads. While at the Al Aqsa mosque on the top of the Temple Mount, all are expected to remove their shoes, cover their heads, and women must be veiled.
Again, in most Eastern Orthodox cathedrals, men and women must fully cover their legs and upper arms. No shorts, short skirts, or sleeveless shirts or blouses. Some cathedrals even post security officers at their doors to prevent anyone from entering whose sartorial choices are off-code. Sometimes there are specific conduct requirements as well. For example, visitors to Buddhist temples must always walk around in a clockwise direction and feet must never be pointed toward the altar or an image of the Buddha.
Now, all of this is not a criticism of such things, just an observation. We “get” such customs, because, after all, we’re Episcopalians. Many of us make the sign of the Cross at various points throughout worship. We will enter and leave this place at the baptismal font, to dip our fingers in the holy water and cross ourselves again as a sign of our baptism. We will bow toward the altar at our pew before taking our seat. Some of us will even genuflect if our knees can still take it. We will kneel in prayer to open ourselves for worship, and to humble ourselves for confession. And nearly all of us do the Episcopalian wave: you know, when we bow and rise again as the cross moves down the aisle. We “get” these customs, in all these places, because we know that they are to mark the sacredness present; to make us pause for at least a moment, and consider that God is indeed present in an especially powerful way.
Whether it's heads covered or uncovered, shoes on or off, or some other dress or behavior custom, the principle is the same: the holiness of the space is to be shown respect. That's not difficult to understand, and clearly, we willingly cooperate with such rules when visiting places that others have designated as holy. What’s not so clear, is if we would recognize the holiness of some less obvious locations; such as, say, a burning bush on the side of a mountain.
That’s the predicament that Moses faces in our Old Testament reading from the Book of Exodus this morning. To recap, Moses is on Mount Horeb, also known as Mt. Sinai, tending his father-in-law's flock, when he sees a bush blazing with fire, but not burning up. As he moves toward it, God speaks to him out of the bush, saying, "Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground" (Exodus 3:5).
Holy Ground, we see, requires holy response. That leads to some thoughts this morning. And the first thought is this: Do we always recognize Holy Ground, even when we’re standing on it? What I’m really asking is this, how often do we stand on Holy Ground, a place where God is breaking through to us, speaking to us, and we miss it, because we aren’t looking for it?
Consider some of these possibilities:
*We’re taking a walk when an idea occurs to us about some change we need to make in our lives.
* We’re reading a book when something we have read suddenly comes alive for us.
* We are in the midst of a vigorous discussion with a family member and we’re getting rather heated when something clicks inside our heads and we remember that we love this person we’re about to write off. That realization can cause the ground to shift under us, and there is suddenly a holy opportunity regarding our relationship with that person.
* We’re snowed in and unable to get to our workplace. We are frustrated because we've got so much we need to accomplish, that can only be done on-site. But then, it suddenly dawns on us that we have been given a gift: a day to find ourselves again.
* We are busy with the responsibilities of the day when a child asks us to read her a story.
These examples don't overtly refer to God. They may not seem immediately seem like Holy experiences. Yet if we have any acquaintance with the concept of holiness, we will recognize that there are elements in moments such as those that go beyond the ordinary, beyond the routine, beyond the mundane. There is something about them that, if we are alert, tells us not to let the moment slip by without giving thanks, or apologizing, or saying, "I love you" to someone, or changing our attitude, or taking an exploratory step in a direction we think God might be pushing us, or just appreciating that moment for what it truly is. How often do we fail to see Holy Ground for what it is, simply because we are not looking for it? That’s the first thought.
Here’s another thought: How often do we dismiss such moments as something else? We are capable of completely dismissing a moment, even when we do notice it. Think of that burning bush. If I had been Moses, and my mind had just not been receptive to the moment, I could easily have dismissed it. First, coming from Hollywood, I could easily have found myself trying to figure out how somebody accomplished such an awesome special effect. Upon hearing the voice calling my name, my next reaction would be to look for the hidden camera that’s about to put me on America’s funniest Home Videos. Then, not seeing such a camera, and unable to figure out the special effect, I could easily figure that, that’s it, I’ve finally run off the rails; I need psychiatric help. If we aren’t careful, we can dismiss Holy Ground as something else.
Consider the conversation between Jesus and the woman at the well in Samaria. He asks her for a drink of water, which leads to a conversation about living water, spiritual sustenance. The woman's response, however, shows that she has no idea that she is on holy ground. Instead of taking off her sandals, she asks an analytical question: "Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?" Fortunately, Jesus persists in the discussion, and she eventually realizes that she is in the presence of, at the very least, a prophet, and eventually she grasps that Jesus is the Messiah (John 4:4-26).
We too can over-analyze, and fail to accept that our feet are on Holy Ground, that the God of all creation is actually speaking to us. Imagine, for example, hearing a sermon that challenges a certain attitude or way of living and sitting there thinking, "Boy, I wish so and so could here this; he really needs it," and we never once consider that God is actually speaking to us. We can spend so much time on analysis that we argue it away. That’s the second thought: we can dismiss that we are on Holy Ground.
Here’s one more thought: Have you ever thought to share your own Holy Ground moment with someone else? I have no doubt that most every one of you here has had some encounter with the divine in an unconventional, or at least dismissible way. I can’t begin to tell you how many times such experiences have been shared with me. Folks want to share what’s happened, but they’re afraid of ridicule; that someone else will think that they need help.
I think folks often share with me because, as a priest, they hope I might actually believe them, or at least be kind with them. The conversations almost always start off, “Well, I don’t know if you’ll believe this, but…” or, “You may think I’m crazy, but…” May I put your cautions to rest? I will believe you, because I truly believe that our God is still just as active as ever, and just as desirous to speak with you as with any Biblical person. To me, it only makes sense that you have stood on Holy Ground and God has spoken to you through it; somewhere or even many wheres.
So, if you were going to write a book about your holy ground experience, what would be its subject? Would it be about your family? Would it be about surviving a serious illness? Would it be about your daily quiet times of devotions? Would it be about the privilege you feel living in this country? Would it be about dark valleys you've gone through, but where you found that God was with you? Would it simply be about everyday blessings?
One of my most favorite poems is from Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She wrote:
“Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every bush afire with God;
Those who see take off their shoes.
The rest just sit round it and pluck blackberries.”
There is a lot more holy ground around than we notice. It would be good for us to include in our daily prayers a petition that God would make us aware, as he did for Moses, when we are treading on it. Then we can take our sandals off, and see what God would have us make of it.