“Holy Ground, Holy Work”
August 31, 2008
The world is shot through with the holy. We never know where we might encounter it. We might encounter it…
* In a sanctuary on a Sunday morning, when a particular hymn takes our breath away, or brings tears to our eyes.
* At a 12-step meeting, when a grizzled alcoholic with 20 years of hard drinking followed by another 20 years of sanity, sobriety and service, speaks the truth and we hear it and know it, deep down in our hearts.
* On a hike in the woods, when we come upon an ancient and majestic tree, and realize it has been on the earth roughly 10 times as long as we have.
* In a hospital delivery room, when a nurse places a brand new human being into our waiting arms.
* At a concert, when we hear music that makes our heart leap in our chest, and we recognize that this is true, this is real, this has something or Someone behind it that we want to know better.
* Sitting around tables, bibles open, when the words on the page take up residence in our hearts, and we know they will never leave.
* Floating in the bright, clear, cold ocean, as the rolling of the waves holds us up and we abruptly realize we are in the presence of something infinitely larger than we are, something both dangerous and thrilling, both inviting and terrifying.
You can probably name other places and times and circumstances. The world is shot through with the holy. We never know where or when or how or with whom we might encounter it.
Moses had his meeting with the Holy at a time in his life when he was, perhaps, at a low ebb. You know the famous story of his early years. How the people of Israel sought refuge in Egypt during a time of famine. How they were suddenly, under a new administration, looked upon with distrust and dismay, as if these resident aliens, these immigrants, were dangerous… and so they were taken into slavery. You know how the Pharaoh decided that all Hebrew boys should be killed at birth, but he was subverted by the clever, fast-thinking Hebrew midwives. You know how, thanks to the wily and resourceful women in his life—his mother, his sister, and even the Pharaoh’s own daughter—Moses was drawn out of the water that might have been his death, and given another chance at life.
This adoptee seems to have been raised with an acute sense of the plight of his family of origin. Though he was raised by a princess, given every advantage as her son, he was tuned in to the brutality being leveled against the Hebrews. He impulsively intervened and killed an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew slave. Because of that action, he himself became a refugee. He ran into the wilderness, to Midian. There, like other biblical men before him, he came to a well and met his future bride. And here we find him, Moses: born to an oppressed people, raised in the household of royalty, tending flocks for his father-in-law.
We might wonder what was going on in Moses’ mind before he came upon the unearthly sight of the burning bush. Was he thinking about the home he had lost? Was he remembering his royal family? Or, perhaps, did he have vague memories of the mother who cared for him until he was weaned? Was he remembering the moment when he took the life of that Egyptian? Playing it over and over in his head, wondering if things might have turned out differently? Or was he entirely engaged with the process of shepherding? Shepherding… not a job for sissies. The original tough guys, ready to beat off lions or poachers with their staffs at a moment’s notice. The original nursemaids, tending the weakest of the flock when they were injured. The original outcasts, since they were always “unclean,” and therefore unwelcome in polite society.
Whatever his thoughts, they must have evaporated in the presence of the bush that blazed and yet was not consumed. Here is the holy, dangerous and thrilling, inviting and terrifying. And Moses did an incredibly important thing at just that moment: he stopped. He stopped to look at that holy thing, to try to understand it. That is when he heard that voice… we know it from films as the voice of Charlton Heston… that voice issuing the double call, his name, “Moses, Moses!” Occasionally, in scripture, God calls to one of God’s people, and it is particularly urgent: That moment when Abraham has the knife poised at his son’s throat. That long night when Samuel is asleep in the temple, and God wants to draft him to clean up all the corruption. This is one of those moments. It is urgent. The voice of God calls Moses’ name twice, and Moses does what all these biblical characters do: he says, “Here I am!” Which means, I am ready, and I am willing. I am ready to hear what you have to say to me, God. And I am willing to do as you say.
God tells Moses, take off your shoes, man! The place where you are standing is holy! A friend said to me this week, I wonder how many times Moses had walked by that place before? How many times had he looked at that same bush, and seen nothing but… some shrubbery? How many times have I looked at my own children and not felt the holy hand of God in my life, just impatience that I walked in after work to a sink full of dishes? How many times have I taken a dip in the ocean and not felt the touch of eternity for all my pre-occupation with the discomfort of appearing publicly in a bathing suit? How many times have I been in the presence of the holy, and simply passed on by, busy anticipating the next meeting or the next phone call or the grocery list or the to-do list?
Of course, when we do slow down enough to notice that something holy is in our midst, we run the risk of God dumping into our laps one of those completely overwhelming, impossible tasks God likes to save for his special favorites. Let my people go! Build me a temple! Go to the ends of the earth to tell people the good news! Or, maybe, Raise this child for the next 18 years, keep her safe, and help her to become a good person! Or, Time to teach Sunday School—even though you’ve never done it before! Or, Why don’t you start a soup kitchen in your community? The kinds of jobs that sometimes, make us go, Oh, God, are you kidding me?
Which is, pretty much, exactly what Moses says. You want me to go where? And to whom? And do what? Are you kidding me? Me? Who am I? I can’t start a soup kitchen… I can’t even make soup! I can’t organize a league for the Boys and Girls Club… I have no earthly idea even where to start! I can’t go to Pharaoh… remember I’m wanted for murder in Egypt? What are you thinking, Lord?
God meets Moses’ objections with the one answer that cannot be discounted or refuted or ignored. When Moses asks, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” God doesn’t recite Moses’ resume. God doesn’t say, “Well, you were raised in the Pharaoh’s household, maybe you could use those connections to your advantage. And, hey, the Israelites are your people after all. And you were pretty brave with that Egyptian… and you’re a natural with the sheep!” God doesn’t do that. When Moses points to his own deficiencies, God points to divine sufficiency. God’s answer is simple and complete: “I will be with you.”
I will be with you. When we find ourselves walking on holy ground, and realize that God has given us holy work to do, we have the assurance that we aren’t doing it alone. God is with us. The success of the enterprise doesn’t depend on us, on our brilliance, on our strength, or on our determination. All it depends on is our willingness to hear God’s call and to respond in the affirmative. “Here I am.”
But there is something else to consider: When we find ourselves walking on holy ground, and realize that God has given us holy work to do, it is usually because God somehow requires human partners to carry out the divine plans. God chooses to work through human agents. I suppose, if God had wanted, God could have simply kept the Egyptians in a nice deep sleep and had the Israelites awaken to a new day of freedom, high-tailing it out of town. God, being God, can do that sort of thing. But that does not seem to be the way God works. God chooses human beings… often the most unlikely human beings… to be the conduits of God’s saving work. A fugitive from justice, sent to speak to most powerful and brutal ruler of the land—that’s Moses. A woman, born into slavery, who escapes and goes on thirteen separate missions to rescue more than 70 slaves—that’s the woman they called Moses, Harriet Tubman. I’m sure you can think of other examples of God choosing the unlikely, frail human to do the mighty, saving work.
The good news is: God isn’t calling most of us to rescue whole nations. But the sobering news is: God is calling us. Maybe not to the grand things that make the news, but certainly to the “Do-what-you-can-to-make-things-better” things that work quietly behind the scenes. Maybe you and I can’t solve the problem of oppressed people singlehandedly. But we can sign a petition, get involved with a reputable organization. Maybe we can’t solve world hunger or even local hunger on our own—but we can faithfully bring a couple of cans for CHOW every week, and volunteer at one of the local soup kitchens, while we’re at it. I invite you to ask yourself: what is the holy work to which God is calling me?
The world is shot through with holiness. The earth, along with everything that is in it, is God’s. Every tree. Every person. Opportunities to experience the holiness of God’s handiwork are, literally, waiting for us on every corner, each time we meet another human being, every time we look out our windows or take a breath. And the world, as I know you’ve heard me say many times, is both beautiful and broken. God is calling us… every minute of every day. God is calling us to take part in the work of mending creation, healing that brokenness. We who walk the holy ground are called to God’s holy work. Are you ready? Thanks be to God. Amen.
Image: "Burning Bush" Quilt by Gwen Jones, at Professional Art Quilt Alliance