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.
Yesterday, as part of its Week of Action centering around anti-racism, the Presbyterian Church held an event that took place both in person and online. People gathered in front of the Presbyterian Center downtown, and heard several speakers, and then the people gathered there marched from the Center over to the square directly across Jefferson Avenue from Metro Hall – officially, Jefferson Square, but in recent days, maybe better known by its unofficial name, Breonna Square, in honor of Breonna Taylor. Members from a number of local congregations took part, as well as many denominational leaders and staffers. It was good to see a few Springdale people there, and I hope others were participating online by watching the live stream from home. When the marchers arrived at square, they circled around its focal point – an ad hoc memorial to Breonna – and offered a moment of silence for 8:46, the length of time that George Floyd was placed in a lethal neck hold and suffocated to death by a Minneapolis police officer.
It was a shame that due to the rain that had just come through shortly before the march, the Breonna memorial was mostly covered with a protective tarp when the marchers were there. If the tarp had been removed, they would have seen a large and impressive display of personal contributions to the memorial – posters, signs, paintings, poems, sculptures flowers – all an outpouring of compassion, condolence, support, and empathy, for Taylor and her family in the wake of her killing. The space is carefully, almost reverently, guarded from damage on a nearly 24/7 basis. On previous visits I’ve made to the square, I’ve seen the creators of objects come to the square and place their contribution to the memorial, and while they’re there, recognizing the special nature and significance the space has taken on.
The actual meaning of the word “holy” is to be set apart, something entirely “other” than the normal ebb and flow of human existence; something that has a special, deeper significance, and especially, somewhere where even the presence of God might be felt more fully or immediately. A place where God, and God’s deeper truths, might be encountered. On some of those previous visits to the square, I’ve seen people walk around the Breonna memorial and see the artwork, and read its words of pain and sorrow, and comfort and hope, and I’ve heard some of them, particularly people of faith, comment that in that space, it was easy to feel the Spirit of God there, the presence of Christ – the Christ who himself was unjustly killed at the hands of people supposedly upholding the law and administering justice. For many people, it has become sacred space, holy ground.
It wasn’t in the middle of a city park, but out in the countryside, where Moses had his first experience with being on holy ground. This encounter with God by way of the burning bush – in Hebrew, sen eh, the origin for calling the mountain in question Mount Sinai. An encounter where God tells Moses to remove his sandals before coming any closer, as a recognition that he’s in the midst of something different, something wholly other, something set apart from the norm – someplace sacred and holy.
It’s there, on this holy ground, where we hear God’s first direct speaking in the Book of Exodus, and where God lays out all that’s going to come in the story. God tells Moses:
I have seen the misery of my people… I have heard their cry on account of the people oppressing them… I know their suffering… And in response, God lays out an action plan – “I will deliver them from their oppressors, and their suffering. I will deliver them – make no mistake. And then, God calls on Moses to be the spokesperson to Pharaoh for the Israelites, to be the one to lead them out of Egypt and oppression and to the Promised Land. Honestly, it’s hard for me to read this story about the ancient Israelites living under oppression and injustice at the hands of the ancient Egyptians, and hearing God’s response to that; and to not see the parallel between it and the situation faced every day in this country by black, indigenous, and people of color in our own white-dominated society, and to consider – and frankly, to worry – about the implications of where I, and other white people, fit into that parallel.
The entire story of Exodus begins with Moses encountering God and receiving assurances from God, and a call from God, in this sacred, holy ground – this place where Moses was really only expecting to find some grass for his flock to eat, not the transcendent, eternal God of all time and space. And yet, unexpectedly and unbidden, God still was present, and it was just by virtue of that someone has called that “preemptive presence” that this ground, which was just a bit of ordinary dirt five minutes before and would be ordinary again five minutes after the fact, had become a place of holy encounter and awakening.
At different times in our own lives, most of us – maybe all of us – have found ourselves unexpectedly within sacred space, in a sacred moment, on holy ground. We’ve found ourselves in a situation, not through any of our own efforts, where we suddenly and unquestionably feel the presence of God, of the divine, within our midst – fully present, surrounding us; the veil between our existence and God’s, between earthly existence and eternity, has become so gossamer-thin that it almost doesn’t exist at all; leading to moments where everything else fades away, moments of intense focus on God and God’s presence – moments of inspiration, of peace, of calm, of challenge, of call. Moments of intense love, and acceptance. Have you ever had a moment like that? If you have, you know that whatever the moment might have offered you, the moment itself, and recognizing the holiness of it, is truly unforgettable.
In this week’s email, I asked people to think about their own lives, and if they’ve ever been in a special, sacred space, on holy ground like that. I invite you to think about that again this morning. Can you think of any holy ground in your own experience?
The actual, physical location of holy ground can be anywhere. In September, I’ll be leading a few Adult Ed sessions on Jesus’ parables, drawing heavily on the brilliant scholarship of Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, one of the foremost New Testament scholars living today, who, maybe somewhat ironically, happens to be Jewish. There’s an old story about a similar situation to Christians learning about their sacred texts from a Jewish person, but in reverse. A number of Jewish seminary students in a certain large city were known to travel across town to attend lectures given by a remarkably gifted Old Testament professor, who was a Christian teaching at a Christian seminary. Sadly, the professor died one year mid-semester., and the Jewish students, in a sign of love and respect, showed up at the plain, unimaginative, off-white painted classroom with the vinyl tile floor and the inexpensive plastic chairs. And they removed their shoes and left them outside, and went into the classroom room and offered prayers to God, thanking God for the life of this good man, in this place that to them had become holy ground. It had become a place where they’d encountered God in an undeniable way, and in a form that for them must have been as unexpected as Moses’ burning bush was for him.
Many people over the years have sensed that they were in a sacred moment, on holy ground, in places like this – in church sanctuaries. But at least as often, as in the example I just mentioned, the holy ground is somewhere else. A lot of times, it’s somewhere in nature. On a mountaintop. In a forest, along a lakeside. Other times, it might be in places like Breonna Square. Or these days, God could make holy ground out of sitting at your kitchen table, or just sitting with a loved one in your living room. Wherever you might find it, recognize that God is still drawing us into those sacred spaces, onto that holy ground, to help us see God more fully, to hear God more clearly, to be called by God more directly. So this week, where will you find God? Where do you imagine you’ll unexpectedly find sacred space, holy ground?