Friday, October 9, 2015

“Holy Ground” - October 4, 2015

Text: Exodus 1:8-14, 3:1-15


You get up in the morning, take a shower, get dressed, eat your bowl of Wheaties and drink your orange juice and coffee.  You glance at the newspaper and see that the Cardinals are in the playoffs, another presidential debate is coming up, and road construction in Ames is way behind schedule.

You head on to work, or to class, or to Water Aerobics, or to the morning coffee group.  You remember that you have a dentist appointment in the afternoon and that you need to take a book back to the library before it is overdue.  And dealing with the broken garbage disposal is on your to-do list.

In other words, it is an ordinary day, pretty much like every other day.  Our lives are filled with such ordinary days.

It was that kind of day for Moses – just another day.  He was out tending the sheep, an ordinary day.  Now, Moses had had his fair share of not so ordinary days.

Last week, we were with Jacob as he wrestled with God and was given the name Israel.  Several generations have passed before today’s scripture.  In the time since, Jacob’s son Joseph had been sold in to slavery in Egypt by his brothers, but God has used this for good.  Joseph rose to a position of power and prominence in Egypt, and in a time of famine, the whole family had settled in Egypt.  But generations go by, and our scripture begins, “There arose a Pharaoh who knew not Joseph.”  The Israelites were no longer honored or welcomed in Egypt, but because they had become so numerous, they were feared.  They were made slaves and treated ruthlessly, but they only became more numerous, and Pharaoh feared the Israelites. 

Pharaoh was so fearful, in fact, that he ordered the Hebrew midwives Puah and Shiprah to kill the male Hebrew babies when they were born.  They ignored this directive, however – they were in the business of life, not death - and when Pharaoh learned the babies were living, he called the midwives in.  They had an explanation and even managed to insult the Egyptian women in the process – they told him that the Hebrew women were not like the Egyptians – they were strong and vigorous, and by the time the midwives arrived the baby had already been born.

So Pharaoh took the next step of ordering that every boy born to the Hebrews must be thrown into the Nile River.  This was at the time when Moses was born.  In an act of desperation, Moses’ mother put him in a basket and set the basket in the bulrushes along the river.  Pharaoh’s own daughter found the child, took pity, and took him in and raised him as her own.  So rather than be thrown into the Nile, Moses was raised in Pharaoh’s palace.  Moses’ mother was hired as a nurse for him.

That was definitely an out of the ordinary day, and so was the day when in a fit of anger, he killed an Egyptian who had dealt overly harshly with a Hebrew slave.  Moses wound up having to flee the country.

He wound up in the country of Midian.  He married a woman there, Zipporah, and he got along well with her family.  She was from an important family – her father, Jethro, was the local high priest.  Moses had settled into life as a shepherd.  That morning, he got up and had his eggs and bacon - turkey bacon, of course – read the Midian Tribune,  saw the kids off to school and headed out to the fields.  It was just a regular day. 

Moses led a relaxed, comfortable life.  Sure, he remembered his people back in Egypt and wondered about them from time to time.  But he took a certain satisfaction in being a shepherd – an occupation that was detested by the Egyptians.

And now, on what was an ordinary day for Moses, he was tending the flocks.  He led them over towards Horeb, when there was a most curious sight.  A bush was on fire but was not burning up.  Moses drew closer.  The bush drew him like a magnet.  And when he came closer, he heard his name being spoken out of the bush.  He knew that it was God, his God.  No Egyptian god would be caught dead out in a field.   

God said, “Take off your shoes, for you are standing on holy ground.”  Moses does as he is asked.  It was no small thing to stand in bare feet on the hot sandy ground in the heat of the day, but this was a sign of reverence and respect.  God had a message for him, and Moses heard these words as both good news and bad news.  The good news was, God would deliver the Israelites from bondage, out of Egypt.  The bad news was, God wanted Moses to be the one to lead them.

Our Nominating Committee will be meeting this month, and it occurs to me that this is a great text for Nominating Committees.  Moses says, “Gee, it sounds like a great opportunity and all, but I’m just not sure that I’m qualified.”  God says, “I know what I’m doing and I will be with you.  And the sign will be, after you lead the people out of Egypt, you will worship me right on this very mountain.”

Now what kind of sign is that?  You are supposed to get the sign first, not after the fact.  It’s not really a sign at all.  But Moses has other questions.

“If I go to the Israelites and say that the God of your ancestors has sent me, and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”  Moses wants to know God’s name.

Week after week, the importance of names has come up in our scriptures.  The man naming the animals.  Abraham and Sarah receiving new names.  Jacob’s name being changed to Israel.  To know another’s name is to know something about them, to have a handle on them.  The Hebrews believed that by knowing another’s name, you knew what another was about and had some measure control over them.  But then again, names are connected with intimacy.  We know the names of those who are close to us, important to us.

In our text today, let’s think about how Moses came to this place.  His life was saved because of Hebrew midwives Puah and Shiprah.  It was saved because of his mother Jochebed who hid him in the bulrushes and his sister Miriam who stood watch and who offered to find a nurse for this Hebrew child.  His life is saved because of Pharaoh’s daughter who is not named here but whose name is later in scripture suggested to be Bithia.  And then we have Pharaoh – who is unnamed.  These five women act subversively to save the life of Hebrew children and specifically of Moses.  And we know their names.  Pharaoh, the most powerful man around, is fearful and his name unknown.

Names tell us something important.  And Moses wants to know who this God is.  “Who shall I say sent me?”

But God would not be domesticated.  God would not be controlled by Moses or anyone else.  God understood what Moses was asking, and responded by simply saying, “I am.”  It is the Hebrew verb “to be.”  I will be.  I am who I am, I will be what I will be, I am up to what I am up to.  I am in charge, I am in control, I am God.

And this actually becomes God’s name.  The proper name of God is “I am who I am.”  In Hebrew it is the consonant letters YHWH, usually pronounced Yahweh – and this is where Jehovah comes from - but this name was considered so sacred that the Hebrews did not utter the name itself.  And so throughout the Old Testament, when we have these letters YHWH, or Yahweh, it is generally written as LORD, in capital letters.  God’s name was thought of as so holy that it was not spoken.

There are other words for God in the Hebrew scriptures, such as elohim and adonai, but when in English we read LORD, it is this sacred name of God, “I am who I am.”

Moses had other questions for this God who spoke to him from the burning bush.  He had other excuses.  He tried to beg off as a poor public speaker.  But from here on, things would never be the same.  There would be plenty more memorable days, plenty more out of the ordinary days, but this burning bush would always stand out.  Moses would never be the same again.

It happened on an ordinary day, while in the midst of his ordinary, everyday routine.  Eat breakfast, water the flock, and oh yeah, talk to God in a burning bush.  Moses did not plan on this or expect this or make this happen in any way.

I think that is significant.  This did not happen at the temple.  It did not happen at the weekly Bible study.  It just happened in the midst of life, out in the field, out with the sheep.

Where do we meet God?  Where do we experience the Holy?  Where do we find our burning bushes?  Where is our Holy Ground?

We may all have places that are special, even holy, sacred to us.  It may be the family farm, where you feel such a strong attachment to the land and sense God’s goodness and care.  It may be a church building, maybe this place, or maybe a church you grew up in where there are powerful memories, memories of baptisms and weddings and funerals, a place that evokes a sense of God’s presence and reminds us of commitments we have made.  For some, holy ground may be at the lake, or in the mountains, or the ocean, some place of natural beauty where there is a great sense of awe and wonder, a sense of the power and majesty of God as shown in God’s handiwork.  It may be the place where your friends or family gather together, a place packed with memory and meaning.

But our encounters with God do not always happen in those sorts of settings.  Often as not, God is found not so much in the spectacular but in the commonplace, not so much in the dramatic but in the simple things, not in the expected but in the unlikely.

Moses found God in a bush, out in the field.  It was Holy Ground, and the possibility that God may meet us anywhere and everywhere makes all ground in a sense Holy Ground.   

The poet Elizabet Barrett Browning wrote, 
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round it, and pluck blackberries…
There are burning bushes all around, if we will but notice.  Rita Nakashima Brock told about visiting an ancient church in the Mideast.  High over the altar was a mosaic of Moses kneeling in front of the burning bush.  Behind Moses’ back, where he couldn’t seem them, the mosaic was filled with bushes, every one of them on fire.

What if, on this very ordinary day, Moses had not noticed what stood out?  What is he had not noticed the bush on fire?  Part of finding Holy Ground is being open to the possibility that God might speak to us.  It is being open to potential and possibility.  It is being open to life.

Mesa Verde National Park in southern Colorado contains the remains of the cliff dwellings of the ancient Pueblo people.  Park rangers lead walking tours to some of the less accessible sites.  Just before an arduous trek a ranger sat the group down for an explanation of what they were in for.  “Folks,” she bellowed, “in the next two hours you will hike into a canyon, climb rope ladders with at least 300 rungs, and crawl through narrow passageways on your hands and knees.  If any of you have any history of heart disease, I do not recommend you coming.  Now, are there any questions?”

The group was silent, intimidated.  Many were wondering whether they would be able to make it.  Finally, up popped the hand of a twelve-year-old girl who was just breathless with excitement.  “Do we really get to hike into a canyon and climb 300 steps on a rope ladder and crawl on our hands and knees through the rocks?  Is it true?  Do we really get to?”

The ranger smiled, “Now that’s the spirit I’m looking for! Let’s go!” And so off the group went.

God spoke to Moses through the burning bush, but it took Moses being open and curious and interested for it to work.  I wonder how many times God may be speaking to us but we are too preoccupied or disinterested or unengaged to notice.

Woody Guthrie, the great folk singer, had a song titled “Holy Ground.”  Some of the words go like this:
Take off your shoes and pray
The ground you walk it’s holy ground
Every spot on earth I traipse around
Every spot I walk it’s holy ground

Every spot it’s holy ground
Every little inch it’s holy ground
Every grain of dirt it’s holy ground
Every spot I walk it’s holy ground
Whenever we stand in the presence of God, we’re on holy ground.  We follow Jesus, known as Immanuel – God is with us.  And since God is with us, even here, since God is all around us, even now, that makes every inch of this planet holy ground.  Amen.

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