Holy Ground

Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up.

So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”

When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”

And Moses said, “Here I am.”

“Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.”

At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.

– Exodus 3:1-6

Good morning, Friends!

I expect many of you have heard this story before – the story of Moses and the burning bush. We read this story during our midweek Bible study a couple of weeks ago.

Moses has a kind of an interesting back story. We don’t know very much about him. We don’t know who Moses’ parents were. We don’t know his mother’s name, or who his father was.

Moses’ life had a lot of ups and downs. He started out as the son of slaves. He barely escaped a campaign of genocide intended to kill all the boy babies of his whole generation.

His mama made him a little life boat out of a laundry basket, and she set him to float down among the cattails by the river. It was a desperate thing to do. Moses’ life could have ended if a hungry crocodile had come swimming by.

Then things got better. One of Pharaoh’s daughters, a princess of Egypt, came down to take a morning dip in the river. (Palaces did not have indoor plumbing in those days!) Pharaoh’s daughter heard the baby crying in the basket, and she sent one of her maids to pull it in to shore.

Pharaoh’s daughter took pity on the little boy. She said, “This must be one of the slave babies my daddy ordered everyone to kill.” She brought him home to the palace, and raised Moses like he was her own. (There were a lot of kids running around the palace, so I guess nobody noticed one extra.)

We’re not sure where the name Moses came from. There’s an Egyptian word that’s similar that means “to beget a child.” Maybe Pharaoh’s daughter couldn’t have children, so she named him that.

Or it could be a Hebrew play on words. “Moses” in Hebrew is Mosheh, and there’s also another Hebrew word, mashah, which means “to haul out”. Mosheh – mashah. Could be.

Anyway, Moses grew up in the palace, as part of the royal family. The kid was coming up in the world. But instead of feeling like he was part of the 1%, Moses seems to have grown up with a strong sense of social justice.

One day, he saw an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave – one of his own people. Moses took a look around, didn’t see anyone, and killed the Egyptian. But word got around, and Moses had to flee for his life.

You see what I’m saying about ups and downs? From baby in total danger, to prince of Egypt. From prince to hunted fugitive. Future’s not looking real great here!

So Moses took off for the wilderness. Back then, living in the desert was sort of like the Witness Protection Program. Moses grew a beard, changed his Social Security number, and started wearing sunglasses.

He met up with the leader of a desert tribe, who took him in. Moses married the man’s daughter, which might mean he was coming back up in the world.

But his father-in-law put him in charge of a flock of sheep, which does not indicate high status. Shepherds back then were only one step above slaves. Not a real social advancement.

On the other hand, herding a bunch of sheep around the wilderness turned out to be really good career preparation.

Some people say that leading Quakers is sort of like herding cats. Well, that was nothing to what Moses spent the rest of his life trying to do – wandering around the wilderness with 400,000 people for 40 years, just trying to keep everybody alive and focused.

But Moses didn’t know anything about that. Today, he was an ex-slave, an ex-prince, a criminal on the run, a foreigner living among strangers, just trying to support his family.

Then one day, Moses was out in the wilderness, doing the sheep thing. He came to Mount Horeb, which is also known as Mount Sinai. About a year later, that was where God was going to give Moses the Ten Commandments.

And God spoke to Moses. God did it in what seems to us like a very strange way. God spoke to Moses from out of the middle of a burning bush.

Different people have tried to picture this scene in a lot of ways. Was it just a small, single bush, sort of like a foundation planting, about the size of a basketball? Or was it a huge acacia tree? Was it a whole hillside of brush, burning like a wildfire? We don’t really know.

What was interesting, to Moses, was that it was on fire, but it wasn’t getting all burned up. It burned, without being consumed. It was alive, but ablaze.

And then a voice called to Moses, from the center of the flame – “Moses! Moses!” We don’t know anything about the quality of the voice. Was it a roar, like a firestorm, louder than the roar of the flames? Or was it a whisper – a still, small voice that Moses could only hear in his heart? We don’t know.

But whatever the voice was like, it called to him by name. That’s important.

In all these stories, God calls people by name. We hear God calling us in all kinds of ways. And we may not hear our name spoken. But when God calls, it’s not generic. It’s direct and it’s personal. God calls to us in the center of our identity.

And Moses says, “Here I am!” Or, in some translations, a little more dramatically, “Here am I!” What else do you say to a strange voice, calling to you out of the middle of a living fire?

Then God says, “Stand back! Take off your shoes! The place you are standing is holy ground!”

I’m want to ask you to do something that you maybe haven’t done in worship before. Take your shoes off. Right now. You can keep your socks on if you want. But let’s participate in this story for a moment. Take your shoes off. I’ll do it, too.

When you walk with your shoes off, you walk more carefully. You notice where you are, what kind of surface you’re walking on. You certainly notice the weather a lot more. You notice things through your feet, which is different from the way you notice things with your eyes and ears.

With your shoes off, you feel things through the ground – you feel heat and cold. You feel vibration as things pass by. You feel if it’s rough or grassy or smooth.

Most important, sometimes you feel a special holiness. That’s what God wanted Moses to feel. In many religions, not just Judaism and Christianity, there’s a tradition of taking off your shoes at holy moments and in holy spaces.

It’s kind of a separation from the world. Or maybe it’s a kind of a reconnection with the world. I don’t know. But it’s a feeling of awe and reverence, an acknowledgment that this is a special time, a special place, where God is more real somehow.

Are any of you blessed enough to have grown up in a place where you could run around outside in just your bare feet? Did any of you grow up that way?

Do you remember how wonderful the grass felt, when you could wiggle your toes in it? Do you remember what it felt like to run through the grass in your bare feet?

Do you remember what it felt like to soak up the sunshine and the goodness of the land, with your bare feet planted on the earth?

That’s a holy ground type of experience.

Or have any of you felt the same kind of thing at the beach?

Do you remember what a relief it feels like, to take your city shoes off, and walk along the sand, and get your feet wet, and fell the push and pull of the waves, and find pebbles and sea shells with your toes?

Do you remember that?

Or just to walk as quietly as you can, through some holy place – along a stream, or on a mountain, or through a mossy patch in the forest? It’s so quiet, it would almost be a sin to break the silence and the beauty of the moment.

Have you ever watched a sunrise, or a sunset, or the stars at night, and it brought you to a standstill? There weren’t any words you could say, to express what you feel inside you.
Those are all holy ground moments.

The beginning of religious experience, the beginning of prayer, is when we find something that makes us stop, and take our shoes off.

It’s when we find a moment where time stops, where the beginning and the end and the present and the future are all wrapped up in each other.

If you’ve ever held a newborn baby, you know what I mean. If you’ve ever felt the presence of God, if you’ve ever felt that God was near, you understand what I’m saying.

It says in this morning’s story that when Moses heard God’s voice, speaking to him, calling to him out of the living flame, it says that Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.

That’s also a characteristic of holy ground experiences. They bring us to a standstill. We have to stop, whatever we were doing. We feel the urge to take off our shoes, to feel a direct, physical contact. And we feel awe. Sometimes we even feel afraid, and want to hide, because God’s presence is almost too much for us.

I want you all to remember this story. Moses is considered to be the greatest person in the Bible, except for Jesus. He was a great leader. He was a community builder.

The Bible says that Moses was God’s friend. It says that God talked with him face to face, the way a friend does.

Moses had the courage to stand up to the greatest ruler on earth, to Pharaoh, who other people treated as a god. Moses forced Pharaoh to let the Hebrew people go. And Moses convinced the Hebrew people that they could be free, when they didn’t believe in freedom themselves. Moses did all that, and so much more.

But it all started, with that holy ground experience, when Moses heard God calling to him.

And it started when Moses took his shoes off, and felt the presence of God – not just through his eyes, not just through his ears, but rising through him, up from the earth itself.

Maybe we all need to take our shoes off again, once in a while. Maybe we need to stop, more often, and feel the presence of God.

The great promise God makes is always, “I will be with you. . .”

I will be with you on the way from slavery and oppression into freedom. I will be with you on the way from brokenness and pain into restoration. I will be with you on the journey home from exile and through the wilderness.

I will be with you as you learn how to live again. I will be with you when you worship and pray together, and I will be with you in the lonely hours of the night. I will be with you always. . .

That is the word of God. I believe it’s given just as much to us, as it was given to Moses. And if we believe that, there is nothing we can’t come back from. Our future isn’t closed. It’s standing wide open for us.

And the longer you live, the more you realize that everywhere you go, that God is with you. No place is “just anywhere”. Every place you go – your home, your neighborhood, this meetinghouse, the kitchen, the hospital, the classroom – every place is holy ground.

Let’s spend some time together now, with our shoes off, and listen to God.

Copyright © 2016 by Joshua Brown

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