Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
September 3, 2017; 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Exodus 3:1-15; Ephesians 3:14-21
“Then [the Lord] said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet,
for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’”
It’s one of the most famous personal mission statements in American literature: the statement by Henry David Thoreau of why he decided to leave town and go live in a little house in the middle of the woods. From his book, Walden:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear, nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that ‘was not life’”
That’s one reason for going off to live in the wilderness: to set off on a process of intentional self-discovery.
It wasn’t Moses’ reason. Moses went into the wilderness because he was a murderer, fleeing justice.
The previous chapter of Exodus tells the story. Moses grew up as a member of the Egyptian nobility. He lived a pampered life in the palace of the Pharaoh. But everything changed the day he learned he wasn’t the person he thought he was.
Moses wasn’t Egyptian at all. He was a Hebrew. He got adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter as an infant when she found him floating in a basket on the river Nile.
Later on, as the adult Moses learned who he really was, he began to identify with the Hebrew slaves he saw being mistreated by the Egyptians. And so, one day, when he came upon an overseer beating one of the Hebrews, Moses killed the man.
It was an impetuous act of passion: one he swiftly came to regret. By then, though, the die was cast. What was done could not be undone. Stay in Egypt and die, or flee into the wilderness and live. Moses took the obvious choice.
He traveled eastward: across the Sinai peninsula, across the Gulf of Aqaba, to the desert region known as Midian. It’s part of western Saudi Arabia today.
There he found work as a shepherd.
He ended up marrying the boss’ daughter.
And there Moses might have lived out the rest of his life in obscurity: were it not for the day God spoke to him out of a burning bush.
We don’t know if it really was on fire, or if it was more of a mystical vision. Whatever it was, when Moses glimpses it out of the corner of his eye, he stops what he’s doing to stare at it.
“I must turn aside and look at this great sight,” is what he says to himself, according to the book of Exodus.
Because Moses does turn aside, God speaks to him. The Bible’s very clear on that. “When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush…”
That’s a little detail of the story you may not have noticed before — I know I hadn’t — and it’s significant. The implication seems to be that if Moses had not turned aside to look, the Lord wouldn’t have called out to him.
That suggests to me that, if we want to hear the voice of God in our lives, we’ve first got to make ourselves receptive. Moses “turned aside to see.” He’s focused, attentive, expectant.
Now, I don’t mean to say that just making ourselves receptive means God’s going to speak to us for sure. I do mean, though, that — if we’re not listening in a focused way — it’s a lot less likely you or I are going to hear anything from God at all!
Well, God calls Moses by name, and he answers, “Here I am.” Then the Lord says something rather remarkable: “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”
It’s not that there’s anything special about that piece of ground. It probably looks no different from any other real estate in the neighborhood: sandy, arid soil; scattered rocks; here and there, some scrubby desert plants. Utterly unremarkable: except for the fact that one of the bushes looks to Moses like it’s pulsating with a weird, inner light.
What makes the place holy is that God has chosen to be present there in a visible, auditory way. It’s not the plot of ground that’s holy. It’s God who’s holy.
To remove one’s shoes in the presence of the holy is an ancient gesture of respect. As Moses does so, standing there barefoot on the sun-baked sand, he is literally grounded in a way he wasn’t before.
Some years ago, I attended a workshop at Princeton Seminary that was led by John Bell, a member of Scotland’s Iona Community. He’s written some wonderful liturgies and prayers, some of which we’ve used in worship. Several of his hymns are in our Glory to God hymnal.
It was a richly furnished lecture hall in one of the Seminary’s newer buildings. As John walked into the room, he was wearing blue jeans and sandals — he’s always been a bit of a hippie — which he immediately kicked off. That was not something any of us were used to seeing in a seminary lecturer — and, seeing the questioning looks on our faces, he explained.
John said something like this: “To me, speaking about God is a holy task, which means this place is holy ground. Whenever possible, I like to be barefoot in such a place. It makes me feel grounded.”
There are all sorts of reasons for going barefoot. Around here, if you’re barefoot — especially this time of year — it probably means you’re either at the beach, or on your way home from there. Going barefoot in our culture is a sign of being relaxed, on vacation, generally at leisure.
That was not Moses’ reason for taking off his sandals. His reason was more like John Bell’s. If God had blessed that patchy stretch of ground by being present on it, then Moses wanted nothing to come between him and that place. It was as though God had imbued the very ground with spiritual energy. Moses was eager for that energy to surge into him through the soles of his feet, flowing upward into his entire body.
You’ve heard the word “grounded,” I’m sure. It can mean a lot of things, but I’m not speaking here about what parents do to their kids when they’re misbehaving. Nor am I talking about an airline flight that’s canceled by bad weather or mechanical problems.
I’m more interested in a meaning of the word that comes from the world of electricity.
An electrical outlet has two holes in it. When you insert a two-pronged plug, it completes the circuit, allowing energy to flow between positive and negative. Some outlets, though — especially those designed for more complex devices — contain a third opening. This is known as the ground.
Somewhere along the circuit, there’s actually a physical connection to the ground, to the earth. A large spike has been driven deep into the soil, with wires connecting it up to the building’s electrical system. This makes the wiring safer and more reliable. Without a ground, static electricity could destroy delicate electronic equipment. But if the circuit is grounded, stray electrical charges flow harmlessly into the earth.
Moses, of course, knew nothing of electricity, but his decision to ground himself by standing barefoot before the burning bush is like what happens in a grounded circuit. He’s about to expose himself to awesome, spiritual power. He does well to take a few basic precautions.
What is it that grounds you, spiritually? What is it that helps complete the circuit, so God’s power can safely flow through you?
The answer to that question is different, for different people. For lots of folks I know, being out in nature is soul-restoring. A stroll through the woods or along the boardwalk; a few moments spent looking out over the water; taking care of a pet — all of these can remind us of our essential humanity, the physicality of our being, and of our need for God.
For other people, it’s physical exercise that does it. Using our bodies in a disciplined way, as God intended them to be used, can get us out of our heads for a little while.
For many of us, there are certain ways of allocating our time that can ground us. Finding regular quiet time — for prayer or meditation — can be wonderfully restorative. The same goes for certain places: a chair on the porch, a bench in the park, a place we regularly travel to on a day off or on vacation — all of these can help us get grounded in a hurry.
It’s not that there’s anything holy about such places or practices, in or of themselves. Remember, it wasn’t the patch of desert sand Moses found holy. Only God is holy. But the presence of God can draw other things into that holiness, and connecting to those things can help connect us to God.
One of the most important ways of grounding ourselves spiritually is exactly what we’re doing together, here in worship. Worship is an activity whose benefits are largely invisible. To much of the world, it appears to be a waste of time. It can be hard to explain to others what worship is good for: until you fall out of the habit and begin to have a sense that something’s missing in your life. What’s missing is the groundedness.
What’s true of worship in general is especially true of the worship activity we will soon engage in: the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. It’s a very earthy thing to do, to eat and drink. It’s part of our physical nature. But somehow, in a way that’s very hard to explain intellectually, taking that bread and wine into our bodies helps the healing power of God flow into our souls. It’s just another way of reminding ourselves that we, barefoot disciples that we are, are standing on holy ground.
“Spirit, Open My Heart” is our next hymn. It’s set to a lovely Irish folk song, Wild Mountain Thyme, that’s also popular in Scotland. You’ll pick up the tune very quickly, if you don’t know it already.
“Spirit, open my heart to the joy and pain of living. As you love, may I love, in receiving and in giving.” It’s a song about the flow of spiritual power, completing that circuit between God and ourselves. When our hearts are open, the love of God flows in: then out again, as we share that love with others.
“Spirit, open my heart.”
Copyright © 2017 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.