March 22, 2020
Village Chapel Presbyterian Church
Dr. Todd R. Wright
Elizabeth Barret Browning once 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…”1
She was obviously thinking of Moses … and asserting that there is more holy ground than sites listed on Zillow, and more markers of the extraordinary than we might think!
But that was not self-evident to Moses. It is never self-evident. So how do you know?
Exodus tells us that it was an ordinary day. Moses was doing what he had done every day since fleeing Egypt and attaching himself to Jethro’s household: he was shepherding his father-in-law’s sheep. Sheep don’t feed themselves, you know! So Moses takes them from one spot in the wilderness to another.
It is both a stunning landscape full of haunting beauty – stones carved by the wind and painted with dying sunlight and shadow, stubborn bushes and scrub grass that cling to life, salamanders and scorpions that scurry and sting – and also a drab brown land dotted with scruffy shrubs and sheep droppings, nothing like the royal gardens back in Egypt!
But then Moses notices something out of the corner of his eye – a bush on fire, a beacon in the darkness, a bit of warmth on a cold night that beckons like his own tent and his wife and son.
We’re told this bush is not consumed in the blaze! It fills him with wonder and curiosity.
And as one thought dominoes into another, he opens himself to the whisper of God’s voice.
It is just like other call stories. God repeats his name twice: Moses, Moses! And once the Lord has his attention, God says, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground!”
So I have two questions:
What made the ground holy?
And, what made taking off his sandals an appropriate response?
What do you think?
Have you ever been on holy ground? What made it holy?
For many of you Bluestone is holy ground. For me, it’s Montreat. And over the past 70 years, this spot, on the corner of Venable and 39th, has become holy ground.
In all three cases, there is the sense that the ground has been made holy because countless people have encountered God there. The ground is drenched with the residue of prayers and calls, with tears and praise, with epiphanies and the grooves left from wrestling with angels.
Of course, it does not matter if the ground is holy to others, if it is just dirt to you.
But this ground has become holy to you, or you would not have kept coming back. And it is the fact that this spot is holy that makes the prospect of not meeting here in person hard.
God understands. But let’s be clear. That patch of soil in the wilderness with the burning bush was holy … because God was there. But God is everywhere. What made that spot unique was that Moses noticed the presence of God. He turned aside and waited to see what God would do next.
Moses didn’t just pause. He also removed his sandals … sandals that had protected his feet from burning sands, and sharp stones, and scorpions.
Without his sandals, he was vulnerable …
but he was also reconnected with the earth from which God had created humanity;
Without his sandals, he was humbled (like a poor beggar boy, not a prince of Egypt) …
but he was also free to connect with the God of the wilderness, without any barriers.
Without his sandals, he was a naked as the day he was born …
but he was also ready to clothed with power by the God who rescued him from the Nile,
the God who was intent on rescuing all Israel from bondage in Egypt.
You get the sense that Moses was never going to fully experience the holiness of the ground and the presence of God, until he removed his shoes.
I don’t know what kind of shoes you are wearing right now.
Maybe you have traded in your Sunday-go-to meeting shoes for comfy slippers.
The coronavirus has thrown our normal patterns into chaos.
But maybe it has also forced us to pause and notice the presence of God and the holiness of the ground on which we stand! I pray that is true for you.
But do not miss that the burning bush and the bare feet were only a prelude to what would come next. God was reaching out to Moses so that he might help God respond to the cries of his people, to alleviate their suffering, and lead them towards freedom.
So when you pick up a pair of sneakers for a child with no shoes, or run an errand for a neighbor who is stuck in their house, or check on a pew-mate you haven’t seen for a while, you are allowing your holy ground to serve as a launching pad to a lifestyle of serving.
May it be so! Otherwise you are just sitting around and eating blackberries. Amen.
1 from her poem, “Aurora Lee”