Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Sunday Sermon: Holy Ground, Burning Bushes, and the LIberating God

Last week we encountered Moses as a baby in the bullrushes, given up by his mother and adopted by Pharaoh's daughter. Today we have moved at warp speed from his infancy to his maturity. Moses has grown up; he has killed an Egyptian whom he saw abusing a Hebrew slave and he is a wanted fugitive. His Jewish relatives have rejected him too, and he is on the run. He has settled in the land of Midian and married into a local clan. He is far away from Egypt and could presumably stay where he is unmolested for the rest of his life. But God has other plans. When Moses and his sheep stumble onto the holy ground of Mount Horeb, God is ready to call Moses back to his destiny.

"The place where you are standing is holy ground." What makes it holy? Exodus says Moses has strayed onto the Mountain of God, but we don't know why it is so called. What do we mean by holy ground?

If you visit the city of Oxford in England, you are likely at some point to walk down Broad Street. Just outside the medieval city walls you will see a simple cross of bricks set into the road surface. This cross marks the spot where in 1555 the Oxford Martyrs, Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, bishops of the Church of England, were burned at the stake for the heresy of Protestantism. This is holy ground, and innumerable pilgrims have stopped to pray at that spot.

Here are some places I have experienced holy ground, just in the last few days: A group of us sat in the chapel on Tuesday and engaged in conversation with the artist James Hubbell, brainstorming ideas about how to finish the renovation in accordance with our priorities, wanting to make it a place of beauty and preserve the holiness of the space. A gathering of women from diverse professions shared our stories in a wine bar one evening. The cathedral staff had lunch together and offered appreciation of our admin assistant Harkie as he prepares to go off to college. On another day I spent an hour with one of our postulants and we talked about his upcoming semester at the School for Ministry.

Years ago, serving as chaplain in the outpatient department of a rehab hospital, I learned how to create holy space in the midst of a bustling hallway, as I sat with a pain-wracked patient or anxious family member and wove a sense of God's love surrounding us in our conversation.

Or think of a soldier home from war or a journalist newly released after being held captive for years: even the concrete of the airport runway is holy ground when it is the ground of the homeland.

God is not limited to the places we deem holy: holy ground can be found anywhere, if we but look for it. The ancient saint Gregory of Nyssa said that all ground is holy. City or countryside, asphalt or grass, desert or oasis, cathedral or park: it is all holy ground because it all belongs to God. And we are privileged to be stewards of that holy ground, to recognize the holiness by living mindfully and reverently. We will dishonor the holiness if we live wantonly or destructively, if we fail to acknowledge God's hand in all that lies before us.

In our Exodus story, the holy ground is marked by a beacon: a burning bush. A burning bush will get anyone's attention. I wonder what burning bushes you have encountered in your life? When have you seen something that seemed so unlikely, that it had to be of God? I remember once noticing four words on the Episcopal News Service daily email, in the positions open column: Cathedral Dean: San Diego. If we pay attention, we may find burning bushes littering the pathways of our lives. Moses sees the burning bush and discerns God's voice within it, calling him by name to respond to the desperate cries of his people back in Egypt. "I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them."

The people cry out: the Hebrew verb used here is the same word used for what a plaintiff does in court, so it's related in the same way that our word complaint is related to plaintiff. God's people cry out for justice. They cry out to be acknowledged. They cry out to be saved. And God hears: God hears the cry of all those who seek justice, all those who are invisible and voiceless, all those who are perishing. Their lamentation is not useless; it reaches the ears of the God of Abraham, the God whose name is righteousness, who cares for the orphan and widow, who values every single human life. The people have lost hope: they are being wiped out by Pharaoh and they cry out in desperation to God to remember their plight and to restore their life as God's people. And into this place of despair, this place where hope has died, God brings the unlikely character of Moses to rekindle hope and to introduce a new creation, life out of death.

We live in one kind of reality - a world of consumer-driven emptiness, a world of haves and have-nots, a world where children are abused and women raped as demonstrations of power, a world where people are valued or deemed valueless depending on their economic productivity.

Perhaps God dreams of another kind of reality: a world where each individual is precious; where the weak are protected by the strong; where all are encouraged to reach their full potential and celebrated for who they are. God's name, we learn, is I AM WHO I AM, or I will be who I will be. This is an expression of God's utter freedom to be: to let be: to create an alternative reality to the shadow-play of addiction and acquisition that holds us captive. God IS. God is the ultimate reality. If we can accept that statement, we are on the road to recovery; our hearts will start to slowly crack open to the pain of the present moment and the hope of infinite possibilities before us.

Our lives are incomplete by virtue of the fact that we are creatures, not creator. We are incomplete because we yearn for God to complete us. This is the force that draws Moses to the burning bush, that wakes him up from the half-life of the exiled fugitive; the force that draws us also to wake up from our trance-like existence in the valley of the shadow of death, draws us to hear the cries of God's people, to lament with them, and to act for transformation, so that the dead shall live, the captive go free, and the homeless find a refuge.

The Exodus event illustrates God's desire to see us destroy oppressive structures and create a new reality with a free people. This desire is threatening to any entrenched power structure, and we are a part of that structure when we benefit from it through privilege of wealth, gender, or color. Most of us here benefit from one or more of those privileges, whether we know it or not. So the exodus story presents us with a challenge: are we willing to give up our privilege so that God's justice may be initiated? It may not be easy or painless. Pharaoh and his people suffered terribly from God's actions in the Exodus story: their water was turned to blood; their crops were destroyed; their firstborns were killed.

What are our most precious attributes and belongings? What might we have to give up, to see dead before us, in order to allow God's justice to be fulfilled? Are we willing to allow God true freedom to transform the world, a transformation which is likely to mean less for us so that others may have enough? It may mean letting go even of the prayers we have clung to: the prayers that seek to control God, to manipulate the divine power to bring about the outcomes we crave, such as bodily health, financial security, and the punishment of those we deem wicked.

Moses wasn't the obvious candidate to bring liberation to God's people. He was a wanted man, a murderer, who was closely identified with Pharaoh's regime, actually as part of Pharaoh's family. Jesus, likewise, was not an obvious candidate for the Messiah the Jews expected to free them from occupation: born into poverty, far from the center of Jewish political life, into the family of an artisan, not a warrior. If these aren't obvious candidates, perhaps we need to adjust our image of God's heroes. It seems to be part of God's design to raise up prophetic and liberating leaders in unexpected ways: youngest sons like David, the children of barren women like Samuel, outsiders like Ruth. The more unlikely, the better, apparently.

Our God uses the most unexpected people and circumstances to bring about transformation. Sojourner Truth was an illiterate black slave: her words have inspired generations. Rosa Parks was a tired seamstress, the daughter of slaves: her action ignited a movement. When we experience grace in the midst of tragedy, we are seeing God's unexpected ways at work. When we see new creation arise out of chaos, we are seeing God's unexpected ways at work. When we see hope born out of despair, we are seeing God's unexpected ways at work.

God reveals Godself to Moses on the holy ground of the mountain, surrounded by the sheep, far from Pharaoh's palace, far from the structures of power. I will send you, God says. I will send you to the oppressor to demand liberation and justice for my people. I will send you as a symbol of hope for a people who have lost hope, who have resigned themselves to the structures that keep them down, that are destroying them. This is Moses's destiny as one called to prophetic ministry. And it may be that we too are called to prophetic ministry, individually or as a cathedral or a denomination. When we stumble onto holy ground, the ground of sacramental life, the ground of thoughtful conversation, the ground of pain and lamentation, we are to look for the burning bush that signals God's presence. And we will know that God has heard the cry of those in bondage, and God is calling us to bring hope to the hopeless, God is sending us to stand up to Pharaoh, God is revealing Godself as ultimate truth, ultimate reality, ultimate freedom, and we are to carry that word of truth, reality, and freedom into the dark places, to challenge the Pharaohs and to set God's people free.

The Very Rev Penelope Bridges

August 31, 2014 

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