This sermon was first preached at First Presbyterian Church of Dalton, Georgia on August 28th, 2011. Exodus 3:1-15 also appears in the Revised Common Lectionary in the Season after Pentecost (Proper 17).
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And Moses said, ‘Here I am.’ Then God said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ God said further, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
…He just didn’t see it coming. And let’s be realistic with each other – would you? Would I? In just the previous chapter Moses had committed an act of the utmost evil: he killed a person. That’s right, this young Hebrew man, who would go on to serve as the vehicle for God’s earth-shattering, reality-altering emancipation of the Israelites, was a murderer. A fugitive from both God and Pharaoh, Moses flees to the land of Midian where he finds a lovely wife and has resigned himself to the simple life of a shepherd. Those days by the Nile are sufficiently behind him. He has escaped that messy situation in Egypt and has found his niche in life. This morning begins like any other, as he gathers his staff and takes his sheep into the wilderness. The simplicity of the moment is a pleasant reminder of his “comfortable” life, a life in which he is quite content to exist the rest of his days.
But how foolish these hopes turn out to be! The author of this text reminds us of this by inserting what I find to be a rather cleverly-placed verse immediately before today’s lectionary passage. You see, right before today’s passage and right after the mention of Moses’ new wife and son, the author of the text slips these verses in the midst of this seemingly “happy” ending: in verse 23 of the second chapter, we read that “after a long time…the Israelites groaned under their slavery and cried out…God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.”
Just when Moses was getting comfortable, just when he had resigned himself to a life of simplicity and normalcy, God takes notice. God takes notice of a dysfunctional social reality that is in need of being changed. And if there is one thing we, as a worshiping community can say for sure, it is that we have never worshiped a God who has ever been satisfied with the status quo.
And so it is at this point that we find ourselves standing in the sand next to our friend Moses who has perfected the art of the status quo. But this sand, this earthen floor, is no generic foundation. No, it is something entirely different. So different, in fact, that God reminds Moses (and ourselves!) to remove the sandals from our feet, because the place on which we are standing is holy ground! …Holy ground.
So what is this text saying to us here and now? What is it, exactly, that makes this ground, right here beneath our feet at this very moment, so holy? Is it the fact that we come together as a community to worship God in this beautiful sanctuary? No, for Moses is standing in no structure built by human hands. Is it the fact that we have come here today to follow God’s commission? No, that can’t be it either because we can be fairly sure that Moses awoke that morning with no intention other than to watch a flock of sheep. So what is it that makes this ground holy?
I have found that the revised common lectionary is a helpful tool when pondering the mysteries of these fruitful (if sometimes elusive!) passages. Often the different lectionary readings for each Sunday will speak to and with each other and it is often helpful for ourselves, as readers and engagers of these texts, to join in the conversation. Today’s gospel passage comes from the book of Matthew and we find ourselves standing next to Peter, a character with whom I have always shared a fond connection. However, this passage is not exactly the shining moment of his career as a disciple. After months of being on the road, healing the broken and feeding the hungry, everything is going great! But Jesus decides to throw the disciples a curveball and state that it will be necessary for him to suffer and die. Peter, however noble his intentions might have been, strongly disagrees and receives a harsh rebuke by his friend and savior, Jesus.
Peter tends to get a bad reputation for many such stories in the gospel narrative- whether here where he is compared to Satan himself, or when he cuts off the ear of the soldier dragging away Jesus, or when he sits by that charcoal fire warming his hands in the moments after he betrays Jesus. But the fact remains that perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on Peter because you and I, if in that same situation, would probably have reacted similarly. Jesus, things are going so well! After all, we have brought sight to the blind, food to the hungry, hope to the hopeless, and faith to the faithless. God forbid you suffer and die! You are supposed to be our savior, our victor! Who else is going to save us from the Romans? How dare you take us away from our routine, our vibe, what we are comfortable with!?
…But our God is not a “comfortable” God. We know this because the same God who became manifest in the flesh, who fed the hungry, healed the sick, and freed those who were enslaved by the chains of that society, did a most curious thing. Jesus shatters into our existence not by amassing an army and overthrowing the Romans (as you, Peter, and I might have preferred), but by dying on a cross next to common criminals and overcoming death, an enemy even the Romans could never defeat. And though we never could have predicted it at the time, Jesus reformed and recreated any expectations that you, I, or Peter could have ever had.
This story, I think, is an “echo” of our journey today with Moses. God re-created Peter and Moses into something which they could have never predicted through means that they would have never employed. And furthermore, God shatters into our status quo (making no small commotion along the way) and invites us into the work of God’s re-creation using people who we would never expect.
That, Sisters and Brothers, is what makes this holy ground. These texts force us to re-shape who we thought we were and redirect us to what we are created and called to be. Like Moses, we are witnesses to that which forces us to “turn aside” and behold that which rips us from our comfortable reality and sets us upon ground that is holy. “Holy” – the very word comes from the Hebrew concept of being separate, of something different, something set apart.
This holy text which we engage on this holy ground before our holy God, sets us apart from our preconceived notions of what is right and just. And, friends, this is something we need desperately. Because if left to our own devices, if left to our own conventional thinking, the Israelites would still be in Egypt and Moses would still be in Midian shepherding Jethro’s flock to this day.
But that’s not the end of that story…and it’s not the end of our own…for if there is another thing that we, as a worshipping community, can say for sure it is that we have never worshiped a God who is happy with leaving us alone! For the job is not over! This text reminds us that there are still oppressed peoples in the world and we, as we stand next to Moses barefoot in the burning sand before that blazing bush, are challenged to respond to this call by opening ourselves to the this counter-cultural text that shatters any societal norms that ensure the enslavement of any people, whether that slavery be physical, political, or theological.
Friends we are standing next to Moses, you and I, at this very moment! This text calls us, the people who are First Presbyterian Church of Dalton, Georgia, to do something. For we, you and I, are members of a society that continues to oppress our sisters and brothers, whether for their political beliefs, their skin color, their economic placement, their gender, or their sexual orientation. Like Moses, we are forced by this text out of our comfort zone, out of our routine, and into those places where oppressed people cry out to God, for God takes notice. We cannot ignore this holy ground, we must respond. Oh, I suppose you and I could continue on our merry way here in Dalton, in our comfort and in our status quo. But you and I would do well to remember this fact: that the inaction of Moses would have been just as detrimental to the oppressed people of Israel as any action Pharaoh could have done.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, we stand upon holy ground. We have been called, we have been invited to bring freedom to those who have been robbed of their voice, whose backs are burdened by the oppressive weight of intolerance and ignorance. And if we take the time to remove the sandals from our feet, we will find ourselves that much closer to our foundation, to that through which we have been created and are being created anew each and every day. If only we “turn aside” and gaze upon this great sight will we find ourselves carried into places that force us out of ourselves, and into each other, and into the community which God has created us to be.
Friends, people are oppressed. They are crying out to God. God has taken notice. And you and I must turn aside.
Amen…so be it…amen!