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Holy Ground

Last fall I had the opportunity to visit New Mexico. It was a wonderful trip, and I learned so much about the place and people who inhabited it. One of the most interesting and important experiences for me was the opportunity to explore several kivas. These special structures were used by the ancient Anasazi people as well as past and present Pueblo people in their community life. A kiva is a round, underground room with a fairly small opening made of stones in the ceiling. One would descend into the kiva by way of a ladder. The room is earthen, the ceiling is reinforced by wooden beams, and there is at least one ventilation shaft. There is also a hole in the floor of the kiva called a sipapu, and it represents the place from which the tribe emerged. In fact, its name is the Hopi word for “place of emergence.” The sipapu is a portal to the eternal, the umbilicus to which life is tethered. A kiva was used for ceremonial and community gatherings, which were never removed from religious practice.

Of course, I’m not an expert on kivas nor the cultures in which they are used, but I could feel the spiritual power of entering the earth itself to seek guidance and wisdom, to worship. The quiet darkness creates the conditions for thoughtfulness; the shaft of light from the entrance above is an invitation to emerge back into life changed. The kiva provides an opportunity for leaving the distractions of regular life, entering a sacred space, and re-emerging changed. It is holy ground; ground so sacred, in fact, that before a community moved away from their kiva to live somewhere else, the Pueblo people would burn it so the roof would cave in and no one else could use it.[1]

Across cultures and religions, humans have found and created holy ground all over. For many Presbyterians, one such place may be Montreat Conference Center, a place I have jokingly said is where God lives. For some of you, that place may be right here in the sanctuary of this congregation. These places are sometimes called “thin places” where the barriers between the sacred and the holy become thin and we are more aware of the presence of God. The title “thin place” comes from the Celtic idea that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, and in the thin places, even closer.[2]

Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush was such a place. The pastor Bruce Epperly writes that this story “joins mysticism and mission.”[3] Perhaps that is what reminded me of the kiva- a place to experience God and then emerge into the world different because of your experience. Moses does not simply have a mystical encounter- that contact with God leads Moses to knowing his life’s work- lead the Hebrew people into freedom. I suppose standing on holy ground should change you.

One of the most significant features of this story is the burning bush that is never consumed. It’s that fire that catches Moses’ attention, presumably in a place that he had visited many times. Fire is an important symbol throughout scripture. In Malachi 3:2 we read of God as a refining fire, burning away the impurities in us. You’ll likely remember the story from Daniel 3 in which Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego find themselves unharmed and unalone in the midst of a raging fire. In Jeremiah 20:9, the prophet Jeremiah says “within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.” And of course, at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit manifests as tongues of flame over those present. Throughout scripture, fire is a sure sign of God’s presence and calling.

And there, from the burning bush, God calls out to Moses. “Here I am,” the man responds. God then directs Moses to remove his shoes “for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” You may be so familiar with this passage that this directive no longer seems unusual, and it really wasn’t in Moses’ culture. Something similar happens in Joshua 5 and in other places in scripture, exchanging shoes is a sign of making an oath. And while we’re not in the habit of removing our shoes here in our church building, in many cultures and religions that continues to be the appropriate way to show reverence. Some holy sites that bring many visitors require them to place special hygienic booties over their shoes out of respect. Shoes are dirty and dusty. They’re also a barrier between the wearer and the physical space. Removing shoes is a sign of respect and reverence, but it is also a sign of presence and groundedness.

Several other commentators notice something else as well- one often removes their shoes at home. Moses, raised as an adoptee in the Egyptian court had been rejected by Egypt as well as by the Hebrew people. He had escaped into the desert where he was living and working for his father-in-law. Perhaps here, in the holy presence of God, in discovering his calling, Moses has finally arrived at his true home. He removes his shoes. And God speaks to him from the bush and proceeds to issue this directive to help bring freedom to the enslaved Hebrew people.

Many of us wish we could find holy ground, that we could encounter God in ways that transform and heal us. But holy ground is not always so easy to find. Thomas Kelly was a 20th century Quaker mystic. He, like so many of us, felt the distractions and noise that keep us from recognizing God in our lives. He writes, “Over the margins of life comes a whisper, a faint call, a premonition of richer living which we know we are passing by. We have hints that there is a way of life vastly richer and deeper than all this hurried existence, a life of unhurried serenity and peace and power. If only we could slip over into that Center! If only we could find the Silence which is the source of sound.” We desire that depth, that peace, that surety of standing on holy ground. But where is it to be found?

In the introduction to her book, An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor writes about that need we may feel for achieving a deeper spirituality in our lives. She explains, “People seem willing to look all over the place for this treasure. They will spend hours launching prayers into the heavens. They will travel halfway around the world to visit a monastery in India or to take part in a mission trip to Belize. The last place most people look is right under their feet, in the everyday activities, accidents, and encounters of their lives. What possible spiritual significance could a trip to the grocery store have? How could something as common as a toothache be a door to greater life? No one longs for what he or she already has, and yet the accumulated insight of those wise about the spiritual life suggests that the reason so many of us cannot see the red X that marks the spot is because we are standing on it.”[4]

By Barbara Brown Taylor’s figuring, holy ground is wherever we find an awareness of God’s nearness. It isn’t out there, it’s here, where we incline our hearts to an awareness of the Holy Spirit. An old story goes that the people were questioning why the burning bush before Moses was on fire but not consumed. Finally, the rabbi said, “it was burning and not consumed so that one day, as Moses walked by, he would notice it.” Had the bush been consumed by the fire, perhaps Moses would not have noticed it in his regular course of tending his flock before it was destroyed. According to the rabbi, the bush flamed until Moses was ready to see it. It begs the question where in our lives is the Holy Spirit burning, just wait for us to give it our attention?

How then do we notice when we’re standing on holy ground? What causes us to notice the burning bush? I think it begins with expectation- believing and trusting that God is present with us. I love how The Message Bible puts it Romans 8:15-17: “This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike “What’s next, Papa?” God’s Spirit touches our spirits and confirms who we really are. We know who he is, and we know who we are: Father and children.” We live “adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike “What’s next, Papa?”. Holy ground begins when we believe that God is among us, acting, moving, calling, loving.

Years ago, I took a week away at Springbank Retreat Center in Kingstree, South Carolina. I just needed to be quiet for a little while and I was very quiet that week. I spoke to almost no one for the entire week. Instead, I walked and walked the miles of trails that criss-cross the center. I walked up on a deer. I was still enough for an entire raccoon family to come near to cross the path before me. Spider webs broke across my face and arms. But my favorite was the egrets. Springbank has a large marsh area that is home to an enormous flock of egrets.

For the first few days of my stay, every time I would approach the flock, they would fly away. If I could stay still enough for long enough (which is unlikely, if you know me at all), they would come back eventually. Trying to be slow and quiet enough to not disturb the egrets became my work of the week. On Thursday night of my stay, the outer bands of Hurricane Irene swept through South Carolina, where I was. As soon as the worst of the storm passed, I went for a walk. The trees dripped all around me and wet leaves stuck to my shoes and legs. I walked towards the labyrinth but I stopped suddenly and was pulled back to the marsh. I moved quickly and walked the mile trail back to where the egrets stayed, not expecting anything. As I got closer, the honking and snorting of an egret cacophony filled the air. I got close and then closer. I moved into a wet chair and watched them. They were so loud and for the first time, not afraid of me. I felt welcomed. In the 30 minutes I sat there, my raccoon friends came back by. Then suddenly, as if they had finished what they had set out to do, the egrets finished their dissonant song and flew away. Somehow, I had received an invitation to the egret worship service that Thursday night. It was holy ground.

Friends, get still and quiet and expectant. Cultivate the time and the attention to simply notice. God is here, the bushes are burning, the egrets are calling, enter sacred space and emerge ready to live with intention and purpose as God’s child. Amen.

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