Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Standing on Holy Ground: a sermon (Exodus 3: 1: 15)

The burning bush is a familiar image from scripture, a bush burning but not being consumed by the fire. For people of Scottish background, the burning bush has long been a sacred image, and it is still the main image in the coat of arms of the Church of Scotland. At one level, this is because of the biblical imagery of the burning bush. At another level, this is also because of the self-image of the Scots (and indeed the self-image of all Celts) of being a people whose history can be seen as the experience of being burned, but never being consumed, an experience which has echoed the historical experience of the Jews themselves.
In our lesson from scripture, Moses was tending his father-in-law’s sheep. He took the flock up onto a mountain. He saw the bush, burning . . . burning but not being consumed. He heard a voice: “Moses, Moses!”
“Here I am.”
“Come no closer. Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”
“Remove the sandals from your feet...”. For many people, in different ways, worship involves a physical act to remind the worshipper of the significance of what is happening:
In this story, Moses was told to remove his shoes.
  • Removing one’s shoes before worship still occurs today among Muslims and among worshippers in some of the Asian religions.
  • Jewish men put on a yarmulke and a prayer shawl in preparation for worship.
  • There are the various gestures associated with worship in Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglo-Catholic worship; the sign of the cross, genuflecting, and the like.
  • There is the hand-raising that occurs during Pentecostal and Charismatic worship today.
  • There is also the radical physicality of Muslim prayer.
All of these are physical signs of worship, of being in God’s presence, of “standing on holy ground”.
What about the whole idea of “standing on holy ground”? For the most part, each of the three Abrahamic faiths is reluctant to attach a special sacredness to places. Each faith has its holy places, its sites of pilgrimage and popular devotion (Jerusalem, Mecca, Rome, Canterbury, Iona, Assisi, Salt Lake City …). (And, unfortunately, the close geographical proximity of the holy places of many faiths to the holy places of the others is a continuing problem for the peace of the world.) 
But the holy places of each faith are considered holy largely through their association with important sacred events. We are reluctant to speak of the “ground” itself as being holy. Perhaps here we may need to learn more from the spirituality of indigenous communities. We need to find the link between the Aboriginal experience of the “sacred site” and the strand of the biblical faith that is expressed in Moses” experience of “standing on holy ground”.
In the sacredness of that moment, God revealed Godself to Moses: “I am the God of your Father, the God of Abraham, the god of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” In the worship, came a greater knowledge of God’s identity.
But the worship and the deep fellowship with God was not all that would happen there on the mountain. God gave Moses a task. Moses was to be the Liberator of his people: “I have observed the misery of my people . . . I have heard their cry . . . I know their sufferings . . . So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people . . . out of Egypt.”
Moses given his task as Liberator in the midst of a deeply mystical experience of divine communion.  This does not always happen this way today. The experience of awe and wonder and the ministry of liberation have become different agenda items for the church.
  • Denominations have Liturgy Commissions. 
  • Denominations have Social Justice Commissions.
  • Very few denominations appoint the same people to serve on both (and more’s the pity).
At its worst, the separation of these agenda items can lead to an artificial dichotomy in the church’s life:
  • an artificial dichotomy between worship and service,
  • an artificial dichotomy between the ministry of the liturgist and the ministry of the activist,
  • an artificial dichotomy between the ministry of the mystic and the ministry of the prophet.
This artificial dichotomy is highly destructive for the church’s life. For the health of the people of God, the Christian church needs to bring together the two sides of this artificial dichotomy into a creative paradox.
The sacrament we celebrate regularly (if not regularly enough) holds together the poles of this creative paradox. In Holy Communion, we share bread and wine:
  • the bread that we call “the staff of life” and the wine of “In vino veritas”,
  • the bread that sustains our life and the wine that symbolises our celebrations,
  • food which grows from the earth, but which symbolises the presence of God in the eternal realms.
Holy Communion demonstrates to us that we are called into our worship to experience God’s presence. It also demonstrates that we are called from our worship into the struggles of the day-to-day world to be part of God’s creative presence in its midst.
And whenever we celebrate a baptism, as we have today, we also “stand on holy ground”. We celebrate Christ’s radical grace that declares decisively for us all, and (in the case of a baby) does so well before we are aware of anything much, that he will be with us in everything, at all stages of our life.
We are “standing on holy ground” when we worship.
We are also “standing on holy ground” when we seek to practice God’s reign in the midst of the struggles of the day-to-day world.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Constructive comments, from a diversity of viewpoints, are always welcome. I reserve the right to choose which comments will be printed. I'm happy to post opinions differing from mine. Courtesy, an ecumenical attitude, and a willingness to give your name always help. A sense of humour is a definite "plus", as well.