A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
March 6, 2016
University Baptist Church
We have enjoyed listening to the choir sing movements from the Missa Gaia, the Earth Mass these past few weeks. This whole season is about recognizing the earth and its creatures as holy.
What is holy ground to you? Think about it. Is there someplace where you feel really safe? A place where you can let go and just be, without the need to put on airs? Someplace where you recognized God and saw your place in the divine order of things? It doesn’t have to be a place here in this stage of your life. It could be a place from your childhood. Perhaps it’s a room in an apartment building or a patch of grass under a tree in a park somewhere. Maybe it’s among favorite people in this church or a church form your past. Maybe it’s somewhere over the rainbow that you only dream about and bluebirds fly.
Ann Landers ran a column many years ago about people playing in graveyards. Someone was complaining that they went there for peace and quiet and meditation over the memories of their dearly departed and was annoyed by others who were playing Frisbee and sunbathing against headstones. What followed in a column a week later were responses from all over the country saying that the graveyard is holy ground and a place where the living can see the face of God as alive. Many of the letters said, if people are playing Frisbee and enjoying the quiet, that that is great. When I go to graveyards in the Twin Cities on warm weekend days, I see Hmong and Hispanic people around the graves of their departed friends and family. There is almost always an offering on the grave, a beer a flower, a special dish. And it becomes holy ground.
Each August, our family joins the Sacred Harp singers for the Afton Corn Roast at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. We sing, there is a silent auction and we eat fresh corn and slurp watermelon in the church graveyard next door. And it feels like holy ground.
Many of you know that my favorite place has been the farm at which I grew up. Every Sunday after church, we would get changed, hop in the large station wagon with the hapless Cleveland Indians game blaring on the radio. The farm was about 40 acres of apple orchard owned by the extended family as a summer place. On Sundays, aunts, uncles, cousins, parents, grandparents and even great grandparents would gather for a cookout, flying kites, hiking in the tall grass, catching fireflies, getting poison ivy and running around until dark. Even though it has been years since that farm was in our family, it still strikes me as home. It’s where my imagination goes. I wonder what my kids will think of as holy ground when they leave home. A campfire on the shores of Lake Superior, the gardens, the Spring ritual of boiling maple sap. Will it be a campus haunt, a breakfast place in Dinkytown? Many of us go back to college reunions because it was a time of great discovery and freedom and challenge. It was when we discovered who we really were.
This weekend I witnessed the Irondale theater department’s student-written, arranged and directed one-act shows and songs. You could see talent develop over the course of the year as people bravely put themselves out there for praise or ridicule. And always alumni come back to witness it. It’s because they are standing on holy ground, where a part of their lives was revealed and embraced, where bravery was met with acceptance, encouragement, and the challenge to hone the craft and be even better, not just as an actor or singer, but as a person. I felt like I was standing on holy ground.
Camp Leal was holy ground for a generation or two of people who loved the outdoors and encountered Christianity outside of the walls of the church. It was holy ground which is why it was so hard to say goodbye to it.
Holy Ground places are where something miraculous happened. It is often connected intimately with memory or ceremony. Mecca is like that for our Muslim sisters and brothers. On the Hajj, they encircle the temple supposedly made by Abraham seven times and then kneel down and pray in unison.
Jerusalem is holy ground for at least three religions, with all of the controversy that it entails. It’s holy on many levels of consciousness, and it’s hard to let go of our holy places.
Some of my sacred harp friends would call the center of the square holy ground, and it remains holy no matter where it is. A mobile holy ground, where God is revealed, where the sound is directed, where spirits soar and something that you can’t quite articulate occurs. Such is the way of the Spirit.
On Sabbatical 10 years ago, I visited Chaco Canyon. A millennium ago, the Anasazi people built ceremonial cities in the desert now known as New Mexico. They watched the stars and worshipped the gods they knew. The enigmatic buildings are remnants of a world long lost, but you can feel the power in the round Kivas or sanctuaries. Navajos didn’t dare disturb the ancient ruins for fear of the magic that still exists in them. It’s holy ground. Something happened there, and we ponder in wonder.
Moses encountered God up on a mountain, after having fled from his own people, from his own heritage. He was off on his own, tending to the sheep of his father-in-law. He had spent half of his life in Egypt, a rescued refugee in the royal palace. He had to deal with the Karmic dissonance of being a Hebrew, but not a slave. That must have tormented him. I would have run away, too. He did so after he murdered another person. How could he be trusted? He fled to the wilderness, married a local and tried to start his life all over again. He and his wife had a son whom they called Gershom which means “I have been an alien residing in a foreign land. “ Moses spent his whole life with a love-hate relationship with the land. He was never quite at home. Eventually, he would lead the Hebrew people out of their Egyptian slavery only to never really enter the Promised Land.
It’s no accident that he spent 40 years in this wilderness. He would spend another 40 trying to find his way home.
God can choose, even the worst, most desperate of us to reveal truth. Moses, the fugitive, the loner, the stuttering octogenarian foreigner who did not see himself as worthy of being trusted with anything but sheep, came upon the voice.
It was a voice he had not heard before, or had he? Maybe it was a voice to which he had never paid attention. It wasn’t male. It wasn’t female. It came from a bush of all things. A bush on fire. Moses thought it might be best to listen to what the voice was saying.
The fire of God is not a fire that consumes, but it is a fire that gives life and causes change. Out of the bush came the words, “Moses, Moses.”
Moses responded, “Here I am”. The voice said,, “I am the god of your father (your real father), the God of Abraham and Sarah, the God of Isaac and Rebekah, the God of Jacob and Rachel…I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt. I have heard their cries, I know of their sufferings and I have come to deliver them from the Egyptians and bring them out of that land to a land flowing with milk and honey.
I have observed the misery and the heartache of so many people here that I am here to fill in your gaps, says God.
Through Moses, the one who felt alone, God was willing to be active and to lead many lonely souls onto the Holy ground of the Promised Land.
The voice told him to stop running away. Get on with his work. And his work wasn’t just to tend sheep. But tending them prepared him well for the work of freeing the Hebrew people from slavery.
Harriet Tubman was known as Moses and she would lead the people from the desert of southern slavery to freedom in the north. When people sang Go Down Moses, they were telling people to follow Sister Harriet on the way to the promised Land. On International Women’s Day, it’s important to remember Harriet and the other Moses who have lead us to freedom.
The voice told Moses to take off his shoes for he was on holy ground. When I went up to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, I was instructed to take off my shoes. It’s holy ground. I personally look forward to the spring weather to stay here longer. It means that I will be able to walk around without shoes on.
The world saw the people of Israel as aliens, as people without a home without a real God, without any hope, pathetic really. But God said to Moses at the burning bush, take off your shoes, because you are standing on holy ground. “We are standing on holy ground and I know that there are angels all around,” says the old gospel song. The work we do is to create and respond to the holiness that surrounds us.
I am doing something new in you and for you, says God.
Holy Ground: We’re going to the land flowing with milk and honey.
Holy Ground: The place where we may all come together and worship the one who made it holy after getting free from Egyptian oppression and slavery. I AM has made that ground and this ground holy.
Holy Ground: Where the wolf lies down with the lamb and the fatling and the calf together and where the soldiers bang their swords into ploughshares and bend their spears into pruning hooks, and they ain’t gonna study war no more.
Holy Ground: Where people feel safe from the powers and principalities of this world.
Holy Ground: Where people don’t need to be afraid of walking the streets. Where people trust each other. Where people can gather in pew and around cups of coffee and say, yes, this is somewhere where I can be important. Take off your shoes. This is holy ground. It is holy because God is here with us and the bush is not consumed. It is holy because we dare to step forward and say to the world, No I will not put up with racism. No I will not put up with sexism. No I will not put up with brutality or bullying. No I will not put up with homophobia. No I will not put up with lies and deception in my personal relationships. No, I will not put up with economic injustice.
This is holy ground and we say no to all of that, but we also say yes.
This is holy ground and we say yes to Jesus Christ and his message of peace and reconciliation for all of God’s children.
We say yes to the dream that brother Martin had when he dreamed that one day black and white, men and women would be treated as equals.
And we say yes to a world in which justice reigns with peace.
We say yes to love.
We say yes to compassion.
We say yes to mercy.
We say yes to struggling with things and people we don’t understand. Why? Because this is holy ground.
We say yes to spreading the good news to others and letting them know about the holy ground. We need to be grounded somewhere, don’t we? We need holy ground.
God chose Moses, a murderer, a shepherd who stuttered a lot to be the one to stand up to mighty Pharaoh and to lead the people out of slavery and into the holy ground of the Promised Land.
God chose a carpenter rabble-rouser to be the savior of the world.
God chose a sinner like Paul to start churches.
God chose diminutive Mother Theresa to bring hope and life the poor in Calcutta.
God chose Dorothy Day to advocate for workers to the delight and horror of the catholic faith, inspiring generations of faithful people to put their spirituality into action.
God chooses you and me to witness and to stand up with God on our side to make the place where we live and work and worship holy ground.
Where we can gather together and live into the hope promised us by the great I AM who has promised to be with us always. We come together not as aliens, not as outsiders, but as people committed to God and the service of God’s children. We are here together on holy ground. So take off your shoes, because this is Holy ground.
But don’t just think that taking off your shoes is enough. We need to remember the holiness of certain places, but then we need to lace up our shoes and like Moses, get on with our work. We need to do the work of reconciliation, of peacemaking, of justice-seeking. And remember that whenever we seek to set people free—especially when we seek to set people free—God is on our side.
That’s why we set aside holy places like this, so we can garner the strength to tell old pharaoh to let my people go.
So celebrate the Holy Ground sisters and brothers. Recognize when God speaks. And do the continuing work of setting people free. It’s how the Bible starts, it’s what Jesus’ mission was all about and it’s what the church is for. If the church is a proving place for refining our spirits and inspiring us to be better, then it is holy ground indeed.
Take off your shoes, remember the call of God, celebrate the holy ground on which we stand, and then go about the work of the Gospel to set people free. That’s what it’s really all about.