The Ordinariness of Holy Ground
Sunday, September 9, 2012
When I was a child growing up in North Alabama, my grandparents on my father’s side of the family made an annual pilgrimage. At some point, almost every year, they would pack up the car and make the long drive to Michigan to visit family and friends. My grandparents were not from Michigan, they were Alabamians through and through. But, they had been part of the great migration from the south to the north in the 1940s and 50s to take jobs in the automotive plants that were booming in Michigan at the time. Though those years in Michigan were far in the past by the time I came along, they remained an important part of my grandparents’ identity and story. They had relatives who had never returned to Alabama but who continued to live and work for GM in Michigan and they had developed life-long friends there that they continued to keep in touch with. Michigan was also the place where their children had spent many of their formative years and thus was the location of countless special memories.
Even after my grandmother died of cancer, my own parents continued the tradition by taking my grandfather on that yearly trip to see the places and visit with the people that were so important in his life there. Sure, Michigan was just a normal place full of common folks. But because of its place in my grandparents’ lives it truly was a sacred spot that they deeply desired to return to on a regular basis.
This same reality of ordinary ground becoming Sacred and Holy Ground is also at the very heart of our focal passage today from Exodus Chapter 3. As Moses traveled the dusty wilderness roads of the Horeb region while working for his father-in-law Jethro, he did so not yet as a priest of God but rather as a common shepherd. In other words, there really was nothing sacred or overly religious about what Moses was doing in his life at this time. He truly was merely journeying with sheep in a section of country called Horeb, which literally meant wasteland. This mundane, ordinary moment in Moses’ life could have been characterized by many words but “religious” or “holy” certainly would not have been one of them.
Yet it was in such an ordinary moment and at such a time that God chose to speak an important word to Moses. In an instant, the common ground where Moses stood became holy ground. (Terrence E. Fretheim in Exodus, The Interpretation Series, John Knox Press, Louisville, 1991, pg. 53-54).
Through this story, God communicates an important truth to all of us. That simple fact is that God doesn’t always speak to us in “religious places” or on “holy days”. Rather, one of the things that Moses’ encounter at the burning bush teaches each of us is that the common ground of daily life can and does often become the holy ground where we meet God.
As normal, every day followers of God, who also seek each day to both recognize God’s presence and listen for God’s voice in the midst of our daily activity, I think there are several critical aspects of this lesson from Moses’ own experience that are invaluable for us to affirm and always keep before us.
For starters, Moses story at the burning bush reminds us that we can encounter the presence of God on any day. Again, as has already been mentioned, Moses’ experience with God at the burning bush did not happen on a high holy daily or on the occasion of a deeply religious event or experience. No, Moses’ encounter with God happened on an otherwise mundane Monday or normal Thursday. It was just an ordinary day, but, it was in that very day that Moses’ life with God was changed forever.
There is a unique aspect of the Israelite perspective on life that is hinted at throughout the scriptures but that perhaps we do not highlight enough. The Israelites were really masters at focusing on the current day. They gathered food for each day, they prayed for this day, they lived trying to simply make it through the current twenty four hour period. Now, part of this was simply the result of the world in which they lived where daily survival was never assumed or a given. But, the other side of this was the deep spiritual belief that each and every day was significant and set aside by itself. Each day deserved one’s full attention and energies.
I don’t know about you, but I often fail to approach my day with this same attitude. So often I am worried about what is happening tomorrow or so focused on what is coming on Saturday or Sunday that I hardly pay attention to today. Regularly, I am so future focused that I never allow myself to slow down and simply live for today or enjoy fully what God has to offer in this day.
It has been said that there will never be another today. In other words, this day, September 9, 2012 will never again be lived or repeated in the history of the world. Sure, there will be other Sundays. But, this day is unique. This day is special. This is the day that God has made and there are things to do and learn from it. After all, this could be the day when we meet our own burning bush or when God changes our lives completely.
Second, Moses’ story at the burning bush also reminds us that we can encounter and hear from God in any situation. Just as Moses was living through an ordinary day, Moses was also living through an ordinary experience – he was tending sheep. He wasn’t praying. He wasn’t reading God’s word. He wasn’t engaged in a spiritual activity. He was tending sheep. And, yet, this is the place where God chose to speak to him and where God changed his life and his direction.
In the movie Simon Birch, which is the screen adaptation of Jon Irving’s book A Prayer for Owen Meaney, the viewer is introduced to a pint-sized boy by the same name. Simon Birch, the malformed smallest kid in town is ostracized by most of his peers, unwanted by his family and looked upon with great skepticism by neighborhood adults. Yet, Simon believes God has designed him the way that he is for an important purpose.
The movie follows Simon’s quest through adolescence as he attempts to discover what God’s purpose really is for him. As he does, he seeks the assistance of the usual suspects. He attends Sunday School and church regularly. And, he talks personally and privately with his pastor. Unfortunately, however, none of these obvious choices provide Simon with the ability to hear God’s voice. Simon has done all of the “holy” things but he has not yet heard from God.
One day, Simon accompanies the children of the church on a trip to camp during the Christmas break. On the way home, the bus driver swerves to miss a deer and sends the bus over an embankment and into the frozen waters below. In this moment of horror, Simon suddenly and unexpectedly finds his purpose. The children on the bus listen to and trust him and his sense of calm primarily because he is their size and they can relate to him. Second, again because of his size, Simon is able to reach some children in the bus that no one else is able to help. Again, in the geography of everyday life, Simon hears God speak as he learns that his size doesn’t have to be the impediment that everyone has suggested but that instead it can and should be the grand asset of his life.
Now, don’t hear me incorrectly. I am in no way insinuating that God does not speak in the anticipated religious or holy moments of life like praying, studying the bible or attending church. God most certainly does speak to us in these venues. But, these are not the only places were God shows up in our lives.
Instead, the point is that like the story of the biblical Moses or the pint sized Simon Birch, it is important for all of us to understand that God can and does show up on any day and through any experience in our lives. Without a doubt, God does desire for the mundane moments of everyday to become the sacred spaces where we realize that we are standing on holy ground.
Finally, let me mention one last thing that we need to see in the Moses’ story. As was the case for Moses, it is also critical that when we encounter God that we don’t simply affirm God’s presence but that we commit ourselves to doing what God asks of us. Notice that Moses comes perilously close to making a significant mistake. Even though he recognizes God in the burning bush, Moses almost walks away unwilling to do what God asks of him. In other words, even if we recognize God and affirm God’s presence and voice in our everyday life experiences – we still must choose to do what God asks of us in those moments. It is one thing to affirm the presence of God. It is another thing altogether to act upon God’s direction in that same encounter.
Today, we have provided an insert for you in the order of worship. It is a list of the days of this coming week. We invite you over the next few days to keep this sheet with you. As you do, we encourage you to do two things. First, begin the day in prayer asking God to help you to be attentive and alert to God’s presence and voice in the given day. Second, end the day by reflecting and recording where you met God and what you learned from the experience. As I said a few moments again, you just never know, our burning bush may be just around the corner. Amen.