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I’m not sure that I know what makes something holy. Like Paul, I think that it has something to do with love being genuine, with hating evil and clinging to what is good, with extending hospitality and trying to outdo one another in acts of humility and honor. I think it means that we are not overcome by evil, but that we overcome evil with good. But, it’s not like there’s a checklist for holy – unblemished, check…really shiny, check…smells like gratitude, check. I just know that when I saw my own children being born, it was holy. When I stood at the bed of a woman who I had ministered through two bouts of cancer as she died, surrounded by her family who were whispering words of love in her ear, it was holy. I know that when I have seen teenagers who would barely acknowledge the existence of other people in the room kneel to wash the feet of an elderly woman, it was holy.
Those moments kind of sneak up on you, like they do on Moses who is, quite frankly, minding his own business there in Midian. That’s where God finds him, surprising him with holiness in this story, a story, like most of our Biblical tales, that doesn’t care about every detail being perfect. Because these wisdom tales aren’t talking about something that actually happened, they’re conveying a message about something that happens all the time – like God surprises us. Grace abounds. We are more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. God is who God will be, and something holy can show up in a hurry.
This story begins, even before what was read this morning, with Moses angry. It is his anger that causes him to engage in something we might think of as far from holy – murder. He kills an Egyptian who he finds beating a Hebrew slave. That’s why he flees to Midian, his anger quickly burning into fear. There God finds him, coming to help rekindle his profane anger, to turn it into something holy, something that will burn much longer and bring about the sacramental work of liberation and freedom. The rest of the story of Moses and the Israelites will be wrapped in this paper of the holy and the profane, with God’s promises coming in the middle of the everyday – through the food they will eat, the water they will drink, the place in which they will live as the holy is found right next to the ordinary.
But today we have, I think, a very mixed up relationship with the holy and the profane. We seem to think that the holy is found in only the pure things, so we make it about appearance, or piety, and it becomes something like a garment we wear instead of a moment that happens to us, that we prepare ourselves to see. We believe the holy to be so rare that don’t see it when it’s right in front of us and we cast things off our list that can be holy – food, money, sexuality – all of these things we get on the wrong list. We make them profane, or even wicked, because we fail to hold them in the ways of holiness, to see them in the light. And then when we do encounter things that really are profane, we are so jaded that we seem to need a massive dose of it before we are offended. Because we have made the holy something to be possessed, instead of an experience that we do not control, it has become a title to be claimed. And so the church points fingers and wields shame, as if it owned holiness, and generates a “two-faced” culture, where we can do the things to appear holy while our souls rot within us.
As we contend with the news of the past few days surrounding the election for the highest office in the land, the absence of integrity, the exposure of a two-faced, “say one thing and do another” culture that seems to think that the language of sexual assault is just “boys being boys”, we have to be very clear about what is and what is not holy. The principles of our faith might sometimes be synonymous with those of party, or country, or politics, but when they are not we should be clear about it and should be willing to claim it, to say there is right and wrong, and violence against women, misogyny, racism and even the lack of basic human decency are wrong…as matters of faith, they are wrong. They are signs of a deficit in our hearts, a mark of sin. Believing in competition at the cost of civility, or success at the cost of society, or wealth at the expense of wisdom may be many things, but it is not a value of our faith. And, like Moses, we cannot only have momentary anger about this, or about injustice in many forms, or incivility or ignorance. That quick-burn anger must be transformed from a destructive, profane force to a long lasting, holy, cold anger that will fuel us to seek deeper change, both of our own hearts and the world around us. And that is something that I firmly trust that God will not do without us and that we cannot do without God.
What makes something holy or sacramental is the experience of God that is attached to it. What makes it holy is the kind of fruit it produces. What makes it holy is it’s capacity to change us in positive ways. At the burning bush, Moses has an experience of God that asks him to change the hardest thing to change – himself, his own sense of identity. And this holiness will lay a claim on him from this point forward, and Moses will begin to judge his sacramental experiences, his “holy” moments, in a new way. Moses will learn that he cannot be one thing here and another thing there, that his integrity will be his eyes for seeing the holy. The appearance of compassion will not let you see the kin-dom, nor will the imitation of grace open to you the action of God. You have to prepare for it, to change your way of thinking, to be saved from the idea that God sees the world the same way you do.
This is why God has to say to Moses, “Take your shoes off, you’re on holy ground,” because Moses doesn’t even recognize it. I did not expect to encounter God as strongly as I did sitting at my friend’s bedside in her last moments, when all the words left me and I had only tears. I had absolutely NO idea what to expect during our first child’s birth, it was unfamiliar territory altogether. The doctor came in at one point and saying, “we’re getting close,” and then nurse wheeling in that warming crib, you know the “baby incubator” thing and I distinctly remember thinking – “What are they bringing that thing in here for? Those are for babies.” – as if it hadn’t occurred to me yet what was happening here. Sometimes we don’t even know where the holy moments are even when we’re right in the middle of them.
We need help learning to see them, and reminders that the holy swims around us all of the time. The Bible is constantly trying to remind us of this, telling us that God is found in a burning bush, or the whirlwind, in the face of strangers and the words of foreigners. Jesus teaches us to pay attention to women kneading bread and sparrows and wildflowers and the ways that we approach things like meals, or illness or death…for these are the places that we will see God…IF we have the eyes to see.
That is what this place is built for. We should, when stepping in here, metaphorically take off our shoes also…metaphorically, please. For this is holy ground. And not because we have placed some bricks and concrete and pews here and called this a church, not because the church can, any longer, hold the moral high ground, but because of what happens here. We commit our lives to one another here, through weddings and baptisms, in prayer and in conversation. We face death together here, feeling it’s sting and remembering the promise that it is not the final answer, sometimes bearing that grief back into this place where we practice our rituals and recite the claims of our faith, as if we are reminding ourselves again and again. Here we share birth, death, marriage, divorce, sickness, recovery, loss, grief, pain, shame, transition…all of the vulnerable spots of our lives that help us to experience God, through our connection to one another and the risk of feeling that vulnerability. Here is where we learn, in the words of Barbara Brown Taylor, “the conviction that there is no spiritual treasure to be found apart from the bodily experiences of human life on earth.” Here is where we discover how to see with the eyes of love and agitate ourselves with the simple and earth-altering belief of “imago dei”, that we are all born in the image of God…ALL of us. Every single one. Here is where we realize that whoever we are, wherever we are, we live in a world that is waiting for us to discover it’s holiness, to advocate for our goodness, to reject the cynical, mean and cruel in favor of the holy…to resist the urge to isolate ourselves and reach for the risk of relationship. Here is where we should be reminded, again and again, that the action and presence of God is only pointed towards, on referenced in, the pages of a book, or the rituals of our tradition. The Bible isn’t holy. Communion isn’t holy. The church isn’t holy. God is holy. And God is found everywhere, if we will have eyes to see Her.
Thanks be to God.