Plymouth United Church of Christ

(Listen to the sermon while reading.)

Sermon, Year A Proper 17, August 28, 2011
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber, 2011

Focus Scripture: Exodus 3:1-15 (Moses and burning bush), and Matthew 16:21-28

“You are on holy ground, Moses,” said God. “Take off your sandals.” Take off your sandals, Moses, so you can touch holy ground with your bare feet. This ground is so holy, it is offense not to touch it. It must be touched. It would be offense not to experience it. Not to know its physicality. Its earthiness. Its realness. Let your flesh touch the flesh of the earth. Let pain of pebbles or sticks remind you that you are alive, and are made of flesh. Let the dirt and dust stick to your feet, and cover them. Let is get underneath your toenails. Let the dust expose the wrinkles and cracks in your skin, because you are made of this dust, and to it you shall return, and it is holy. It is holy because God is present, and God is holy. Then God said to Moses, and notice these verbs here, “I have observed the misery of my people. I have heard their cry. I know their suffering. And I have come down to bring them up.” God has come down. We are earthly fleshly creatures and beings, so God comes to us. In a burning bush. Later as a pillar of fire. Then God comes down as Jesus and continues to come to us in bread and wine of communion. Bread and wine that can be touched, poked, felt. See the softness and purple of the grapes, roll the bread around in your hand, squeeze it, listen as the crust rips, hear the wine being poured, smell the yeast and flour and the aroma of grapes, taste it, eat it, put it inside your body, feel it nourish and fill you up. God comes down to lift us up.

God comes to us as the homeless woman or child who needs a quilt or a pillow. As a hungry neighbor. A wounded vet. A lonely widow or a friendless man. Who by their very nature all make holy the ground on which they stand and make holy the moment in which we meet them. The holy is all around us. Holy ground is under our feet. Not just because this is a church or a sanctuary, not because we have consecrated it, but because God has made it and made us, and encounters us here in our flesh and encounters us out there in our flesh. To touch, hear, smell, taste, and see. Sacred places and sacred moments abound: everyday holiness, we might call it.

The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote this short poem:
“Earth’s crammed with heaven
And every common bush afire with God;
and only he who sees takes off his shoes—
the rest sit around it and pluck blackberries.”

Even the common bushes are afire with God: our everyday moments filled with God’s presence and holiness. Watching the clouds or a deer or a songbird, cooking a meal for someone, having lunch with a friend, even fighting with a neighbor. Or staying home because of a snow day, a blessing of a day of rest. When your child is screaming, saying “I love you” to your significant other or to that child. When a city and a whole coast come together to prepare for and endure a hurricane, or to rebuild after a tornado. Or a congregation that repaints a sign, weeds it gardens, replaces light bulbs. Simple mundane things of life.

But do we notice that they are holy? Do we think to take off our shoes or gloves, or whatever outerwear we have on? Do we think to take them off in the presence of the holy so that we can encounter the holy in its fleshy fullness, with nothing protecting us? Or do we prefer to keep a protective barrier between us and whatever it is so that we don’t risk contamination, getting dirty and dusty with others people’s pain, or failures, or their needs or suffering or cries for justice, those things that might make us uncomfortable and feel that perhaps we need a shower afterward?

This holy moment that Moses has up on the mountain with this burning bush, as so many holy moments do, it comes unexpected. He’s not looking for it, he’s not planning for it. I doubt it’s even possible to plan for a holy moment. I think if we were to try to do that, God hears the plan and says, “No. You’re not going to tell me when you will experience The Holy. I’m giving them to you all the time, but you don’t notice because you are looking for something else, or they aren’t what you want.” Every common bush is afire with God, and God’s voice calling you by name, waiting for a “Here I am, Lord.” Speal to me. Touch me. And maybe we miss them because they are so often disguised as something to do. Holy ground, holy experiences demand some kind of response from us, some kind of change in our lives. I would hope that any encounter with God, any encounter with the holy, would leave us changed in some way, at least to just want to be more faithful. To inspire us to be more like God wants us to be. To respond in some way, that often can be a sacrificial way. Giving up some money, or the pursuit of things, or a prejudice, or a comfort, or an ideology, or a habit, or a dream.

When I was in college, and still living in Janesville, and was there during the summer months, our church started taking our youth group on a mission trip every summer, and I got to go along as a chaperone. And for a few years after college, got to experience them. I think I went on 8 or 9 trips with the youth group. We went to West Virginia, Maine, Virginia, a bunch of places. And I remember that first trip I went on, I went with certain prejudices. I had really only ever known Wisconsin, although I was going to school in Michigan, but pretty much the same crowd of people I knew here. Not a whole lot different. I didn’t know much of anyplace else. And I went with certain prejudices about who the poor are, and about who southerners are and common laborers. I had a rather arrogant attitude toward a lot of people I had never really met before. And on that first trip, God took a great big hammer to some of those prejudices and showed me how ignorant I was, and how much I had missed. And it changed me. I started to learn how to show some compassion and mercy, which came from learning that I am part of a much bigger whole. That even how I use energy living in Wisconsin can affect the working conditions of miners in West Virginia. Or how we buy and consume things here can affect people halfway around the globe. I learned that I am connected to the world and other people. I had heard other people say that before, but it was on those trips that I encountered the holy and learned through the experience how much filled with junk I was and God kept chipping away at those and molding me into something new and different. That learning of connection to the rest of the world was so important. I experienced that in other places. Living in New York, with people of so many ethnicities and languages and backgrounds, and learned that we are all God’s people and that this is God’s world, and it and we are holy ground, fleshy and good, all deserving of our attentiveness and awe and a willingness to take off our sandals and touch it fully. To encounter the holy in all of its truth and glory.

Moses is changed from an escaped murderer and shepherd to the one who is to lead his people to freedom. To go speak up to Pharaoh and demand that the people be set free. He lets down his barriers. He didn’t have to go and check out that bush. He could have ignored it. he could have said, “Not today.” Because a burning bush that isn’t being consumed is a pretty new and different thing. I imagine it was probably a little scary, maybe even terrifying for Moses to witness it and to wonder. But he had the courage to go up. Even though different things and new things can often be scary and terrifying. He could have said I am not going to look, it is best to not know, best to pretend this never happened. But he goes to see what it is, anyway, and his life story is completely rewritten into a whole new trajectory.

Think of the disciples in the Gospel here. Jesus has called them to give up who they thought they were, to become something new, to follow his call. Their narratives are rewritten when they decide to follow Jesus. And later Jesus tells them, when he says to Peter, “Your mind is not on divine things but on human things. You’re not looking for the holy.” Then Jesus said, “If you really want to follow me, you have to take up your crosses, you must bear your crosses.” And maybe one of those crosses we are to bear is to be aware of the holiness that is constantly and ever surrounds us. Not to take the easy path of ignoring it, but to witness to the sacred in each person and moment. To allow them to meet us, and to change us. To bear the cross of knowing that the cries of the oppressed, the abused, the poor, the suffering, are holy cries that deserve for us to observe, to hear the cry, to know their suffering, to go to them to lift them up. And to take off our sandals because we are on holy ground, and every common bush is afire with God.

Let us pray: Present and loving God, make us more mindful of the holiness that is in each moment and in each of us that we, too, can see your fire in every common bush. Amen.


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Plymouth United Church of Christ
2010 Moholt Drive
Eau Claire, Wisconsin, 54703

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