The Place You Are Standing is Holy Ground

Sermon written by Jane Larson

 Exodus 3:1-15

The place you are standing is holy ground. 

This lectionary passage is one that is dear to my heart. Anytime I have been asked to share my testimony or story of how I came to find God or the stories of how I continue to know God more and more, I turn to this scripture. For this morning I was going to try to preach from Romans, try something new, but unsurprisingly I was called back to this passage. And as I was reading this passage over the past week, something new was happening in this old familiar call story of Moses. This phrase kept repeating over and over again in my head… the place you are standing is holy ground

I want you to take a moment and think of a place you felt was holy. Perhaps a place where you retreated to meet God or a place you were surprised to meet God. What is it about this place that felt holy? What was happening in your life when you discovered this holy place? 

This week I thought about places I felt were holy. Some of the places I thought of were predictable: the chapel in the pines at camp, a little sanctuary in the woods, and the church were I grew up. 

The very first place I thought of could be described as the epitome of holy. It was St. Francis’ Lower and Upper Basilica in Assisi. The Lower Basilica is a darkly lit room with lights on the floor that point upward and reflect on pieces of glass on the top of the ceiling to look like stars. On the right side are huge paintings depicting the life of St. Francis and on the left hand side are paintings depicting the life of Jesus. And as I walked through the chapel I saw the parallel of how St. Francis followed in the footsteps of Jesus. Faithfully and humbly he followed the voice of God in his life. The chapel leads to a narrow stairwell that goes lower and lower until you reach the place of St. Francis’ grave. Then stairs lead back up and enter the Upper Basilica with grand ceilings, gold lined everything, and frescos covering the walls. Death leading to life. I did not have words to how beautiful this place was… or how holy the ground felt, I was simply brought to tears.

Then there are other places I thought of as holy places that might not seem so holy to others. Every summer my family travels to Trumansburg, a little town near Ithaca, NY, for a music festival called Grassroots. It is my favorite place. Sure there are lots of things people could argue are unholy happening at this festival, a place filled with old hippies and extra curricular activities and somehow always lots of mud. But without fail every year I have met God in the chaotic crowds and the music and the dancing.

Or there are the times when I met God on the floor of a bathroom at my grandfather’s viewing. When my aunts and I needed a break from all of the hugs and the “I am sorry for your losses” and we escaped to the bathroom where we sat on the floor and somehow ended up singing “Get This Party Started” by Pink… It is a long story, but in that moment we were overcoming by laughter at the randomness of that moment and it was such a refreshing break from all the tears. The possibility of joy in the midst of grief. 

Yes, these places were holy to me. And as these memories flooded my brain, the phrase kept repeating: the place you are standing is holy ground. 

I wanted to know more about this place where Moses was standing. Was there a connection to my holy fields in Trumansburg where I took off my shoes and danced in the mud? What was happening in Moses’ life when he encountered God? What do we know about God who meets him in this place? As I read more about this passage I learned it was full of symbolism.

First, I learned how significant place was in this story. To be human is to be in a place. And as Ellen Davis writes, the “Israelites learned about God in and from the land they knew so well.” And she would argue, “Intimacy with the land may be the single most important religious difference between the biblical writers and ourselves.” Moses is in the wilderness when he encounters the burning bush. The wilderness. He is tending is father-in-law’s flock and the sheep must have wandered a little more than normal because he ended up outside the bounds of his residence, family life, and religious activities. He was off own his own. It is not like Moses was just turning a corner and his neighbors bush was on fire. He was in the wilderness.

And God appears in a remote, inhospitable and threatening landscape of the wilderness. A place uncultivated, desolate, a place of chaos, lawlessness, and terror…

And as I dove deeper into this phrase holy ground, it became even more unusual that this phrase was used here. The wilderness is not a place the Israelites associated with holy. Yet, there is religious language here... words usually associated with a place of worship, a place of sanctuary.

A place on the margins of society, a place of chaos, a place that would have never been called holy in the Israelite society, it is here God meets Moses and says the place you are standing is holy ground. 

You better believe I read sanctuary and liked the name of our church plant even more. A group gathering outside the walls of the church, on the margins of society, in the chaos, that is where we hope to meet God. 

I had always liked this story because of the phrase Here I Am. The way that God meets Moses and his proclaimed Here I Am. I like this phrase so much that I got the Hebrew word for Here I Am tattooed on my ribs my senior year of college. Because I was a hip and cool religion major and tattooed Hebrew words were an essential way to maintain that status. Too bad I got it where no one could see it and barely anyone knew I had it. I was clearly the definition of rebellious…

But in all seriousness I really did like this phrase because I was reminded of my own call story and my love for Moses’s story and that God was with me no matter what. In the chaos of college life, a time where I was struggling to understand who I was and who I was becoming, I wanted to always be reminded that there was not a place I could wander that God would not be with me. 

But what I could not put into words at that time was what happens when we encounter God in these holy places. God was doing a new thing in this moment. God was dwelling even in the wilderness. And as a result the land and Moses were being transformed. 

The place you are standing is holy ground. 

This lifeless, desolate, dry, dessert land became holy. It was transformed by God’s presence. And if God could transform the adamah, this dirt, into something holy, God can turn adam, this person Moses, into someone incredible. Someone who cares about the dirt definitely cares about their people. 

And God appears in a burning bush. In the midst of the desert, desolate land there is vegetation that serves as a sign of life and refuge in the wilderness. And it is cool to think God appeared in a bush and not a giant tree. A bush, a lowly shrub, becomes the spot where God reveals Godself. It becomes a symbol of transformation not only for the wilderness, but also for the life of Moses. A God that could transform a shrub could most definitely transform Moses. 

And furthermore, this bush is burning and not consumed. I read that this symbol of fire would have drawn the readers into recognizing that God is self-sufficient and self-perpetuating, awe-inspiring and yet, powerful and uncontrollable.

Burning, but unable to be consumed. It is not normal for a shrub on fire to not burn up, but God operates in this paradox. This is not a normal pattern of creation and later in Exodus there will be mana falling from the sky. God is not only unaffected by the environment but rather has the power to affect the environment. God sustains this bush and God will sustain God’s people. 

Finally, it is out of the burning, but not consumed bush in the wilderness that God speaks. God speaks to Moses before he even recognizes the holy ground. Moses does not prepare or consecrate himself, something that would have been required before entering a holy space or else it would be defiled. Rather, God declares the ground where Moses is already standing holy. He invites Moses to remove his sandals as he comes closer to the bush where God speaks. God is still to be seen as deserving of respect, but the boundaries between the sacred and profane are being broken down.

God inviting Moses to remove his sandals demonstrates God’s holiness and reverence. God is transcendent and yet God’s otherness is still maintained. God is holy, but there is a groundedness in God’s purposes. 

And when God speaks, God’s identity is revealed to Moses. I am the God of your ancestors. I AM is a God who knows and has seen and who has heard the experiences of your people. Revealing God’s name, I AM, reveals the nature of God. No other name of God consists of a verb only. This God who was the God of Moses’ ancestors was and is and will continue to be with the people. This God is living and active and is found in a burning, but not consuming bush in the wilderness to forge a new relationship. One that is risky and vulnerable. Where God desires intimacy, but yet there is still mystery. God who speaks forth a new creation and who is faithful, inspiring, and redemptive. 

Revealing God’s name invites Moses into relationship. Moses excuses to do not hold, because God insists Moses will not be alone and shares a name who Moses can call on for help. It is in this wilderness space Moses encounters God and both the land and Moses are drawn into relationship with God and it is in this space they are transformed. It is in this holy place that Moses’ new life is laid out before him. 

And this holy place does not become a continuously separate place that has an established sanctity; it is holy because of its proximity to The Holy One. The holiness derives solely from intimacy with God’s presence. It is a place of transition and transformation.  

A transformation not only for Moses but also for all God’s people. Because God asks Moses to deliver God’s people and bring them to a transformed land flowing with milk and honey. God plants this idea and creates space for God’s people to imagine the world to be different; a new future can be imagined. Instead of slaves they will be free, instead of scarcity there will be abundance, and instead of oppression there will be loving intimacy.

The wilderness is chaotic, but also a place where there are no limits or expectations. It is a place of possibility. A place where something new can happen. 

The place you are standing is holy ground.

I recognize that the chaos of our lives, our neighborhoods, our city, our nation, and our world is real. It is true chaos. I will not downplay the reality of its overwhelming and troubling nature. Like the slavery of the Israelites, the oppression is real. It is real and it takes real work to overcome. When we keep reading Moses’ story, we see that everything does not happen easily, but Moses is sent to continue to plead with Pharaoh on behalf of the people. 

The message this morning is a reminder of the God we worship. The God who is I AM. The living, active God who was and is and will always be. The one who cannot be contained or controlled, the one who is able to sustain the fertile and fruitful environment and can also work outside the normal patterns of nature, the one who is ongoing not static, the one capable of possibility… the one who has met me in grand cathedrals, and in the woods and at music festivals and bathroom floors… the one who desires us to be free, our brothers and sisters of color to be liberated from the hand of oppression and white supremacy, the victims of natural disasters to be rescued and comforted, refugees to be welcomed and offered places they can call home, and the one who continues to speak into creation a new kingdom, a new beloved community. 

Are we willing to enter the spaces of chaos and trust that God is able to meet us and transform our lives and the world around us? Do we recognize the place we are standing is holy ground? Are we willing to witness to the sacred breaking through and transforming the chaos?  Are we willing to be sent like Moses to plead on behalf of God’s people? 

This morning I want to offer a word of encouragement. Through the story of Moses we see that God is able. Let us trust God can meet us in the chaos of our lives and is capable of bring life out of death. I encourage you to continue to seek God’s presence and to have eyes ready to recognize the holy and sacred breaking into the chaos, because there is no place where God’s presence cannot reach. Let us be ready to listen and willing to continue to be transformed and ready to respond, perhaps to a voice calling to us in the wilderness spaces of our lives to say the place you are standing is holy ground.