Message by Rev. Jenny Carter
September 3, 2017
Based on Exodus 3:1-15, Matthew 16:21-28
It’s kind of funny, in a curious and sometimes confusing way, how our view of things changes over the years. What we once understood as cold, hard truth, can become nuanced, or even radically changed, as we get a little older. Perhaps there is something about simply living a few years more that gives us a certain kind of wisdom. A wisdom that knows that things are seldom as they first appear. That things are far more complicated and mysterious than we once thought, but even through the wilderness of this confusing complicated mystery called life – that there is a bedrock on which we can trust. That the ground where love, compassion and liberation is a real place. A place where we can plant our feet, and know we are on solid ground.
It is from this place that we can, no matter how crazy life gets, find order and meaning and purpose. It’s a faith paradox. The more confusing life gets, the more we can trust the holy ground upon which we stand.
Of course we need to know a lot about the ground upon which we stand, which involves, of course, understanding God, our faith tradition, our personal lives, as well as the world in which we live. God is faithful, constant and unchanging – faith is where our understanding of God meets us, and takes a walk through our life – calling out what needs to be called out, affirming that which needs affirming, and empowering us to go one more step along the way as we liberate self and world from all that would oppress life. It takes commitment on our part to let God and faith take a walk through our lives – and it takes a certain willingness to let our stories of God take life in us in new ways as we go.
For example: when I was a child, I loved the story of Moses and the burning bush. Informed by Charlton Heston’s depiction of him in that old Hollywood movie, and my beautiful Sunday school teacher, this story captured me. To my child’s mind God was all powerful and Moses was heroic and filled with deep reverence.
When I was in seminary, I heard it differently. I heard clearly the last part of the this passage from Exodus, the one where Moses was not wanting to be all heroic and reverent – where God was becoming exasperated, but still being faithful and still being God – because Moses was trying to wiggle out of the holy work of liberation God wanted him to do. Yet both as a seminary student and as a child, there was one constant in my understanding of this story – the ground was holy because that is where God was.
Which brings me to this past week, and how I heard the story. This past week, where I had just returned from holidays and was catching up on all of my work, where the world was on fire, both literally and figuratively – I simply let the Spirit speak to me through the story. I began to wonder if Moses could feel the heat of the fire of the burning bush. I wondered if the ground beneath Moses’ feet was hot – like the sand on the beach in summer – and how without shoes your feet burn. And I wondered, was the ground only holy because that is where God was? Or was it holy because that is where Moses and God were? That somehow, maybe, the ground was holy because of the human and the holy coming together in a call for liberation and freedom from oppression?
And then I wondered, what if holy ground is not found in the safety of our building – but found in the oppressive heat that comes from being asked to do something we have no personal desire to do, or even if we do desire it, don’t feel capable of doing it on any level? What if holy ground, as we have come to understand it, is not rock solid church practices, but burning sand that constantly shifts with the winds of time? What then? What if holy ground is more than we thought it was?
Truth is, when we take seriously our desire to stand in the presence of God – lay bare our hearts, our life and our world – the ground beneath our feet becomes holy. It is this kind of profound interaction that makes it holy. It is God, who is ever faithful showing up time and time again, to help us humans become more than we thought possible – more loving, more compassionate, more willing to step outside of our comfort zone – even if we don’t think we are capable of anything more than what we are currently managing to do. That is holy ground – this human and holy interaction. This is also what makes the ground hot and our feet burn. Holy ground is dynamic. Holy ground, when we feel it with our feet, makes us want to move.
Moses didn’t stay barefooted in the desert by a bush. He went and lived a life he could never have imagined. He was changed from the inside out – transformed. And because he was transformed, because he let his encounter with God change him – his people would know freedom. He dared to stand his holy ground even though his feet were burning.
We too need to stand our holy ground. But not in the way that phrase makes it sound. We are not on a battlefield where we plant our banner firmly into the ground in the face of the advancing army – and say, “we shall make our stand here – we shall retreat no further!” Thereby protecting what we have been comfortable in thinking and doing, where transformation as individuals and as a community of faith is not demanded of us. But rather, standing our holy ground means planting that banner in the bedrock of love, compassion and justice – where we reach out to one another in real ways, sharing the best parts of ourselves and our faith with all. Trusting that even if the ground is hot – God who is ever faithful – is with us.
This is what Jesus was trying to tell Peter in our story from Matthew. That the cross, as horrible an instrument of death as ever conceived by humans, that even that could be much more than it seems. Like the burning bush, the cross reveals God. The cross reveals the holy ground upon which we stand. The hot ground beneath our feet that says no matter the chaos of your life or your world – I am with you. No matter your self-doubts and your fears – I am with you. No matter the changing times, where nothing seems sure but decline and certain death – I am with you. So go. Do. Be. Transformation and new life await.
That is what the cross means.
The cross is not something we plant firmly in the ground so that all might see we are Christians. The cross is not a decoration, nor an artifact. The cross is dynamic. The cross is something we pick up and carry into every nook and cranny of our lives. The cross is not about telling the world who we are – it is about becoming the kind of person the world needs us to be. And it has the power to transform our lives from the inside out. To carry our own cross means that even if we don’t understand all that is happening around us, or inside of us, and all seems like chaos and death – God is there – and “there” is where God does God’s best work, because where God is, we are – and the ground beneath our feet is holy.
May it be so in your life and in mine.