Holy Ground on a State Road
It was the summer of 1993. I was twenty-one years old and in that liminal time in the summer before my senior year of college at Manchester. And I remember that August evening like it was yesterday, the night I experienced the holy in the ordinary and still get shivers. The night I felt, if just for a moment, as if the present held all of eternity. The night I felt that I should get out of my Honda civic and lay my Birkenstocks aside at the wonder I saw around me. It was on State Road 114 between here and North Manchester.
I was, at the time, renting a small house across from a noisy book bindery. I was commuting two hours round trip into Fort Wayne early in the mornings and again early in the evenings to work in a day care center. And the job, caring for eight infants, while, delightful was also exhausting. I had been battling with a low grade sinus infection all summer and was due to have sinus surgery. I was pondering breaking up with my boyfriend of four-years. And on that ordinary summer night I turned from my work toward home with NPR as my companion.
I want to state again that weatherwise there was really nothing remarkable about that evening. There was nothing different about my routine. But I was aware, as I graduated from I-69, to 24, to 114 that my shoulders were loosening from their customary location around my earlobes, and my breathing was steadying and deepening, and that furrow between my eyes was becoming a little less pronounced.
There was nothing different about that day. I promise. But I slowly realized as I was driving my customary route that the grass seemed greener, and the pinkish-blue of the sunset looked as if it were painted by Maxfield Parrish’s brush. The barns were so red, and even the yellow lines on the road seemed more vivid. I simply could not believe the beauty around me, the literal breath-taking beauty of a little road in Northern Indiana at sunset. I began to weep softly as I stared around me in wonder, and then I realized that I was sobbing, the kind of piercing sobs which make your face blotchy and cause your mascara to run. But I wasn’t sad. I was simply overwhelmed. Overcome with the beauty of the moment. I had not sought this. I had not anticipated it. I had instead stumbled into a sense of wonder, ushered into the presence of the holy in the ordinary. Experiencing my own mini-epiphany, a “take off your shoes” moment.
The story is told in Exodus 3:1-6 of a common man, a man who while keeping to the routine of his everyday life, while tending his flock of sheep, meanders into his own holy moment. The Moses in this story is not the Moses who leads his people to the promised land. He is not the one who parts the waters and talks with God on the mountain. The Moses who speaks in these verses is not the one with the big Charlton Heston booming voice. Instead, the Moses here is Moses the son-in-law, Moses the shepherd. Moses the guy next door. Moses was meant for great things, but at this point in Exodus, the great things have not even begun to happen yet. Moses in this story had not yet received “the call.” It is important for us to remember this.
As Moses wandered up and down those worn paths through the wilderness in Midian he stumbled upon an angel who appeared to him a flame of fire in a bush, and the text says, the bush was not consumed. This bush interrupts Moses’ work. It isn’t something Moses was searching for. And yet, Moses was open to this wonder in his midst. He responded, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why this bush is not burned up.” Something about this bush was so fascinating, perhaps sacred, perhaps beautiful, that Moses had to make the choice to stop and investigate. And when God saw that Moses had paused, God called Moses by name. In that liminal holy space, which Moses probably had no words to describe, God called.
Out of the fire God called, “Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”
I can almost picture in my mind’s eye this young man, awkwardly unwrapping the straps of his sandals, first one foot, and then the other, filled with wonder at this mystery set before him. God was revealed as the God of Moses’ forebearers, the God of Abraham, and therefore Sarah. The God of Isaac, and therefore Rebekah. The God of Jacob, and therefore Rachel and Leah. And Moses did what was customary in those times, Moses hid his face. In a culture where God’s name was so holy that it was not even to be uttered, the thought of actually seeing God face to face must have been mind-blowing, surely one might die, the Israelites believed. And so Moses did what was proper. And in his act, he acknowledged formally that he had been ushered into the holy, that this was the real thing. In the midst of his ordinary tasks, in the midst of the mundane details of life this revelation was opened to him. It was in the not-looking, in the not-expecting, that he saw, that he was found.
I consider this phenomena a lot, because I am paid by the church to try and usher all of you into holy places. It is my job to take off my shoes. I went to college and then seminary for this. So, shouldn’t it just fall into my lap? Shouldn’t the burning bushes just blaze all around me? And yet, I have a secret to tell you, those of us with M.Div. behind our name are no more equipped to stalk the divine than a common shepherd. And the times when I have tried to seek the mystery the most, the times when I have ardently demanded God’s presence are the moments when my relationship with God seems the most distant and elusive. Not always, certainly not always, but often enough. And so in my own life I have found that it is in letting go of the search, in simply pausing to open myself to the divine, that the sacred creeps in on tiny kitten-like paws. In the everyday tasting, seeing, listening, in the routine and commonplace all of a sudden I have been pounced on by the divine, sort of like Moses just watching the sheep in Midian. Sort of like a college coed just driving down a road in North Manchester.
The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber has a name for this kind of holy encounter, the encounter where one realizes there is something more in an instant, something deeper in an event. He calls it the “I-Thou” encounter, an encounter which is outside the realm of details and physical realities but instead enters a realm of deep relationship and holiness.
In the novel, The Color Purple, by Alice Walker, a novel which takes place in the deep south before the civil rights movement, there is a perfect I-Thou encounter, a burning bush moment which I think names well some of what it means to meet the holy. In the book Shug, a former lounge singer, is recovering from a long illness and she explains to Celie, a woman horribly emotionally damaged by an abusive spouse, her theology. Shug says, “here’s the thing. The thing I believe. Sometimes God just manifest itself even if you not looking, or don’t know what you looking for. I believe God is everything. Everything that is or ever was or ever will be. And when you can feel that you’ve found It.” She continues, “My first step away from the old white man was trees. Then air. Then birds. Then other people. But one day when I was sitting quiet and feeling like a motherless child, which I was, it come to me: that feeling of being a part of everything, not separate at all…And I laughed and I cried…”
Shug had taken off her shoes after recognizing the holy. She hadn’t necessarily sought out this connection, she just happened upon it. In the presence of the mystery, her laughter and tears brought her to a sacred place. A shoe-removing place.
My hope for each of us this morning is that we may stumble across the holy around us. My hope is that we can welcome its presence even when we don’t expect it, and are even inconvenienced by it. My hope is that we, like Moses and Shug, can allow ourselves to be still to recognize the burning bushes in our own lives. And that we can pause wherever we are, whether it be Mount Horeb, or the deep south, state road 114, or in a sanctuary at Peace UCC, and that we can each take off our shoes.