The Search for the Sacred: Sacred Places
The Search for the Sacred: Sacred Places
July 23, 2017
So, this week, I am going to challenge you to do something. I want you to stand up. Seriously…stand up! I want you to look around the sanctuary for a minute. Ask yourself a question, “Where is the last place that I would ever sit for worship?” Some of you are always toward the front. This morning, I want you to go to the back and find your new spot. Some of you are always in the back, come on up! Find a seat! Sit in the choir’s pews if you dare! Are you always a left side person? Come on over to the right! Are you a righty? Well, you’re a lefty now. You have two minutes to find your new seat!
Now, if you’ve been coming here for a while, it is at least a little irritating to find out that you don’t get your spot this morning, isn’t it? There’s some little voice in the back of your head that’s pointing at me and saying, “What got into him?” No one ever declared it your spot. (Interestingly, if you go into the old churches out East, you will see that they actually used to sell preferred pews, long before United Airlines thought of Economy Plus!) At a rational level, it doesn’t seem like it should matter that much but it does!
Just so you know, on Thursday nights at centering prayer, the one time when I’m not in front, I totally have my spot—over near the windows, just under the speaker. Even though we are a relatively small group, every other person who comes has their spot, too. We settle into our spots and somehow being in that spot is a part of what allows us to find the peace that we need to immerse ourselves in 45 minutes of silence. If you sit in my spot…well…
I remember one Sunday when we were having our “Hanging of the Greens” service. Laverne Wesselhoeft always sat in the same spot—back pew, on the aisle, on my left. For years, I would make a funny face at her as I walked out at the end of worship and she would make one back at me. That particular Sunday, though, nothing was funny to Laverne. The wife of the bagpiper had come to the service. She made the near fatal mistake of sitting in Laverne’s spot. As soon as Laverne saw this intruder in her spot, she, in no uncertain terms, informed this woman that she had ten seconds to find another spot! So much for hospitality…
The truth is that it is not just in church the we are territorial. This evening at dinner, try sitting in some other family member’s spot. They may not be quite as aggressive as dear, sweet Laverne but they will let you know that you have made a mistake. Sit where you are not supposed to sit in the car. When everyone is in the living room, sit in the wrong spot.
If you’re married, this might be the most explosive choice of all: try sleeping on your partner’s side. In horror movies, every now and then someone gets challenged to make it a whole night in the haunted house. In marriage, I challenge you to make it through the whole night after you’ve switched sides in bed. It’s just icky and wrong and awful and awkward. You might make it for a while but I swear at about 3:00 in the morning you will wake up your partner and plead with him or her to go back to the old sides.
The thing that makes us really complicated is not just that we are territorial and like to be where we are used to being. Beyond that, we also have places in our lives that are not only familiar but are sacred. Something has happened before in this place that made this place holy. That something may have happened to me. That something may have happened long before me. Or, the place may be so beautiful and powerful that it might well happen for anyone who found themselves there. (I am thinking of the redwoods at Muir Woods and the way that everyone—old or young—of every background just understands that the only thing to do in the presence of those awesome trees is to sink into quiet reverence.) Places become sacred and remain so, whether we ever make our way back to that place again or not.
In our text for this morning, we find Moses in a place that is absolutely ordinary—a barren spot in the wilderness where he can allow his sheep to graze. All of a sudden something extraordinary happens—a bush is burning, but it is not burning up. Moses, to his credit, is paying enough attention to notice. We all would have to wonder how many extraordinary moments we have missed when we are walking along through the ordinary and are paying no attention at all. I wonder, did God maybe set a dozen or two burning bushes on fire before Moses noticed or was Moses just having a very good, attentive day?
Extraordinary things do happen. I remember when we were playing basketball and an eagle flew overhead and dropped a beautiful walleye right in the middle of the court—at which point my friend’s Lab threw himself on the ground and rolled around on the dead fish. (You do have to love Labs!) I remember when I was swimming along in the ocean and suddenly realized that a dolphin was swimming with me. I remember when I settled in to watch the stars when I was camping and a third of the sky lit up with the northern lights for most of the rest of the night. You don’t forget those things, not if you’re paying enough attention to notice them.
Moses is paying attention. At this point, he’s just an ordinary guy who is actually on the run from the Egyptian authorities because he killed an Egyptian who was tormenting an Israelite. So, it had to be a surprise when, from out of that burning bush, he hears a voice calling his name: “Moses! Moses!” He doesn’t say, “What the heck?” He doesn’t say, “Who’s asking?” He doesn’t run and hide. Instead, he answers, “Here I am.” Even though he can’t make sense of the moment, he declares himself to be present. Instead of checking out, he checks in.
If we are honest, we’ll admit that that’s not all that easy to do. Theoretically, we might be more than a little interested in something extraordinary—but just give me a heads up, God, just give me a little time to prepare. Most of the time, most of us probably couldn’t be bothered because we have other, really important stuff to do. Something extraordinary happens. Moses notices. When he realizes that this experience has his name on it, he declares himself all in: “Here I am!”
Then, the voice says the most interesting thing: “Come no closer! Take your shoes off, son! You are standing on holy ground!” This is not a moment for scrutiny or explanations or explorations. This is a moment for reverence. In that ancient world, no one wore their shoes into a house because those shoes were soiled. It’s possible that this is why Moses was supposed to take his shoes off, too. Yet, I have always wondered if the reason he wouldn’t want his shoes on when he was standing on that holy ground is really because he wouldn’t want anything to come between him and God. After all, we connect to the earth and are grounded in such a more intimate way when we walk barefoot. Maybe God was really inviting Moses to sink his toes into God’s presence?
Ultimately, God introduces himself to Moses: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” Moses is standing in God’s presence. Moses is listening to God’s voice. Moses is learning God’s name. And all of this, in the end, is simply overwhelming. Moses says nothing. He just hides his face because he is afraid to look at God.
In the end, in this sacred place, God gives Moses his calling. God tells Moses about the distress of the slaves in Egypt. God tells Moses that there is a job that he needs to do. He’s going to go to the most powerful person in the world, the one who oppresses those slaves, and tell him that the “jig is up.” (At which point, in that little voice in the back of his head, Moses finally uttered the words we’ve been waiting for, “What the heck?)
In a few moments, Moses moves from being in the middle of nowhere to being on a mission from God. Some sacred places are nothing until something extraordinary happens, until God’s presence breaks through, and then that place and the person who stands in that place are never the same again. Moses must have expected that this was going to be his one extraordinary wilderness experience of God’s presence in his life. Little did he know that almost all of the rest of his life would be lived in such places, being led and fed and guided and chastised by God as he did everything he could to lead these slaves into the Promised Land.
That’s the thing… Most of the sacred places in our lives aren’t all that noteworthy until they become the place where everything changed. Think about your bedroom as a child. It probably was pretty ordinary, right…but it was the place where you grew and changed and were never the same again. It became a place of power. Think about your first apartment when you were married. It was probably a bit of a dump right? Yet, it is where it all began. It is a sacred place that you carry in your heart. Think about the room at the hospital where your child was born. Just another hospital room right…until your heart exploded with love. Think about the special places that you return to every year: that one chair on the porch where you vacation; that floating dock out in the lake which seems to get farther away every year; the shade of that white pine which seems to grow a little bigger each time you return to its shadow.
We need to make room for the sacred spaces in our lives, the places where we remember who we’ve been and who we are, the places where wonder overwhelms us, the places where we begin to hear whispers of our next calling, the places where we dare, for a moment, to believe that it is God who is doing the whispering. We need to return to the sacred places. We need to be open to ordinary places which might become our sacred places, today. We need to walk gently, knowing that we are in God’s presence, and paying attention with every step.