Sermon Sept 3 2023, Ex 3:1-15 Holy Ground                        Rev. Betsy Hogan

Have you ever experienced a beautiful transcendent moment? I hope you have. I hope it’s just broken in out of nowhere. Overwhelmed your spirit with its loveliness, with its holiness, fall on your knees or just breathe it in.

I was reminded of one of mine recently, in reading a book – a sort of memoir – that happened to have been written by the mother of one of my kid’s friends. Because in it she mentioned an experience that all of us shared. 

It was just an elementary school concert. It happened at Bethany United Church. And I wouldn’t say I didn’t want to be there – there’s pretty much nothing cuter in the entire world than an elementary school concert – 

But I have a strong suspicion that by the time I actually GOT there – with everyone fed an early supper and wrestled into their proper clothes and rolling down the hill to Bethany– I was probably not at my most relaxed and open to the glory of it all. 

And yet. Little boy in grade four. Son of aforementioned mother who wrote the book. 

The music teacher said to us that this little one had come to him, that he’d learned a song, that he’d asked if the school choir could sing it. And I should have known this song – as a Montrealer this song should have somehow implanted itself into my DNA – but for whatever reason I did NOT know this song, and the first time I ever heard it was that evening at Bethany. When the one little boy sang the verses as a solo and the whole great mass of the rest of the kids joined in on the chorus…

Singing “Hallelujah”. It was Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”. Which I know, technically, it’s about David and Bathsheba, it’s totally “adult content”, blah blah blah – whatever.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything as beautiful, as transcendent, as perfect and holy, as those kids all joining in the chorus, singing the hallelujahs. 

I can still feel how it felt. But it wasn’t just overwhelmed and overcome by the beauty of it, the transcendence of it, the sense of goodness and Godness and holiness of it –

It made me want to be better. It made me want to be more -- more loving, more kind, more compassionate. It felt like being lifted up to where there was moreness. Betterness. Closerness to Godness.

I’d have to leave it to my children to assess whether they noticed any immediate transformation in my overall demeanour as we trudged back up Chebucto after the concert was over – but that’s the experience I think of when I think about “standing on holy ground”. 

Which is of course why I’m rattling on about all this. Because at the heart of the story of Moses and the Burning Bush that we heard just now is God’s noting to Moses that the place where he’s standing is holy ground.

It’s a resonant and evocative concept for us. As a whole human family. It speaks differently in different cultures, differently even in different eras. In the Jewish and Christian and Muslim traditions, our human origin story begins with literally being made from the earth, from clay, from mud, from the ground. For indigenous peoples here and around the globe, for the ancient Celts, the ground itself is an incarnation of Godness. 

And even as we’ve intellectualized, secularized, visited upon our global culture the effects of the scientific Enlightenment, we still have a sense of emotional and embodied connection to the land – to the ground -- where we’re from. 

I’ll never forget, when David and I drove across the country from BC in 1993 – mountains, prairies, Canadian Shield – and then suddenly it was the St. Lawrence River Valley and I felt like “now I’m home”. I’d never even registered that that’s what home felt like. But it did.

We’re connected to the ground. There’s emotional content in that relationship that defies all our attempts at intellectualizing and secularizing. 

And it means that the concept of HOLY ground remains deeply resonant and evocative. We know what holy ground is. When I was making up the slides for this morning, we know what our holy ground is here. It’s our cemeteries, it’s our Swissair monument 25 years later. It’s Africville, it’s Richmond, it’s the footprints of Great War soldiers taking their last steps, it’s Tantallon burned. 

But it’s not only these. I walk on the waterfront a lot, and I think that blue wave is holy ground for a whole lot of people, enchanting and beckoning and anarchic. And when I started googling around for images of “holy ground” what I discovered very quickly is that none other than Taylor Swift has a song called “holy ground”. 

Which is a delight. Though I’d warn you before you listen to it that it’ll get in your head and not leave, which might be a problem – but she uses that imagery to convey the sense of a place becoming holy because of the content that fills it.

Which is very biblical. It’s kind of funny in a way that our story this morning starts with Moses tending his father-in-law Jethro’s sheep “beyond the wilderness at Mount Horeb which is the mountain of God” – because in fact it doesn’t START being called “Mount Horeb which is the mountain of God” until this whole interaction happens. 

It’s God turning up in a burning bush that somehow burns without being consumed, and then calling to Moses OUT of that burning bush to go lead God’s people Israel out of slavery and into freedom, that’s what results in Mount Horeb being called the mountain of God. 

At the beginning of the story it’s just an ordinary mountain. And Moses is up there doing an ordinary thing. He’s tending some sheep.

Which to be honest, is probably a bit of a relief for him. The boringness and the ordinariness of it all. Because Moses, as it happens, has only just gotten back to the home of his father-in-law Jethro, sort of vaguely hiding out from the authorities – because he’s actually been on the run because he killed someone.

I mean, it was someone doing a very wrong thing – it was an Egyptian guard assaulting and beating an Israelite slave –

But still. Moses killed the man and had to go on the run, and he’s vaguely hiding out, and I would guess that probably being up on that mountain just tending a flock of sheep was a pretty huge relief for him. After all that drama. Nice and quiet and peaceful.

And then a nearby bush bursts into flame. And a voice roars out of it. And the people are suffering. And the people need a leader. And this simply can’t go on. And something has to be done. And the people need a leader to save them, to make things right. And Moses, says the voice, it’s you.

I want to pause the story, right there. And I’ll tell you why. It’s not because I don’t believe that any of us could be Moses. It’s because it’s really really hard not to be. And that’s what struck me full force when I started reading this passage after this summer that we’ve had. 

It’s really really hard not to be Moses. Because to see, to know, that the people are suffering and this simply can’t go on and something has be done -- honestly, it’s hard not to envy Moses. it’d be a pleasure to be Moses. It’d be a relief to be Moses.

I can’t remember if it was after the fires in Shelburne and Tantallon, or if it was after the catastrophic flooding in Bedford and Sackville that I first saw a photo of one of those Nova Scotia Strong stickers with “strong” crossed out and “enough already” written over top in crayon. 

Because seriously – the fires, the floods, people started making jokes about locusts but honestly, over top of it all, the tents, the tents, the tents. I can’t tell you the amount of biblical commentary I read this week, the number of sermons I read this week, all about how hard it would be, what a challenge it would be, to be called by God as Moses is called by God, to be Moses. 

But honestly, I think it’s more challenging NOT to be. To see it all, and feel powerless to change it. And keep on keeping on. Onward, against despair, as our Clerk of Session, Chief Elder, is wont to say.

But if that’s the call God’s really extending right now to most of us, if that’s the space made for us and the role in life unfolding that most of us are made for – and I think it is – what I find it makes me circle back to in this passage from Exodus is just that little reminder, in the midst of the whole epic Burning Bush story.

It’s almost like an aside. Like “Oh,” God says to Moses, “Before I get to anything else… the place where you’re standing is holy ground.”

I’ve been trying to focus on that. Because I think it might be a gift. In the really hard work of keeping on keeping on. 

To think about the place where we are, at any given time, as holy ground. With resonant, evocative, emotional content. This is holy ground. It holds goodness and Godness. It holds beauty and the presence of the Spirit – and these are there to lift us and fill us and make us want to be better. More. More loving, more compassionate, closer to Godness.

Because that matters. It can be difficult for those of us who yearn with desperation for justice and righteousness writ large, who haven’t quite figured out how the social gospel is still meant to happen without benefit of Christendom –

But it matters. For us to simply look down and pause long enough to remind us that right here where we are, at any given time, is holy ground. Blessed and full. Sacred and strengthening. Ready to fill us up. Sometimes just with enough deep sense that we’re not alone that we can keep on keeping on, trusting that God is good, that love abides. 

And sometimes, when we’re very lucky, with what it feels like to hear a whole choir of children singing “Hallelujah”.

Thanks be to God, who knows how much we need such moments. Amen.