God said, “Don’t come any closer. Remove your sandals from your feet. You’re standing on holy ground.”
-from Exodus 3
“Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.”
― Elizabeth Barrett Browning
What separates you, Friends, from experiencing God’s presence? What kind of God do you find, when you remove the barriers between the Spirit and your soul?
Keep those questions in mind. Before we jump straight into today’s topic, though, let me get you caught up. Last week, we camped overnight on the edge of the River Jabbok as Jacob wrestled all night with an angel.
A lot has happened over the past week. I can’t tell you all those stories in one sermon, but to sum it up: Jacob and his family escape a famine by heading to Egypt, where bread abounds. This works well for a generation, and the book of Genesis ends with a feeling of security.
It also ends with a promise, though, that eventually God would notice them and take them back to the Promised Land. It seems a little out of place here in Genesis, when the Hebrew people have everything that they need.
Turn the page to Exodus, though, and the story shifts from security to slavery. The book of Exodus opens with fear. Since the story begins with the enslavement of the Hebrew people, you might expect that the fear would be theirs. It’s not, though; it’s Pharaoh and the Egyptian people who are described as being afraid of the defenseless Hebrews among them.
Which isn’t so surprising, when you think about it, right? It’s always the oppressors who feel the most afraid.
While the focus eventually turns to the well-known stories of Moses, the overture belongs to four courageous women. Pharaoh attempts to commit genocide through infanticide, mandating that the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, murder every infant boy. The midwives fear God rather than the Pharaoh, though, so they let the boys live.
When Pharaoh himself questions their track record, Shiphrah and Puah straight-out lie. They say that Hebrew women are so tough that they don’t even really need midwives, so the babies were already born when they arrived. Shiphrah and Puah aren’t misled, when Pharaoh demands their fear.
Jochebed is the third woman highlighted. She bears a son, names him Moses, and hides him in her home for three months. The child then too large and loud to hide, she weaves and waterproofs a wicker basket and sends him sailing down the Nile with his sister to supervise. Jochebed defies Pharaoh’s orders, risking her own safety to keep her son alive.
The fourth woman highlighted doesn’t get a name, but she’s arguably the most powerful of the four. She’s Pharaoh’s daughter, the woman who pulls Moses’ basket out of the river, who chooses to keep this Hebrew boy who should have died, who adopts Moses and raises him as her own.
In a sense, Moses has four mothers. Moses is allowed into the world by Shiphrah and Puah, spends his infancy with Jochebed, and grows up in the palace as a son of the daughter of the most powerful dynasty on earth. Here are four women who, given something to fear, chose compassion instead.
As an adult, though, Moses has to make his own choices. He came upon an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave, one of his kinsmen. He turned this way and that and, seeing no one about, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. Moses rejects the lack of compassion that made Pharaoh’s success possible. He, admirably, does not want to be part of that regime.
But buried things don’t stay hidden, and blood cries from the ground, and Egypt is no longer a welcoming home for Moses. Hounded by a murder charge, Moses runs fearful into the desert: a fugitive from the two families that he has known. In the land of Midian, he finds a new home complete with a pretty girl to marry and a flock of sheep to look after.
By rights, that should be the story- a man lost between two worlds finds a lasting home in another land. If that were a movie, I’d watch it. This divine author, though, doesn’t leave Moses in his new home forever.
Moses is out tending the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, when we find him today. He knows the sheep. He knows the hills. Nothing is out of the ordinary.
But then there’s an odd glimmer, probably just sunlight dancing on some mica. But also, maybe a little more heat than you expected? Does it look a little bit like someone has set up a campfire just over that hill?
Somebody has, indeed: the presence of Almighty God, waiting there for Moses.
Moses said, I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn’t the bush burn up?” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to look, God called to him out of the bush.
Friends, when you read or hear a passage of Scripture, what questions do you ask it? They’re just words on a page, you know, until you start a conversation. If a friend told you a story, you’d ask for details, maybe connect the experience with something else in her life, maybe find out more about one of the characters. You’d ask your friends some questions, to gain a deeper understanding of the story.
Bible stories work the same way. You have to prod them a bit to get them talking.
Here are the two questions that I’m using this morning. One: what does this story tell us about God? Two: what does this story tell us about us?
So, what does it tell us about God?
A few things stand out to me. First, do you remember the promise that the people had, when they were left in Egypt? God will surely take notice of you and bring you up from this land to the land that He promised on oath to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
When you’ve got your feet up and you’re feasting on the best that Egypt’s royal dynasty has to offer, you can safely shrug at that promise. Why would you want to leave? But when the tables have turned and you realize that Egypt is a trap and you’re staggering with your friends out to the brickfields, this promise that God will surely take notice of you sounds a little different. It sounds like salvation, perhaps, for God to see your troubles.
When we ask what this story tells us about God, one thing it reminds us is that God would no sooner ignore the cries of hurting people than any parent would look coldly on a hurting child. We worship a compassionate God. Even if no one else sees your pain, even if you keep it hidden away… when you cry out, you have the ear and the heart of God.
Another thing the story tells us, when we ask it about God, is that God is faithful. You’d be forgiven, I think, if you were in Moses’ shoes and weren’t expecting much from this God. What’s he done for you lately, anyhow? But the people weren’t left with an empty promise. This is a God who comes through.
And that’s great, but okay, here’s a third and more intimidating thing that this story tells us, when we ask it about God: God does not give a rip about our excuses.
I mean, look how hard Moses tries to get out of this! You’d think that faced with the raw presence of God, Moses would show a little deference, but instead he’s all arguments and rationales. Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?, he asks. And how can I go if I don’t know your name? And what if they don’t believe me? And I don’t know if you noticed but I am not a man of words.
I’m not sure how one would notice that, to be honest, since he’s using his words to argue with a lit-up bush containing the holy presence of God and doesn’t seem to be struggling much with that. The prophet doth protest too much, methinks.
At any rate, God is more or less patient with Moses and yet absolutely adamant. God meets Moses where he is, and then insists that he be elsewhere. Yes, I’m choosing you. Yes, I’ll be with you. Yes, go pack your blessed bags and head for Egypt.
God hears our grief. God fulfills God’s end of the bargain. And God will, one way or another, get us to fulfill ours.
That’s what this story tells me, when I ask it who God is. If it tells you something else, I’d be curious to hear about it. Let me move on, though, and ask the second question: what does this story tell us about us?
Because maybe you’re not a Moses. Maybe you’re not the Prince of Egypt, chased off in exile, divinely and directly summoned to lead the people. Maybe it’s not your call to look ultimate power in the eyes and say let my people go!
I can tell you this for sure, though- you are called to keep watch.
Look. Moses knew this ground, the way a farmer knows a field or a pasture. He’d walked back and forth across it, for years, with endless flocks of sheep. He knew the trees. He knew the rocks. He knew the snakes. He knew the bushes.
And yet, Moses is still willing to be surprised. Listen to the interplay here between God appearing and Moses looking:
An angel of the Lord appeared to [Moses] in a blazing fire out of a bush. Ok, so God is visibly present. [Moses] gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed. So Moses notices the bush, but that’s not enough: Moses decides to investigate further. Moses said, “I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn’t the bush burn up?”
Moses, in the midst of his work-a-day routine, is willing to be thrown off course. Seeing something that he doesn’t understand, he moves closer to investigate. This is, honestly, remarkable behavior. I mean, really, there are sheep to tend, and does Moses have time for all this nonsense? I don’t know that I would have looked.
This is the moment, though, in which Moses is called: when the Lord saw that [Moses] had turned aside to look. It wasn’t when he was miraculously saved as a baby. It wasn’t when he killed an oppressor and buried the body in the sand. It was here, when he saw something numinous and wanted to know more.
I think you have to wonder, Friends, if this is really the first time that God has appeared to Moses. What if Moses spent forty years in the land of Midian with God calling at every turn, and it’s only in this story that Moses notices? And then I think you have to wonder, Friends, how often we stare at our shoes as we walk, and how many burning bushes we miss because we aren’t paying attention.
The story suggests to me that we are called, perhaps, to cultivate a spiritual discipline of being willing to turn aside and look.
The story also tells me this: we are called to take off our sandals.
When the Lord saw that [Moses] had turned aside to look, God called to him out of the bush: Moses! Moses! [Moses] answered, “Here I am.” And [God] said, “Do not come closer. Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.”
It’s easy to read that in a way that’s very specific to that particular ground, that the ground for a certain radius around this bush was charged with beauty and power because God was appearing in the bush and respect should be shown so take of your sandals.
Let me tell you a secret, though: the wooden planks on which your feet are resting are holy ground. The linoleum on your kitchen floor is holy ground. When you drive your car to work, your tires run on holy ground. The space underneath your desk at school is holy ground. The bit of floor under your table, when you’re sharing dinner with a friend, is holy ground. The bathroom floor, when you face yourself in the mirror alone: that’s holy ground.
Did you think that God was not present there, just as present as to Moses in the bush? God is everywhere, so everywhere you walk is just as holy as the ground that surrounded Moses’ bush. Of course it’s not practical, physically speaking, to go barefoot all the time. So, what can you do to sanctify that space, to deem and respect it all as holy?
I can’t answer that question for you, concretely, so let me just suggest this: Moses’ sandals are the things that are protecting him from the ground. I’ve often read Moses taking off his sandals as a sign of respect, that he’s acting like an Egyptian priest would in a temple. Perhaps that’s true, but I’d hate for you to think of this as a fearful thing. Think of it, instead, as a compassionate invitation.
Remove the barriers, Moses. I’m here, in this sand, and it’s safe. Take off your sandals and feel this space for what it truly is. Don’t try to separate yourself from what is holy.
It’s in those sacred moments in our kitchens or our conference rooms or our classrooms or our sales floors when we take off our sandals – when we recognize that the ground we’re standing on is holy, and choose to trust it – that we hear what it is we are called to do.
So, when I ask this story of Moses and the burning bush about who we are, this is what I hear in response: We are called to keep watch for God to appear. We are to treat this ground we walk on as holy. Here’s the third thing I hear: we are not alone.
This promise, really, is the only reassurance that Moses gets. He says, Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and gets not a list of qualifications but a promise: I will be with you. I will be with you. I will not leave you alone.
This is the presence, Friends, the holy grounding that lets Moses move out of fear and into courage and compassion- out of Midian, and back into Egypt.
So, that’s what I hear when I read this story. There’s a God who is compassionate, who cares when people are hurting. There’s a God who promises that all manner of things will be well, and follows through. There’s a God who calls us to the work, if we’ll listen, and doesn’t let us out of it.
And then there’s a person much like you and me. There’s a person who has to make a conscious effort to watch for God’s appearance. There’s a person who must understand that the ground under their feet is holy. There’s a person who will not be abandoned, who will not be left alone.
That’s the story, Friends, in which salvation is found.
But what about you? What do you hear? What separates you, Friends, from experiencing God’s presence? What kind of God do you find, when you remove the barriers between the Spirit and your soul?