Saugatuck Congregational Church, UCC
©Rev. Alison J. Buttrick Patton
September 3, 2017
Where to begin? Beloved members and friends of Saugatuck Church: It’s been two months since I worshipped with you in this sacred space. While I’ve been away on a soul-nurturing, spirit-filled sabbatical, you have no doubt been accumulating your own adventures. I pray that each of you has found time to rest and to play this summer. I know that some of you have also navigated health challenges, suffered loss, weathered personal storms. And then there’s the world around us, which has continued to turn. In the last month, we’ve seen a White Supremacist rally turn deadly in Charlottesville; and a category 4 hurricane devastate vast swaths of Texas and parts of Louisiana. On a brighter note, many of us joined the throngs of onlookers who grabbed cardboard glasses, cereal boxes and special telescope filters to view a dramatic solar eclipse earlier this month.
When have you caught your breath, this summer – in awe, or in horror? When have you had the wind knocked out of you, been left speechless, sobbed out of sheer wonder, or worry, or overwhelming rage? When have you been struck by the sheer scale – of a crowd, or the devastation or the cosmos? For me, it has happened over and over: I drove to the top of two different peaks that tower at or just below 14,000 feet. I marched in a crowd of peace-seeking counter protesters 40,000 strong in Boston. I lived on an island that is constantly changing shape, as an active volcano steams and bubbles and sends lava oozing across the landscape. (“That’s my home getting bigger,” said the Rev. Eric Anderson, my host and United Church of Christ pastor, as we watched lava pour into the sea). Each of these experiences has filled me with awe.
The Irish poet and theologian Padraig O Tuama (In the Shelter) says we don’t just read stories; they read us. Which is a way of saying that we bring our lives to the text. What we hear has everything to do with what we’re up to, where we are standing, where we have been, what is unfolding in our own lives when we encounter a tale.
So although I have read the story of Moses and the burning bush a thousand times, I read it differently in the wake of Charlottesville, and Hurricane Harvey, and my sabbatical trip to Hawaii. This story about a blazing bush and holy ground and a God outraged by and responsive to the people’s suffering – this story comes alive for me in ways that take my breath away. Perhaps it does so for you, too.
An angel of the Lord appeared to Moses in a blazing fire out of a bush…
“Here I am.”
“Don’t come any closer. Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.”
I learned to walk barefoot in Hawaii. Not that I had never gone without shoes before, but in Hawaii, it became a way of life. In the home of my cousin in Honolulu, in the parsonage in Hilo (on the Big Island), where I lived for most of a month, at the halau (or hula school) where I danced… I always removed my sandals before setting foot inside.
I confess it took some getting used to for this sock-loving New Englander. Walking barefoot makes me feel a little exposed, literally a bit more naked. At the same time, removing my shoes had a way of adding meaning to my coming and going. Always there was a pause at the threshold to remove sandals when I went in and to put them back on as I left. Always there was this reminder to treat with respect, even reverence, every space that I entered.
Walk around barefoot and you become acutely aware of the ground – textured kitchen tile, stray bits of sand, the puddle left by a melting ice cube I dropped near the fridge. And outside: hot white sand, hotter black sand, cool grass, protruding roots, skin-scraping lava rock. It’s harder to ignore the details of a landscape – its soft spots and sharp edges – when you are walking barefoot. You can learn a lot about a place through the soles of your feet.
I’d always assumed that God commanded Moses to remove his sandals as a sign of respect, the way we expect baseball players to remove their caps during the singing of the national anthem. And it’s true: walking barefoot does feel like an act of reverence. But having lived barefoot in Hawaii, I wonder whether it was also an invitation to get more intimate with the Divine. “Remove your shoes, Moses, and know me better! Step out onto this land that belongs to me, this ground that I have charged with my own life force; stand barefoot, so you might feel the earth breathe, the rocks vibrate, the sand blaze. Come, get to know me, the land I created and the people I love, through the soles of your feet.”
Imagine how hot that ground must have been, where Moses stepped, baked by the wilderness sun and by the perpetually burning bush. There’s a hike I took across fields of hardened black lava rock, where it’s best to keep an eye out for heat shimmers and rock the color of silver. That’s newborn rock, rock that has only just been formed by flowing lava, cool enough to harden, but still hot enough to melt the soles of your sneakers. Just on the other side of one of those masses of silver rock, we found molten lava, flowing like sunset-tinted honey over the ground. Imagine watching new land being formed, almost literally beneath your feet!
That steaming rock, still hot to the touch, reminded me that the land is alive with God’s creative Spirit. Hawaiians have always known this. Like Moses in the wilderness, they see something powerful, life-giving and mysterious in the fire: glimmers of the Divine. Hawaiians call her Pele, the volcano god. “Do not poke the lava or toast marshmallows over Pele” says a sign in Volcano National Park. Because that would be rude.
Take off your shoes. You are standing on holy ground.
Maybe God directed Moses to take off his shoes so that Moses would learn to recognize the feel of holy ground, the feel of land charged by the divine touch, not just off the beaten path on Mt. Horeb, but wherever Moses went. “I will be there,” God told Moses, as he sent him out on that life-changing mission. “I will be with you; that shall be your sign that it was I who sent you.”
Scholars have debated exactly what the sign is intended to be. The text is ambiguous. It could mean – my being with you will be the sign. Or that you will eventually return to this holy mountain to worship will be the sign; or the fact that I am sending you is the sign.
But here’s another possibility. Maybe, it’s the feel of the ground beneath Moses’ feet that will serve as a sign – like the shimmers of heat that rise from recently formed lava rock. Step on it, and surely you will feel the heat of God’s presence. Surely you will recognize the sheer force and wonder of the one God; surely you will realize that you are not alone.
Stand on this holy ground, Moses…
Lay your hand on the pavement in Charlottesville, and feel the heat of outrage by those courageous enough to stand up in the face of bigotry.
Put your ear to the ground in Boston, listen for the hum of freedom songs being sung by 40,000 voices; feel the tremors caused by 40,000 pairs of feet walking away from hate speech and toward their many-colored sisters and brothers.
Wade through the flood waters in Houston, and watch the ripples caused by thousands of people who have turned out to help folks get to higher ground.
Yes, the ground around that bush in the wilderness must have been hot to the touch. But it’s not the only hot spot. Not by a long shot. Because the Spirit of God that blazed in that bush continues to ignite in response to human suffering, and God continues to call and send emissaries to confront Pharaoh and free the captives – emissaries like us.
Beloved in Christ: this is how I read the story of Moses today; how it reads me. I hear God urging us to be on the lookout for hot spots, to take off our shoes and peel off our socks, the better to feel the ground reverberating beneath our feet, the better to feel the soft spots and the sharp edges, to get in tune with the suffering of those who set God’s heart ablaze with grief or outrage, love, and compassion.
When standing on those hot spots threatens to leave you breathless; when you are overcome by the sheer magnitude of human suffering, in the guise of racism or climate change… hate speech or hurtful silence… large scale destruction of homes or of hopes…
When that happens, then do this: pause and step off the trail: take off your shoes, feel the ground beneath your feet, and remember that God’s hunger for justice is more fierce than primordial fire; God’s love more expansive than the cosmos; God’s devotion more enduring than the mountains. Beloved, be swept up in that promise; shed your shoes; let God take your breath away, trust that we are in good hands, powerful hands; then breathe deeply again, because like Moses, we have work to do: liberating, heart-healing, hate-dismissing, community rebuilding, holy, holy work to do. With the help of the great I-am, we can do this, one barefoot step at a time.
Thanks be to God. Amen.