Psalm 67; Matthew 13:16-17
The Rev. Tom Herbek
November 25, 2018
In Exodus, Moses sees a burning bush that just keeps burning without being burned up. This is not something we see every day. And then Moses hears God speak directly to him, another thing we may not hear every day. God tells Moses to take off his shoes because he is standing on holy ground. I always thought this meant that we take off our shoes so we don’t defile the holy. But the rabbis interpret this differently. Without his shoes on, Moses can’t feel the ground, and in his bare feet, he can feel the holiness seeping up in him. Perhaps whenever we take our shoes off, either literally or figuratively, we then can feel that the ground where we stand is holy.
Frederick Buechner, a novelist and theologian, defines the holy in this way:
Times, places, things, and people can all be holy, and when they are, they are usually not hard to recognize.
One holy place I know is a workshop attached to a barn. There is a wood-burning stove in it made out of an oil drum. There is a workbench, dark and dented, with shallow, crammed drawers behind one of which a cat lives.
There is a calendar on the wall, plus various lengths of chain and rope, shovels and rakes of different sizes and shapes, some worn-out jackets and caps on pegs, an electric clock that doesn’t keep time.
On the workbench are two small plug-in radios both of which have serious things wrong with them. There are several metal boxes full of wrenches, and a bench saw. There are a couple of chairs with rungs missing. There is an old yellow bulldozer with its tracks caked with mud parked against one wall.
The place smells mainly of engine oil and smoke- both wood smoke and pipe smoke. The windows are small, and even on bright days what light there is comes through mainly in window-sized patches on the floor.
I have no idea why this place is holy, but you can tell it is the moment you set foot in it if you have an eye for that kind of thing. For reasons known only to God, it is one of the places he uses for sending his love to the world through.
We are surrounded by holy places, but we may be the only ones who see it. Holy places like a workshop may not be seen or known by anyone else. For many, this sanctuary we are in this morning has been a holy place. But sanctuaries, holy places, may not be limited to churches or religious structures. Parker Palmer describes his need to seek sanctuary:
When I was a kid, “sanctuary” meant only one thing. It was the big room with the stained glass windows and hard wooden benches where my family worshipped every Sunday. Church attendance was not optional in my family, so that sanctuary was where I learned to pray- to pray that the service would end and God would let my people go. I also learned that not all prayers are answered, no matter how ardent.
Today– after eight decades of life in a world that’s both astonishingly beautiful and horrifically cruel- “sanctuary” is as vital as breathing to me. Sometimes I find it in churches, monasteries, and other sites formally designated “’sacred.” But more often I find it in places sacred to my soul: in the natural world, in the company of a faithful friend, in solitary or shared silence, in the ambience of a good poem or good music.
Sanctuary is wherever I find safe space to regain my, bearings, reclaim my soul, heal my wounds, and return to the world as a wounded healer. It’s not merely about finding shelter from the storm- it’s about spiritual survival and the capacity to carry on. Today, seeking sanctuary is no more optional for me than church attendance was as a child.
- On the Brink of Everything
Where do you find sanctuary, experience a holy place? We each experience the holy in different places. I have experienced the holy in my own life, in a rocking chair on my grandfather’s front porch. You may experience the holy at a lakefront cottage or a mountain cabin. Often we find the holy in nature. For me, there is something powerfully holy about the ocean.
This sanctuary can sometimes become a holy place for us. So can music or theater or a movie or a book or a poem or a young child. Even serious illness and suffering can sometimes become a holy place for us. And, of course people can become catalysts for us to experience holy places through a kind word, an unexpected helping hand, or a compassionate look.
The raw materials of holiness are all around us. The holy places are close by, places where God can enter our realm, and the Spirit of God can speak to us. And then we realize that this sense of holiness helps us to become who God created us to be. If we allow it to happen, we can become a part of the holy, and the places where we are can then become holy places.
Let us remember that holiness cannot be limited to only special places. Holiness is not a philosophical belief as much as a lifestyle. And the most ordinary day and the most ordinary experiences may have within them the presence of the holy, the possibility of becoming holy places in our lives.
Often, the holy in our life catches us by surprise. It may be present in a place or person where we never saw it before. Many times, we are distracted and we miss it. Multi-tasking and other distractions may keep us from experiencing it. Anne Lamott wrote: “Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.”
Sometimes we experience the holiness in life when we finally get the message from God (in moments when we are not so distracted) that we are accepted. Lamott says that she had to realize, finally, that when it comes to God and us, “you’re pre-approved.” Our need for holy places, for reminders of who we are, is deep within us. We need reminders that we are pre-approved. The world around us, and sometimes even very religious people, make it hard for us to remember it.
One of Kent Nerburn’s first books was called Ordinary Sacred, and I stole his title for my sermon title today. He wrote:
I overhear their conversation. It is hard to avoid. They are but a table away from me, and their voices are so impassioned. One woman is strong and certain. The other speaks more quietly and with less self-assurance. They are discussing the raising of children.
The confident woman is telling stories of her church and the activities they are doing. All seem good and honorable- serving food to the hungry, helping to build houses- the stuff of the Beatitudes, where, to my mind, Christianity finds its strongest voice.
It would be enough if she would leave it at that, but she does not. She is challenging her quieter friend, taking her to task for failing to give her children a properly religious upbringing.
The quieter woman hesitates, fumbling for words. “I think I’m a spiritual person,” she says. “I believe in God. I try to teach my children what is right.”
It is a heartfelt answer, but it lacks the bright certitude of the other woman’s conviction. I would love to step in, to speak my piece, for I know the struggle she is facing.
She is a woman with a good heart. I can tell by the objects she carries- a bouquet of flowers, a box of thank-you notes. She understands the power of beauty, the need to show gratitude and thanks.
Perhaps she does not declare her religious beliefs as boldly as her more confident friend does, but I can feel their presence, and I am sure that her children, playing happily with toys in the children’s corner of the coffee shop, can feel them as well. For she is one of the quiet believers- those who live a life of service, trying to shape their small corner of the world into a place of warmth and love by making each ordinary act of life a prayerful offering to the great mystery we know as “God.”
And she is not alone.
There are many among us who believe in God but do not loudly proclaim our belief. We know that our minds are small vessels in which to hold so great a mystery. We believe, as the Bible says, that there are many rooms in our Father’s mansion, and that all rooms are welcoming and all rooms are good.
We do not wish to tell others that one room is greater than the others; we do not wish to leave anyone standing outside the door.
We want our children to be people of faith, but we do not wish them to be blinded by belief. We see our task as helping them find their place in God’s mansion. We do not care which room they choose, only that it be a place alive with the sacredness of life, the kinship of all creatures, and the true conviction that we are each our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper.
If this is within the hallowed walls of a church and the embracing arms of a traditional faith, so be it. If it is on a starlit hillside, or in the touch of a lonely person’s hand, so be that as well. We pass no judgment on how the spirit speaks, asking only that it speak in a voice of kindness and love.
As I listen to these women, I pray for their children, playing so innocently amidst the books and toys.
For our children are but gifts that we are given, a moment’s grace that we are asked to shape and share. We should raise them to be open to the world- full of faith, but not blind with belief; respectful of all who are honest seekers; and guided in their lives by a kind and caring heart.
Give them the eyes of wonder. Show them, as best you are able, the beauty of everything in the universe- the stones, the trees, the birds, the people. Let them know that awe and humility, as surely as knowledge and understanding, are worthy paths to God.
Show them the connection, not the obligation, in their daily affairs. Let them see that the phone calls they make to grandmothers, and the thank-you notes they write to people they barely know, are really gossamer threads strung between hearts. Teach them that a life of service is a life of peace, and that a small faith can be as powerful as a large belief.
Give a child the words to speak and the eyes to see, and the heart will find God as a traveler finds a pathway home.
So let us help our children and youth- as well as each other- to understand in our hearts the holiness that is unique and special in every life. May we nourish eyes and voices and hearts to experience the unique experience of God’s presence and the holiness in life. Maya Angelou once wrote: “In order to survive, the ample soul needs refreshments and reminders daily of its right to be and to be wherever it finds itself.”
She also said in her book, Rainbow in the Cloud: “In the silence we listen to ourselves. Then we ask questions of ourselves. We describe ourselves to ourselves, and in the quietude we may even hear the voice of God. Stand up straight and realize who you are, that you tower over your circumstances. You are a child of God. Stand up straight. There is a place in you that you must keep inviolate, a place that you must keep clean. A place where you say to any intruder, ‘Back up, don’t you know I’m a child of God.’”
Holiness is all around us. God’s presence is all around us. Sanctuary and sacredness are in so many places, some that are unique just for us. And holiness is in us, as well. After all, we, too– every one of us– is a child of God. We have been pre-approved. And we are called, in those holy moments and holy places of our life, to stand up straight, to be refreshed, to let our hearts feel the presence of God.
May we be open to the presence of God in our lives and in the places we spend our time, and in the people we meet. And perhaps, at least occasionally, we should take off our shoes, for the ground on which we stand may indeed be holy- at least for us.