Text: Exodus 3:1-5 (Moses and the burning bush)
Have you ever encountered something so startling that it makes you stop in your tracks? When Moses passes by a burning bush that is not consumed, he stops, looks, and listens; and he hears a voice telling him that he is on holy ground.
I imagine we have all had moments that are at least a bit like this, ones that take us out of our everyday busyness and remind us that we are in God’s presence.
I thought of Moses’ burning bush this year as the leaves changed. People say that the colours of autumn are more impressive in Eastern Canada than in the West, and they have a point. But this year, the colours in Edmonton enchanted me.
In Lendrum where Kim and I live, there are a lot of bushes whose leaves turned fiery red, orange, and yellow in October. I don’t know what they are called, but firebush strikes me as an appropriate name; and their beauty sometimes stopped me in my tracks. I didn’t label the laneways where these bushes are found as holy ground, but it would have been OK to do so, I believe.
Moses comes across a bush that is not only beautiful but that burns without being consumed. God speaks to him from the bush and tells him to take off his shoes because he is on holy ground. God then gives Moses an assignment to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and to back to Promised Land of their ancient ancestor Abraham.
This story reminds us of moments that astonish; of sights that make us pay attention; and of events that transform our lives. Such moments might include ones of “love at first sight;” or when you first hold a newborn in your arms; or when you get to the top of a climb in the mountains. Sacred moments like this can occur an unlimited number of times in our lives.
We may miss some of them. After decades of “the same old, same old,” we might become blasé at the wonders of life and at the beauty of every moment.
But then we glimpse a sunrise through a kitchen window; or are moved by a story we hear; or see a moment of kindness between two neighbours: and we remember that life is sacred; that we are all connected to each other; and that God’s Spirit can shine out of any moment.
I like the idea that any piece of ground can be considered holy and any moment can be sacred. At the end of this reflection, I am going to play a music video by Peter Mayer. Called “Holy Now,” it poetically suggests that everything is a miracle and all places are holy. I first saw it at the United Church Men’s Conference in Banff in 2012 and then again at the Ever Wonder Conference at Southminster-Steinhauer United this past Labour Day weekend. I hope you enjoy it.
Unhappily, it is also true that the sacred can be profaned. Holy scripture is sometimes used to exclude and condemn people. Loving families are sometimes scarred by fear or misunderstandings. Holy ground can become subject to conquest and war.
Last Thursday there were two news items about holy ground. One was a Supreme Court of Canada decision on a dispute in the Kootenays region of British Columbia between leaders of the Ktunaxa Nation and a property developer over a proposed ski resort. The second was the commemoration of the centennial of a British decision to support the creation of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine.
Debbie Hubbard and Dean Reidt led a public discussion about the centennial of the 1917 Balfour Declaration at the University of Alberta on Thursday evening. Many of you will remember Debbie and Dean from their work at Trinity United on food security, First Nations reconciliation, and other justice issues before they moved to Kelowna last year. They have also represented the United Church as human rights workers in several trips to Israel and Palestine. I am sorry that I missed their presentation.
Palestine is called The Holy Land because it is sacred to all three Abrahamic religions. The capital of Israel/Palestine, Jerusalem, is sacred to Jews as the site of YHWH’s Temple. For Christians, it is sacred as the site of the death and resurrection of Jesus. For Muslims, it is sacred as the destination of the Prophet Mohammad’s Night Journey that he took on a flying horse with the Angel Gabriel from Mecca, and which then took them from Jerusalem to heaven and back.
At various times, all three religions have occupied the Holy Land. Christian Crusaders killed or expelled all the Jews and Muslims of Jerusalem when they created the Kingdom of Jerusalem between 1000 and 1250. When Muslims retook Jerusalem in 1250, they allowed Jews to return, and then held the city until Britain took possession of Palestine 100 years ago near the end of the First World War. Today, Jerusalem continues to be a mixed city. But since the Balfour Declaration of 100 years ago, Jerusalem has become more Jewish. In 1917, 90% of Jerusalem was Muslim and Christian. Today it is 70% Jewish.
The Holy Land is sacred, but like most of the earth, its fate is decided by military power. In the story from Exodus, YHWH tells Moses that he has heard the cries of the Israelite slaves in Egypt and has decided to lead them to the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites.
But even as we applaud the rescue of the Israelites from slavery, we might sympathize with the tribes who then lived in The Holy Land. We may also wonder if the sacred promises of one people must always be at the expense of others.
Today in Canada, land disputes like the one ruled on by the Supreme Court on Thursday have a similar dynamic. I sympathize both with the spiritual practices of First Nation people in the Kootenays and with the desires of developers to expand the ski industry there.
The entire world is fragile, beautiful, and miraculous. But in an economy in which companies either grow without limit or succumb to their competitors, there are few restraints on the destruction of sacred habitat. And so, the oceans fill with plastic, the atmosphere with carbon, and the land with ever-larger cities.
Humanity has not yet found ways to tame the dynamics that drive population growth and unlimited development. One step is to spread the notion that all of life is sacred and that all land is holy ground. This is only a beginning, of course, but it could be an important one.
With that said, I will now play the video “Holy Now.”
Friends, there is not just one burning bush. There are millions of them, and at any time they can bring us back to our senses, and to our connection to the sacred.
May they remind us that anything can be holy. And may this awareness inspire us to find ways to preserve life here and throughout The Holy Land we know as Planet Earth.
May it be so. Amen.