Moments of holiness are hard to find in our fast-paced world, aren’t they? I am aware that there are people who experience holy moments on a regular basis—you know, being present and listening for God and deep and meaningful prayer.
But honestly? Between getting everyone going in the mornings to managing to come up with some semblance of dinner every night plus everything in between, I find . . . I find, well, that most often my prayers are prayers of desperation related to bad traffic and being late to some appointment that I can’t possibly be late to . . . and that I can hardly remember the last time I stumbled into what I would call a holy moment.
By holy moment I mean, you know, a moment of pause and wonder and the deep knowledge that there’s so much more than the mundane details that fill my life?
This week I was remembering a moment like that, about which I reflected on my blog last year:
I took a quick trip last week to my favorite city ever. I was not feeling great, as the flu was following me around, but I soldiered on, determined that I could have a good time even while sick. I should know by now: you have to walk a lot in Manhattan, which is great exercise under normal circumstances, but when feeling generally faint, well, not so great.
Good thing on one very cold afternoon after quite a lot of walking, I came upon one of my favorite, favorite places in my favorite city: The Church of St. Mary the Virgin on W. 46th Street.
If you look closely while meandering down 46th Street, you’ll probably be able to see the steps leading up to its unassuming front doors, but they are easy to overlook, for sure, with all the bustle and noise of the streets. St. Mary’s is right off Times Square, tucked away among nail salons and bagel shops, just a few steps from the Toys R Us superstore. I found it once several years ago when I was looking for a peaceful place, and there it was again this time . . . sanctuary for my upset stomach, freezing ears (forgot my hat) and restless soul.
This time I opened the doors with some trepidation (would the church be closed to a weary tourist late on a cold afternoon?). No, just like the many times it has before, the foyer welcomed me in and my eyes were drawn up again to another favorite of mine: the ceiling of St. Mary’s. It’s painted a very deep, dark blue and dotted with gold stars.
When I look up at it, head resting on the back of a pew, I always am transported, imagining that I’m not in the middle of the busiest city in the world but rather in an utterly peaceful place where I can freely reach upward and outward to a waiting God . . . and actually find God on the other end of my reaching.
That cold afternoon, as I was enveloped in the warmth, staring at the ceiling, feeling possibly for the first time that day some modicum of peace, I realized the truth and was even able to murmur it under my breath to myself:
Here I admit it: encounters with God are some of the most longed-for experiences in the busy rush of my life.
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I thought about that experience this week as I read again the story we’re telling this week, recorded in the third chapter of the book of Exodus, because it’s surely a story about a bumbling, well-intentioned man who stumbles into holiness. Some of us just need a little extra help, I’m thinking, and so it was with Moses.
In between last week, when he was floating down the Nile in a woven basket, and this week, when we find him herding sheep in the desert, quite a lot has happened to our friend Moses.
Remember he grew up in the house of the Pharaoh, a member of the royal family of Egypt even though he’d been born a Hebrew slave. In his coming of age he was conflicted . . . he knew where he’d come from, but his father was the Pharaoh. He saw the working conditions of the Hebrew slaves and the difference between their lives and his life of royal ease.
And all of this began to grate at him.
In fact, all of his internal conflict got so overwhelming that one day, as he walked through the massive building projects his father the Pharaoh was undertaking, he saw an Egyptian task master beating a Hebrew slave and he just snapped. Moses ended up killing that Egyptian, he was so enraged by the plight of his people and by his own complicity as a member of the royal family.
But what he did was not okay; the Hebrews mocked him for taking up for them when he was sitting pretty in the royal palace. The Pharaoh was enraged. Now, in addition to struggling mightily with his own guilt and identity, Moses was in a lot of trouble. And so he fled. He fled into the punishing desert, going in one fell swoop from pampered royalty to homeless wanderer.
It was in the desert that Moses ran into the man who would become his father-in-law—Jethro, high priest and very important guy in the desert area called Midian. And, probably as a matter of survival, Moses became part of Jethro’s camp, working as the other men did to care for the flocks of sheep and goats that were their livelihood. He settled there, marrying Jethro’s daughter Zipporah and buried his Egyptian past deep under piles of desert sand.
And it’s here that we find Moses, preoccupied with the rigors of caring for the flocks for which he was responsible, ambling through the desert trying just to do his job, maybe not even thinking about his Egyptian past and all the pain he’d left behind. By this time he had a family and roots established in the desert region of Midian, and that day as he walked across the desert tending his flocks there was no reason to think anything about that situation would ever change.
And so it happened to Moses, as it often happens to you and me, that in the middle of the mundane triviality of his life, as he trudged across the desert with his shepherd’s crook and sandals, that he ran smack into something holy. God, that is, who broke into Moses’ perfectly contented desert existence with an invitation to see his world, not just from the limited vantage point of his own little perspective . . . but with the holy eyes of the divine.
The big narrative cycle grinds into motion again right at the very end of chapter 2 of Exodus, when, after we hear about Moses settling in Midian and marrying Zipporah, the writer tells us that things are getting worse in Egypt. The Hebrews groaned under the weight of their slavery, the text says, and those groans of agony rose to the heavens, so high that the God of the universe heard them. And undertook a plan to save his people.
Unaware of all these things and still living as if his Egyptian past was buried forever, Moses set out to herd his flocks one morning, same old grind, just another day. He’d herded the flocks to the edge of the normal grazing area and, for some reason, went on a little further to the mountain of Horeb. Everybody who lived in the area knew that the mountain of Horeb was the mountain of God, a holy elevation rising out of the desert. And as he herded his flocks on the mountain the text says Moses saw a bush on fire.
Scholars hypothesize that the next part of the text, when Moses determined to turn aside and look at why the bush was burning meant that, as a desert dweller who depended on the land to feed the flocks he raised, any hint of fire could mean total devastation. A bush on fire had to be contained; if you couldn’t put it out you had to dig a trench around it and drench it with water, if possible. If the fire was not contained or extinguished, it could spread extremely quickly, jumping from bush to bush, and in the dry air of the desert, it wouldn’t take long for miles and miles of landscape to be charred. Destroyed.
And without the plants of the desert, of course, shepherds like Moses couldn’t take care of their flocks. Whole communities could be devastated by a fire like that.
So when Moses saw that bush burning he quickly turned to look and see if the fire had spread; what nearby was likely to catch on fire next; and whether there was any water nearby to help him extinguish the fire. It was his job; his livelihood. It was the daily grind of real life.
The text gets interesting there. Turns out God had placed the burning bush there on Mt. Horeb to get Moses’ attention, but Moses was too busy going about the business of his daily life, worrying about things that were rightfully worth worrying about, but in the process missing something big.
Can you imagine what God must have thought? How dense can this man be? I put a miraculous sight right in front of his eyes and the man turns around and looks to the side? I feel like it must have been frustration in God’s voice when he said, “Moses! Moses!”
Holy places and miraculous signs were not enough to get Moses’ attention. No, Moses had to hear his name, get called on the carpet personally, before he even noticed there was something holy going on. And even after he heard his name being called and answered, Moses still didn’t get it until God said, “stop.” “Stop right where you are before you end up hurting yourself. Take your shoes off and show some respect, because this is no longer another regular hum-drum day. You’re standing right in the middle of the presence of God, and there’s nothing but supernatural holiness surrounding you on every side.”
It might seem curious to some of us why God would tell Moses to take his shoes off, of all things. Seems to me that maybe “fall on your knees” or “cover your eyes” or something like that might be more appropriate?
I grew up in Hawaii, a huge melting pot of all different kinds of people from all over the world. Somehow people there manage to live together in relative peace, adopting each others’ customs and adapting to differences until what emerges is a cultural setting that includes a little bit of everyone’s traditions. One tradition that is accepted everywhere in Hawaii is the tradition of taking off your shoes when you enter someone’s home.
I know this is an Asian custom, and I don’t know why we do it in Hawaii, but I do know that it took me years before I could walk into someone’s house anywhere else without involuntarily bending down to take off my shoes or at least feeling vaguely guilty if I didn’t. Even now, I still cringe a little when I walk into a house with my shoes on sometimes. See, we learned that wearing your shoes into someone’s home was really showing disrespect for the home you were entering, and by extension, the people you were visiting.
And, obviously, similar customs were in place in Moses’ time. Seems that God was still having trouble getting Moses’ attention and helping him realize the situation in which he found himself, so God asked Moses to do something physical—to bend down and unfasten his sandals, to slow down and take a moment to be present, to get close to the ground on which he was standing and feel for a moment what was going on around him.
It wasn’t that Moses was a super special holy kind of guy. In fact, later on in the passage God unveiled his plan and told Moses he would lead his people to freedom, and Moses came up with a whole list of excuses about why he was not qualified: “I’m a nobody,” he protested. “And anyway, I don’t know you well enough, God, to represent you in this way. I’m not even sure what to call you!” No, Moses wasn’t particularly deserving of his encounter with the holy, with God. He was just a normal guy going about his business, who had to be shaken into the awareness that God was there and well at work, right under his feet, in fact!
He was a normal, everyday guy like you and I are normal everyday people, trying to manage lives that are often too filled with irrelevant minutiae that makes us steer through our days very possibly oblivious to the holy.
What is it going to take for God to get your attention or mine? In all the chaos and stress of our lives there are holy places, even if we’re like Moses and think we’ve wandered far enough in the desert to forget about God.
I wonder sometimes if God gets impatient with us as we wander around, busy, busy, busy, missing God altogether?
It seems like Jesus certainly got impatient with his disciples in today’s Gospel passage. His disciples were spending a lot of time energy and intention worrying about the minutiae of their lives, bumbling along in the desert of their own lives when Jesus said with some exasperation, I am thinking: “what will it profit any of you if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?”
In other words, “You’re not doing yourself any favors when you wander in the desert of your life, concentrating on herding your sheep. When that happens, you might wander right past a burning bush or some other sign that you’d best stop to notice.”
“Stop, kneel down, take off your shoes and plant your feet firmly, because right here—right in front of your very eyes, in fact—God is waiting to show you something holy.”
Ever have an experience like the one I had in Manhattan last February? Cold, sick, tired, worn threadbare, wishing desperately for a glimpse of the holy . . . only to find it right there under your feet?
I’m thinking that you and I are often like Moses and the disciples. We long for a glimpse of God, but we’re so busy and preoccupied that very often we can’t see God at work, even when there are signs of holiness all around us . . . even right under our feet.
Stop. Look around and notice. Take off your shoes. Press your toes into the sand of whatever desert you’re wandering in. And notice all the holiness surrounding you, God moving and planning and creating . . . life and promise and future, right in front of you. It’s God, after all, who will never leave us to our own devices, who will pursue us until we stop to notice God speaking to us.
Would that we could spend a little more time barefoot. Take off the shoes of everything you have to do and must accomplish . . . the ground all around you, you know, is holy.
Thanks be to God.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.