September 11, 2011
“A Legacy of Call”
Rev. Dr. David A. Davis
The term “Ground zero” has its roots in the development of the atomic bomb. Apparently those working on the Manhattan Project coined the expression in reference to the spot of the direct hit of bomb. The phrase is found in documents from the Second World War; documents discussing atomic bomb testing; documents referring to Hiroshima and Nagaski. In the center of the Pentagon, the café that sits in the open air has traditionally been referred to as “Ground Zero Cafe”. The label isn’t from 2001. It dates to the height of the Cold War. The Pentagon was viewed as a target. In a bit of military humor, I guess, that café smack in the middle was called the “Ground Zero Café.” With a casual search of the term “ground zero”, one can easily find “The Ground Zero Coffee Company” “Our coffee gives you the kick in the butt you're always secretly yearning for….a 20 megaton blast, 20 megaton taste.”Raise your alert level” the banner at the top of the website says. The copyright is 2006. So much for the term Ground Zero being sacred. Just a year ago, you remember it was the matter of the so-called Ground Zero mosque that received so much attention. The reactions, the quotes, and the behavior, it was all something other than holy.
On September 11, 20001, the term “ground zero” was being used by witnesses and reporters by mid to late afternoon in media coverage that Tuesday. The destruction. The death. The violence. The unbelievable. The burial ground. Ground zero. The heroism. The selflessness. The sense of duty. The effort. The persistence. The rebuilding. The memorial. Ground zero. A term forever redefined. Ground zero. In the vocabulary of the day. In media coverage. In essay after essay this week; ground zero has become a reference to holy ground.
New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg said this week that it was time to put the term ‘ground zero’ to rest. “We will never forget the devastation of the area that came to be known as ‘ground zero.’ Never. But the time has come to call those 16 acres what they are: The World Trade Center and the National September 11th Memorial and Museum.” It was a much longer speech about remembering those who lost their lives, about the rebuilding of lower Manhattan, about the will of the people of NYC, and about the power of a united America, where in the mayor’s words, “we put patriotism ahead of partisanship.” Now the mayor’s far from a theologian, but I think with his suggestion of giving up the term “ground zero”, he was trying to broaden the understanding of what makes the site meaningful for future generations; what makes that place sacred. What it means for it to be holy ground.
Holy not just because of the burial ground, but a sacred witness to defiant strength and gut wrenching perseverance and a fleeting unity of the people too soon lost on the playing fields of politics. Not just a sacred witness to destruction, violence, and evil but a holy testimony to life giving sacrifice, and selfless courage, bestowing a fresh and lasting honor on the title “first responder.” Not just holy because of a cross shaped by beams, a cross that rises from the devastation, but sacred in the witness to faith-filled lives of once and future generations who rise amid unspeakable tragedy and affirm that God alone is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. “Ground zero” can’t begin to describe the fullness of holy ground.
The Lord said to Moses, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” It was in the wilderness where Moses had led his flock. Somewhere at the foot of Mt. Horeb, also called Mt. Sinai. There in the wilderness of Mt. Horeb a bush was burning. It was burning and yet it was not consumed. Moses saw it. He took note. He stopped to look. The bible says he “turned aside to see.” That’s when God called out to Moses. God called from out of the bush. “Moses! Moses!” “Here I am!” and God said “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” In the wilderness of Mt. Horeb next to the burning bush: holy ground. But even the bible can’t really do justice to the fullness of holy ground.
Burial ground. Sacrifice. Memorial. Hushed crowds by the thousands for decade…. Burning bush. Voice of God. Shoes off. Holy Ground. Holy ground. Some would suggest that you could find holy ground in a particular spot of creation’s beauty. Watching the sunrise from a hillside with dew at your feet, crisp air at your nose, the rising sun on your face. Holy ground. Others would hold to that description in Celtic spirituality of “thin places.” Places where it just seems easier for God’s Spirit to break through; where the ordinary becomes sacred; spirit-filled places that seem to facilitate one’s experience of the presence of God. Holy ground. Some would define holy ground not so much in reference to a place but in reference to what happens in that place. Anything holy here in this chancel space is about your experience, your memory of what has happened here; a baptism, a wedding, confirmation, ordination, a service in witness to the resurrection. It’s not just that holy ground is under the feet of the beholder, but there is a certain fullness to holy ground that expands beyond explanation, beyond words, beyond place.
When it comes to Moses and the burning bush and “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground”, when it comes to that holy ground, it seems pretty clear that the very presence of God makes for all the holiness. Though it is not difficult to argue that the holy ground also foreshadows what is to come at Sinai; the giving of the Law, the Ten Commandments, the glory of the Lord settling there on Mt Sinai, “worshipping God on that mountain”; that first sign from God. But even here in the foothills of Sinai, in the wilderness of Horeb, next to the burning bush, there is a fullness to the holy ground. Moses’ encounter with God goes on for a quite a while. After the shoes come off, after Moses hid his face because he was afraid to look at God, after all that the conversation still goes on.
You heard it, “I have heard my peoples cry” and “you shall worship God on this mountain” and “When they ask me what is his name? What shall I say to them” and “I am who I am”. After what I read to you, the conversation still goes on. You remember as Moses continues to hesitate and turn from the call of God, there were those signs; God turning the staff into the snake, and God turning Moses’ hand leprous, and God referring to the Nile turning to blood. Moses still declines, claiming lack of eloquence, asking for God to send someone else. Then with the anger of the Lord kindled, God points to Aaron. “Let him speak for you.” And Moses can no longer resist the call of God.
Yes, the ground is holy because of the presence of God. Yes, the ground is holy because of what is going to happen there on that mountain. Yes, the ground is holy because of the down right miraculous fire-burning-not-consuming-power of God. But the ground is also holy because of the unrelenting call of God on the life of Moses. Moses and his existential encounter with the Living God. From that burning bush, God’s voice. On Mt. Sinai, God’s presence. In Moses’ life. God’s call. “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”
People are fascinated with the idea of God’s call. That’s why a seatmate on an airplane will ask a pastor only five minutes in “So have you always wanted to be minister?” That’s why a complete stranger during a very casual dinner conversation at a mutual friend’s table would say to a minister, “so, did God call you to this?” That’s why a new buddy over at the gym who would have no idea what a pastor does on Sunday, let alone the other days of the week would interrupt necessary banter about nothing and ask “when did you decide to be a pastor?” You see, if God still calls the pastor over at the Presbyterian church, well, then there’s hope that God still calls. Or let me push that a bit further; if God still calls the clergy, if you pastor, can describe an authentic, real, believable encounter with the Living God, well, then maybe God still calls. Maybe God still calls me. And if the call of God somehow validates, or gives purposes, or makes holy a preacher’s life, then maybe God will validate, give purpose, make holy, my own life; in the classroom, at the hospital, at J and J or BMS, at the University, in my music, my art, in my life with my family, my life in relationship with the one I love, my life’s journey toward whatever’s next. Holy ground in all of its fullness; it’s not just about a burning bush, or just about Moses, or just about religious professionals….and quite frankly, it’s not just about God. It has everything to do with you.
In the story of Moses and the Burning Bush in the Book of Exodus, the holy ground stretches all the way from that bush, right where Moses took off his shoes, it stretches in the text all the way until, as it says in the bible, “Moses went”. Doesn’t sound that profound. Not a part of a verse to memorize. Nothing really to quote. “Moses went.” As my classmate David Lose, teaching at Luther Seminary in Minnesota puts it, “Moses learns who God is only by following God on the path God set for him and thereby learning first hand the nature, purpose, and truth of this God.” Learning first hand the nature, purpose, and truth of God for you, in you, through you. An existential, life-changing, life-forming, life-meaning, life giving encounter with the Living God. That’s holy ground. Professor Lose concludes, “To know God, you have to go with God. Faith is a full contact, participation sport. You just can't sit back and expect to really know God, you have to get up off the couch and get in the game, take a risk, try something marvelous, reach for something you thought unachievable, step out onto the winding road the end of which you can't see from your doorstep.” Moses went. Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, Rachel…they went. Isaiah went. Elizabeth went. Mary went. Peter, James, John..went. Dietrich. Dorothy. Martin. Went. Tyler went. Jason went. Christy went. Aisha went. Trent went. Katie went. You went. Holy ground…it stretches all the way to you. God’s call to you.
Old Testament Professor Dennis Olson has a different take on Moses and the shoes. In his writing on the Burning Bush he points out that Moses self identifies as an alien in a foreign land. The Hebrews rejected Moses. Pharaoh sought to kill him. Others saw him as a foreigner. Moses is a wanderer. Olson points out that” taking off one’s sandals is a gesture in many traditional cultures that is associated with entering not only a worship space but also a home. There at the foot of the mountain of God, Moses the “alien” has at last found a home.” Moses doesn’t kick his shoes off with anyone else, anywhere else, but with God. When your wandering, when you feel out of place, when your searching for a purpose, when your life feels out of whack, when the world seems like such a harsh, unforgiving place, when you’re a fish out of water at school or at work, on those days when even those you love make you feel like a stranger, the place to start, the place to finish, is with the God who made you, the God who saves you, the God who defines you, the God who calls you.
When I arrive home, the best way to know if my kids have friends over, it has always been the same sign. Not cars in the driveway, not every light on in the house, but this pile of shoes right by the door. It’s an unwritten rule around town, I guess. Either that, or parents other than us are hard and fast about taking your shoes off in the house. Regardless, all the kids seem to know it and live it, when a community of kids is in the house, there’s this pile of mostly worn out, often crappy looking, clearly comfortable, very casual shoes.
Now don’t worry; no shoes coming off here. But it’s not a bad sign for the imagination. A sign for a community of faith; a community that finds its home in God; a community that attests to the fullness of holy ground, a community of the followers of Jesus longing to hear and to live the call of God, a community of disciples ready to go wherever, whenever, however God calls. A worn out pile just there at the door; not the door of the church, but the doorway of our life together as the people of God!
Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing, where you live and breath and have your being, it is holy ground.
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