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Take Off Your Shoes!

Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Sun, Sep 10

Text: Exodus 3:1-15

I love this story of Moses’ encounter with God. There is, of course, the miracle of the burning bush which is not consumed. (Pretty flashy stuff. And who doesn’t love some good pyrotechnics?) And there is the beautiful, subtle dance of Moses and God coming face to face with each other.

“Moses, Moses! Where are you? Here I am.” A sort of divine game of hide-and-seek. I see you!

And the moment when Moses hides his face, because he is afraid to look at God. Is Moses feeling bashful? Does he not wish to be seen and known? (After all, that is seriously intimate.) Or is this direct contact with the Holy One simply too much for any human being—even Moses? God’s glory too bright, God’s presence too potent?

And there’s this. God says to Moses, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” I love this bodily and visceral command. Take off your shoes. Mark this moment; it is sacred. This is a sanctified place; you are standing on holy ground.

I first went to Israel as a college student on a summer abroad program. I was young, then, and so was Israel, just thirty years into its new status as modern Jewish State. Back in 1978, when my El Al flight touched down in Tel Aviv, disembarking passengers literally took off their shoes, knelt down, and kissed the ground. No matter that it was oil-stained tarmac. This was Israel—for them—a homeland. A safe place, a much-needed sanctuary, after the devastation of the Holocaust. It was holy ground.

What makes a place holy? Is there some inherent quality to the land? If so, what would that be? Might it be a certain beauty or calm? A special purpose or power? Are some places more holy than others? Is God more present on the shores of Galilee than in a Damascus prison cell? Are there places that are somehow saturated with divine power and energy? How can that be if God is everywhere present, everywhere active, transforming the world in every time and place?

What makes a place sacred? Is it history or culture or tradition that makes a site holy? Could it be human activity? We are capable of profaning places. Think of the air quality in Beijing, Kathmandu or Cairo. The water quality in Flint, Michigan or the Gaza Strip. Earthquakes caused by fracking. Colossal hurricanes, made more destructive by rising ocean temperatures. Lord, have mercy!

But if we are capable of such desecration, can human activity also do the opposite? Can we invite divine presence, create spaces that are consecrated and holy, places that are saturated with beauty and truth? Can we, by our presence and action, create sacred ground? Can—we—make of ourselves living sanctuaries to God’s purposes? (As we prayed through our singing this morning?)

This July, during my summer months away from First Church, I spent some time reflecting on themes of the Holy Land, sacred ground, and human activity. I had the privilege of traveling to Israel on a study tour for Christian clergy, sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council. Some of you are familiar with this trip. Dan Smith has been to Israel a couple of times with JCRC and has spoken about it here at First Church.

It was an amazing trip and I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to experience and to learn. This morning I’d like to share with you a few highlights and reflections.

Over the span of eight days, our JCRC group met with academics and journalists, artists and activists, Jewish settlers and native Palestinians (both Muslim and Christian) whose families had been displaced from land they had inhabited for centuries. During our travels, I was constantly reminded that the land God promises to Moses in this beautiful passage from Exodus—a land flowing with milk and honey—was not an uninhabited wasteland, but a land already populated by Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, as Exodus tells us. There doesn’t appear to be a Biblical blueprint for how Israel should inhabit this land and flourish there, while honoring others who also have claims to the land.

On our first morning in Haifa, we met with Nathan Jeffay, a British journalist who covers Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. He spoke for over an hour about politics and journalistic coverage, highlighting conflicts between the Palestinian Authority, Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Israeli coalition government. He spoke about citizenship status, territorial divisions, water rights, land rights, checkpoints, electrical supply. He spoke with clarity, nuance, and erudition, about extremely complex dynamics. And in concluding, he noted, “I have 300 words to convey all of this complexity in an article.” 300 words! Point taken, lesson learned. It’s complicated.

There is much in modern Israel that seems like desecration. Border walls, bunkers, checkpoints, bulldozers, settlements, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians permanently displaced from their ancestral land, the denial of citizenship rights, the withholding of resources like water and electricity. For all its beauty and power, Israel is—quite frankly—a land that’s full of pain.

But it is also full of holy sites! Over the course of a week, we visited the Wedding Church at Cana, the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, the Mount of the Beatitudes, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, and the Garden Tomb. All sights considered holy, venerated, and visited by thousands of pilgrims each year. Are these places sacred? Perhaps. Yet, to me, many of them feel chaotic, over-developed, and touristy.

So, what feels holy in the Holy Land? The vistas, olive orchards, the shape of the land, the gentle curve of Mount Hermon. Knowing that this is where Jesus walked. We swam in the Sea of Galilee at night, with the lights of Tiberias glimmering in the distance. We waded in the Jordan River, remembered Jesus’ baptism, and our own. We shared a beautiful Shabbat meal together. We prayed and read psalms aloud at David’s tomb. These things felt sacred.

And then there are extraordinary human efforts which are filled with compassion and kindness, set on justice, designed to build bridges of understanding instead of walls of division. Here are a few examples.

In Nahariyah, north of Haifa, at the Western Galilee Hospital, medical teams are treating, free of cost, and no-questions-asked, hundreds of Syrian casualties who come across the Lebanese border seeking help. Whether they are civilians or combatants, all are cared for and released to return home to Syria. This is remarkable in so many ways.

Another example. Syndianna of Galilee, founded in 1996, is the only certified fair-trade olive oil producer in Israel that operates among the Arab population. It is a beautiful site, built around Arab women’s empowerment, operated by women. Syndianna provides a bridge from traditional to modern society, and a way to benefit from the harvest of the land.

One final example from the JCRC trip. We met with Father Elias Chacour, who recently served as the Melkite Greek Catholic Archbishop of Akko, Haifa, Nazareth and all Galilee. That’s a mouthful and the archbishop is quite a personage. Archbishop Chacour told the powerful story of—the Nakba—the Day of Catastrophe—when in 1948, with the founding of Israel, his family was driven from their ancestral land. It is a potent story of human tragedy.

Despite (or because of?) this great personal tragedy, Chacour used his position to start a summer camp for Palestinian children, and then the first Arabic language library in Galilee, and then a school, which now educates hundreds of children.

In these stories of people overcoming loss, bitterness, violence and tragedy, I find the presence of God. In places where artists come together and peace-makers dream dreams, and children build friendships, there is something sacred.

So, to return to my earlier question, can human actions make a place holy? I think they most definitely can. At least, we can invite the Holy One into our lives, and cultivate ways that make for peace, justice, and compassion.

As we step into a new year together, I invite you to reflect. Where are the places in your life where something holy is happening? The places that make you want to take off your shoes, to be bare-foot and make skin contact with the good earth? When are the times you feel you are crossing a threshold into something sacred?

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