What Does it Mean to be Holy?

What Does it Mean to be Holy?

Moses at the Burning Bush
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness and came to Mount Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

Exodus 3:1-6 (NRSVUE)

Today’s bulletin reads: “Worship – Wonders and Whys” and that is going to be our theme this fall. Each Sunday, we will be wondering and asking questions about why we do, what we do in worship, and what it all means to our faith. From singing and praising God to praying and presenting an offering. We’ll look to scripture, history, and our faith traditions. Sometimes we’ll even look to the traditions of other faiths to better understand the “wonders and whys” of worship. And I think you may be surprised at some of the information that we uncover.

As we begin this journey, there are a few important things to remember. We are affectionately known as the Oldtown Church because of the area of town we are in. But our official name is the First Congregational Church, UCC of North Attleboro.

We are a Congregational Church. This means that we govern ourselves and we look, as a congregation (or a gathered group of people) to God, for guidance.

We are part of the United Church of Christ (or the UCC), which is the denomination that we connect ourselves to. The UCC walks with us and offers us resources and ideas, on our journey of faith. They encourage us, and they are always there to help if we request it, but they do not tell us what to do or how to do it. Because, as a Congregational Church, all decisions are made by our individual congregation.

What that also means is that we are a protestant Christian church–Christian, meaning that we do our best to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, and protestant meaning that more than five hundred years ago, we separated ourselves from the Roman Catholic Church. We do not look to the authority of the Pope or other religious leaders. Instead, we believe in the ministry of all believers.

We believe that each and every one of us can read and interpret scripture, can pray directly to God without the need for an intermediary, and can minister to one another.

Okay, I know, that was a lot of information. But over the next few weeks, as we wonder about worship and ask questions about why we do what we do, it is important for us to understand that there are no right or wrong answers. No one is telling us that we have to worship a certain way or that we have to understand things the same way that others do. And that can be very freeing and absolutely terrifying at the same time.

Over the next few weeks, we will be talking about concrete and abstract ideas. Sometimes we will be happy to have the freedom to make our own choices and decisions, and other times we may wish that someone would please just tell us what to do. Or give us the right answer. Well, we are going to kick off our journey with somewhat of an abstract idea this morning. And that is: what does it mean for something to be holy? What is holy here in our sanctuary? And how do we make it that way?

Now, because those are very big questions, before we start to try to answer them let’s look back at today’s scripture reading, because we may get a few hints. Now today we heard about Moses, who was out tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro. Scripture says that as he led his flock beyond the wilderness and came to Mount Horeb, the mountain of God, the angel of the LORD appeared to him from a burning bush. Well, Moses looked at the bush, and it was filled with flames, but it was not consumed.  Then Moses heard the voice of God say, “Moses, Moses!”(God was calling his name!) And Moses said, (those famous words) …“Here I am.” Then God said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”

Now I’m sure that Moses had walked by many bushes that day as he tended to his father-in-law’s sheep, and they were just regular, ordinary bushes. So what made this bush holy? Any ideas? Yes, the presence of God. But I also believe that the bush became holy in the way that Moses responded with acts of respect and reverence.

In some religions, certain items are assumed to be holy, or they are blessed or consecrated in a certain way, by certain people to be made holy. But I find that often, holiness comes in the eyes of the beholder. Here in Oldtown, our sanctuary is built from everyday ordinary wood and nails and glass windows, but it is made holy by our acts of reverence and respect. When we gather at the communion table, we share ordinary bread and grape juice that is made holy by our gathering together, our beliefs, and our blessings. At the baptismal font, when we baptize new believers, we use ordinary everyday tap water that we, as a congregation, pray over and make special, sacred, and holy. Our baptismal font itself carries with it blessings of generations past, as our very own Jim Brinson built it from 1828 wood that was taken from our steeple. And the silver bowl that holds the water has been used for generations is the bowl that held the water at my baptism.

Friends, we make our sanctuary holy by inviting God in and by what we say and do. We light candles. We sing songs. We pray together. We share what we have. We use indoor voices and walking feet. We treat each other kindly. And we celebrate sacraments and rituals that help us feel the presence of God. To me, this sanctuary is holy for so many reasons. But that doesn’t mean it should be set aside and only used by certain people.

When I hear the story of Moses and the burning bush, it reminds me of what holy truly means. God did not say to Moses, “Put on fancy clothes, be on your best behavior, and hide your true self from others so that they will think you are perfect because you are standing on holy ground.” No! God said, “Take off your shoes. Come as you are! I’m not looking for what the world says is important, I’m looking for the flesh and blood that I created you to be.”

Friends, so many times, we think that holy things are only for those who are worthy. But “holy” is really an open invitation to anyone and everyone to connect to the divine and to feel the true presence of God. It’s not about how fancy or shiny or elaborate something is. It’s remembering that God is in it all and humbling ourselves enough to take off our shoes so that we might be grounded in the simplicity and the awesomeness of God’s grace.

Friends, as many of you know, every Sunday, as I walk down the aisle and step up into the pulpit, I take my shoes off. For years, I have read scripture with my shoes off and preach with my shoes off, and I only put my shoes back on when it’s time to walk back down the aisle. I take my shoes off not out of a sense of comfort but out of utter respect for the holy ground I am standing on. With my shoes off, I feel grounded and humbled to be what God calls me to be. And if I’m being honest, there are many times at the end of service that I don’t want to put my shoes back on. Because I don’t want worship to end. I don’t want to leave this holy ground. But then I remember that we are called here to worship, not to stay. We are called here to be fed and nourished so that we might then go out to share God’s unconditional love and grace with the world.

So, brothers and sisters in Christ, as you go out into your busy week ahead, think about the times and places in your life when you experience holy moments. And when you do, take a deep breath, don’t be afraid to take off your shoes and feel the ground beneath your feet. Allow yourself to be fed and nourished, and then go out into the world and share the love of God with others!

May it be so. Thanks be to God, Amen.


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