Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center
May 8, 2015—Baccalaureate Service
Exodus 3:1-15; Matthew 16:21-28
Image courtesy wordle.net (using the official colors of AU and the AU Methodists)
Exodus 3:1–15 • Moses was taking care of the flock for his father-in-law Jethro, Midian’s priest. He led his flock out to the edge of the desert, and he came to God’s mountain called Horeb. The LORD’s messenger appeared to him in a flame of fire in the middle of a bush. Moses saw that the bush was in flames, but it didn’t burn up. Then Moses said to himself, Let me check out this amazing sight and find out why the bush isn’t burning up. When the LORD saw that he was coming to look, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” Moses said, “I’m here.”
Then the LORD said, “Don’t come any closer! Take off your sandals, because you are standing on holy ground.” He continued, “I am the God of your father, Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God, and Jacob’s God.” Moses hid his face because he was afraid to look at God. Then the LORD said, “I’ve clearly seen my people oppressed in Egypt. I’ve heard their cry of injustice because of their slave masters. I know about their pain. I’ve come down to rescue them from the Egyptians in order to take them out of that land and bring them to a good and broad land, a land that’s full of milk and honey, a place where the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites all live. Now the Israelites’ cries of injustice have reached me. I’ve seen just how much the Egyptians have oppressed them. So get going. I’m sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”
But Moses said to God, “Who am I to go to Pharaoh and to bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” God said, “I’ll be with you. And this will show you that I’m the one who sent you. After you bring the people out of Egypt, you will come back here and worship God on this mountain.” But Moses said to God, “If I now come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ they are going to ask me, ‘What’s this God’s name?’ What am I supposed to say to them?” God said to Moses, “I Am Who I Am. So say to the Israelites, ‘I Am has sent me to you.’” God continued, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD, the God of your ancestors, Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God, and Jacob’s God, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever; this is how all generations will remember me.
Matthew 5:13–16 • “You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its saltiness, how will it become salty again? It’s good for nothing except to be thrown away and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city on top of a hill can’t be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket. Instead, they put it on top of a lampstand, and it shines on all who are in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven.”
Welcome to the Kay Spiritual Life Center. The Flaming Cupcake. The God Box. The holiest place on campus. Well, second to the Davenport Coffee Lounge, maybe.
It’s a fairly remarkable building where nearly thirty different religious communities gather and a number of worshiping communities call it their home. This space we are in frequently transforms throughout the week: on Friday afternoon our lounge downstairs becomes a mosque, on Friday evening this space is a synagogue, Sunday morning a Catholic church, Sunday evening a Methodist church before it goes back to being a Catholic space for late Sunday mass. On Tuesdays it is an Episcopal worship space, on Wednesdays a Buddhist temple, Thursday evenings a charismatic Pentecostal worship before becoming a Methodist church once again for a late night communion service. You have come to a very special place not just on the American University campus but in the world. For this is holy ground.
II. THE TEXT
In the passage from the book of Exodus we heard read earlier, that is what God tells Moses in their encounter at the burning bush. “Take off your sandals, because you are standing on holy ground.” A familiar line from a familiar story.
But a curious one, when you think about it. Moses had to be told that he was standing on holy ground. Why didn’t he already know that? Upon reflection, we realize that there was nothing particularly remarkable about the area. Moses was simply out there tending his father-in-law’s sheep. He wasn’t looking for a theophany or any kind of religious experience. He was merely satisfying his curiosity. He had noticed a bush on fire—in and of itself, nothing remarkable; brush could occasionally catch fire in the dry and arid wastes. But this fire was not consuming the bush—that was unusual. Only as he approached the bush did God call out “Moses, Moses!” And once he replied, then God instructs him to take off his sandals, for the ground is holy ground.
III. HOLY GROUND
Four years ago, I preached a sermon on this very text from Exodus. It was the first sermon I ever preached to the Class of 2015. I won’t check to see if anyone here remembers that sermon, or was even present, or if you were present, if you ever came back after that. (For those of you putting on appearances for your parents, I promise to act like I know you in the receiving line after the service.)
But in that sermon, we reflected on what makes something holy ground. It’s clear that the ground hadn’t been holy ground before Moses’ encounter with God. It was not a shrine, a pilgrimage site, or anything else that would have given Moses a clue that he was standing on holy ground. Not even a burning bush was enough.
What made it holy ground was the presence of God in that place. A surprising place to find an omnipotent deity who is the creator of all things. Out in the wilderness, the wasteland, the spaces in between. But there it is where Moses encounters God. There it is where he finds himself standing on holy ground.
Four years ago, I told the class of 2015 that they had come to just such a place. And not because it was this cool round building with dozens of faith communities resident in it. The holy ground to which they had come was the four year journey that they were setting out on in their college careers.
For the four years that you spend in college are unlike any other. They are a particular time in a person’s life. For eighteen years, very well meaning people—parents, teachers, friends, clergy—have all told you who you were. They’ve told you what social group you belong to, what political party, what belief system, what religion. And now, over those same few years, you get to decide whether any of that is true. You get to ask: what does it mean for me to be a Christian? What do I believe?
For our students, these years have been a holy place and a holy time—a time of discernment and learning, a time of self-understanding, of growth in wisdom, of growth in faith. It is a time of formation and transformation, a time of learning and the realization of how much you still have to learn. Of building relationships and involvement in meaningful community. It truly is a consecrated time.
IV. GO TO PHARAOH
And given that, there can often be bittersweet feelings when it comes time to leave. Our students are filled with a sense of accomplishment and pride as they look back on the last four years and all that they have accomplished in them. They are excited about what might be coming next in their lives, whether it’s graduate level study, service at home or abroad, or entering the work force.
But at the same time, there can be a sense of loss. For those who have experienced this holy place of growth, self-discovery, and community, leaving a space like this can be difficult. Here we stood on holy ground, and now we are being sent out to pharaoh? Can’t we just stay here in this holy place, in this holy time? Do I have to go confront pharaoh just yet?
But just as Moses discovered, holy ground is not found only at places of pilgrimage or shrines. Not only in our cathedrals and flaming cupcakes. Not only in our prayer rooms and Bible studies. No, as Moses discovered, they are not the only places we find holy ground. That we find wherever we find God, wherever we encounter the love, grace, and power of the living God.
That we encounter in the unlikely places. In the wilderness. In the brokenness. In the places of uncertainty where you question the things you’ve always known. In the wrestling with questions of identity and faith. In the tensions between the already and the not-yet. In all those places and more: God is. The God who calls to us and declares, “I am who I am.” In the ordinary and unexpected, there we find God.
And more to the point: for our graduates, where you are, God is.
Our graduates are going out into a broken world, a world in need of a message of hope, a message of grace, a message of love. They go into the world embodying that hope, that grace, that love. And in so doing, they embody God for a world in need.
As the New Testament lesson this evening declares: “You are the salt of the earth… you are the light of the world … let your light shine before people so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven.” Our graduates are going out into the world. A world often dominated by the pharaohs of injustice and oppression, of hatred and fear, of ignorance and want. And there they will be the salt of the earth, the light of the world. There they will witness to a God of hope, grace with their very being. Where they go, the presence of God will go with them.
And thus, the places they go will be sacred. They may be places of struggle, places of challenge, places of continued wrestling, places of indecision, places of witness, places of conflict, and turmoil. They may be places of joy, places of triumph, places of celebration, and places of accomplishment. But whatever they are and wherever they are, as our graduates go into them, bearing the light they have come to know here, those places will be holy ground.
Four years ago, our graduates came to this place full of hope and anxiety about the journey that lay ahead. And now here, four years later, our graduates may be feeling the bittersweet emotions of joy and loss that leaving such a sacred space can entail. But we know, that having grown in faith and understanding, having grown in knowledge of love and grace, they are prepared to head out into a world with all its challenges and triumphs. And that wherever they go, God goes with them. And as they go, the voice of God will continue to call out, “Take off your sandals, because the place you’re standing is holy ground.”