Sunday, March 11, 2007

THE THIRD WEEK IN LENT: ISRAELITES AND EGYPTIANS

Holy Ground

Then he said, "Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground."

One of the books I used to read to my school children was a delightful and perfectly silly story called God Goes on Vacation. In the story, God leaves heaven for a week in Florida, where he takes many forms, befriends a crab, a spider and a worm, and curls his, and sometimes her, toes happily in the sand, turning everything into very, very holy ground.

There are probably no words dearer to the One Earth Lent than “holy ground.” Take off your shoes. This is holy ground. Mingle your toes with the earth under foot. Draw strength from the land you stand upon, the dust from which you were made, the you that God breathed life into. More than anything, Earth theology is all about the holiness of our life in the body; it is all about honoring the dust from which we were created and the dust to which we will return. It is about loving the strength of youth and bowing to the wisdom of age. It is all about conservation, not as the project of the Sierra Club, but as the project of God. Conservation is a word that combines the Latin roots “with” and “servant.” God comes to save the lost: the lost sheep, the lost coin, the people who have lost their way in the wilderness, and God comes to serve them as well.

This week we move in a new direction, away from the wilderness, for Moses does not meet God in the wilderness. Unlike Jesus, who went into the wilderness to be tempted, unlike Abram, who left the city of Haran to sojourn in the wilderness, the Bible says explicitly that Moses went beyond the wilderness when he encountered the burning bush. In the Moses story, the foundation story of the Jews, the foundation story of Jesus, God was found beyond any familiar assumptions of nature and culture, past the theologies of paradise and sin. God looked down from a holy mountain that is on no ones map, that is sometimes called Horeb, and is sometimes called Sinai, and you may chalk that up to the different source theory if you like.

But perhaps it means that God’s conservation is not limited by human geography, that no one has a monopoly on the place where God is, that it is neither wild nor tame, but having embraced and enveloped them both, will take us places we have never been before.

When the Moses story opens, the Israelites are no longer wanderers and herders. They have mastered the arts of civilization. They have become builders, skilled in technology, constructing the supply cities of Pithom and Rameses. It may have been wonderful to learn the skills to do all this, but by the time we meet them, 430 years after Joseph settled his family in Egypt, they are feeling overworked. “But the more they were oppressed,” the story goes, “the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.”

This story has a deeply contemporary ring. A great country. A great many skilled and successful workers, their successes rewarded not with leisure and grace but with even more labor, more stress, a fear on the part of management that those who produce for them might rise up and claim the fruit of their labor, side with the company’s enemies. Supply cities, the urge not for sufficiency, but for surplus, wealth at any cost. But even though they multiplied, even though they were good at stress, good at mastering whatever task you set before them, the Israelites at this moment had the sense to say enough! To call out to a God they remembered from somewhere in their past. But even more importantly, “God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.”

This is a pretty bold statement. We spend so much time as faith communities practicing God’s presence, that rarely do we ever bother to consider God’s absence. But here it is. Here is God, remembering his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Here is God taking notice. Does that imply that God might just from time to time leave us to our own devices? Do we as a species behave as if that just might be so? That is, of course, the unspoken theme of God Goes on Vacation, that God is not always around, at least in ways we expect. Because God Goes on Vacation is a happy children’s book about the beach, we manage very well in God’s absence, serving one another with kindness and good deeds, finding the God-magic in our hearts. Perhaps children are natural conservationists. Perhaps children are naturally kind and giving. I know that my daughter was not born a consumer. She had to be taught.

Nor is Exodus a happy children’s story. Exodus is about a people who are being consumed. They are lost and enslaved. The Exodus story suggests that if we let God go on vacation, we’ll get into great mischief indeed. To maintain our feelings of power, humans will enslave one another. When God is absent, servanthood becomes humiliation and disgrace. Death and domination will overpower the gift of life. Hence the cry of the Israelites, groaning under their slavery, being told to kill their baby boys. What that slavery was really like was a complex question and one that I will take up later this week, but for now, let us just say that the Israelites had been reduced from humanity to instruments of productivity. They had no life outside work, and feeling that they could not go on, they cried out to God. And God answered them by appearing to Moses in the form of a burning bush that, unlike slaves, products and supply cities, was not consumed.

"Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground."

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