From Holy Space Onward

Mar 24, 2019 by

Sermon and service by Bob Bond


Opening Acknowledgement (before ‘the announcements’)

I begin by reminding you that long before today-as-we-gather-here, there have been aboriginal peoples who have been the stewards of this place.

As settlers, we are grateful for the opportunity to meet here and we thank all the generations of people who have taken care of this land, for thousands of years.

In particular, let us acknowledge that we are meeting within the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabeg.  This territory is covered by the Upper Canada Treaties and is directly adjacent to Haldimand Treaty territory.

We recognize and deeply appreciate the historic connection of these first nations people to this place.  We also recognize the contributions of Metis, Inuit, and other indigenous peoples, in shaping and strengthening this community, our province and our country as a whole.

As settlers, this recognition of the contributions and historic importance of indigenous peoples must also be clearly and overtly connected to our collective commitment to make the promise and the challenge of Truth and Reconciliation real in our communities, and in particular to bring justice for murdered and missing indigenous women and girls across our country.

Scripture Reading       Exodus 3:1-15 

  • Words of introduction:

Remember that Old Testament readings during the season of Lent traditionally focus on the history of God’s saving deeds on behalf of God’s people Israel as the presupposition of, preparation for, prefiguring of, God’s unique saving work in Jesus Christ.

Today we shall read from Exodus the story of Moses at the burning bush.

Responsive Psalm         Psalm 63:1-8

Scripture Reading       I Corinthians 10:1-13

  • Words of introduction: Chapter 10 of I Corinthians is the last of three chapters addressing the issue of eating food offered to idols. While recognizing that idols and demons are nothing – they have no real power in the presence of God – Paul warns the Christians at Corinth not to take part in any aspect of their worship, for the sake of the Christians’ witness to folk who might otherwise be confused.  Paul teaches that a Christian’s life must be characterized by, and be perceived in terms of, total devotion to God.

The section of his argument which we read today is based on a long list of disasters which befell the Israelites under Moses’ leadership whenever they stepped outside the boundary of total devotion to God alone.

Children’s Time

  1. In the news this week:  A whale, in the Philippines, died and the cause was 40 kg of plastic in its stomach.
  2. Join the dots from this to us (a spiritual exercise!)
  3. Then join the dots from us back to the situation (the next step in the spiritual exercise)
    1. Use our personal intelligence and power
    2. Use our combined/communal intelligence and power

Gospel Reading             Luke 13:1-9

  • Words of introduction: You are about to hear Jesus telling about two disasters … which, by the way, are events that would otherwise be lost to history. As you listen, it is interesting to note how, in Jesus’ telling, the people hurt by disaster are in no way being punished for sin.  What Jesus stands upon is that such events can make (ought to make) people hearing about them think about their own actual personal security:  Here, at what Jesus believed to be the verge of the end of time, he preached that all disasters should remind his listeners that – unless there is repentance (turning from self-seeking and self-centeredness towards God) – then they/we will perish (on the day of judgment, at the end of time).
  • The parable which immediately follows tells the listener that we are living on borrowed time (an extended time of grace); but if we do not bear fruit this season, expect that the fruit tree shall get axed.

Sermon                      “From Holy Space Onward”  

As an opening movement, this morning, I spoke an acknowledgement of the First Nations peoples upon whose land we meet.  You have heard such orienting acknowledgement before; arguably it bears repeating whenever we meet; today I surely had to say it because I begin this sermon (and go off on one of my tangents(!)) thinking about the fundamental land-and-people connection in the Judeo-Christian tradition:

The story of the Hebrew people across the Old Testament is the story of Abraham’s and Sarah’s family taking first just a foothold in a land they believed was promised to them; then (that family) being exiled due to drought and famine; across generations in Egypt, becoming numerous but enslaved; then set free and, through a generation of wilderness wandering, getting a God-centered ‘full make-over’; next, aggressively occupying that land as per the covenant with Abraham. They were settlers there, either removing, pushing aside or assimilating the indigenous ones.  Some land struggles of this occupation were long wars but, as the Hebrew people prevailed, a kingdom was born, later divided in two.

Warring with surrounding superpowers was pretty much constant.  The northern kingdom got basically annihilated in one of those campaigns, and not long afterwards the ruling class of the southern kingdom was exiled to Babylon.  It was generations before a fraction returned, and what the rebuilding achieved was far from the dreams people had in their hearts.

There came “hold-one’s-breath” periods of relative peace; but as superpowers surrounding them rose and fell there were occupations and always taxations and too often just puppet rulers under foreign control; there were resistance movements and apocalyptic religious outbursts.  One final prophetic movement was led by Jesus.  Thirty years after him was the bloody end of the Judean state, up until just this last century.

Across all this history, “salvation” was understood by the Hebrew people geographically.  It meant ‘to be living in the promised land’.  More specifically, to be self-governing in the promised land, with Jahweh rightly worshiped (and therefore ‘on side’) in the capital city.  The identified primary savior was Moses.   He was the one who led God’s people from slavery (their low point!) to the promised land, he was God’s instrument overseeing their covenant relationship to God.

I want us to return, for a moment, to the recognition that the Hebrew people removed the populations indigenous to Palestine, people whose culture, and ancestors, and religion were all of that land, people who arguable had far more legitimacy to an understanding that healing, wholeness, wellness, safety, strength and integrity (salvation!) was equivalent to life lived freely by their rules on that particular land.  How interesting a human phenomenon that their conquerors came so adamantly to such a defining belief of their own, violently enforcing it, even though their ancestors, and culture, and religion weren’t of that place.  The North American parallels are pretty obvious and indeed striking.

But now, on with the biblical story.  As I’ve already repeated from the first Sunday of Lent, the lections (readings) for this liturgical season place before us the story of the old covenant as presupposition / preparation / “a prefiguring” for the new.  In Christianity, there is this clean and straightforward translation.  The geography of “salvation” is shifted:  instead of the promised land, the Christian seeks (strives for) the kingdom of God / the kingdom of heaven.  And Jesus is to Christianity and to God’s kingdom what Moses was to Judaism and the promised land.  This makes straightforward sense, right?  I want to point out an interesting thing that happens here, anthropologically speaking:  The release from any given physical geography (over to the kingdom of heaven) makes Christianity this amazing fit for people who were torn or otherwise displaced from the place where they were once indigenous.  Which then made it, in a matter of three centuries, the rise-to-the-top best fit for the Roman Empire that systematically tore every next-conquered people from their indigenous land-and-culture-and-language, flung them out across the empire (so there was no critical mass of previously existing cultures anywhere), gave them Latin to speak, Roman stories to tell, and the strong-armed “Peace of Rome” to keep down any rebellious murmurings.

Most of this congregation’s ancestors were long-past indigeneity ever before coming to North America, on the account of this Roman tactical policy(!).  Once here, our mostly European ancestors’ loss-of-rootedness shifted gears and oh-so-possessively, oh-so-righteously pushed the first nations people aside and set down roots.  How strikingly like the Hebrew people, except equipped with a religion more amenable! … what with its other-worldly focus and goal.

I don’t say these things to disparage my faith / our faith, but to clearly point out how it – like everything else in human life – has its historical shadow.  It is a large and dark shadow.  Wherever and whenever violence and damage have been perpetrated, confession, repentance and reconciliation are in order.  Lent is the season-above-all-others for such soul work.

There is also the possibility of becoming more focused on the light that this faith has about it, more aware of its nature and dynamics, brought out in bold relief precisely due to the shadow.  Jesus, followed honestly (love for neighbor and enemy, lived without deception) cannot ever cause marginalization, cannot ever be dehumanizing, cannot but honour and uphold every child of God created by God.  And this “religion of Jesus’ Way” (this Christianity), detached all along from any specific physical geography except the place where anyone seeking finds themselves now, [it] is a blessed gift for humanity, perhaps here and now more than ever since even the earth’s remaining indigenous ones have been so marginalized (not just in terms of land, but concerning most every other resource as well).  Here is a religion seeking to bless the lost sheep of the house (not just of Israel but) the whole broad earth.

[Pause]  But, now people, return with me from what I pray might have been, for you, a pretty significant anthropological tangent back to the biblical story, and let us keep moving on:  We have already established how Jesus’ offer of salvation was prefigured by Moses’ salvation of the Hebrews.  After Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the empowerment of the Church at Pentecost, the Church was the flesh-and-blood embodiment of Christ in the world.  The Church’s role, then, was (and is) the continuation of what Jesus was about:  calling others alongside us as we now strive toward the kingdom of God.

Our identity-and-function, then – just like Jesus’ role and function – hearken back to Moses’ role and function.  It is not strange, then, to see ourselves in Moses’ story.

  1. First, Moses’ burning bush incident, and ours.

It is a fairly common statement, made to ministers and spiritual directors, that people – talking about their experience in worship, be it at church or in private devotions – do not regularly feel the presence of God.  Folks sometimes do have such feelings when faced with something of awesome natural beauty or power.  But they (we!) can report otherwise often being disappointed … it’s like something expected is missing.  Next to stories of Moses on Mt. Sinai with God, or the disciples with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration, people’s experiences of worship seem flat.

It is instructive, then, to hear that when Moses came upon the burning bush, no new feeling whatsoever came over him.  There was God(!), revealed right beside Moses’ path; but what made him turn aside was not a feeling of “the holy” being there, rather his inquisitiveness (his interest).  A new feeling – and, at that, not contentment and peace, but fear! – only enters the story after God has spoken to Moses out of the bush.

I sometimes think that churches whose traditional furnishings include an altar rather than a communion table (you know – Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican and Episcopal churches) have a significant advantage, for in those churches it is constantly remembered that holy space exists right there above the altar.  That space is honoured by people’s posture (bowing, kneeling, signing oneself with the cross).  People know their burning bush is at church, in spite of what they feel at any particular time on any particular day.

We, without that tradition, would do well to be equally clear and constantly cognizant of the understanding that Scripture offers us in Jesus’ words, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” (Matthew 28: )  Regardless of how those two, or three, or three hundred feel, God – in Christ – is in the midst of the community of the faithful.

I can declare to you that the older I get, the more my awareness of this phenomenon is experienced in my heart and my body even more than it is thought in my head.  To gather here, to be known here, to be accepted here, to be valued here … and to know that these attributes are what-are-being-worked-at for each and every congregant’s experience here … this is a powerful thing.  It is love at work.  It is our burning bush, for God is showing God’s self to be present.

  1. The second experience we share with Moses is this: hearing God’s call / word out of the midst of the “bush” (the holy encounter).

God called Moses to be God’s agent to free God’s people from oppression, and lead them to their salvation.  We have God’s call (God’s word) to us – Old Covenant and New, Holy Scripture; we hear it proclaimed as the central movement of our gathering for worship; and it is far more extensive and complete than the Word which Moses received.

Remember that there was no Scripture for Moses to pick up and read, besides those stones with ten commandments scribed on them.  Moses, according to ancient tradition, was actually the first human author of writings that would later be compiled as scriptures.  Yet, while what we have is so much “more”, the thrust of God’s call to us is the same as that given Moses:  to be God’s agent to free oppressed people from their slavery (be it racial prejudice, political or religious persecution, poverty, disease, homelessness, unemployment, physical want or abuse, loneliness, substance abuse, whatever!).  We are to lead everyone and everything to healing and salvation, which is to be found within God’s rule-of-love.

  1. Our third experience in parallel with Moses’ is our response to God’s call.

Here, consider how well-prepared Moses was for this calling.  He was

  1. At home in Pharoah’s court, having been raised there;
  2. At home in the wilderness, thanks to indoctrination by Jethro’s family; and
  3. A Hebrew himself.

And yet he said, “Who am I to do this?”, “How can I?”, and he really meant it!

Similarly we, as individuals but especially as a group working together, are abundantly gifted for the tasks of serving our neighbours, serving our world, even as Jesus served.  Like Moses, and like pretty much everybody else, we can get hung up.  Sometimes on a sense of inadequacy, or of powerlessness, or of imperfection.  Jesus’ response in today’s Gospel is instructive:  To paraphrase, “for goodness sake bear fruit!; get on with the tasks to which you are called; that is why you are planted where you are planted!”

We humans are prone, as well, to get hung up on personal wants.  Paul’s response in this morning’s Epistle reading:  don’t be waylaid like the Hebrews in the wilderness; instead, be faithful to God alone.  Paul’s list:

  1. Don’t be focused on personal needs, like what you will eat and drink.
  2. Don’t make gods out of more immediate things.
  3. Don’t be run by your desires.
  4. Don’t grumble about God’s way of doing things.

What we have to do, in good faith, is get beyond any-and-all hang-ups and come to the realization that God has equipped us to do what God is calling us to do – what it is that God has planted us here for.

Let us then remember and today celebrate:  we have our holy space – our burning bush – here together; we hear (and have heard) God’s call to us (again and again!); it is our mission-in-life to answer the call.  God make it so!


Prayers for Ourselves and Others

Creator / Provider / Saviour, in this still room, within this company of fellow-seekers, we pray for your work within us (your Spirit blowing where the Spirit will) to shape-and-guide our own inner strivings, making this Lenten pilgrimage-through-time a journey to equip us more-fully/broadly/deeply-than-ever-before to meet Jesus both in his passion and in his resurrection.

Thank You for this place-and-people which is – for us, in truth – a “burning bush” … a place where You are present in (and because of) our gathering.  Thank You for your word to us in holy scripture, an astounding gift, resulting from so many committed authors, copiers, councils and scholars across ages of time.  Thank You for your word to us in flesh, Jesus, whose brilliance and love ‘call out’, lead and inspire the best of human possibilities.  Thank You for freedom – this highly prized aspect of existence in the universe You made – which leaves totally open our reaction to all that You do and provide.  We pray to be constructive, loving, wise and bold in our responses.

We pray for First Nations people all across Canada: for those on reserves who too often are hamstrung rather than equipped by federal systems and provisions; for those off reserve who too often face bald prejudice and marginalization; for all who have been directly and all those indirectly/generationally victimized by the settler determination to “integrate the Indian” … a determination we, O God, as Baptists surely should always have perceived as wrong.  Creator, be the source of wisdom that moves truth and reconciliation forward.  And be in us to find and to do what we can do.

We pray for the people of Mozambique whose world was swept away by wind and water, and whose struggle somehow to move forward is beyond our ability to imagine.  We pray for all peoples in coastal areas and low plains, areas where cyclones and tsunamis threaten most, and so where climate change impacts life devastatingly.  We pray for the whales and all sea creatures, also birds and land animals, whose body-systems are overrun with plastic human-dumped, doing incalculable harm.  We pray for all the earth’s life, and all the earth’s physical geography, impacted by too-zealous extraction of resource and too-devastating dumping of waste, with only human arrogance and greed to blame.  God, help us always and ever to draw the dots back to us, to see the changes we can make, to work together (in a passionate solidarity of wisdom, hope and love) to be the change we pray for, and so to do the healing which Christ would have Christ’s body do.

We pray for individuals that we carry in our minds and hearts always.  There’s a shared list here:  for Glenys, Charles and Sheryl, Jessica, and Ray.  And there are our private lists too.  God, you live at the core of all-that-is, you live at the core of these for whom we pray; let them draw on your provision – your constant love – for everything you’ve made.  We pray in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Commission and Benediction

Go into the world as God’s distinctive people.  Love in all sincerity, serve the Lord with unflagging energy, stand firm in time of trouble, persist in prayer and practice hospitality.  Contribute to the needs of God’s people, offer blessings upon those who persecute you, and care as much about each other as you do about yourselves.  And may God’s spirit grant you the power to fulfill this commission to the glory of Jesus Christ.  Amen.

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