Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on

The Way of the Lord
In Celtic thought, there are places called “Thin Places”. Places where the dividing line
between you and the Holy One is so thin that you can feel the presence of God, and
experience the sacredness of the moment.
When Moses sees the burning bush, and has his first encounter with Yahweh, the God
of the exodus, God says to Moses:
"Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you
are standing is holy ground."
In scripture, those places are often associated with mountains. As when Moses
encountered God on Mt. Sinai, or when Elijah, seeking the Lord, fled to a mountain,
where he experienced wind and earthquake, and fire. But God was not in the wind or
earthquake or fire, but after the storm, in the stillness and calm that followed, Elijah
hears the voice of the Lord.
From this we often speak of Mountain Top Experiences. As when Dr. Martin Luther
King spoke of having been to the Mountain Top where he saw the Promised Land.
Life is a journey. And along the way we encounter some significant milestones and
markers that equip us for the journey ahead. A Thin Place, a mountain-top
experience, Holy Ground. These are particular moments of insight that allow us to
see what is important and what is not. These are the moments and places where life’s
goals are set, where core values are formed, or where we find clarification of issues
with which we have struggled.
This morning I would like to ask you, where was your mountain top experience?
Where was your Thin Place? Where were you when you encountered Holy Ground?
In the reading from Ezekiel the people say, "The way of the Lord is unfair." To which
God replies: "Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair? This whole issue of
fairness has become for me a pivotal issue of faith development. Where fairness is
practiced, God is encountered. When fairness is practiced that place becomes for me,
a thin place, holy ground, and a mountaintop experience.
I grew up in a very emotionally abusive home, which resulted in a lot of self-loathing.
Along the way I discovered a faith community that offered me an alternative vision of
myself. There I was received as a person of value, there I was accepted and at an
early age I became the leader of their youth group. That began my faith journey.
There was one pivotal moment for me in that early church experience. I saw a film on
world hunger, in which the statement was made that “Every child deserves to grow up
playing.” In the way of the world this is far from true. Far too many children grow up
living with hunger and want in God’s world of plenty. Far too many children grow up
with violence all around them, and far too many children grow up victims of sexual
abuse and trafficking. All because some want to become rich and powerful at the
expense of others.
That’s the way of the world …. Acquisition of money and power. Early on I learned the
story of the exodus …at its core it is a story of God siding with the poor against the
rich, with the weak, against the strong. And at its very core is this issue of fairness
revealed in the Manna story.
God provides and people can gather as much as they need, no more, and certainly no
less! And ultimately manna was not for hording or accumulating, it was for sharing. All
of the rules that flow out of Sabbath observance, begin with this basic fact, take as
much as you need but no more, and certainly no less.
This was in contrast to Pharaoh’s way, the way of power and might, the way of
enslavement and coercion, the way of accumulation and hording. And so Ezekiel
bears witness as the people say: , "The way of the Lord is unfair." To which God
replies: "Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair?
This issue of fairness, of sharing God’s blessings of the earth with all people has for
me, become the essential issue of faith. And so I have developed a love/hate
relationship with the institution of the Church.
Growing up over the years I had trouble with the discrepancy between what it says and
what it does. I have real problems with its dogma. I have issues with its integrity. And
yet there is a fatal attraction because at its core, is this good news of God’s alternative
way. The way of fairness.
Today I still have that same deep ambiguity about the institution. I still hate its
rigidness, its failure to live out the Gospel in all that it says and does. Yet I love it for its
potential to be an alternative value system to the ways of this world.
We hear the call of Jesus, to go and sell all that you have and give the money to the
poor and then come and follow. Yet Lutherans in this nation give on average a paltry
2.3 % of their income to the church. And churches spend on average 90 to 95% of their
income on self, confusing having a nice worship facility and staff with doing the “will of
the Lord.”
Still from within the church, comes signs and wonders such as our commitment to
eradicate malaria, and our efforts to end world hunger. Just this last week the ELCA
committed $100,000 to help contain Ebola.
As a pastor and leader of the church, what do you proclaim? Do you celebrate the
minimal efforts? Or do you condemn the lack of integrity between the vision of what
could be and the reality of what is.
This love/hate relationship with the church, this discrepancy between the vision, the
hope, and the dream of the reign of God on earth and the reality of what is, has been a
lifelong struggle for me. It has spurred me on, it has shaped my ministry.
Jesus opening words in the Gospel of Mark are:
"The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe
in the good news.”
For me, the quest has been to enter into and to experience the kingdom of God. Here
on earth. What I am looking for, what I am hoping for is that mountain top experience,
that thin place awareness, that Holy Ground encounter with the sacred.
Today’s text from Ezekiel raises the issue about the fairness of the Way of God. God
counters Ezekiel’s message by asking about the fairness of world’s way.
As I struggled with these issues my faith journey took me to Haiti, where I joined with a
group of first world Christians on what was called a reverse mission. That is, we were
there not to bring something, to them, but rather we went there to learn something from
them, so that we might bring it back to America and hopefully change us. While in
Haiti I spent a week working in an orphanage with children dying from malnutrition and
aids. Part of my job was to administer the morning doses of medicine. It was all in
liquid form. In a room roughly the size of our fellowship hall, there were row upon row
of cribs. Each one with a dying infant.
Now if any of you have tried to give medicine to a sick child lying in a crib, you know
how difficult that is. They fight you with all their might. So with one hand holding the
little cup of medicine, you use the other to try and open their mouth or to hold down
their arms …. I am sure I presented a laughable picture.
But all of a sudden in the midst of my frustration a little hand reached through the side
of the crib and pinched the infant’s nose. The result being the infant opened up his
mouth and I poured in the medicine. That hand belonged to a little orphan girl, who
lived in the orphanage. She accompanied me on the rest of my round that day and
every day for the rest of the week.
On Wednesday of that week we brought lollipops and gum to share with the older
children. After my round of distributing medicine that morning, the little girl that
accompanied me, took out the lollipop I had given her, and she went from crib to crib,
giving each child a taste of that sweet treat.
I was shocked. Had that same gift of a lollipop been given to an American child, the
child would more than likely have coveted the whole sucker, saying that it was “Mine”
Mine to have, mine to enjoy, mine mine mine. Here it was seen as a gift to be shared.
Never before have I seen so clearly the difference between God’s way and the way of
the world. That moment for me, that moment of pure grace in action, was holy ground.
It was a thin place where the presence of the sacred was overwhelming. It was a
mountain top experience where the voice of God was experienced through the
compassionate actions of a little child.
The message of God is really quite simple.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
To which Jesus says, repent and believe the good news.
walk in the Jesus way, not the world’s way.
That is, turn around,
That experience was perhaps my most profound faith experiences of my journey.
Piet Schoonenberg, in a delightful book simply entitled The Christ makes the point
that we normally understand grace as receiving unmerited love and acceptance from
God. That is, grace is something given to us. Schoonenberg argues that Grace comes
to us not so much in receiving as in giving.
That if we take Jesus words in Matthew 25seriously, I was hungry and you fed me,
naked and you clothed me and so forth, Jesus says when we have done it to the least
of these, the most vulnerable ones, we have done it to him. That is in the hungry poor
we meet the Christ.
That means that you and I are invited into a human and divine encounter, every time
someone asks of something from us. And as we respond to the needs of an asking
person, we meet Jesus. So that when we respond to the needs of others, we come
close to those thin places and that holy ground where we encounter the sacred.
This is so counter intuitive, so counter culture that we quickly fall back into the way of
this world. Where instead of looking out for the well-being of others, we place
ourselves in the center. No wonder God and Ezekiel are engaged in a discussion
about fairness.
For us, for our culture, too often fairness seems to be about us having things go in our
favor. Why is it so hard for us to understand that sometimes fairness is our having less
so others can have enough?
As we sing our sermon hymn, may it become our daily prayer.
O Master, Let me Walk with you,
In lowly paths of service true,
Tell me your secret; help me bear
The strain of toil, the fret of care.
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