by Linda McMillan
I have been pretty much obsessed with the weather situation in South Texas. The rivers still haven’t crested in my little home town, but it looks good for most of my family which is there. We are grateful for that but ready to help our friends who were in lower-lying areas. The ground is going to be wet for a long time.
It’s not just Texas, though. The ground has absorbed all the water it can hold in much of South Asia. It always rains in South Asia this time of year, and there is always some flooding. But this year the flooding has killed more than 1,200 people, more than half of Bangladesh is under water. The ground just can’t hold any more water — not right now — but the rains will continue through October.
Of course, in other places, the ground is too dry. It’s hard to believe when you see pictures of flooding in so much of the world, but one-third of the rice paddies in North Korea have dried up, affecting the main source of food for people who are already hungry. In India, where clean water is already at a premium, the aquifers are in real danger of collapse. Water was recently rationed in Puerto Rico, Sao Paolo too. And our friends in the Western USA hold their breaths as the ground continues to bake.
But, there is another kind of ground I want to talk about today, neither too wet nor too dry. It’s holy ground. In today’s Torah reading we find Moses out taking care of the sheep for his father-in-law. Moses, who was raised as a prince of Egypt, experienced a change of fortune at age 20 when his temper got the better of him and he killed an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew slave. That decision cost Moses something. He had to give up the privilege and luxury of his life at court. He was in exile and probably thought that he would be for the rest of his life. He got married, settled down with a new family, he helped out with the sheep. That split-second back in Egypt when Moses had decided to kill the Egyptian had changed everything. It was pivotal. Whether consciously or not, he turned away from his position as an adopted child of Pharoah and embraced his identity as a Hebrew. I might even say that he was on holy ground.
Sixty years later, in the passage we read today, Moses had taken Jethro’s sheep out to pasture. He went beyond the wilderness up to Mt. Horeb, sometimes it’s called Mt. Sinai. People climbed Mt. Horeb. It was thought that God could speak to people up there, and when you think something is possible that seems to make it a lot more likely.
While Moses was up there with sheep that didn’t even belong to him, he noticed something strange about one of the bushes. It was hot up there on Mt. Horeb and little bushes sometimes dried up and caught fire. They burned themselves out pretty quickly. But Moses noticed that there was a burning bush that didn’t seem to burn up. It just kept burning. The Bible says it was “not consumed.” The teaching on that is that a lot of shepherds walked past that particular bush that day. Moses is the only one who noticed that it was special, that it was not consumed by the fire. So, Moses stopped and he decided to take a look at the bush.
Jehovah God noticed that Moses had taken an interest, and Elohim God — the God of Abrahan, Isaac, and Jacob — called out to Moses. “Moses… Moses…,” God said. And Moses said something very interesting. He said, “Here I am.” It was after this utterance that God told Moses to take off his shoes because he was on holy ground.
We know what makes the ground wet and soggy. It’s usually rain or flooding. And we know what makes ground dry and unable to produce crops. It’s usually lack of rain. But, what makes ground holy? If the presence of God is what makes ground holy then every single speck of dust would be holy and we should all be barefooted all the time! God’s presence is everywhere. So, it must be something else.
I think the key to finding holy ground — or, one of the keys — is this phrase, “Here I am.” You can find this phrase at certain other pivotal moments in Torah:
- Abraham used this language twice: In Genesis 22 God said, “Abraham!” and Abraham’s answer was “Here I am.” Then Abraham, on God’s instruction went out to sacrifice Isaac, his son, and again a voice called out to Abraham and he said, “Here I am.” These were pivotal moments. In the first Abraham agreed to sacrifice Isaac, in the second the angel stopped him. Holy ground.
- Jacob also used this language two times. He said, “Here I am” once in Genesis 31 and again in Genesis 46. In chapter 31 Jacob recounts a dream he had in which God called to him and he answered, “Here I am.” In chapter 46 Jacob had another dream in which God called to him and he answered with the same language, “Here I am.”
- Samuel also, used this language when Eli called to him. Each time little Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am.” Of course, it was really God calling him, but it took Samuel and Eli awhile to figure it out.
- When Isaiah had a vision of the seraphim in the temple he said… you guessed it… “Here I am.”
If you want to say it in Hebrew you can say heneini. The sages teach us that heneini is more than just a phrase, it’s an idea. With this language, we not only give our physical location, as in “I’m over here,” we also give our attention. There’s an implication of full presence and full readiness. It is truly being in the moment. In this reading today Moses didn’t just tell God where he was located, he made himself available. That, of course, turned out to be pivotal for the whole world. Because of this holy ground, or this holy availability, an empire would crumble, people would be freed, and a new nation would be born.
Christians often like to talk about these pivotal moments in the Bible as “call stories,” and that’s somewhat true. There’s a true part and an untrue part.
The untrue part is that in our modern ecclesiological mishegoss we often take “calling” to mean “called to ministry,” which as we all know means ordained ministry. You are either called, or you are not. That’s what so many “discernment” meetings are all about, to determine whether or not someone is “called.” That, of course, is rubbish. Don’t let the clerical elite take these verses from you. These passages are for all of us.
The true part is that we are all called. There are pivotal moments when we notice something. It could be a burning bush, but it is more likely to be someone in need, an opportunity for service, a nagging notion that you really should do something.
In the midst of these floods people have put themselves (and often their boats) on the line to save the lives of others. They saw a need. They said hineini. One family in the hill country sent out a meme offering a hundred acres of dry pasture and said that people could bring their horses. “Bring food if you can,” it said. “If you can’t, your horse will not go hungry.” They saw a need. They said hineini. And the few hardy and hard-headed souls who remain in Sweeny, Texas are providing updates for the rest of us so that as the water rises we can know what’s going on at home. Randall, Shan, Darrin, Rhonda, Beth, Katherine… they are all real people who really said hineini. You’ll never see their names in the Bible, none of them are likely to become famous — though, this being Texas, some might become infamous — But they all said, “Here I am….” they answered the call.
As followers of Jesus, we have opportunities to say hineini every day. There are burning bushes all around for those with eyes to see. You don’t have to save the world. Nobody was ever called to that. (Well, Jesus was… but you are not Jesus.) All you have to do is remain aware in your own time, and in your own place. By being fully present, by practicing holy availability (which includes holy action!) we too can bring down empire, we too might find a way to freedom, and the prayer that we will all say this morning, “Thy kingdom come…” might be answered.
Linda McMillan lives in YangZhong, China — Home of the Pufferfish.
Some Notes of Possible Interest.
- You can read more about this year’s monsoon rains in South Asia here.
- You can read more about global droughts here.
- Psalm 139 talks about how God is everywhere.