Texts: Exodus 3: 1-15; Matthew 16: 21-28
In her book Living With a Wild God, the writer Barbara Ehrenreich described what she found to be a deeply disturbing experience, one that challenged her young scientific mind she believed kept the world in a semblance of scientific order. But as the psychologist Carl Jung writes, although our religious experience may fall into certain archetypes, they are never as ordered, controlled, or controllable as we would like them to be. And the experience of the holy is more than some people, even theologians, can stand. The theologian Stanley Hauerwas once quipped that having grown up in east Texas, by the age of 12 he'd had all the religious experience he could stand. Let's keep the holy and the sacred in their place, by God.
Ehrenreich and Hauerwas aside, however, there are certain times in our lives when we have deeply moving and profound experiences of the Holy. Different religious traditions may use culturally specific terms of their experiences, such as Enlightenment, or mystical union; however, the monk Thomas Merton and the Dalai Lama were able to share their common experience. Some psychologists claim that we are “wired for God,” or at the very least, our brains are physiologically open to such experience.
When we call something holy, by implication we relegate other things to the realm of the profane. And when we speak of something as sacred, other things become secular. How is it that we call certain things holy and others profane? Or feelings?
Our English word holy derives from the Old English halig and the German heilig, and sacred from the Latin sacer. Although dictionary definitions make these words sound synonymous, the usage of the words points out their differences. We use the word holy to modify certain nouns, such as God, Redeemer, Savior, Jesus, or Sprint. The word sacred, however, is used to modify music, art, buildings, customs. Religion provides the context for the adjective sacred; in contrast, it is God's activity that promotes the origin, context, and limits of the word holy.
Thus, when Moses approaches the burning bush, he is told by the voice to remove his shoes because the ground itself is holy; it has been made holy by the presence of God. The liturgy and worship that grew out of the experience of the holy is, in contrast, sacred. The sacred belongs to us as human beings; the holy belongs to the Divine, that which as human beings we can only experience, but cannot create ourselves.
These two realms of experience evoke different responses in us as human beings as well. When we hear a mass by Mozart or a cantata by Bach, we are listening to a human response to the experience of the holy and the music may evoke awe, veneration, or for some, even boredom.
Direct contacts with the holy, however, are more likely to produce feelings of bewilderment, inner turmoil, a sense of unworthiness, the famous “fear and trembling” of which Kierkegaard spoke, panic, or even hostility. In all religious traditions, we are told to be holy because the Divine is holy; it matters little whether the tradition is Hindu, Muslim, or Judeo-Christian. A key command for us as Christians is to “be holy, for I am holy,” as Scripture says. Holiness refers to the primary relationship between God and the people of God.
Without doubt, the thought of holiness dominates the speech of prophets and apostles in the New Testament. Five related words are derived from the same root. The adjective holy, or hagios, occurs more than 250 times; its plural is translated into English as the saints, or persons whose lives have been made holy. The verb to make holy (hagiazado in the Greek) appears almost 30 times and is often translated as to sanctify or to consecrate. God's actions are usually translated as sanctification or consecration. But all of these words make God the central reference point and speak to our experience of God as the Holy. In fact, Jesus in the prayer he taught us, speaks to God and says, hallowed, or holy, be your name.
In Moses' experience of the holy, he is commanded by God to do certain things, and his activities are sacred activities because he has been commanded by God to do them. And Moses' response is not unlike that of many of us when we hear a command form God in our souls. I can relate to Moses' response very well: “Now, look, God, how can I, a stumbling, bumbling person without political power, without x, y, or z, accomplish these things that you command?”
A second response is that of Peter, when Jesus tells him what will happen, that he must go to Jerusalem, where he will be delivered up to the chief priests, the Romans, the authorities, and be killed. “Look, Lord, these things will not be! These things must not happen to you!”
In other words, Peter’s response is that there should be no cost in preaching the Gospel, feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, or liberating the oppressed. We can do these things in comfort and without pain. Jesus' response is what our response should be as Christians when we are told that there doesn't need to be a cost, a real cost, to being and acting as the people of God.
To undertake the sacred activities that God calls us to do does cost. It may not cost us our lives, as it does for Christians in China or Pakistan, but it does cost. Living the Gospel is hard work. Responding to God's call is not easy. For us here at Old First, it may mean putting the needs of the community before our own perceived needs.
Imbuing our activities with the aura of the sacred, however, is also an easy temptation, especially when we are in a time of national and cultural danger. History tells us what happens when we make our national interests into sacred interests.
In the Middle Ages, the Church and the European powers took on the Muslim world in the Crusades. At that time, narrow political interests combined with religious interests to send thousands of people to fight for the recovery of a political power base. True, there were some unexpected consequences that had lasting effects on our culture, such as the rediscovery of Aristotle and Greek science. But we don't live in the Middle Ages any more. War is not the way to learn about culture.
We Christians claim we believe in some form of cosmic justice. Jesus asks us, “What good is it if we gain the whole world and lose our souls?” This is more than jut talking about the hereafter. This is talking about the here and now. Someone once said that war is a failure of the imagination. In this century, we have used so-called “limited wars” to deal with perceived national threats and attempted to turn them into sacred activities.
True that national interests are guided by more than religious responses. But if we really do believe in some form of cosmic justice, as we claim we do, then we need to develop responses to threats more in keeping with the faith that we are called to live. The net of heaven is cast wide and though the mesh is not fine, yet nothing really slips through. The doer of evil becomes evil even when evil is done in the name of good.
Moses met the holy in his spiritual experience of the burning bush; we meet the holy in other ways. The holy, the divine – God – has given us the gift of life. We must not profane the God we worship by using God's name to justify the narrow interests of politics and power.
We should remember how easy it is to be temped as was Peter and Jesus' response. The call of the holy is to undertake the sacred activities of worship through our lives and the good we do for others. Then do we experience God. Then do we really follow the One we claim to follow.
Let us pray: Holy One who comes to us in many ways, through wind and fire, through rain and sun, through the cry of a baby in its mother's arms, be with us now as we struggle to learn your will and to live your word as shared with us through Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.