The most important story in the whole Hebrew Bible begins with a sacred moment that could easily have been missed. It’s the beginning of the story of the Exodus – God’s rescue of the ancestors of Israel from slavery, into freedom in the promised land. It’s not really the beginning of the story, I guess, but it’s the beginning of the story for the person who becomes its hero, Moses.
Moses is a middle-aged refugee living in the countryside with his wife and son, working in his father in law’s business, when God gets his attention. It happens like this:
Exodus 3:1-7 (Common English Bible)
1 Moses was taking care of the flock for his father-in-law Jethro, Midian’s priest. He led his flock out to the edge of the desert, and he came to God’s mountain called Horeb.
2 The Lord’s messenger appeared to him in a flame of fire in the middle of a bush. Moses saw that the bush was in flames, but it didn’t burn up.
3 Then Moses said to himself, Let me check out this amazing sight and find out why the bush isn’t burning up.
4 When the Lord saw that he was coming to look, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!”
Moses said, “I’m here.”
5 Then the Lord said, “Don’t come any closer! Take off your sandals, because you are standing on holy ground.”
6 He continued, “I am the God of your father, Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God, and Jacob’s God.” Moses hid his face because he was afraid to look at God.
I don’t know how you imagine this story. Some people imagine it big and dramatic, like that bush is just full of fire and heat, unmistakable in the early morning dawn. And then they imagine God’s conversation with Moses happening out loud, with God’s big booming voice coming out of the flames or down from the sky.
Moses, Moses…. Take off your sandals, because you are standing on holy ground.
But I picture this scene smaller, more subtle than that. I imagine that when Moses first sees that bush out of the corner of his eye, he wonders if the first light of sunrise is playing tricks on him, as the bush starts to gleam. He starts to keep walking, but something makes him look back again. Is that bush just reflecting the light especially brightly, or is it actually on fire?
And then as Moses walks closer, he doesn’t hear a booming voice in the sky, but he hears God the way almost everyone who has ever heard God does – it’s a voice in his head, like he’s talking to himself or thinking his own thoughts, but it feels more like the wisdom of a loving God than his own daydreams. There’s a gut sense he feels that something or someone good and powerful and beautiful is with him, and he needs to pay attention.
However you imagine this story, though, Moses’ meandering life of despair is interrupted when he notices and pays attention to the sacred. His rise as a leader, and the rescue of his people move forward when Moses sees that God is with him and has purpose for his life. Maybe God’s always been with him, but just now Moses sees it. So he takes off his shoes and honors this sacred moment, this sacred ground, and his life, and the life of the people of Israel, and in some ways the life of the whole world is never the same.
In my faith in the God revealed in Jesus Christ, I think God is always with us, everywhere we go, that there’s a sense in which everything and everyone is sacred, that there are nearly constant opportunities to notice the beauty and kindness and purpose and hope of God around us, if we can train our eyes and hearts to pay attention.
So today I share this sermon on noticing and honoring the sacred, to help us experience God in all things and to help us know the goodness and purpose of partnering with God in everyday life.
Let me take you back for a minute to a sad day in my life over two years ago.
In spring of 2020, it didn’t feel like much good was happening. COVID had arrived in a big way in our city, and our whole country was shut down, wondering how many people would get sick, and how many people would die.
I was home all the time with my wife, and my three teenage kids, and everything was canceled. My kids were trying to do a fake, boring version of school online, and none of us ever went anywhere. Except we were all taking a lot of walks and bike rides to get out of the house and stay active.
On one of those days, we got a call from one of our kids that he had had a big crash while out on his bike ride and needed help. So I rushed out the door, got in the car, and drove to pick him up and bring him and his busted bike home. And while we were coming back into the house, and trying to patch up our son and figure out if we needed to go to the hospital, I left the door open. And our old cat who’d lived with us for more than 10 years ran out.
I hardly noticed at first because there was so much going on, and our cat running outside just didn’t seem very important. He’d run out a lot before too and usually came back to the door within an hour, meowing to be let back in. But this time he didn’t come back – not that day, not the next. We put up some signs around the neighborhood with his picture. I walked around the block calling his name. But nothing.
Until a few days later a neighbor called and found a cat that looked like ours, except he warned me over the phone, this cat wasn’t alive anymore. Well, I went out to check and sure enough, it was our cat Azuma and he had died.
Now at this point, I had no idea what to do. Part of me just wanted to move on as soon as possible. So many sad things were happening in the world, that I was just tired and maybe a little numb, and I wasn’t ready to feel anything or do anything about one more sadness.
But when I told the rest of our family that Azuma had died, one of the very first things one of our kids asked was where we were going to bury his body and how we were going to have a funeral for him.
And part of me thought: really? We live on this tiny plot of rocky land, with very little space to grow or do anything, especially a burial. And I know a thing or two about funerals, but I just hadn’t planned on leading one for our cat Azuma.
But the other part of me knew that my kid was right and that it was a good and beautiful and necessary thing he was suggesting. So I found a little patch of mostly bare earth a few feet outside our door, got a shovel, and dug a hole. And then we placed our cat’s body inside an old pillow case and laid him in there, and had our family funeral. We all said a few words about what Azuma meant to us and how we’d miss him, and I said a short prayer, and then we filled in the hole.
And then later Grace planted a very small tree on that spot, more like a bush really. And a little over two years later, it’s a small and flimsy, but beautiful tiny little two or three foot tall tree, whose leaves when they first come out in May look like little origami, green and yellow birds. It’s beautiful really.
I look at that tiny little tree a lot. Sometimes I sit by it for a little bit and remember our cat and look at the way that his body is literally nourishing a beautiful new life in our garden. Not so much any more, but in that first year after Azuma died, I’d sometimes look at that tiny little tree, with the ring of rocks around it, and I’d tear up for a minute, thinking about the good parts of our cat’s life, and the pleasure and companionship he gave us, and the times we tried our best to make him happy and feel at home too. And that helped me say goodbye, and helped me appreciate his life, and helped me feel better about moving on without him too.
You see, grief is sacred. All grief. Because life is sacred and we are sacred. So to stop and feel bad and say goodbye when someone you care about dies, or when you lose something you care about, or you lose a pet or a dream or a friendship or anything that matters to you. To grieve that loss is sacred. It honors the importance of what you’ve lost, it honors the importance of your love and attachment, and it helps you let go and move forward.
Grief is about feeling sad feelings, because if you don’t do that, it’s harder to feel any big feelings, even good ones.
And it’s about honoring the memory of the people and things we’ve lost by thinking about them and talking about them, because if we don’t honor the memory, we lose out on all the goodness there. My Jewish friends, when someone they love dies, they don’t say “Rest in Peace,” so much as they say, “May their memory be a blessing.” It’s an encouragement to remember and talk about the people we’ve lost, so that their memory can live on and keep encouraging us.
In our culture and times, we don’t really know how to talk about and deal with death very well – death of people, death of animals, death of most anything. So we mostly avoid it when we can. But not dealing with death well makes it hard to live well, so the first example I wanted to give of honoring the sacred is to pay attention when someone or something you know is dying or has died. Don’t avoid your feelings. Certainly don’t stop talking about it with your friends and family.
Because life is sacred, and so death is sacred, and grief is sacred too.
Look at Jesus. There was a time when one of his friends named Lazurus was sick and about to die, and at first Jesus didn’t act like it was a very big deal. Everything was in God’s hands and everything was going to be fine. But when Lazurus did die and when Jesus went to his house and saw his good friend, Lazurus’ sister Mary sad and crying and angry with God really, Jesus felt all the big feelings too.
In the very shortest verse in Bible, we read:
John 11:35 (Common English Bible)
35 Jesus began to cry.
A lot of the time, this verse is just two words – Jesus wept. But I like this translation, Jesus began to cry. Because it shows us that Jesus might have kept crying still. We don’t know how long that moment lasted, before Jesus was ready to do the next big thing he was going to do to help Lazurus’ family – story for another day. And maybe it can remind us that every time all of Jesus’ friends, including you and me, are sad and have reason to grieve, Jesus is ready to cry with us still.
Because all of life is sacred, and so all of death is sacred and all our loss is sacred, and it’s OK, it’s good to feel a lot of things with every loss, and good to talk about our sadness and our gratitude and our memories – all the things we call grief. Because that’s sacred. Grieving well is part of how we love well and part of how we move forward in life most freely too. Don’t rush past your own grief. And don’t ever rush anyone else’s.
Jesus, though, wasn’t sad most of the time. He was sad and angry with big feelings when he needed to be, but he also noticed all the amazing sacred people and things going on around him that made him feel alive and joyful.
Because our world is so full of people and places and things that really matter, noticing them and treating them like they are really important is sacred too.
One way Jesus did this that a lot of adults don’t is that he always noticed all the children around him. He was sure that children are sacred and that they deserved his time and attention, his love and affection. Take this moment:
Matthew 19:13-15 (Common English Bible)
13 Some people brought children to Jesus so that he would place his hands on them and pray. But the disciples scolded them.
14 “Allow the children to come to me,” Jesus said. “Don’t forbid them, because the kingdom of heaven belongs to people like these children.”
15 Then he blessed the children and went away from there.
Jesus always had time for children. He liked them. They like him. They found him safe, interesting, kind – kids were drawn to Jesus, it seemed. And he felt the same way. Here it says he would place his hands on them and pray.
I’ve known too few adults I’m not related to who were really interested in my kids. But the ones who have been, and whose interest was healthy and positive, have had this kind of impact, what’s called blessing them. They’ve asked my kids questions about their life. They’ve talked with them over food. They’ve applauded them for the good they see in them. In more than one case, they’ve literally – like Jesus – blessed them.
North Cambridge used to be home to a larger than life community leader named Justice Ismail Laher. He was born in colonial India, lived several places internationally, settled here in the 1970s and spent the last four decades of his life as a community leader here. With our church’s and many others’ support, the city of Cambirdge named a square on Mass Ave. after him. He was a devout Muslim, a friend to this church, and in his last years, a friend to me and my family as well.
We visited with each other occasionally, always praying for each other. And when he met my children, he placed his hands on each of their foreheads and blessed them – telling them the good lives they would live and whether they would become a doctor or a lawyer.
Maybe the details said more about him than them, but the gesture was clear to all of us. He was telling them and telling us, their parents, that our children have a hope and a future, that they matter to him, they matter to this world, and they matter to God. And we loved him for this, I think my kids did too.
Jesus always recognized that kids are sacred, worth blessing and care and attention, deserving of safety and protection too. Once he said out loud to all his students, and it’s preserved in our Bibles still, that as far as he’s concerned people who do harm to kids would be better off if they’d never been born. People who do harm to kids, he said, would be better off if they’d had a big stone tied around them and thrown into the sea.
Because God knows kids are sacred, and people who hurt kids dishonor kids and they dishonor God. Jesus is not subtle on this point.
Kids, you are sacred. Your voices deserve listening to. Your safety deserves protecting. Your bodies, your dreams, your time matter to God, and they ought to matter to everyone else too. God knows this, even if other people don’t. I know this too. I hope you know how much you matter.
And grownups, your kids if you have them, but not just them all kids are sacred. Their voices deserve listening to. Their safety deserves our protection. Their bodies, their dreams, their time matters to God, and they ought to matter to us too.
One more example before we close, as we tour our way through honoring the sacred.
We can honor the sacred not just in kids but in every human we ever encounter.
We honor the sacred by doing what Justice did with my kids, by blessing them.
One more moment with Jesus.
John 1:45-48 (Common English Bible)
45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law and the Prophets: Jesus, Joseph’s son, from Nazareth.”
46 Nathanael responded, “Can anything from Nazareth be good?”
Philip said, “Come and see.”
47 Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said about him, “Here is a genuine Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”
48 Nathanael asked him, “How do you know me?”
Jesus answered, “Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree.”
A friend of mine who’s a friend of this church, but not part of it, once said to me that your church’s Bible character is Philip. And I was like what do you mean? And she said, well, Reservoir is a place that invites people to see for themselves what is compelling about Jesus. You’re not pushy or dogmatic, but you’re winsome. You’re like: come and see.
I liked this. I hope we’re like that, friends.
And here, Philip does that with his friend Nathaniel, who’s basically a hater. He hates on this little backwater town called Nazareth, and he hates on Jesus because Jesus is from that place he doesn’t like.
But Jesus, when he meets him, isn’t guarded or cynical or critical at all. He’s like: hey, Nathaniel, you seem like a good man. A straight shooter, a true Israelite, like calling him a good American or something, if he’d been here.
And even though this seems kind of general, Nathaniel resonates with this and he’s like:
How do you know me?
And then Jesus says:
I saw you under that fig tree earlier.
Which seems random, but there’s a film version of this moment I like. And the way it interprets the moment is that not only was Nathaniel seemingly all alone under that fig tree, but while he was resting, he had his own kind of Moses and the burning bush moment.
The way that the sunlight was playing in the leaves of the tree, he felt like God was with him, and life was good, and the whole world was kind of shot through with love and meaning. And so when Jesus is like:
I saw you under that fig tree,
he hears Jesus saying that he was part of that moment with God, and that blows him away.
Jesus was just like this with people – unusually attentive, totally present, and as a result, weirdly insightful. And what he liked to do with that insight was ask people great questions, and be really helpful, in this case really encouraging, to speak what we call a blessing – to say true and encouraging words to someone.
Friends, it’s a sacred thing to notice one another and it’s a sacred thing to bless one another, to say:
I see this good quality in you. I see this awesome gift in you. I admire your resilience.
Even stuff on the surface: my wife, who’s really introverted, still likes to approach women she’s never met in public and tell them what she likes about their hair or their clothes or their shoes. Everyone always loves it, because she’s blessing them. She’s saying:
I see you, stranger, and I appreciate you. And we all need more of that in our lives, don’t we?
So I don’t know, that’s not it, but it’s a start.
Grieve well, and don’t rush it.
Love and protect kids.
And bless everyone you can. Be an encourager.
That’s hardly all the ways to honor the sacred. There are ways we can relate to the land we live on and the air we breathe, and honor the gift of this earth God has created. There are ways we can honor the sacred in our work and in our art, by doing and making beauty. There is honoring our sacred need to not be so dang distracted and busy, and doing what the scriptures call sabbath, honoring our sacred need for collective rest and restoration.
So many ways to honor the sacred. But this is a start.
When we can be more present, when we can be more safe, when we can pay attention, when we can speak some true and encouraging words to the people we know and encounter, we are sharing and embodying the good news that we all matter, that God is profoundly invested in us all. We are all worthy of honor, attention, and care, just as we all can be God’s vessel for showing that honor, attention, and care to someone else.
When we honor the sacred, we start to notice just how sacred everyone and everything is. And life gets better and bigger and more beautiful all at once.