Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
God said to Moses, “Remove the sandals from your feet,
for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” (Exodus 3)
What has been sacred in the past? And what is sacred to us today? In these turbulent days, these are questions that I believe are essential to our survival as a nation and as individuals.
The story is told, of some pilgrims who arrived late one the day at the Santuario in Chimayo in northern New Mexico. Because the hour was so late, the doors of the church had already been closed, so that the pilgrims could not enter to collect some of the sacred dirt from the pocito, or small hole, in the floor of the tiny chapel from which comes the healing dirt for which the santuario is famous.
Deeply disappointed, the pilgrims went in search of the priest, Fr. Julio, to see if he would not give them some of the sacred dirt. When they found him, to their astonishment he said, “Oh, just collect some dirt from one of the hillsides nearby. It’s the land itself that is sacred, not just the dirt that comes from the pocito.”
It was the land itself that was sacred. Hills made sacred by generations of people, both native and Hispanic, living and dying there. A landscape made sacred by countless pilgrims whose footsteps had tread upon it in search of healing and wholeness.
Just what it is that makes something sacred is hard to pinpoint, isn’t it? There’s no checklist for what makes something sacred—it just is. Moses encounters a bush that is burning, not unlike the fires that consume more and more of western America each summer—except that in this case, the bush is not consumed. And a voice speaks to him from within it, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” A bush made sacred by fire.
So what is sacred to you? For what would you remove the shoes off your feet, in reverence for its holiness?
In New Mexico, we are deeply conscious of sacred landscapes. Chimayo. Chaco Canyon. The Four Sacred Mountains of the Navajo. The Sandia, or holy day, mountains that preside over our life in Albuquerque.
But it is not only landscapes that are sacred. Values are sacred as well. Values of truth, of human dignity, of both the rights and the responsibilities of human freedom.
We are locked as a nation in a battle over what, if anything, we hold sacred. And in figuring out where each of us stands in that confrontation, we might do well to reconsider Moses’ own life-changing encounter with the sacred.
In the first instance, Moses reminds us that the sacred is not of our own making. It confronts us, admonishes us, requires our attention. Moses was not in the hills looking for anything more than to tend his flock of sheep—and yet there was this bush burning with fire, yet unconsumed, and he had to turn aside to see this great sight.
And so, the sacred is beyond our manipulation. We can try to distort it, to adapt it to our ends, or even to deny it. But the sacred remains, holding us accountable to its demands. As God says when Moses tries to pin down in human terms exactly who it is he is encountering, “I am, who I am.” It’s a bit like that phrase, “It is what it is,” that we use when there is simply nothing more to be said about something so patently obvious. Except that, in this case, “I am who I am” transcends a surrender to the inescapable (it is what it is), with the impenetrability of the ineffable (I am what I am).
So if the sacred is not of our own making, and is ultimately beyond our manipulation, then it is also the criterion by which human affairs and conduct are to be judged. I, for instance, would hold sacred the democratic principle first articulated in the 4th century B.C.E. by the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who said that “Democracy arises out of the notion that those who are equal in any respect are equal in all respects.” That’s the conviction in which I was brought up; it is the conviction upon which my love of country is based; and it is a conviction which is astonishingly contradicted by the current situation.
Despite its power, however, the sacred is not something that can be taken for granted. It is actually quite fragile. One misplaced development can spoil an entire sacred landscape. One ill-advised law can gut a sacred principle of justice. What we hold sacred cannot therefore just be in the background of our minds, like winter coats hanging unused in the closet, but must be kept front and center in our consciousness where we can protect it, be guided by it, and be accountable to it.
And so, in this moment of intense national debate, I pose this question today: what is sacred to you? What will motivate you in this time of deep distress to respond to the voice that comes to us in our own day: “I have observed the misery of my people … I have heard their cry. I will come down and deliver them from their taskmasters.” Amen.