So here we are. So close to being done you can almost taste it. Only a day or two more.

Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
May 11, 2018—Interfaith Baccalaureate Service
Exodus 3:1–15: Hebrews 10:24-25; Qur’an 2:269, 3:7; 29:43; 96:1-5

Between now and then, of course, there is a fair amount of pomp and circumstance, a number of ceremonies, and a lot of speechmaking that you may not quite have the patience for. (An observation I make with not a little sense of irony.)

But such occasions do merit a pause, an opportunity to reflect on where we’ve been together and where we’re going. In this space we pause to invoke sacred tradition, the wisdom of our forebears in rite and word.

We gather to hear blessings, sacred text exhorting us to loving relationships and encouragement, or reminding us of the importance of wisdom and of the God who imparts knowledge and wisdom to humanity.


And we hear the story of Moses and his encounter with God at the Burning Bush. This story has a lot of appeal to read at a time like this.

Image courtesy wordle.net

Now, part of that appeal, to me, is that this passage was the basis for one of the first sermons I ever had occasion to preach to the Class of 2018 when they were freshmen. I won’t check to see if anyone here remembers that sermon, or was even present, or if you were present, if you ever came back after that. (For those of you putting on appearances for your parents, I and the other chaplains will promise to act like we know you in the receiving line after the service.)

But beyond the mere nostalgia factor and the aesthetically pleasing bookending that using this same passage to begin and end a college career can bring, there is something compelling about this particular passage from the Hebrew Scriptures that bears looking at at times like this.

One of the most compelling parts about this story—and there are many—is God’s declaration to Moses that he should remove his sandals because where he is standing is “holy ground.” It’s a beautiful sentiment but it’s worth stopping to ask, what is it that makes this ground holy?

That seems like an odd question—isn’t that obvious? Maybe, but I’m not so sure. I’m not sure because this story is such a famous one that it’s hard to know whether we’re thinking of the narrative as we find it in the text or as we’ve seen it in the movies.

See, if we’re thinking of the movies, our thoughts about this passage are colored by the way Hollywood has staged them.  In The Ten Commandments, Charlton Heston’s Moses sees a bush burning but not consumed and goes off to see it. He climbs nearly to the top of a mountain before finding the bush in a grotto on the side of the mount. In The Prince of Egypt, Val Kilmer’s Moses is chasing a runaway sheep into the mountains before winding up in a hidden, out of the way crevice between the rocks, where he comes across a bush, burning but not consumed. There he is surrounded by otherworldly light and ethereal, beautiful music is playing.

So, yeah, if you’re thinking of those scenes when encountering this passage then the question of why this ground holy is seems to have an obvious answer. Of course, it’s holy; just look at all the special effects! Just look how removed and secret this place is.

But the problem with that is that the text presents a very different scene.  In the text, we are simply told that Moses had “led his flock beyond the wilderness” and came to Mount Horeb. There he saw a bush burning, but not consumed by the fire and he turned aside to take a look.

Now, burning bushes are not unusual in the desert, where dry brush can ignite easily from lightning strike or other simple causes. So, seeing a burning bush, on its own, was not unusual. What was unusual was that it was not being consumed as it burned.

But other than that, there was nothing unusual about any of this. It was along the path Moses had already been traveling. It was not in some out of the way, hidden mountain sanctuary. It was right along the way and attracted his attention the way a roadside attraction along the highway might cause us to pull off for a bit to check it out.

And yet, there it is that God declares the place to be “Holy Ground.” So what makes it holy?


Holiness is one of those concepts that we use relatively often but never stop to think about what it means. Holy is, well, you know… holy. Now there are all kinds of insights we might garner from looking at the word. In Hebrew, the word קדוש qadosh is built on a root that means “set apart.” Thus, holy is something set apart, different from the ordinary. In the Greek of the Christian Scriptures, ἁγιος hagios is built on a root that means “to give honor to.” Thus, that which is holy is that which is honored.

In Latin, the word sanctus means “devoted to a divinity” and sacer from which sacred comes means “to make holy” or “to make a treaty.” In English, the word holy comes from an old Germanic root hal- meaning “healthy” or “whole” and is related to the modern English word hale.

But does any of this trip down etymology lane help us to figure out what it is about the place Moses is standing that makes it holy?

I suppose we could fall back on a simple explanation: the place is holy because God is there. That seems to be the most straightforward explanation, but does that really answer the question? After all, God is everywhere. There is no place we can go where God is not. Thus, if that is the only criterion for holiness, we don’t necessarily find any clarity, and indeed, we wind up getting ourselves into trouble.

Because when we start equating holiness with where God is, then we start to think that God is only in the places we consider holy or sacred. Consider the building you are now in. The Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University. On the tours they will tell you that this building is sometimes called “the Flaming Cupcake” because of its distinctive shape and appearance (a distinctive shape and appearance, by the way, that does nothing to help the pizza delivery guys find the building). But when I arrived on campus 18 years ago, I was told there was another sometime name for the building: “The God Box.” (I’m assuming they had a hat box in mind because of the shape.) Think about that. The God Box.

Terms like that remind me of an old episode of The Simpsons when Homer becomes a missionary on a small Pacific island. There, he helps the locals to build a church and after finishing its construction he says, “Well, I may not know a lot about God, but we sure built a nice cage for him.”

And see, that’s the problem. When we associate holiness with out of the way locations, things entirely set apart, and where God happens to be, then we create a sense of the holy that barely touches on people’s ordinary lives and that tends to box God in to the places where God is and the places where God isn’t. On this campus, it’s easy to imagine that God lives here in Kay, but Kogod? C’mon, stop kidding around. But why not? Why have we defined holiness in such a way that it would be hard to see Kogod as holy, or TDR, or the Jacobs Fitness Center, or the Dav?

And that brings us back to what makes the ground upon which Moses stands holy.


See, it’s not surprising that Moses had to be told to take off his sandals. There was no reason he should know that that ground was holy.  It was just some piece of ground beyond the wilderness along a mountain where he was tending sheep. Indeed, it is not the place that makes the ground holy, it’s what happens there that does.

Here’s Moses: he’s been in Midian for decades, tending sheep for his father-in-law. He has a nice comfortable life, a wife, and a family. All the strife of Egypt, the political machinations of the Pharaonic dynasty, the problems of racial oppression and slavery, the questions of political liberation, of justice… those are somebody else’s problem. But here, in the wilderness, God calls Moses back to the work that is before him to do.

“I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, … So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”

Now, Moses’ reaction to this proposition is a familiar one: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

This is the familiar pattern with the prophets and their calling. Moses objects that he is not a good speaker. Isaiah objects that he is not pure enough for the work. Jeremiah objects that he is too young. And so on.

I dare say that there are many of us in this space who are familiar with this pattern: “Here’s something important you should be working on.” “Who, me? Surely, you’re joking.”

But here it is that we get the first insight into what makes the ground upon which Moses stands holy: because it is here that he is called to live into his truest self. It is here on this stretch of ground that he is called to live into his promise to be a leader and a beacon of hope for his people. It is here that he is called out of his comfort zone, out of the nice safe life he’d arranged for himself, to dive right back into the thick of things. But in so doing, to be the person he was meant to be. This is the holy task. The sacred process that makes the very ground upon which he stands holy.

In this way, perhaps it is the understanding of holy as hale and whole that is the most instructive. For it is in responding to that call to be his truest self that Moses comes to understand his wholeness, or as it might be said in Hebrew and Arabic, his shalom or salaam.

For the last four years, our graduating students have been engaged in this holy task. They arrived here after eighteen years of having been told by well-meaning people—friends, parents, teachers, religious leaders—who they were. And they got to spend the last four years figuring out if any of that was true. They were working on holy project of self-identity and self-discovery. Answering the question: “Who am I?”


And now, here they stand, poised to go off on the next stage of their journey. On a task no less important, a calling no less sacred.

Because despite the senior class anxieties to the contrary, the thing you do next is not the thing you’re locked into for the rest of your lives. Your lives are still a process of discovery and an evolving sense of self-definition. You will not have all the answers. You may change your mind several times, you may go down some blind alleys, you may make some outright U-turns. Take it from me, a Russian language major turned lawyer turned Methodist minister: your life path may not go in a straight line and it may even only make sense in hindsight.

But as long as you are engaged in the process of being open to the prompting to be your truest self, to respond to the powerful calls upon your heart to be the kind of person you were meant to be, to—in the words of Frederick Buechner—find that place where “your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet,” so long as you are engaged in that process, you stand upon holy ground.

I understand that this is an anxious time, and that there are mixed emotions: anticipation, excitement, a little worry, maybe a lot of worry. It’s why the prophets always beg off—the calling to be your authentic self, to live into the promise of your life is an awesome one. It’s easier to stay in your quiet life tending your father in law’s sheep. But it is the promise of actually living into that reality and the promise that God is with us wherever we go—as God promises to Moses, to Isaiah, and to Jeremiah—that is why the prophets ultimately relent.

Yes, the task before you is awesome. But it is a task that lies before all of us. We are daily confronted with choices about which path we will walk down—the path of easy and unengaged living, or the path of our authentic selves, with all the risks, challenges, and rewards that that entails.

And you have been well-prepared for this work. You have been formed by a community here at AU that has helped you practice the process of self-discovery and self-realization. You have had the opportunity to be exposed to new ideas, new ways of thinking. You’ve had the opportunity to grow in ways that challenged and provoked you but never left you satisfied with remaining unchanged. You’re ready for what comes next.

And so, as you prepare to depart this place, do so in confidence and hope, knowing that you have been prepared by what has come before and that you will not be alone in what will come next. And as you leave to set out upon this next phase of self-discovery and living into your life’s calling, remember to take off your shoes, for the place you will tread is holy ground.


Exodus 3:1–15 NRSV • Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

Then the LORD said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”

But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.”

Hebrews 10:24–25 NRSV • And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

Qur’an 2:269 • He grants wisdom to whom He pleases; and he to whom wisdom is granted receives indeed a benefit overflowing; but none will grasp the Message but persons of understanding.

3:7 • He it is Who has sent down to you the Book: In it are verses basic or fundamental (of established meaning); they are the foundation of the Book: others are allegorical. But those in whose hearts is perversity follow the part thereof that is allegorical, seeking discord, and searching for its hidden meanings, but no one knows its hidden meanings except God. And those who are firmly grounded in knowledge say: ‘We believe in the Book; the whole of it is from our Lord:’ and none will grasp the Message except persons of understanding.

29:43 • And such are the Parables We set forth for mankind, but only those understand them who have knowledge.

96:1-5 • Read in the name of your Lord who creates —
Creates man from a clinging drop,
Read, and your Lord is most Generous,
Who taught by the pen,
Taught man what he did not know.

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