A member of our church family had occasion to go into the sanctuary last week—the first time since the pandemic began and we started worshiping first online and then here in the parking lot. She said it seemed strange to be in there. I know what she meant. Even though I still go into the sanctuary on a regular basis for preschool Bible Time and to record the week’s sermon for our web site, it still feels odd, almost like it’s hard to remember what it was like to worship in there nearly a year ago.
On the other hand, this parking lot has taken on a whole new significance. It’s almost as hard to imagine what it will be like to leave this place of worship behind when the time comes, because this parking lot has become holy ground for me. This was on my mind as I thought about our passage for this week, and it raised this question for me: “What makes a place ‘holy ground’?”
Joshua and the Israelites had just crossed the Jordan River and entered into the Promised Land. They had set up camp in Gilgal on the eastern border of the city of Jericho. It was in Gilgal that they created a memorial built of the twelve stones they’d taken out of the Jordan when its waters stopped to allow them to cross the dry riverbed. It was there in Gilgal that they celebrated their first Passover meal made from the produce of the land—the day when the manna stopped coming. Our Bible version makes it sound like our story took place at some some time after that Passover day, but it’s likely that it happened on the same day.
I imagine Joshua stepping away from the people and their festivities, maybe to have some quiet time to think about the task he was about to begin—the conquest of Jericho. As Joshua stands there, he looks up to see what he thinks is a man armed with a sword. Quite naturally, Joshua wants to know if this man is friend or foe. The man reveals himself as the commander of the Lord’s army. Later, he will also be described as the Lord himself. Joshua realizes that he is in the presence of the divine, and he falls to the ground in worship. Joshua asks the angel what message he’s brought. The Lord will soon give Joshua a battle plan and an assurance of the coming victory, but first, the angel issues a command: “Take off your sandals, for the place where you stand is holy.”
What made that place holy? We can come up with a number of reasons; scholars have. But here’s what I think made that patch of ground holy. It was a place where Joshua encountered God in a very real way. And, that’s what I think makes any given patch of ground holy for us as well. Holy ground is any place where we encounter God.
Church sanctuaries are places where we expect to have these encounters. I think that’s why not worshiping there has been so difficult for many people. Being separated from the people they love is part of it, of course. But I think that there’s more to it than that. Sanctuaries are holy ground, and when we can’t stand on that ground, we feel cut off from the place where we believe we can count on God showing up. I expect that we feel a lot like the Jews did when the Temple was destroyed, and they wondered how they’d be able to encounter God when that holy ground was no longer available to them?
We know that God uses all things for good for those who love God, and I think one of the ways God has used the pandemic for good is to expand our idea of where we can find holy ground. In the past year, God has shown us that we can have divine encounters in places where and when we least expect them.
This parking lot is one of them. When we gather to worship here, we share a special appreciation of the blessing of being together with our brothers and sisters. We better understand what a gift it is to worship together. Being jolted out of our comfortable routines makes us more aware of God’s presence in the words that we hear and read, speak and sing. I know that on this past Christmas Eve, watching all of you turn your headlights car by car as we sang “Silent Night,” made me feel the wonder of that night in a way I never had before.
I sometimes hear people say they like going to church because they can forget about the world outside. But that’s exactly the opposite of what Jesus did. He taught and healed and preached outside, where the world was. When we worship out here, in the parking lot, we place our worship squarely in the world that God loves and wants us to love. God shows up in this sanctuary without walls. It’s holy ground. Take off your shoes.
Hosting the Food Pantry outside is inconvenient. It involves a lot schlepping bags in and out, up and down. But God shows up when we serve our neighbors in this place. God shows up when we give people an opportunity to be generous. God shows up when we offer food to nourish bodies, when we offer a smile and a greeting to nourish a lonely soul, when we offer information about vaccines and health insurance and heating assistance to nurture someone’s well-being. We encounter God every time we look into the eyes of the poor and the hungry and the lonely in this place. It’s holy ground. Take off your shoes.
God shows up when we host our Electronics Recycling Day. This parking lot becomes an affirmation of the goodness of God’s creation. It’s a place where we live out our commission to be good stewards of the natural world. It’s an opportunity to let the world around us see something of this outpost of God’s kingdom. It’s holy ground. Take off your shoes.
There are other places beyond this one where we find ourselves standing on holy ground. Maybe it’s your workplace, or the VFW, or a doctor’s office. Maybe it’s the grocery store or the gym. Maybe it’s your garden or your favorite chair where you knit or crochet and pray for a health care worker. We can encounter God anywhere, so everywhere can be holy ground for us. When you find yourself standing on that holy ground, take off your shoes.
We dream of the day when we can go back into the holy ground of the sanctuary. But, maybe we shouldn’t be thinking so much about going back. Maybe we should be thinking more about going further out, beyond the limits of our parking lot. Where might we find new places where we can encounter God in new people, in new ways of doing things—new holy ground where we can take off our shoes?
I knew a man in the church I attended many years ago who always took his shoes off before he went forward for Communion. But, taking our shoes off is as much a state of our hearts as the state of our feet. When we’re standing on holy ground, we take our spiritual shoes off. We remove our defenses and acknowledge our human vulnerability. We acknowledge our dependence on God and our humility before God. We offer God our trust—our trust that God will speak to us in that place, and our trust in the word God has for us. “I know the plans I have for you,” God said through the prophet Jeremiah, “plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” These are the words we hear when we’re standing barefoot on holy ground.
“Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy,” the angel said to Joshua. God says the same thing to us today, in every place where we meet our Lord in worship, in prayer, and in study. God says the same thing to us in every place where we serve in Jesus’ name. God says the same thing to us wherever we come to the Lord’s table. Holy ground is everywhere. If we have eyes to see God’s presence, wherever we’re standing is holy ground, so take off your shoes. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young