SHARING HOLY GROUND
Rev. Kit Ketcham
Oct. 9, 2016, PUUF
There is a story in the Hebrew Scriptures that has always given me a little shiver down my spine. Maybe some of you remember it from your early religious upbringing. Maybe some of you have totally discarded it as one of the Bible stories you no longer accept as factual.
But a lot of stories are shiver-inducing without being factual---what about all those ghost stories we used to hear around campfires when we were kids?
Anyhow, the story is about Moses, one of the early leaders of the Israelites and the one who eventually led them through the desert in search of the Promised Land. But the story I’m going to tell you happened some time before Moses was faced with that feat of leadership. In fact, this was his jumping off point for that challenge.
Moses was just a guy tending to his flock in the wilderness, though he’d had an unusual start in life. One day he saw, off in the distance, something peculiar. It looked like a fire. And, fire in the desert is not necessarily a welcome event. So he went closer and saw something even more peculiar.
A bush was on fire, blazing high into the sky. There was no apparent cause for the fire, no lightning bolts from the blue seemed to have struck this bush. And, as he watched, he saw that the bush was not burning up, not being consumed by the blaze. There even appeared to be an angel within the flames and then a voice came out of the burning bush.
“Moses”, said the voice. And Moses answered “Here I am.” And the voice spoke to Moses saying “Come no closer. Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”
This story is the beginning of Moses’s subsequent journey to Egypt to free the Israelites from the Pharaoh’s bondage and begin their long journey to the Promised Land. The rest of the story is important for other reasons---sheer dogged persistence for one thing and for the vision that Moses followed from that time on.
But I am struck most keenly by the phrase “the place on which you are standing is holy ground”. What is holy ground? What makes a location sacred?
There are sacred sites all over this world, many of them here in this country. The Anasazi of New Mexico created kivas, underground meeting places for their sacred rituals. The Druids created Stonehenge and other henges for their rites. We learn a great deal about the religious values of ancient peoples by their monoliths and burial grounds.
The battle today over Standing Rock in the Dakotas is a battle for protection of sites significant to the Sioux and other native peoples. Sacred ground, holy ground is worth fighting for.
I don’t know how much you already know about the history of this building, but when we became a partner in this enterprise called the PAC, we began to share ground that has been made sacred by many groups over more than a few centuries.
The original users of this little knoll were likely Native peoples, the Clatsop and Chinook. Later, a nunnery, the Convent of the Holy Names occupied this site. In 1930, the current building was erected and Trinity Lutheran Church conducted their services here for many years.
Now, in its function as a facility of Clatsop Community College, it has become an educational and performing arts center. Within these walls, many different creative types---musicians, actors, singers, dancers, writers---have continued to offer their creations to the community.
We the Pacific UU Fellowship are joining the ranks of other creative groups, adding yet another fertile layer to this holy ground. Sharing holy ground means that we are learning to live with other groups serving the larger community with thoughtful and inspirational works of great worth.
But holy ground isn’t necessarily religious ground. I remember years ago, an experience in the office of the junior high school where I was a counselor. I was just in the office to pick up my mail, when through the door came a teenage girl in tears.
“Gabe, what’s wrong?” I asked. And she said to me “my boyfriend committed suicide last night”, and came into my outstretched arms. We were embracing on holy ground.
On a Grand Canyon river trip, I stood on the shoreline of the Colorado river and watched a piece of driftwood with a leaf perched on top slide by in the current, reminding me that life is a river and we are like that leaf. At that epiphany, I was standing on holy ground.
Thursday night I sat in the Lovell Showroom with a couple hundred other folks and listened to Chris Breitmeyer, new president of CCC, talk about how important the arts are to a scientist and I realized that science, in its rigor and its effort to discover the truth about our world, offers us holy ground to stand on and marvel at the wonders of our universe.
This building is holy ground, sanctified and blessed by those who created and supported it in the beginning and those who now create beauty within these walls: some of those groups and individuals are the Astoria Music Festival, KMUN radio, the Little Ballet theater, the North Coast Big Band, the North Coast Chorale, the North Coast Symphonic Band, the North Oregon Coast Symphony, the Friday Musical Club, and individual artists like Dave Drury, Kim Angelis and Josef Gault.
We, as a progressive religious institution, add another layer to the foundation they have laid, honoring the sacredness of life, of creativity, of dedication to the values that we live by as citizens of the world.
These days, traditionally-sacred space is losing ground; mainline churches across the nation are dwindling, as our former hosts the Congregationalists have dwindled and the former members of this Lutheran sanctuary have merged with other Lutheran congregations in town.
But perhaps other spaces are becoming recognized as sacred by way of the connections and commitments made there. This building’s value as sacred ground is renewed each time a music group rehearses, a drama about human concerns stirs its patrons and brings a cast together , a comedy draws laughter from the seats, a concert lifts listeners to a realm of wonder and beauty.
And now our congregation, Pacific UU Fellowship, will bring another layer of sacredness to this space, with our hymns and stories, our children’s laughter, wise words from the podium, our rituals and ceremonies.
Sacred ground, holy ground is where connection happens---connection between beings, or with new insights, or with challenges met and transformed into learning. Sacred ground, holy ground is anywhere we meet another being or a new idea or challenge and connect in a meaningful way.
One of the challenges we faced and moved through on our journey here was making the decision to find a larger space where we could grow and flourish spiritually. It was an endeavor that required lots of conversation, lots of visits to possible locales, lots of planning and packing and toting and unpacking, lots of thinking about what makes a space a sacred space.
One of the things I got to thinking about, as we were in the moving process was how many times I personally have pulled up stakes and moved, from one home to another.
I think of myself as a homebody, so I was appalled, when I listed all the places I’d lived in and moved in and out of, to find that I have had -----but wait, I want to know about you. Do a quick mental rundown of the various places you’ve lived and a rough estimate. How many places have you lived in your life so far? How many homes have you created? Just call out the number. (cong resp)
I learned that I had lived in 28 different places, 28 different places I had to make into a home, either for myself alone or for my family. No wonder I’m a homebody now!
I looked around my home on Alder Street and realized that I have pared my home-creating belongings down to a few important things: certain paintings and photos, my mother’s old hutch and photo album, a Pendleton blanket my son gave me, a leather chair my sister gave me, my Bose radio/CD player, some well-worn cooking utensils, my dad’s gavel from an early pastorate, a few beloved books and recordings. Just about everything else is replaceable.
Every time we move, whether as individuals, or as families, or as a congregation, we face the task of taking our most important and meaningful items to a new place, to use as we create a new home.
The Israelites carried their Ark of the Covenant, containing their sacred writings and a commitment to the covenant they had made with their god, as they moved from place to place. Everywhere they settled during their long journey became their home because they had their precious belonging---the Ark of the Covenant, which symbolized for them the presence of their God amongst them eternally.
Discomfort over small and large inconveniences, finding ways to manage the discomfort, changing our patterns, making new arrangements, new friends and neighbors----these are all part of the moving process and can distract us from the gifts of the move---creating a new home, settling in, the challenge of the new, the opportunity to reshape, to recreate a sense of comfort and safety in our new home.
To get past the uncomfortable parts about our new personal homes, we looked actively for a new coffee shop or the nearest drug store, we said hello to the new neighbors, maybe even hosted a gathering to force ourselves to unpack and start living rather than camping out in the new home, all in an effort to bring ourselves a sense of belonging in the new place we’d chosen.
It’s pretty much the same for us as a congregation, as we have moved from our former home to this place. We’re in new and unfamiliar surroundings, but the possibilities are exciting and challenging. We’ve brought our sacred objects, few as they are---our chalice and our candles, our hymnals, our banner, our books and materials, our nametags!----and we’ve added some new things---the rug for the kids, coffee from the Scorcher, a pulpit of our own, draperies to hang on the set panels to create a backdrop that is meaningful to us.
Little by little we’re figuring it out, making a new home for our congregation. And most important of all, we have brought ourselves, our sense of connection, our love for each other, our good ideas, our energy, our caring for our community.
This holy ground has the power to transform us into a stronger faith community, a Fellowship that reaches out to others and adds additional vitality and human resources to the creativity that is a hallmark of the Columbia Pacific region.
But we are not the only ones who stand on this holy ground. We share it with the spirits of the Native peoples who lived here, who performed their holy rites here, who lived and died here. We share with the artists who have created works of beauty here and have shared that beauty with those who came to hear and to feel it.
We share this holy ground with audiences and cast members and choirs and symphony orchestras and individuals who have stood on this stage and put their whole being into a message of insight through words and sound. We share this holy ground with all those volunteers who donate their time, their energy, and their money to keeping this holy ground alive for our community.
In the song our choir sang as gathering music, May Nothing Evil Cross this Door”, we heard expressed our hope for safety and a sense of home. I particularly like the last verse: “with laughter drown the raucous shout, and though these sheltering walls are thin, may they be strong to keep hate out and hold love in.”
As we welcome our new friends and neighbors through these doors, as we work to create a space in which we feel at home, as we reach out in friendship to the visitors who come to us looking for a place to belong, we sanctify this space.
As we set out our chalice and our candles, raise our banner, set out the hymnals, tell our stories, we bless this space and add to its value, for ourselves and for those who join us.
As we share our cookies and cheese, coffee, and potluck after the service, we perform one of the most ancient rites of all spiritual communities, sharing food. When we gather in sympathy to say goodbye to a beloved person, when we gather in joy at the connection between lovers, whenever we celebrate or mourn, laugh or cry, we are creating holy ground no matter where we are.
We are creating holy ground every time we connect with one another in the human moments of every day. It’s not a religious type of holy, much of the time, but it’s a very important and life-giving spirit of sacredness, the sacredness of all life.
One of the things we were aware of when we agreed to become a Partner of the PAC was that its existence in this community has been hard won, and has endured because of the dedication of its volunteers, its members, and those who attend events here.
I said earlier in these words that holy ground is worth fighting for. Holy ground, sacred ground, whether sanctified by religious rites or blessed by the simple human acts of kindness and understanding, that ground is worth fighting for.
We are here today, in this room, to continue the fight for this holy ground, for this place where so much is possible, so much has transpired, so much has been won. We join with our larger community and with our Partners here to support the arts and learning opportunities that this place represents.
And may it continue to be a blessed space, a place of connections, of creativity, of human worth and dignity, bringing us together here on holy ground.
Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.
CLOSING HYMN #1008 in the teal hymnal “When Our Heart is in a Holy Place”
BENEDICTION: As Frank extinguishes our chalice, let’s pause for our benediction.
Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering that we are creators and keepers of the holy ground that is our world. May we care for each other and for the universe which is our home, as we go about our days. And may we meet again soon on this holy ground. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.