“Finding the Sacred in the Ordinary”
April 23, 2023 - Cobleskill United Methodist Church, Pastor Anna Blinn Cole
Third Sunday of Easter
Therefore my people shall know my name; therefore on that day they shall know that it is I who speak; here am I.
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’
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.
We’re going to do something a little different now. I want you to take a few seconds and think for a moment about your week. Has anything outside in nature made you “turn aside” this week…something that caught your eye and caused you to stop what you had been doing and pay attention to a new thing? Take 10 or 15 seconds to think through your week and see if something comes to mind.
Now turn to a person near you and tell them what, if anything, came to your mind.
Now I wonder if I could have just two or three of you share.
We’re in the midst of doing a series on God’s creation in this season of Eastertide, the 50 days that come after Easter Sunday. We’re talking about the ways that paying attention to and being responsible for the natural world is one way we live out our discipleship and be a good steward of God’s gifts.
From what we just heard, I’d say God is in the eye-catching business. Whether it’s a sunset, or a bird, or a flower, when we spend a minute reflecting we can remember how the natural world caught our attention in big and small ways this week. It might not have been a burning bush (that was so last week), but God is speaking to us through the small but glorious miracles of the unfolding spring season.
Last week I told you about how the story of Easter continues on with Doubting Thomas and his desire to see to believe. How doubt is a pervasive and normal reaction to things we can’t understand. How hope begins to counteract this doubt. This week, the traditional Easter story unfolds with another notable story that involves two men walking home to Emmaus from Jerusalem on the evening of Easter Day. They were busy talking all about the strange events of that day when suddenly a third man joined them and said, essentially, “What did I miss?” They fill him in, surprised that anyone could have missed what had just happened. But it wasn’t until they got to their home and offered a meal to the stranger, watched him break the bread, that they realized this man who had serendipitously joined them was, in fact, the risen Jesus. Jesus had been with them that whole walk, hiding in plain sight. Why? Because they hadn’t opened their eyes wide enough to see God in the moment.
This classic Easter story of the Walk to Emmaus and this classic story of Moses encountering the burning bush have something in common. God comes to life in the places we least expect. An ordinary bush. An ordinary meal of bread with a stranger. And if we’re willing to take the time and the energy to “turn aside” from our normal, busy lives to stand in awe and recognition of the way God makes ordinary things sacred, we understand that the ground we happen to be standing on at that moment is always going to be holy ground. Sacred and meaningful. Full of possibility.
It was in the early evening of Easter Sunday this year and while we weren’t on a walk to Emmaus, my daughter and I were blowing bubbles outside in the parking lot of the church. She drifted away for a while and then suddenly shouted, “Come! Come! Look at this!” It sounded urgent and important so I walked over fast. What was it?
She pointed to the ground all around the maple tree that stands between the parking lot and N. Grand St. and said “Look!”. At first sight, I didn’t see anything except the brownness of the ground and the thin grass. On second look, I noticed a great number of dry, brown whirlybirds from last year’s autumn but they were no longer just lying on the ground. They were actually standing upright. I had to look again. It looked surreal as if this dead seed pod had come back to life and risen, literally, from the ground. This is what it looked like.
On closer inspection, we could see what was going on. All winter long, these dry, brown whirlybirds hadn’t just been sitting idly under the snow, they were preparing the seed they carried so that it would be ready to germinate just as soon as snow melted. Here in this other picture you can see the tiny but strong little stem sticking out from the whirlybird hat.
Now I’ve lived in places with Maple trees my whole life. And yet I had never noticed this phenomenon. Maybe partly because I’ve never spent this much time around a curious 7-year-old. But partly also because most years there will be just a handful of whirlybirds on the ground. This year, there must have been hundreds. And not just around the base of the Maples but even out under the Catalpa tree and in the sandbox and anywhere the wind could twirl them.
Do any of you have Maple trees in your yard? Have any of you looked at the ground lately around the trees and in the places the wind reaches from the tree? If you, too, have thought there seem to be a lot of baby maples coming up all of a sudden, then you aren’t alone. Maple trees don’t produce yard-fulls of whirly birds every year. What we’re seeing this year is a bumper crop.
I’ve been reading more in Braiding Sweetgrass, the book I told you about last week by Robin Wall Kimmerer in which she uses her indigenous knowledge of plants to tell stories of their wisdom. In one chapter, called the Council of Pecans, she talks about this phenomenon that trees like maples and nut trees go through called masting. It means the trees will conserve their resources several years in a row so that they can have a really big, “masting” year every now and then in which they produce abundant, copious, ridiculous amounts of seeds in hopes that more of them, maybe even just one, might survive and produce the next generation of maple tree.
In the days since we discovered that last year’s maple masting had led to a bumper crop of baby maples sprouting all over our lawn this year, we’ve been extra careful where we go reminding each other with each step, “watch out! Don’t step on a baby!” For a brief moment, the ground has come to life with possibility and hope that maybe one of these trees will make it and survive.
When Moses saw a burning bush, God was giving him a message. The ground around him that looked ordinary was actually holy. And he, a man who was an ordinary shepherd, had a role to play in God’s plan for liberation. God would go on to use this moment to give Moses the most significant calling of his life. A charge to liberate the oppressed people of Israel from their slavery in Egypt. Did God need to capture Moses’ attention with a stunning display of creation in all its mystery and glory? Or could God have just told Moses these instructions without a burning bush? I’m not sure. But what I do know is that God speaks through wonder and mystery in a language that is universally captivating. What I do know is that God is still speaking in this way. What I’m sure of, is that every time you stop and turn your head to notice something in God’s creation, it is God’s way of pulling you out of your own head and saying to you, “hey, what can you learn about the world by listening to these birds for a moment?” “Hey, can you appreciate this fleeting daffodil that will be here today but not tomorrow?” “Hey,” says God, “watch where you step. This is sacred ground.” And, by the way, what could a maple tree’s enormous faith that out of hundreds of whirlybird’s dropped, at least one might rise from the ground and grow into her daughter tree, carrying the genes of masting wisdom?
God is still speaking to us through the beauty and wisdom and mystery of a natural world that is pleading for our attention. As you pay attention, what is the message you’re getting? Don’t be afraid to take off your shoes.
Let us pray.
Grace and Peace,