Holy Ground

Sermon given by Rev. Frank Clarkson on August 20, 2017

On Sunday morning three weeks ago, my wife Tracey and I went to church in Scotland. It was our last full day in that lovely green country that we had been wandering around for two weeks. We went to Elgin Cathedral, a church with no roof and with grass for a floor, because it had fallen into ruin during the Reformation, five hundred years ago. There was no service, and there hadn’t been one there for a long time, but it felt like church as we moved quietly through that space. On entering, I walked down the center aisle towards the altar, stopping at the crossing, where the transept, the arms that go out to the left and right, intersect with the nave. I stood there and said a silent prayer, and felt moved to kneel down there for a moment on that grass, to bend down and touch my face to that holy ground. 

On that trip, we found ourselves drawn to ruins and graveyards, to places where, long ago, people had done something to mark that spot as special, as sacred. And we found newer places, like a bench overlooking a river valley, that invited us to be still and present, to take it all in. To be open to the spirit of that place and to receive its blessings.

If I was going to sum up that trip, which in many ways felt like a pilgrimage, I would say it was about seeking holy ground. Going in search of places where people have, for centuries, made walks and pilgrimages, where people have gathered to praise God, to bury their dead, to feel the wonder of this good earth.

You’ve experienced this, haven’t you? You have found yourself, at some time or another, perhaps quite unexpectedly, in the presence of something mysterious and powerful, that filled you with awe and wonder. Maybe it was the birth of a child, or standing on a hill as the clouds part to reveal a sunset or a rainbow. Maybe it was returning to a place that had been important to you, or coming into a space like this one, where something touched you, and moved you. Like Moses, just minding his own business tending the sheep, all of a sudden in the presence of something powerful, and a voice says, “Take off your shoes, for you are standing on holy ground.”

This morning I invite you to remember those times when you have found yourself on holy ground. Because we need the reminder that these places offer us: that life is good, and has meaning; that in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, all the trouble in our world, there is also goodness and peace. We need to be reminded, as the UU minister David Bumbaugh says, “There is a unity which makes us one and binds us forever together, in spite of time and death and the space between the stars.”

I hope you don’t think that holy is necessarily the same as churchy. Any place can be sacred. As Wendell Berry says: “There are no un-sacred spaces; there are only sacred spaces and desecrated spaces.” Berry is a farmer, he knows, better than most of us, about the good earth. About the blessing that comes from being down to earth, in touch with the ground. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Can you hear that truth, not in a scary way, but in a reassuring one? That we come from the holy ground, and to it we will return?

Though any place can be holy, there are particular places that people have been drawn to for a long time. One morning in Scotland, we woke up early and took the first ferry from the Isle of Mull over to the island of Iona, where Saint Columba, after leaving Ireland, started a monastery in 563. There were only a few people on that 15-minute ferry, and as we walked the road out to the Abbey, there were a few others walking toward the church, along the paths that pilgrims have trod for over a thousand years. 

When we walked into the Abbey, light streamed through the clear, east-facing window behind the altar. Piano music played softly, and we found our way into seats in the choir, the part of the church closest to the altar. I felt so moved, just to be there, at worship in that place where people have gathered for so long. “Take off your shoes, for you are on holy ground.”

Later that day, we walked out to St. Columba’s beach, and that felt like holy ground too. As did the field of barley we walked through a few days later. Maybe it’s easier to sense the sacred in a country far from home. One’s everyday life doesn’t seem as special or exotic as a place you had to travel a long way to get to. But I will tell you, when I returned from that trip, and parked across the street here, and saw again the little square of grass outside our back door, and the lovely, well-watered bed of flowers there, and when I walked in to this sanctuary again, it felt so good to be home, and I saw this as holy ground too.

Do you think some places are inherently sacred? Over the centuries, people have certainly identified some mountaintops and islands, some rivers and paths, as holy, in an of themselves. But I sense that what humans have done in those places, over the centuries, adds to the holiness, the way a cairn on a mountain grows with every stone a hiker adds to it. People may build churches in places they find special, but then the act of gathering there, the years of blessing babies and buying the dead and gathering together to praise God—doesn’t this bless and sanctify the place even more?

Our experiences of this good earth inevitably become part of the landscape too. I believe you can feel the spirit of a place; that you can sense when things have happened there, if you are attuned to that. It is a good practice; to pay attention to where you are, to see it as holy ground. 

This direct experience of that transcendent mystery and wonder is the source of so much of the religious impulse. My question for you is this: are you getting enough of that? Are you putting yourself in places that are holy? Are your eyes open, is your heart open, to sensing the sacred as you travel through your days?

Wendell Berry says, “The world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet, and learn to be at home.”

This, my friends, is the pilgrimage of our time—to see the ground under our feet as holy. And if it has been desecrated, to set about making it holy and whole once again. To do the work of opening our eyes and being present to the gift of this day. To find tangible ways to care for the earth, its people, and its creatures—including ourselves.

Of course, this opening of eyes means also looking at what is not beautiful or easy to see. This week, as I’ve been thinking about holy ground, I keep imagining that park in Charlottesville, Virginia, where white supremacists and counter protesters clashed last Saturday. I picture that street where Heather Heyer was killed. Has that ground been desecrated by the violence and hatred that happened there? Or has it been sanctified by the blood shed, and by the courageous acts of those who stood firm, risking their own safety, in order to say, “This is not what my country stands for”?

The events and words of this past week remind us that our nation has unresolved work to do facing its history of white supremacy. As far as we have come, there is still a long way to go. These days I’m reminded of those familiar words, spoken by President Lincoln on the battlefield at Gettysburg:

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”

Lincoln was there in Gettysburg to dedicate part of that battlefield as a cemetery. But, he said, “we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”

President Lincoln was mistaken that the world would not remember what he said there. His words certainly helped to enshrine that field in Gettysburg as holy ground. And they are as pertinent and as compelling as they were 150 years ago. They still call out to us today. He said:

“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

We are standing on holy ground. And we are standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before us. This is our time, and we are called to do our part to bind up what has been broken, to re-consecrate though our love and care that which has been defiled. To join hands with other people of good will, to perform acts of courage and dedication, to sing our songs of peace, to work together to heal and bless our world.