Saturday, 26 September 2015

Moses and Holiness

 Does it mean getting your feet burnt?  Last Saturday I asked, as I do at most ordinations and inductions – occasionally we do it on the other format and the newly arriving minister says it – but mostly I ask the question, as one of a series of nine: do you promise to live a holy life, and to maintain the truth of the gospel, whatever trouble or persecution may arise?  I sometimes wonder how often any of us ministers reflect on those promises we make at ordination and repeat at subsequent inductions.  There is quite a lot in there that is worth pondering, and maybe we ought to do that on a regular basis.  After all this is what we have committed ourselves to?  The fifth question asks – are zeal for the glory of God, love for the Lord Jesus Christ, obedience to the Holy Spirit and a desire for the salvation of the world, so far as you know your own heart, the chief motives which lead you to enter this ministry?  And what about proclaiming the reconciliation of the world to God?  What about dealing with trouble and persecution?  What about being committed to take your part in the councils of the church?  What about giving leadership to the Church in its mission to the world?
There is also the Statement of Nature, Faith and Order which comes up in the last of the nine questions and which gives us a whole bunch of other good stuff to look at and consider.  One of the attendees on Saturday, a retired Methodist minister who I happen to know, came up to me afterwards and said – and this is something that has happened to me a number of times from different denominational partners – I do your like that Statement you’ve got.  I wish we had something like that.
But back to holiness and burnt feet – and the connection is the Exodus 3 story of Moses being called by God.  As Moses approaches the burning bush, he is told: Do not come near!  Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground
What does it mean to take your shoes off?  What does it mean to be on holy ground?  A few years ago the Church Missionary Society ran what they called their holy ground project.  They got people from around the world to take off their shoes.  They photographed those shoes and got the owner of each pair of shoes to write a brief testimony on the piece of paper on which the photograph was printed.  We decided to do our own version of that in a small way as part of a café church event at one of the churches at which I was then minister, Cotteridge in Birmingham.  Folk took off their shoes, which we then photographed and printed the photograph.  Each person then wrote just a little bit about what it meant to them to be a follower of Jesus, to walk in the way of Jesus.  It was a fascinating and moving experience.
When I was in India in February.  We took off our shoes quite a lot.  It made sense to wear sandals.  It is a mark of respect and care, to leave your dusty sandals outside. 
Moses was probably used to taking off his sandals in all sorts of situations.  But he hadn’t recognised this as being a holy place.  He was just curious about this burning bush.  Does God ever surprise us by pointing out that we are, unexpectedly, in a holy place?  I suspect God does.  The holy place is the place where we encounter God.  Are we ready for that, wherever it is, whenever it comes?  Are we ready to hear the voice of God?
There is no indication in the text that Moses had ever encountered God before.  Now, suddenly, he finds himself being told to take on a massive job for God.  Unsurprisingly, he has got a bunch of questions, and a bunch of excuses.  What are we going to do with those difficult things that God calls us to do? 
As William Willimon points out in his book “Calling and Character” – “Ministry is difficult.  Therefore the great challenge of ministry is to be the sort of characters who can sustain the practices and virtues of ministry for a lifetime.  What we require is some means of keeping at ministry – preparing and delivering sermons, visiting the sick, counselling the troubled, rebuking the proud – even when we don’t feel like it, even when it does not personally please us to do so.  Fortunately for the church, Easter will not let us give up, though we have ample reason, in the present age, to do so.  We are not permitted to give up on ministry because God, if the story of Easter is as true as we believe it to be, doesn’t give up on ministry in the world.”

It’s that quote that Rowan Williams has made famous, whether or not he first said it: Ministry is finding out what God is doing and joining in.
A slightly amended version of my address at the Communion Service at the end of this week's Eastern Synod United Reformed Church Ministers' Get-Together. Thanks to Tim Yau for the photographs.

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