On Holy Ground
M. Jeanne Wirpsa
All Saints’ Episcopal Church
June 12, 2016
Santa Tierra. Holy Ground. In a few minutes, the choir will sing an uplifting offertory that celebrates the experience of standing “on holy ground.” I must admit when I first listened to the recording of this piece that Scott shared with the choir I was slightly disappointed. I was ready either to belt out the gospel version I love or bask in fond memories of our beloved diva Barbara Streisand singing her rendition. (I’m guessing there are a few of my gay brothers here today who could join me in singing that Streisand version; but let’s not). To assuage my disappointment, I downloaded my familiar versions and listened to my heart’s delight, before buckling down to learn today’s anthem, “On Holy Ground.”
Tony came to Northwestern Memorial Hospital from New York City to receive a life-saving stem cell transplant for the debilitating autoimmune disease he contracted almost 15 years ago as a first responder on 9/11. Now unable to walk let alone rescue others, he wept as we invoked the spirit of those who had perished that day. He wept as I prayed that his healing be a tribute to the courage of deceased first responders. He wept as I invited him to release the burden of survivor guilt he had carried all these years. He wept as I invited him to imagine strength and vitality returning to his limbs. I wept too – for I was standing on holy ground.
They came to his room. One by one they came to Juan’s room. The patient care tech who had swapped stories with Juan about parenting young children. The physician who had fought so hard to cure Juan’s leukemia. The housekeeper who had spent her own money to buy Juan the tacos he so loved. The chaplain who had prayed tirelessly for a miracle. The nurses who had seen him fail chemo treatment after chemo treatment. One by one we came. As we had created a circle of care around Juan for the nearly 8 months he had been in the hospital, we came now at the time of his death to form a circle of love and support around his grieving family. We all wept – for we were standing on holy ground.
He grew up as a young African American man in the era of Jim Crow and became the greatest heavy weight boxer the world has ever known. He fully embraced his Muslim faith, adopted a name that proclaimed to the world - “I am a proud black Muslim” - and sacrificed money, titles, and future glory for his commitment to unity and peace. This past Friday, Imams and Rabbis, close family and those whom he had never met, dignitaries and the masses paid tribute to Muhammed Ali. They all wept – for they were standing on holy ground.
“A woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that Jesus was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment.” The woman in our gospel wept – for she was standing on holy ground.
Santa Tierra. Holy ground. Where do we find it? How do we know when we are standing on it? What transforms the space we inhabit from being mere ordinary soil to “holy soil?” Our gospel story today provides some clues, maybe even answers, so let’s look a closer at what is going on.
The Pharisees. They get a bad rep in the New Testament where they are caricatured as legalistic and holier than thou. Today (according to the Webster dictionary) we even use the name to mean a self-righteous person; a hypocrite. The Pharisees of old were actually respected members of an ancient Jewish sect, distinguished by strict observance of the traditional and written law – in some ways not so different from modern Orthodox Jews or maybe even the Amish. The meaning of the word "Pharisee" is related to the Hebrew root that means to "separate" or "detach." From whom did the Pharisees separate? From priests and clerics such as the Sadducees who had a different interpretation of Jewish law. From the common people of the land. From Gentiles or Jews who embraced Hellenistic culture. Certainly from women, lepers, Samaritans, sinners, the outcast, tax collectors, and anyone who might be categorized as “unclean” under their interpretation of Jewish law.
For the Pharisees, holiness was something that had to be secured and protected. It required building fences or hedges to keep out the messiness of sinful behaviors and the impurity of illness, bodily fluids, and death. Holiness was something that, in turn, could be defiled, lost, or sacrificed -- if one crossed the line. The Pharisee in our gospel passage could not help, therefore, but be aghast when “that kind of woman, a sinner” dared to touch Jesus.
Throughout the gospels it is exactly “that kind of woman” who has eyes to see the holy. (Remember the woman at the well, the woman with the blood flow, and the women on the road to Emmaus?). Time and again in the gospels those who are labeled as unclean, sinful, or outcast encounter Jesus and recognize him as the Holy One. As in our story today, it is those who have very little “purity” to protect or lose who dare to reach out and touch the holy in their midst. It is “that kind of woman” who stands on holy ground.
In contrast, those who focus on following the letter of the law, getting it right all the time, being scrupulous in their religious observance run the risk of not seeing the holy when it is right before their eyes. Certainly those whose energy is directed toward keeping a tab on the sins of others and promoting their own pious character run an even greater risk of being blinded to unconventional manifestations of the holy.
We at All Saints may not think we fit this last portrait – we are pretty loosey goosey when it comes to strict religious observance, making sure we get to church every Sunday, or do our morning devotional readings and prayers. We don’t like to think of ourselves in the same category as “those kind of Christians” who judge the behavior of others, label certain kinds of people as sinful, avoid socializing with the wrong elements. If we act like the Pharisee in our gospel today it is probably in more subtle and, perhaps, insidious ways.
Where do we get stuck in our ways, demand perfection of ourselves or others, get bogged down by the mundane, ordinariness of everyday life? Where do we build fences, protect ourselves from pain and chaos, separate ourselves from those whose perspective or behavior might take us out of our comfort zone? Where do we cast our gaze expecting to see the holy while averting our eyes to places and experiences that may challenge or surprise us?
Our gospel today invites us to relinquish all notions of where holiness is to be found. It invites us to abandon categories and definitions that separate us from them, the pure from the impure, sinners from the saved. We are invited to cross the line with “that kind of woman” -- to break bread with the homeless, to bind up the wounds of our injured city, to anoint the ill, and weep with those who mourn – to stand on holy ground. We are invited to cross the line -- into the messiness of life, the suffering of others, places of vulnerability, woundedness, and mortality – to stand on holy ground.