September 3, 2017

13th Sunday after Pentecost Year A

When Laurie and I moved to Michigan from Texas many years ago, we had no idea that winter would seem to last half the year. We learned the local custom to take off our shoes when we’d enter someone’s home, for the practical reason that half the year there was snow or ice or slush on the ground that made everyone’s shoes a mess. But having lived in Arkansas for almost 20 years now, we have returned to our warm weather ways and typically remove our shoes after we get home at the end of the day. Ahh, time to relax.

 In our Hebrew scripture reading today, the instruction for Moses to remove his sandals because he is standing on holy ground, is meant to emphasize who is speaking to Moses, the God of his ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In certain Jewish ceremonies the removal of shoes is still practiced. And in our own tradition on Maundy Thursday, we remove our shoes to remember Jesus’ washing his disciples feet.

 Take off your shoes, for you are standing on holy ground.

These are the words that Moses hears in this week’s text as he stands before the burning bush. This is not the let-my-people-go Moses that we tend to think of (thanks to Charlton Heston and his classic 1956 film). This is the shepherd-in-hiding Moses.  At the end of his forty years, he spends his day chasing sheep around the mountain Horeb, later to be understood as Mt. Sinai, where God gives his people the Ten Commandments.

We tend to think that Moses walked right up to the burning bush for this divine dialogue. But take a closer look at this scene: Moses is out in the desert, a place filled with dry plants and the hot sun. In an environment like this, an occasional brush fire is bound to happen. Only this time it’s different: the bush is on fire but is not consumed.

How many times did Moses walk past this bush, thinking it was just another victim of the rising temperature and the dry condition of the desert? How long did it take him to realize that the same bush was still burning and burning and burning? How long did it take Moses to discover something divine in the midst of his daily routine?

Moses steps up to a perpetual fire hazard, likely confused and a bit perplexed, and he hears a voice:

“Take off your shoes, for you are standing on holy ground.”

 It’s important to see in this text that God notices Moses noticing. “When the Lord saw that Moses had turned aside to look at the bush that was burning, but not consumed, God called to him out of the bush.” It seems that God was waiting to see if Moses was observant enough to notice something out of the ordinary in the midst of the very ordinariness of his surroundings. I wonder how often have I missed the holy in the midst of my ordinary life because I have not been observant enough, or taken time to be present in the everyday activities of my life? I wonder if God is waiting for me to notice the holy in the midst of the mundane? How many times have I missed the opportunity to hear God say, “Stan, Stan, take off your shoes, for the ground on which you are standing is holy?”

In 2010 Arthur Jones, a filmmaker from England, embarked on a year-long mission to live his life barefoot. Known as “Sole Man,” Jones spent the year traveling the world, walking through freezing snow in Norway and standing on hot pavement in Shanghai. He embodied these words from Exodus 3 in a way that most of us would not imagine possible.

When you take off your shoes you become more aware of the world around you, you feel it in a different way. You become aware of what you’re standing on, you can feel every rock, every surface.

“It opens your eyes,” he said. “You're suddenly in touch with everything around. And it feels like you're a little child discovering the world for the first time."

Take off your shoes, for you are standing on holy ground.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner says that the burning bush was not a miracle, but a test. Kushner writes, “God wanted to find out whether or not Moses could pay attention to something for more than a few minutes. When Moses did, God spoke. The trick is to pay attention to what is going on around you long enough to behold the miracle without falling asleep. There is another world, right here within this one, whenever we pay attention.”

Take off your shoes, for you are standing on holy ground.

Friar Ivo Markovic from the Tanenbaum Peacemakers in Bosnia says, “Go the road of peace, of compassion, of goodness and you will experience grace.”

Take off your shoes, for you are standing on holy ground.

Rob Bell, summarizing the book of Leviticus in thirty seconds or less, for ONScripture’s 30 Second Bible, says, "Your life matters: how you prepare your food, how you deal with your neighbor, how you handle conflict. You are on holy ground. This is not a random, accidental phenomenon we know to be you, but your entire life takes place under a wide horizon of holiness and sanctity. Respect the mundane and the everyday because it is there that the divine is found."

Take off your shoes, for you are standing on holy ground.

As Arthur "Sole Man" Jones traveled the world barefoot he learned to open his eyes and experience the world around him in new and unexpected ways. 

As Moses took of his shoes he discovered that the ground did not suddenly become holy. Moses took off his shoes and discovered that the ground had been holy the entire time. Or perhaps more accurately, Moses took off his shoes so he could feel and experience the holiness that is always present, just beneath the sole of his foot.

The whole point of this story is that God had first noticed the needs of his people and was waiting for Moses to pay attention to God, so that God could use him to bring liberation to God’s people.

Wherever we find ourselves, may we do the same:

Take off your shoes, for you are standing on holy ground.