Sermon for March 24th, 2019
Have you ever stepped on a Lego in bare feet? Or managed to find that one nail in the floor? Or tried to walk across the really hot sand at the top of the beach without sandals on? Ever have someone step on your foot when you were wearing open-toed shoes?
You may be able to spend most of your day feeling invincible, but all it takes is one misstep in bare feet to remind you of how vulnerable you really are.
Feet are amazing things really. They are the reason, or at least part of the reason that we can walk upright. We spend our days putting all our weight on them. Feet are amazingly strong and tough. We use our feet to march into battle; we use our feet to spread the Gospel.
“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news.”
Says the Prophet Isaiah.
Feet are amazing, and yet, all it takes is one Lego, one tiny piece of glass, one little rock or shell, and you will be quickly reminded of how fragile they really are, and how fragile you really are. That’s why we wear shoes. Shoes create a barrier between our precious, fragile feet and the world. Shoes protect our feet from injury. Shoes make it a lot easier for us to get on in the world. But shoes do something else too:
People are very funny about their feet. If you don’t believe me, just come to mass here on Maundy Thursday. It is always like pulling teeth to get people to come up to have their feet washed. For a lot of people, taking off their shoes in public, or in a social setting, especially in church, is very intimidating. If you take your shoes off, people can see your feet, and that feels very vulnerable and very personal. Because our feet take the brunt of the abuse we put on our bodies, they often aren’t pretty. But, even if your feet are pretty and you just had a great pedicure, you know that it will only take about a minute for them to get filthy if you walk around without shoes on.
So we wear shoes. Shoes make us feel less vulnerable. Shoes make us feel socially acceptable. They are a tiny barrier between us and the dust God created us out of, and yet it is just enough of a barrier to completely change how we see ourselves and how we see others. You see a man or a woman walking down the street in bare feet and you will think they are crazy, but give them a tiny piece of leather or rubber and a strap on their feet, and suddenly they are perfectly acceptable, perhaps even stylish or chic. That is how powerful shoes are. Shoes can change how you feel about yourself, and that can be a good thing if you are going hiking, or going on a job interview, or maybe had a bad day and just need to treat yourself; but shoes can also be a symbol of our pride as humans, so sometimes they need to come off.
I am not just speaking metaphorically here. I think that there are times when it is important to quite literally feel the sand or the grass or the earth between your toes and to remember that no matter how invincible your boots may make you feel, you are still weak and fallible and mortal.
Walt Whitman described grass as the “beautiful, uncut hair of graves.” I always thought that was a beautiful image. Letting yourself actually touch the earth and the grass around you is a reminder that you are not that far removed, or far separated from those that came before you. It’s an important reminder. It is a humbling reminder.
One of the first things that God ever says to Moses, before he gives Moses the law or the Ten Commandments, before he commissions Moses to go down to Egypt and tell old Pharaoh to “let my people go,” one of the first things that God says to Moses is: “take your shoes off.”
Take your shoes off, because the ground on which you are standing is holy ground. Now is God worried about Moses trampling the dirt around the burning bush? I don’t think so. I think God knows what a false sense of pride our shoes can give us. They lift us up just so much from the earth beneath us, but that is just enough to make us feel superior. It is enough to make us feel almost invincible. If Moses is going to have a real relationship with God he cannot have that barrier. The beginning of any real relationship with God is true humility. We need humility. We need to understand that we are a lot closer to our ancestors in the dust than we are to the God whose name is just “I am,” the God who created the universe. You know the leather sole of a sandal doesn’t raise you up very far from the earth, but for us humans it is just enough to make us feel different, to make us feel special. So God says the sandals have to go.
You know, we have been reading the book of Proverbs this Lent, and Proverbs begins with the very famous line: “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Now some people have misinterpreted that line because of the word fear, but fear here is not the same sort of fear we would have of a tyrant, or a spider or a rattlesnake. Fear here is humility; it is awe and reverence. It is an understanding that only God is God and we are not. Fear here is the realization that you are not all powerful or all knowing. The fear of the Lord is knowing on some fundamental level that you are not special, that you too are vulnerable, and that you need help from the outside.
That may sound harsh, because many of us were conditioned as kids to believe that we were all special or exceptional, but it’s simply not true. We are individuals, we may have some unique characteristics, but the universe and the world aren’t going to treat us differently than it did our ancestors. And we aren’t much better than them. That may sound like a real downer, but I think it’s incredibly liberating. What a relief it is to not be the center of the universe. Now it is not up to me to figure everything out. Now it is not up to me to fix everything. Now I can learn from others. Now I can learn that there is a power outside my tiny brain that just might have something to teach me. That realization, that awareness really is the beginning of all wisdom, and it is the beginning of our relationship with God. Before Moses could receive God’s commandments or serve God he had to be humbled; he had to remove anything that would insulate his pride or make him feel superior, so his sandals, simple as they were, had to go.
Now I am not suggesting that you start coming to church barefooted, however I am suggesting that if you really want to have a relationship with God, you will need to learn to be vulnerable. You will need to do away with anything that makes you feel superior to everyone around you, and anything that makes you feel superior to your ancestors, because you know what, they probably have something to teach you. “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone” Paul said. It is only when you realize that you don’t have all the answers and that you are vulnerable that you can finally start to grow and learn and bear fruit, and receive wisdom and grace.
You know, that fig tree in Jesus’s story, I can’t help but wonder why for three years the gardener never took care of it; never fertilized it or weeded around it. It wasn’t until the gardener became aware that the tree was vulnerable to be cut down that he realized he needed to take action. The tree needed nutrients and care that it just didn’t have on its own. It needed help to come from the outside in order to grow and bear fruit. The realization that the tree was vulnerable, may just be what saves it.
Isn’t it amazing how realizing that you are vulnerable can actually make you stronger?