Shoes are a funny thing. Their basic function is protection – from rough roads and paths, from debris and water, from extreme heat and extreme cold. Not having shoes can lead to injury, disease, and disability. But having shoes can create problems too. Once feet are covered, they can become sweaty or smelly. Shoes can hide unkempt toenails or misshapen feet, making us hesitant to remove them at times. And of course, shoes can also be markers of status – those fancy Nikes or Manolo Blahniks.
And so when we are asked to remove our shoes, our first response can often be panic. Every year when we do the foot washing on Maundy Thursday, I hear people chatting about their foot concerns. Holy Wednesday of that week could be relabeled, “Holy Pedicure Day.” I have overheard parishioners strategizing about socks versus hose, about pre-washing their feet before the service, and about avoiding the foot washing part of the liturgy altogether.
Our paranoia about feet and footwear can be found everywhere. We all know people who have a “no shoe rule,” in their home. Sometimes when you forget about that rule, you may panic, wondering if you put on those socks with the holes in them that day. In my daughter’s nursery care room, there is a sign that asks everyone to take off their shoes before entering the room since the little ones who are crawling will put everything in their mouths – including debris from shoes. Because I usually have my five-year old in tow, plus a baby in my arms, the trouble of shoe removal is often annoying. When I traveled to Burma, I bought special sandals because we were told that the Burmese always remove their shoes before entering any building. I knew with such frequency of removing shoes, I had to worry about sandals that were both comfortable for lots of walking, but also easily slipped on and off.
This fall, St. Margaret’s will be offering a new Sunday School program for our Middle School students. The program is called Rite-13. The program is meant to help middle schoolers to start claiming their faith lives and their adulthoods as their own. They will spend time talking about images of God, their prayer lives, their understanding of God’s call to love one another, and what being a young person of faith means.
One of my favorite lessons from Rite-13 is one that talks about prayer. In the lesson, the young adults and teachers are not admitted into the room unless they take off their shoes. When I taught this lesson many years ago, the reaction was immediate. Some of the kids giggled, some looked worried; other kids refused at first and hung back, while others seemed skeptical, but willing. The action was simple, but the action of taking off their shoes created unease.
Though our Old Testament lesson is filled with vivid images of burning bushes and Moses debating with God, the line that caught my attention this week says, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” As I pondered on this moment for Moses, when God proclaims the ground to be holy and worthy of shoes being removed, all those places where I have also been asked to remove my shoes kept coming back to me – Maundy Thursday foot washings, my friend who insists that shoes be left at the door in the winter, my daughter’s nursery school room, Burmese diocesan offices, and that Rite-13 classroom. Though some of those places require removed shoes for religious purposes, some of those places make that request for purely practical reasons. But despite the sacred and secular division, I found myself imagining each of those places as places that God might call holy ground.
When I come forward for foot washing on Maundy Thursday, I do so to allow the foot washer to claim their servant ministry. As I vulnerably offer my battered feet, and they humbly kneel to wash those feet, the ground becomes hallowed in the sacred exchange. As water splashes on the wooden floor, something holy happens on that ground.
When I visit my friend’s home, and slip off my shoes in respect of her rules, something sacred always happens. Whether we share a hearty laugh, we commiserate over a glass of wine, or we simply break bread together, God is present between us. The carpet of her home is holy ground.
When I drop of my daughter at school, and dutifully take off my shoes, I mark the space as something other than simply a place to care for children. Those workers are joining me in the sacred work of raising a child – of sharing in milestones, of caring for bodily needs, of loving and sharing joy. By taking off my shoes, I remind myself that God is present with our children even when we are not there.
When I entered a building in Burma, I always loved the visual of piles of flip flops near the door. On those cold cement floors walked servants of God who simply wanted to know that they were not forgotten by their American Christian brothers and sisters. And though we struggled to communicate in vastly different languages, the friendships that we forged were forged on holy ground.
And when I entered that Rite-13 classroom, and those teenagers and I began to talk about what prayer is and who this God is that we worship, with our feet exposed to each other, our awkward, vulnerable conversations were held on holy ground.
When we hear Moses’ dramatic call narrative today, we often think that Moses is told to take off his shoes because that specific ground at Horeb is holy. But I wonder if something else is happening in this story. Perhaps the ground itself is not holy, but what is happening on the ground is what makes the ground holy. The soil itself is not made up of particular particles that are inherently holy. The soil becomes holy because of what happens there.[i] God calls Moses to a task that will change his life forever – to free the people of Israel from bondage and to lead them to the Promised Land. In this sacred conversation between Moses and God – even when Moses argues with God constantly about how ill-equipped he is for this mission – the ground becomes hallowed because of the vulnerable, honest, sacred exchange between a holy servant of God and the great, “I AM.”
We encounter holy ground in our own lives everyday. That holy ground is obvious to us in some places – at the communion rail, in our favorite pew, or in our favorite prayer spot. But this week, Moses invites us to see holy ground in more unexpected places – in our workplace, at school, in our homes – and to take off our shoes in recognition of the holy encounters that are happening. Now, there may be some places that removing your shoes is impractical – while waiting for the train on your morning commute, on the playground at play, or in your favorite restaurant. But I want you to at least imagine taking your shoes off in all the places you find yourself this week and see how your perspective changes. Maybe with your shoes off, that guy who elbowed you on the LIRR seems more sympathetic as you look at the dark circles under his eyes. Maybe with your shoes off, that silent orderly who cleans up the neighboring hospital room seems like more of a crucial part of the hospital than the doctors and nurses. Maybe with your shoes off, that clerk at the grocery story who barely makes eye contact seems much more interesting as you ponder how she makes a living serving you. And when you lay your head down to sleep each night this week, I invite you to thank God for the holy ground in your life and the opportunity to remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground. Amen.
[i] This train of thought inspired by reflections by Anathea Portier-Young, “Commentary on Exodus 3:1-15,” found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2136 on August 28, 2014.