Reflection: Barefoot Blessings October 1, 2017
Exodus 2:23-25; 3:1-15; 4:10-17
I wonder if any of you remember the time we invited Duncan Barwise to come and speak to us about change in the church. Duncan was the minister of Duncan United Church at the time; he was also a runner, and he had changed recently from wearing running shoes to running barefoot. He was full of enthusiasm for what he considered a more natural way to run. It took a while for his feet, legs and joints to get used to not having their alignment controlled and reconfigured by his shoes. Once his body got used to it though, he found he ran freely and pain-free – more so than when he wore shoes.
I thought of Duncan, when I read this familiar story once again, of Moses being asked to take of his shoes, because he is standing on holy ground. I also came across a reference to a guy who became known as the “Sole Man” – S-O-L-E. ‘In 2010 Arthur Jones, a filmmaker from England, embarked on a year-long mission to live his life barefoot. ….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.” ‘ (quoted by Jim Keats)
When was the last time you took off your shoes and walked – or ran? – barefoot? When I thought about it I realized that almost every time I have done so it has been in the spirit of prayer: on retreat, walking in the grass, along a beach stepping carefully through the sand or splashing in the waves, sitting in a chair with my bare feet firmly planted so I can feel rooted in the earth as I pray. There is a sense of connection, of sensitivity to the holy, that comes with taking off our shoes. We are more vulnerable, more centred, more rooted, and often, more open. When we are open we can perceive what is already there, if we let our senses experience it.
I wonder how many times Moses walked by that burning bush before he noticed something unusual was happening? After all, in the heat and aridity of the desert a bush on fire wouldn’t be too unusual. Did he go by it several times, chasing his sheep or leading them, until he saw that something miraculous was occurring? It was only when he stopped, looked carefully, and stepped aside to pay attention, that the voice of YHWH spoke to him out of that bush. And it wasn’t until he took off his shoes and acknowledged the sacredness of the moment and the space, that God shared the future that was in store for him and his family.
… 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.” (Kushner, Honey from the Rock)
These moments in which the holiness of the world reaches out and grabs our attention can occur in places that are dedicated to such moments, and in unexpected times and places as well. A man describes his experience of being part of the counter-protests at Boston Common in response to the neoNazi rally there. He describes chanting, singing, hugging, laughing and walking arm-in-arm with hundreds of others for the cause of justice and equality, as such a holy moment.
Celtic Christianity marks and names thin places – places where people are known to have experiences in which they catch a glimpse of the Divine. Tour groups make pilgrimages to places like Iona, Lindisfarne, the Northumbria Community – because for centuries people have recognized these places as conducive to spiritual insight.
Churches, particularly in the Medieval and Renaissance periods, used to be built with the hope that they might evoke such an experience. Soaring architecture, dazzling stained glass, evocative paintings and icons – all were meant to draw people into a sense of the holy that is always present.
The Church of San Miniato sits above the Piazza Michelangelo overlooking the enchanting city of Florence, Italy. Its beautiful green and white marble has a coolness and sense of comfort to it that lures visitors up into the hills for a spectacular view and a quieter place to contemplate the beauties of the city. When I was on my first sabbatical I was fortunate enough to spend a month in Italy. I was in and out of several churches each day, but somehow, this was the place I felt closest to God. It was peaceful, uncrowded, and I lit a candle there to pray for those close to my heart. Of all the churches I visited, this was the one that felt the most like holy ground. I’ve had similar experiences crawling through an ancient tomb in Ireland, standing on a windy hill among the broom and the heather in Scotland, walking on the beach at Esquimalt Lagoon, reading a few sentences in a lengthy book, dancing circle dances at a Spring Festival, and singing in community with hundreds of others at church gatherings.
One of the main goals of our participation in worship on Sunday morning and in prayer and study throughout the week is to keep us open so that we can see the burning bushes that are all around us. Sacred time and sacred space are not as rare as we might think. This is how one Celtic writer puts it:
“Where is my home?
Is it the house where I live,
The garden where I sit in summer,
The country where I roam,
Or the church where I worship?
The place I call home
Is where my heart is at rest.
And my heart is most at rest
When it turns to God in prayer.
So wherever I pray is home.”
One might say also, wherever and whenever I pray, is holy. Whenever and wherever we stop and pay attention to the wonders of the world around us, is sacred. Whenever we marvel at beauty or seek the word and will of God, these are moments fraught with Divinity. Whenever people join together to worship God or witness to what is good and right and true – that is a moment of deep grace and blessing.
One more thing: one of the most important things about this story is that here, mysticism and mission are linked. The spiritual experience, the thin place or thin moment, is not an end in itself. God immediately moves from the miraculous to the missional. God’s will is revealed to Moses, and this stuttering, terrified ex-prince turned shepherd has a big job ahead of him. When this moment of God’s revelation is over, Moses has to put on his shoes, go down the mountain, meet his brother Aaron and his sister Miriam, and go confront the most powerful ruler in the known world, on behalf of a beleaguered people.
Meeting God changes people. Meeting God can change us! I wonder, if we are promised the blessing of a direct experience of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, will we look for it? Or will we ignore the burning bush in our lives, and go on our way, afraid of what God might ask of US should we meet God flame-to-face? That is for me, if you’ll pardon the pun, the BURNING QUESTION of Moses’, and our, barefoot blessings. Amen.
With thanks for references from : ON Scripture: Burning Bush to Boston Common: You Are Standing on Holy Ground (Exodus 3:1-15) by Rev. Jim Keat ; And A Psalm of Thin Places – sermon by Rev. Dr. Agnes Norfleet, pastor of Shandon Presbyterian Church in Columbia, SC