Take Off Your Shoes!
October 12, 2014
In the one-woman stage show “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe,” actress Lily Tomlin plays all the characters: a rebellious teenager, the girl’s grandparents (both of them, the grandfather and the grandmother), a wealthy socialite, and the central character who holds the play together, Trudy, the bag lady. Trudy is a character. She wears her wig inside out to keep the good side clean. And she talks to aliens from outer space, “her little space chums,” she calls them. They can’t be seen by anyone but Trudy, of course, but she holds long, philosophical conversations with them.
At the very end of the play Trudy comes to the edge of the stage and talks directly to the audience in her usual raspy voice:
Hey, what's this? (She finds a note in her pocket.) It's a letter from my little space chums. Let me just read it to you.
"Dear Trudy, thanks for making our time on earth so jam-packed and fun-filled, but now we have to leave to go to a higher bio-vibrational plane. Just want you to know that the best thing that happened to us on earth was the goose bump experience"
Did I tell you about that? I took them to see a play. There we were at the back of the theater, standing there in the dark, all of a sudden one of 'em tugs my sleeve, "Look, Trudy," he said. "Yeah, goose bumps," I said, "You definitely got goose bumps. You really liked the play that much?" They said it wasn't the play that gave 'em goose bumps. It was the audience. I forgot to tell 'em to watch the play; they'd been watching the audience! All those strangers sitting there in the dark, laughing and crying about the same things...that just knocked 'em out.
Being the audience to something truly amazing can give you goosebumps. It can bring you to tears, tears of joy, tears of sorrow – sometimes both at the same time. It can change your life.
Which brings us to Moses: Moses was the audience. He thought his only job was tending the flocks of his father-in-law Jethro. One day he looked up and saw a strange, impossible sight: a bush ablaze with fire, yet untouched by the fire. Moses got the goosebumps. He pays attention – of course he does! He “turns aside,” the text says. And when he does, God speaks: Take off your shoes, Moses, you’re standing on holy ground.
Holy ground. One way to define holy ground is to say that it’s a place where we pay attention, a place where we take off our shoes.
There are places around the world considered holy by almost everyone: Jerusalem; Iona, Scotland; Mecca; the Ganges River. There are places you might visit expecting to find a holy place: retreat centers, campgrounds, mountain tops, rivers. There are also places that are holy just for one person - maybe you. A places where once you took your shoes off – literally or not – because God’s presence’s burned before you.
Maybe this sanctuary is one of them. This is where we baptized your child, or confirmed him, or where her wedding was held, or where we celebrated the life of someone you loved very much, and returned him back to God. Maybe this sanctuary is where you have surprised yourself by shedding tears, or by saying “yes,” or found yourself caring for someone you didn’t know or for someone didn’t think you liked.
You might not know that this sanctuary is a holy place to people who are never here on Sunday mornings. People who come in once a year, or once a month, just to sit in the quiet calm of this space. I don’t usually know when they are here, and if I do, I don’t interrupt them; I assume they have taken off their shoes and are listening to God.
There are other holy places in this building, of course. I’m guessing that the Sanctum, the youth room downstairs, has witnessed a lot of bare feet. And that during many of those barefoot moments young people have experienced God’s presence in new and life-changing ways.
Maybe the church kitchen, or Asbury Hall, or the Quilt Room, or the Choir Room, or Tennant Chapel, or Copper Chimney Lounge, or the Memorial Garden, is your holy place. A place where you turn aside, become aware of God’s presence and take your shoes off.
When churches plan their finance campaigns these days, a great deal of the advice they hear and read says “don’t talk about the budget or the building, talk about the mission.” And I get that; I agree with that. I’m right on board with that children’s song that many of you know: “The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not an any-thing the church is a people.” Amen.
But it is also true that this building makes our mission possible. This space is filled with God’s presence, and memories of God’s presence, and hopes for God’s presence in the years to come. We know that God is not confined to this, or any, space. But we have found God here. We have taken off our shoes here. We have been sent out from here with inspiration for mission.
This holy place deserves our respect and care. When people come here – for youth group, or funerals, for pastoral care appointments, or weddings, or meetings, or – of course - for worship services – we want to welcome them with a warm, clean, safe, hospitable, beautiful space. We want this to be a place where they can take their shoes off.
Creating and maintaining a place like that takes the generous giving of all of us. In this Finance Campaign season – the month of October – some of us are using a book by Bishop Robert Schnase, Practicing Extravagant Generosity, to help us reflect upon our own giving. Here’s how Schnase describes the connection between giving and the holy places in our lives:
“Every sanctuary and chapel in which we have worshiped, every church organ that has lifted our spirits, every pew where we have sat, every Communion rail where we have knelt, every hymnal from which we have sung, every praise band that has touched our hearts, every church classroom where we have gathered with our friends every church kitchen that has prepared our meals, every church van that has taken us to camp, every church camp cabin where we have slept – all are the fruit of someone’s Extravagant Generosity.”
This year we have more of this holy place to care for. Soon the loan we have applied for to purchase the Wesley side of the building will be complete. Pastor Bill and the Wesley students and Board members will be able to turn their attention away from the building and towards the campus community members.
We of University UMC have an outward-facing mission too. In fact, if we don’t tend to those outside the building, caring for the building itself will have no purpose. The building will become a museum of memories rather than a living, breathing, holy place. In our concern to care for the building, we cannot forget that the building is not our mission; the building is the holy ground for our mission – helping people to see the burning bushes, to turn aside, to take off their shoes, to hear God calling them.
Moses turned aside and took off his shoes. God spoke and he paid attention. After some negotiation, he followed God’s direction, left the burning bush and his safe, ordinary life in Midian, to return to Egypt and do something truly extraordinary and life-changing: lead his people from slavery into freedom.
Of course, if we were the audience to such an awe-inspiring, goose bump-producing event, we would do the same thing, right? We would forget the sheep and pay attention to this obviously important sign from God. We would take off our shoes; we would listen and follow God’s call. Surely we would. I think we would. Wouldn’t we?
If we're honest with each other, we must admit that we are much more likely to keep to keep tending the sheep than to turn aside to watch the burning bush. We prefer to keep our shoes on – so to speak - rather than taking them off.
But Moses did stop, notice, turned aside to pay attention. And when God saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him. Did you notice that? It was only when Moses turned aside to look at the burning bush that God spoke.
It is one of God's great inefficiencies, Rev. Barbara Lundblad says, this waiting for human beings to turn aside and take off their shoes. "Immortal, invisible"...inefficient. Story after story in scripture points to God's inefficiency. It is an inefficiency born of relationship, she says. Bound up in the very nature of God who longed not only to be, but to be with.
Could it be that if we turned aside and took off our shoes more often God would speak to us more often?
There are many reasons to keep our shoes on:
- We're terribly busy. We need to get someplace, no time to stop, we'll come back later.
- Maybe we don’t believe in visions. What we think we’re seeing must be an illusion of some kind.
- What if we can’t distinguish if it's God or our own imagination speaking?
- Maybe it’s not God, but ourselves we don’t believe in. God couldn’t want me to do anything unusual or extraordinary.
- Most frightening of all – what if God is there, what if I do pay attention, and God actually asks something of me? What will I do? How will I explain it?
"Moses said to God, 'If I come to the people and say that God has sent me, and they ask, 'What is his name’ what shall I say to them?"
We might ask: if I turn aside and believe I have come into God's presence, how can I talk about that--not only to someone else, but how would I talk to myself about the experience of God's presence? What words would form? What images or sounds? In a sense, there is no way to talk about it, to find words, to make the sounds.
"God said to Moses, 'I am who I am'...thus you shall say to the Israelites: "I AM has sent me to you." I am who I am. It is the mysterious name. The name framed by Hebrew letters which have been translated as “Yahweh” in some Bibles. But this name is never spoken aloud by observant Jews. It is too holy to ever be spoken aloud. In that sense there is no way to make the sounds, to form the words. Yet, this human limitation does not mean that God is absent. We can sense that God has spoken even if we cannot say the words or name the name.
But mystery is not God's only proper name, because transcendence – otherness - is not God's only way of being. After giving Moses the great mysterious name, God went on: "Thus you shall say to the Israelites, 'The Lord, the God of your ancestors--the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob--has sent me to you.' This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations."
God is not only beyond all words; God's name is attached to human names: The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Sarah, Rebekah, Leah and Rachel, the God of Mary Magdalene and Sojourner Truth and Martin Luther King. The God of Jennie. And there is always a blank space for you to add your own name.
God has a very long name and by this name God will be known forever. Mystery and revelation. Majesty and earthiness. Immortal, invisible, and inefficient--the Holy God waiting for you and me. In this or some other holy place, God’s spirit burns without being consumed, waiting for you to notice, to take off your shoes, and listen.
It's enough to give you goose bumps.
Barbara Lundblad. Turning Aside, Program 4323. First air date March 5, 2000 on 30 Good Minutes, Chicago Sunday Evening Club, 2000. http://www.csec.org/index.php/archives/23-member-archives/454-barbara-lundblad-program-4323
Robert Schnase, Practicing Extravagant Generosity: Daily Readings on the Grace of Giving. Abingdon Press, 2011.