A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on August 31, 2014 (Proper 17, Year A)
“Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” You heard the guy — take off your shoes. Seriously. Now, normally we only do this when we wash feet on Maundy Thursday. And while I’m just back from vacation, I’m not so disoriented that I’ve lost complete track of where we are in the liturgical year. But as uncomfortable as this may feel, I invite rather than compel you to take off your shoes and socks. I won’t make you do anything but just sit with your shoes off and be mindful that you are indeed standing (or at least sitting) on holy ground. And don’t worry — you can always put them back on during the Creed.
While we’re familiar with this story of Moses and the burning bush, I don’t think we always know what to do with the concept of holiness. And it doesn’t help that whenever I hear the expression “holy ground” it makes me want to quit my day job and open a coffee shop called Holy Grounds — wouldn’t that be a great name? Shockingly, Bryna’s not okay with this little plan of mine.
But when it comes to the idea of being holy, we either trivialize or objectify the concept. Think about all the expressions we use in everyday conversations — holy mackerel, holy Toledo, holy moly, holy cow, holy smoke, and, if I want to push the edge a bit, holy crap, but I’ll stop before I get to holy it-kinda-rhymes-with-ship (ship — emphasis on the “p”). Depending on usage and intonation these expressions all convey either astonishment, pleasure, or anger. What they don’t do is get at the real meaning of what it means to be holy.
But we also use holiness to objectify in a way that makes things feel remote or distanced. I get this when people curse in front of me and then quickly apologize once they notice my collar (‘Oh, sorry, Father’). Somehow priggishness is associated with holiness. Or when we think of the saints we see in our stained glass windows as perfect rather than as the faithful but flawed human beings they actually were.
Holy simply means set apart. Something or someone or someplace is holy when it has been set apart by or for God. So the holy ground in this story of the burning bush is a place set apart by God specifically for this encounter with Moses. And as such Moses is commanded to treat it with respect — which is what the whole slipping off the shoes thing is all about.
But it’s also, I think, a reminder of the profound connection between the Creator and the creation; between the divine and the human. As Moses removes his sandals we see him standing on this mountain, vulnerable before God, the bottoms of his feet touching the soil, awed, astonished, frightened, yet ultimately receptive. He is at the end of one journey even as he prepares for a new one. He is meeting God on this mountain and he will return to this very mountain with the people of Israel, God’s chosen people, to worship once more the God who has formed the soil of the earth and the soil of our souls.
One of the joys of summer, especially around here, is going to the beach. After you haul everything down to your spot and set up your umbrella and unfold your chair and take off your shoes and settle down to listen to the rhythm of the waves and feel the warm sun on your skin, nothing beats letting your toes dig into the sand. You feel the heat on the top layer and then wiggle your toes down into the coolness below the surface. Taking your shoes off invites a direct connection to the earth, to the holy ground God has created.
But if we’re honest with ourselves, as adults — unless we’re at the beach or the pool — we rarely remove our footwear in public. Shoes have become part of our daily armor. We give a lot of thought to what we put on our feet and we have many choices: sneakers, pumps, heels, loafers, sandals, flip flops, boots. We have running shoes and walking shoes and dress shoes and tennis shoes. And when we take them off, there’s a distinct feeling of vulnerability.
Which is why we rarely do. There are practical considerations, of course. We don’t want to get our feet dirty or step on a piece of glass and it’s not really socially acceptable to wander around town barefoot. “No shirt, no shoes, no service.” Children certainly do though and maybe we could stand to follow their lead occasionally. I remember growing up in Hawaii and it was a natural thing that kids would walk around barefoot. It was strange to see kids playing with their shoes on. I don’t know if this has changed over the years but I went to St. Clement’s nursery school in my bare feet and no one thought anything of it.
The point is, you are already standing on holy ground — because it’s all holy ground. Yes, we set certain places apart as specifically dedicated to God like our churches or the Memorial Garden. But Jesus’ entrance into the world makes the whole world a holy place. That’s the power of the Incarnation. It’s what makes our bodies the temples that they are — flesh and bones set apart to glorify God.
But this also means that each one of us is holy — we have all been set apart by God. And if we truly take this to heart it bears the question, how would recognizing your own holiness change the way you treat yourself? How would it impact the way you treat the other holy beings you encounter in this life in the form of friends and strangers? I think living life, at least metaphorically, with your shoes off helps root us as the children of God that we are. It helps us feel better connected to the God who loved us so much that he sent his only Son into the world to walk among us. And graced us with fellow pilgrims to share this journey of life and faith.
Well, I guess you can put your shoes back on if you want. But you’re also welcome to leave them off for the rest of the service — there must be some perks to coming to church on Labor Day weekend. If you’re really feeling brave, walk up to communion without them on as a reminder that you are indeed standing on holy ground. Be aware of seeking to remove the distance between you and God in your own life. Following Jesus is not without its stumbling blocks but the invitation to ever-deepening relationship with him is always extended. And that profound connection to all that is holy is always waiting.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2014