Take Off Your Shoes
Third Sunday in Lent—Year C
March 24, 2019
Imagine with me the thoughts of Moses written as he prepares to part ways from the rest of the People of God for the last time.
“Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”
It’s been years, decades in fact, since those words first came roaring towards me on the flames of a burning bush. Those words changed my life—and unveiled a truth I had never really grasped before—where you are standing is holy ground.
The day dawned like so many others before it. It was still dark outside when the bleating of the flock woke me. There was still a chill in the air and our fires smoldered nearby, attempting to keep the cold at bay. My family stirred around me, as the rest of the inhabitants of our tent heard the bleating of the sheep and goats, and began to rise—preparing for the day’s work.
I sat up, strapped on my sandals, grabbed my staff, and bid farewell to my family—the animals were hungry, and the sooner we got moving the better.
Spring had arrived late that year. The cold dreariness of winter had taken its toll. We were ready to be up and about!
I gathered my flock and we began our journey into the nearby hills as the sun was just beginning to peek over the horizon. It was in these hills the real treasure awaited—grass, green and lush, just waiting for hungry little sheep to feast upon its goodness.
But I found no joy in that wandering. On that day, like so many others, I found my mind wandering back to a different time. A time when my sandals slid effortlessly across marbled floors, instead of mired in muddy puddles. When my ears were greeted by the soft sounds of chanting, intoned in beautiful harmonies, instead of the incessant bleating of sheep and goats. When my nostrils were filled with the sweet smell of incense, instead of the pungent scent of dirty sheep—and the acrid smell of smoke. Wait, smoke? Fire?
I stopped dead in my tracks and inhaled again, attempting to determine the source and direction of the fire. An outcropping had hidden what appeared to be an old trail leading deeper into the hills. I glanced quickly at my flock, and was reassured by the sight of them settling in for an afternoon rest. They would be safe hear for a few moments while I investigated the source of the smoke—after all, fire could mean danger for all of us.
I stepped past the outcropping and made my way down the trail. I turned a corner and before me appeared an unexpected sight—a lone bush, one of the common brambly thorn bushes that grew all through these hills, was a blaze only steps away. I took a quick glance around, looking for the source of the fire—perhaps another shepherd had laid it and forgotten—but there was no sign of anyone.
Strange, I thought to myself, and shrugged. Better put it out—no need to set the entire mountain ablaze.
As I lifted my foot to step closer a voice echoed out of the bush.
I froze, my foot hovering in mid-air.
“Here I am” I said, my eyes darted about, trying to find the source of the voice—it couldn’t be coming from the bush, could it?
“Come no closer!” The voice said, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”
My foot still hovered in the air, and I bent quickly to unstrap the laces of that sandal, followed quickly by the other one.
And then there was a moment of silence as my bare feet sunk deeply into the soft green grass. I felt the blades of grass tickle between my toes. I shifted my weight slightly and felt the soft earth give way, welcoming my weight and steadying me. The smell of smoke again filled my nostrils, but somehow it was different—it was still acrid, the biting smell of burning wood, but also somehow sweeter. In the distance I could still hear the bleating of my flock, yet the sound which had been grating on my raw nerves all morning, now sounded familiar, like home.
And then came the voice again, filling my ears and my heart with its strange yet somehow familiar tone, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”
As the realization dawned on me to whom I was speaking, I dropped to my knees, hiding my face in my hands.
God spoke to me that day, and as God spoke, I found myself acutely aware not only God’s voice and what God was asking of me, but also of where I was. I wasn’t in the grand temples of my youth with their marbled floors and incense filled halls. I wasn’t inside one of the humble buildings my people lived in in Egypt, or even the tents my in-laws called home. The sky spread above me, the green grass below, the hills stretched around me on every side—it was beautiful—but God wasn’t supposed to be out here!
God was supposed to be inside, under cover, in a temple, or, at the very least, in a tent! God wasn’t supposed to be in this wild and untamed place—God was supposed to be somewhere clean and well-tended. Somewhere swept clean of dirt and grime, where well-dressed people tended the space and ensured it lived up to its name–“holy ground.” God wasn’t supposed to be out here—out in the dirt and the mud, surrounded by smelly sheep and their equally stinky shepherd.
But here God was—in the middle of the wilderness—and God called this place “holy.”
My world changed that day, and not just because of who God called me to be and where God called me to go, but because of what God helped me see.
Where God is, is holy; and where God is, is right here. Who am I to deny God’s presence in unexpected places. God is always present, from the glittering halls of power in Egypt to the dirty borderlands we crossed through on our way out—God’s presence was there before us and it remains after us.
Soon, my friends, you will take the next steps in your journey, venturing into strange and unfamiliar places. And when you feel lost or alone or afraid stop, take off your shoes, allow your feet to touch the earth and remember, “the place where you are standing is holy ground.”