One year in Emily’s first call I led the Bible lessons for VBS. They followed Moses. We started with the Burning Bush, and part of the story, as you may know, is that Moses must remove his sandals. Now, I don’t know what I did while removing my sandals that was so memorable, but every subsequent lesson involved some variation of: “What did God say to Moses at the Burning Bush?” “Take off your sandals!” Or, “What did Moses say to Pharaoh?” “Take off your sandals!” Or, “Pastor Tim, can Moses take off his sandals to cross the Red Sea?” They got that Moses took off his sandals. So, I remember it. And it may be why I am drawn to the place in Matthew when Jesus tells his disciples they must go without sandals. It is weird. Other gospels say, “just one pair,” but Matthew says, “none.”
It’s odd enough without my VBS recollection. How are you supposed to go from town to town on hot, rocky ground without any shoes? Maybe I just worry about this because I don’t like being barefoot, but these are poorly thought out instructions, Jesus! To do God’s work, the twelve apostles are going to be uncomfortable and vulnerable.
They believe stuff deeply, and Christ sends them to talk about that with other people who believe stuff that matters deeply. It is going to be like walking barefoot. You tread carefully, and it hurts anyway because you have to keep putting one foot in front of the other and sometimes there aren’t any good places to do that. You’re going to put your faith out there where others can hear it and think about it, talk about it, question it, maybe reject it. Perhaps we are afraid of rejection. Or perhaps we are afraid of losing. Like, we envision the faith conversation as a debate, only we aren’t prepared. We’re not sure we’re gonna be able to answer the questions correctly. Or perhaps what bothers us is the control the other person has. You’re barefoot because you’re in their space, so they will set the agenda.
Taking off your sandals was a sign of respect which came to mean more than that. In the Hebrew world, guests remove shoes upon entering someone else’s space. You don’t want to track dust and filth into the house. The act comes to mean more as God reveals Godself to people. When God summons Moses from the Burning Bush, God tells Moses to remove his sandals because it is holy ground. You’re in God’s space, now. Act like it. When the Israelites start using the Tabernacle, priests do their official priest work barefoot. When Solomon builds the Temple, priests go barefoot in it. You’re guests in God’s holy space. Priestly work is done barefoot.
Matthew echoes that. I have to think that’s the reason for an otherwise baffling instruction to go barefoot. Matthew echoes the priestly footwear code. The disciples are to go out to the people as if they were priests going into the Temple. Their work is holy, priestly work. The apostles are literally guests, as the priests were in their holy place, vulnerable to their host as priests were vulnerable to God. Jesus calls his disciples and sends them into houses that they shall treat as the House of God, to serve the people in the houses as though the people were God. That’s what Matthew has Jesus doing: turning us into priests, and those to whom we go into reflections of the divine.
This is way harder than believing in God privately. I’ve said it before and I will say it again: Believing in God privately is easy. Even I can do that. Go home, believe in God by myself. Read the news, know what God thinks. Go on Facebook, tell everyone what God thinks, then log off. It’s way harder to deal barefoot and vulnerable with God incarnate in your neighbor, inside your neighbor’s house. You don’t know exactly what your neighbor will do or how they will feel, but that is the reality of our relationship with God. We’ve got to interact. Just as in our relationship with God we interact, so we interact with God in our neighbors. Jesus sends the Twelve to “cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers,” and “cast out demons.” The disciples will have to learn in each situation what the situation requires. It won’t work for James and John to barge in and say, “We’re here to cast out demons,” and the people in the house say, “Uh, he has cancer, guys.” “Great! Demons it is!” We have to listen to what is going on with people.
A few weeks ago our shelter volunteers got a surprise. Police brought a woman here. She had no place to go, and had done nothing to warrant a night in jail, so they brought her to the shelter. Problem is this is the men’s shelter. There is no more women’s shelter. We have Neighbor’s Place and Park Place for women. So, there’s no women’s homelessness. Problem solved! Nope. Our volunteers had to decide what to do. That wasn’t something we would’ve prepared for ahead of time. Priestly work needed doing now. They chose to find her a corner of the building to sleep in for the night. And we were all reminded that despite the work that has been done, spearheaded in large part by Trinity members and carried out by many in this room, we still have homelessness in the city. It’s still a reality. And there is still a reality that forty percent of Valparaiso households don’t earn enough to survive in Valparaiso, thirty percent of Chesterton households can’t afford Chesterton, thirty-five percent in Center Township, forty percent in Portage.
The Spirit sends us forth into this reality. The Spirit sends us into the households that struggle to survive, so that as barefoot priests we can do God’s holy work of listening to our neighbors, working alongside them, suffering with those whose suffering is not optional, and offering them hope. Hope in the God embodied in our presence, in the God embodied in the faithful community that serves God’s world. Our congregation’s service is worship. The Jewish theologian Emmanuel Levinas daringly calls our service to others “liturgy.” We use that as a technical term for worship, or, literally, “the peoples’ work,” and that’s our worship, work we do for God without any expectation of compensation from God. It’s not like God says, “Oh, good, you came to church, so I’ll let you live another week.” Rather, the Spirit calls us, and as we work together we discern the Spirit filling us with the love of God in Christ Jesus and sending us to do more liturgy with our neighbor.
I don’t think we can faithfully avoid the barefoot vulnerability of such liturgy. It’s a liturgy of listening for the needs of others. We keep learning. That’s good news for those of us who fear we don’t have good answers to deep questions, that God has sent us out here and we don’t know what to do. We’re going to be learning the answers to our situation specific questions as we go. That’s been part of the deal all along. Matthew calls the Twelve disciples and apostles. Disciples are students. Apostles are people who are sent. Jesus summons his twelve students, gives them authority, and sends them. Jesus sends students. They are still learning when they go out. And they are still learning when they get back, and when Jesus dies, and when he is resurrected, and even when they die. They’ll have all the answers approximately at the same time we do, when God raises us all. In the time they had, they kept up the barefoot liturgy of God’s work for others, and we in turn try to do the same.
It is, ultimately, God’s work. We don’t do it alone; God does it with us. That is, perhaps, the most reassuring thing for those who, like me, don’t like going barefoot. We’re barefoot because we are in God’s space, and we are to go everywhere barefoot, so, every place is God’s space. We are always stepping barefoot into God’s presence. That’s how God can tell Moses, “you are a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” They were always in God’s presence. God says to Moses, “You’ve seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” The people know they walked. We didn’t miss some part of the story where God became a giant bird and flew everyone to safety. Rather, God says, “That whole Passover, exodus thing, where you had a last meal, packed your stuff, fled through the sea to safety? That was me. I did it when I heard your cries as slaves in Egypt. And I came and freed you. I ended slavery for you. I didn’t send thoughts and prayers or feed you some sanitized piety meant to say, ‘Ah, slavery ain’t so bad!’ I tore down that whole system and brought you here. And now we’re going together. You’re going to walk, and I will be carrying you. (I know, it sounds funny. Trust me, I’m God. It works). You’re going to step into the divine presence, and you’re going to hear the cries of my people, and you’re going to struggle alongside them, and you’re going to say, ‘Let my people go,’ and walk with them as I free them and you and everything else from sin, death, and the devil. Throughout it, remember, I am with you always. If you start to forget, just remember to take off your sandals.”