One day, Nasrudin was in the mosque praying alone.
(Nasrudin is the archetypal wise fool, who lived in the Middle East over 600 years ago, though his stories have travelled the world and been updated in every generation. Like some koan, Nasrudin stories often seem a paradoxical, a nonsense, frustrating. You have to listen for the unasked question, the one hand clapping, the untold part of the story…)
So, one day, Nasrudin was in the mosque praying alone. Eventually he became distracted in his contemplation and, as his knees were aching, he put his feet up upon the altar. Just then a cleric came in and saw Nasrudin with his feet upon the altar.
“How dare you!” roared the cleric righteously, “place your feet on a sacred place! Remove them immediately!”
Perplexed, Nasrudin looked this way and that. “Where do I put them?” he asked.
Today’s texts [see below] are a study in contrasts, in contradiction and paradox. There doesn’t appear to be a unifying theme. In trying to find weave a pattern, I found pulled threads, knots and tangles, more warp than weft.
There’s a shaking mountain and an unshaken kingdom. There’s acceptable worship and breaking the rules; fiery Mt Sinai, and Mount Zion from which flows the river of life. God is a consuming fire and God is in the desert bush which burns but does not consume. There’s holy ground and Sabbath healing, Justice rolling down like a river, and amazing Grace.
So, let’s accept that not everything – in our lives or in the lectionary readings – comes all tidily presented and making sense; let meanings unravel as they will. For now, listen to musings and parables from old times and new. Perhaps together we’ll make connections; see a pattern emerge.
Let’s begin with the “Call of Jeremiah”. Did it sound familiar? Who else was called to speak, despite his objections? Someone who expressed the same reluctance as Jeremiah to become a prophet, made the same kind of excuses, claiming a lack of qualifications and an inability to speak. In Jewish Rabbinical writings, the two are often mentioned together, their life and works being presented in parallel lines.
Of course, the theme of this reflection’s given you a clue: and I was so happy to find this parallel; along with the allusion to Mt Sinai in the Hebrews reading, it lets me segue from some rather difficult texts into the story of one of my favourite first testament characters. Yes, Moses – who was inspired first to take off his shoes in the presence of the sacred, to pick up the serpent-tongued rod of his power, and finally to go off and confront the rulers of his day and ask for the freedom of his people.
Before entering the wharenui or main house on a marae, we remove our shoes. Around the world, before entering a temple or a mosque, people take their shoes off.
Pat Morrison (of the National Catholic Reporter magazine) tells of showing a young woman, a recent refugee from Afghanistan and a Muslim, round her “unassuming rental” home. Wazma, aged 18, hadn’t had the opportunity to visit many American homes yet. First Pat showed her the living room, then the kitchen, then the bedrooms. One of these is a tiny prayer room—the one (and often only) room in Pat’s house that she says is always neat.
‘A chair, two icons and a crucifix, an oil lamp, some books and two thriving plants are about all that grace my “chapel”,’ writes Pat.
‘As we walked into the room, I said simply, “And this is where I pray.”
At that, Wazma practically leapt back across the threshold and whipped off her shoes, exclaiming as she did, “Oh! I should take my shoes off!”
There was no hint of embarrassment, of having committed some social faux pas, like “Oh, I used the wrong fork.” It was just a simple declaration and recognition: where a person prays is a holy place, and so I remove my shoes.
For Wazma as a Muslim, wherever one prays becomes an instant mosque, a masjid–literally, “the place of prostration” before God. It was deeply moving to experience this young woman’s devotion and sense of the divine.
Take off your shoes, for the place where you stand is holy ground. It’s hard to fight when you’re barefoot. It’s hard to bomb the Earth and its peoples when you see them as sacred. It’s hard to kill another when you’re both standing on holy ground.
Most of us know the story of Moses and what the Eastern Orthodox tradition calls “the unburnt bush”. We know that, on seeing Moses turn aside to look at this bush, Yahweh calls to him, “Moses, Moses… Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet.”
And what does the Bible say next? Most of us would finish the command: “Take off your shoes for you are standing on holy ground.”
But that’s not really what the text says. What it really says is “Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place wherein thou standeth, is holy ground.”
Hear the difference? It’s not, “The place you are standing on is holy ground”. What it says is “The place, where you stand, is holy ground.”
You can make the place where you stand holy ground – anywhere.
Luke’s story about Jesus healing a woman on the Sabbath is an odd one; one of half a dozen Sabbath breaking stories in the Gospels. A number of commentaries suggest what Jesus did wasn’t strictly proscribed; he certainly didn’t break any – that is, Torah – rules.
The Sabbath strands of our somewhat messy weaving – Sabbath rest – unscheduled healing – what rules are for breaking? can perhaps be woven in with the exhortation in Hebrews about “acceptable worship”.
In Re-Imagining the World , Bernard Brandon Scott says that Jesus challenged people’s worldview by exposing inconsistencies of belief, thus opening them up to embrace a new perception of reality.
‘. . . Jesus’ language offered to his audience an alternative to the world in which they were trapped — a world burdened by purity laws segregating the unclean from the clean and into further degrees of purity or shame. A world where those on the bottom are imprisoned in unchangeable structures and await a divine solution. A world in which enemies threaten at every point.
‘Jesus… offers a counter world, a vision, an openness to experience… a “glimpsed alternative”.
Our lives can be so busy with ‘doing’ that we can forget to ‘be’ and to re-create.
Perhaps the rules – written and unwritten – of our day include the expectation of overwork, of being stressed out at day’s end, of having to juggle too many things at once. In some environments, it’s the person who prioritises family commitments or personal time-out needs, who breaks the shibboleths of our day.
Here’s a reflection from an anonymous blog:
Slow me down, ease the pounding of my heart by the quieting of my mind.
Steady my hurried pace with a vision of the eternal reach of time.
Give me, amid the confusion of the day, the calmness of the everlasting hills.
Break the tensions of my nerves and muscles with the soothing music of the singing streams that live in my memory.
Help me to know the magical, restoring power of sleep.
Teach me the art of taking minute vacations, of slowing down to look at a flower, to chat with a friend, to pat a dog, to read a few lines from a good book.
Slow me down… inspire me to send my roots deep into the soil of life’s enduring values, that I may grow towards the stars of my greater destiny… Amen.
And now, from Jeremiah – the authorized speaker of the word of Yahweh, with the ability to destroy and to build; Moses at the burning bush; via Sabbath healing, we come to the unshaken kingdom, to the consuming fire.
For we have not come to the mountain that may be touched and that burned with fire, and to blackness and darkness[and tempest, and the sound of a trumpet and the terrifying voice…
But we have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem…
And since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us with grace offer acceptable worship: grateful hearts and responsive wills. For our God is a consuming fire.
As we’re gathered this morning, what is acceptable worship? Not perfunctory, mechanical rituals. Not just sitting here waiting for the service to be over so we can get to the coffee, catch up with people, get on with the next thing… something more, surely, than just an hour’s respite in a busy week, as vital as that may be for our refreshment. And what is acceptable worship in the rest of our lives?
As Paul puts it in Romans 12, we are to present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual – or acceptable – worship: our bodies available and ready to respond to the needs around us… to our neighbour’s need for encouragement, our children’s cry for direction and love; ready to respond to our partner in his hour of despair; to our lover when she is feeling neglected or worthless.
This is what acceptable worship is all about. Love, the consuming fire. The love which we sometimes call God, touching our lives, shaking our foundations but ultimately steadying us, strengthening us, burning up the dross in our lives. The fire that burns but does not destroy. Through our actions, with our bodies, in our flesh shall we see God.
Like Moses, standing before that ordinary bush, who saw a light shining so bright that he knew he was in the presence of the divine… It was a holy moment, a holy place. For Moses this was a transfiguration moment, a defining moment when he received his call to go and lead the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt.
Like Jeremiah, protesting he was too young, and a poor speaker – yet who went on to warn the people with pleas for mercy, engage in performance art, walk about in the streets with a yoke about his neck and other efforts to attract attention. Taunted, put in jail, thrown in a pit to die…often bitter about his experience, Jeremiah expresses his anger and frustration – yet he continues preaching and praying for his people.
Like Jesus, knowing that healing starts in our hearts and works its way through us; as Margie said a couple of weeks ago, “faith follows our steps” – showing that even after decades of being bent out of shape, cynical, frustrated, powerless, we too can be freed.
Like Nasrudin at the alter, we might ask, where can we put our feet that isn’t sacred?
Living as if all our resources, alive and inanimate, are holy. Recognising the sacred in unravelling threads, an untidy pile of shoes, perhaps. Healing our earth and each other with our gracious, loving bodies. Celebrating the fire, the passion, that inspires us to ‘speak truth to power’: this is how we create meaning from the tangle of our lives.
Acceptable worship, in contradiction and paradox, in the mundane made sacred by our being.
Take off your shoes, for the place where you are, is holy.
So may it be.
Words of Wisdom:
Jeremiah 1:4-10 (Contemporary English Version)
God said: “Jeremiah, I am your Creator, and before you were born, I chose you to speak for me to the nations.”
I replied, “I’m not a good speaker, God, and I’m too young.”
“Don’t say you’re too young,” God answered. “If I tell you to go and speak to someone, then go! And when I tell you what to say, don’t leave out a word! I promise to be with you and keep you safe, so don’t be afraid.”
God reached out his hand, then he touched my mouth and said, “I am giving you the words to say, and I am sending you with authority to speak to the nations for me. You will tell them of doom and destruction, and of rising and rebuilding again.”
Luke 13:10-17 (New International Version)
On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.
Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue ruler said to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.”
God answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?”
When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing.
Hebrews 12:18-29 (New International Version)
You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned.” The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.”
But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven? At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens. The words “once more” indicate the removing of what can be shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain.
Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.”
CONTEMPORARY READING – Brendan Seaton
If there was ever a first step in approaching the problems of our age, it is to take off our shoes. The act itself is one of humility. It is a gesture of respect for the world and universe in which we live, for the people who are around us, and for God, who created it all…
We spend much of our lives insulated from the world. Our houses, our cars, our communities, even our government institutions and religions have become cocoons that separate us from the world… We are unable to see alternative points of view. Our walls shield us from the facts, from the objective reality of the universe around us…
Taking off our shoes leaves us vulnerable. It forces us to watch carefully where we walk. Every step is carefully placed. We risk being hurt. We risk stumbling. But we are also freed to become part of the world around us, to become connected with it in every way. We notice every stone and thistle, and appreciate every patch of grass. Our journey starts to resemble a dance more than a march.
What would it mean if we regarded the ground we walk on as holy? It would be difficult to pollute it, to desecrate it, to put up fences to keep others off of it. What would it mean if we regarded the resources we are given, living and inanimate, as holy? We wouldn’t waste them, or treat them inhumanely, but would be thankful for them. What would it mean if we regarded the people we encountered as holy? It would be hard to cheat them, to abuse them, to use them, to ignore them. And what would it mean if others regarded us as holy? We would be treated with the respect and be given the opportunities that we think we deserve…
Confronting the problems that will face us in the coming decades will require us to connect with the earth and all its inhabitants. It will require us to consider, very carefully, every step we take as individuals, as communities, and as a species. Every step must be carefully placed. It will require us to be acutely aware of the world around us. The world will command our absolute respect and reverence. We will ignore this at our peril.
And before we take another step, we must take off our shoes.