That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Reverence and Intimacy: The Burning Bush – Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent – March 3, 2013

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This sermon was preached on Sunday, March 3, 2013, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(Revised Common Lectionary, Lent 3, Year C: Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 63:1-8; and Luke 13:1-9. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page. At St. Paul’s Parish, during Lent, we are using the Daily Office of Morning Prayer as our antecommunion; therefore, only these two lessons and the psalm were read. The epistle lesson, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, was not used.)

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Red Berry BushSome years ago, during the summer of 2000 to be exact, I was one of about a dozen adults who chaperoned 87 teenagers on a ten-day tour of northern Italy. One of the pieces of advice given our group by the organizing tour guide was that the young ladies would not be allowed into Italian cathedrals wearing shorts or tank-tops. She suggested that they take with them, and always have on hand a light-weight over-blouse and a large scarf that they could tie around their waist to form a sort of skirt. This caused no amount of amusement among our group 17- and 18-year-old, Twenty-First Century, American girls, but it only took one time being escorted out of a church by a stern Italian nun for them to realize how serious the advice was and to never again forget to put on their overshirts and their wrap-around skirts.

On one occasion at the Duomo in Milan, I had to intercede when one of our young ladies was being hustled out of the church even though she appeared to be appropriately dressed. It turned out that she had slipped off her shoes to cool her feet on the chilly marble floor. Bare feet, it seemed, were as unacceptable as bare legs or bare shoulders.

I was reminded of that episode by today’s reading from Exodus in which God instructs Moses to remove his sandals because he is standing on holy ground.

In today’s reading from Exodus, Moses witnesses and his curiosity is piqued by the bush which appears to be burning and yet is not consumed. He approaches the burning bush and hears God say to him: “Do not come any closer . . . . Take off your sandals, for you are standing on holy ground.” In the ancient world, it was common for people to remove their footwear when entering a holy place. Today, many still do; for example, Muslims do this on entering a mosque. This might have to do with reluctance to bring dirt from the outside world into a sacred place. Some suggest that the removing of shoes is a sign of vulnerability and submission, since slaves in the ancient middle east went barefoot. For Moses, on the side of a desert mountain, a place of sticks and stones and thorns, possibly of scorpions and poisonous snakes — not a nice place to be barefoot and vulnerable, it was surely a sign of obedience to God’s command, a familiar sign of respect, reverence, and submission.

But there is another aspect to bare-footedness which was, I think, the problem the Italian nuns had with my young tourists bare appendages, an issue of what they felt was inappropriate intimacy and familiarity. Some of you may be familiar with the work of novelist Kurt Vonnegut. In his 1963 novel Cat’s Cradle, Vonnegut includes a fictitious religion, one admittedly founded on lies, called Bokononism. An important ritual of the Bokonists is the boko-maru, understood by some to be the supreme act of worship in Bokononism; it is an intimate act consisting of prolonged physical contact between the naked soles of the feet of two persons. Although Vonnegut never makes it explicit, there is clearly a pun at work here, a play on the words “sole” and “soul”. Baring one’s sole to another, one bares one’s soul. I always think of the boko-maru when I read or hear the burning bush story. The pun, of course, does not work in Hebrew, but the biblical story is one of intimacy, the vulnerable intimacy of Moses’ bare feet touching God’s holy ground. Something God seems to have desired and even demanded.

I wonder if those Italian nuns, so concerned about bare legs, bare shoulders, and bare feet in their churches had ever thought of that . . . .

So there is a tension at work in this story: God commands Moses to keep his distance as a matter of reverence and respect, but also to do this thing which fosters personal vulnerability and intimacy. Moses is told not to come any closer to the bush, but simultaneously to remove his sandals and touch the holy ground with the bare skin of his feet. Detachment and familiarity are held in tension; Moses’ bare feet signify both reverence and intimacy.

This is the very nature of God. The German theologian Rudolph Otto coined the term numinous to describe God and he defined it in the Latin phrase mysterium tremendum et fascinans – the mystery which terrifies and fascinates, before which we are in reverent awe and yet to which we are deeply attracted. Could there be a better description of the burning bush from which Moses is to keep his distance and yet approach intimately?

Storyteller Tracy Radosevic suggests that this attitude of reverence and intimacy is a whole life philosophy, that the whole of God’s creation is holy ground which we should approach with awe and fascination. She offers this meditation:

My bare feet walk the earth reverently
for everything keeps crying,
Take off your shoes
The ground you stand on is holy
The ground of your being is holy.

When the wind sings through the pines
like a breath of God
awakening you to the sacred present
calling your soul to new insights
Take off your shoes!

When the sun rises above your rooftop
coloring your world with dawn
Be receptive to this awesome beauty
Put on your garment of adoration
Take off your shoes!

When the Red Maple drops its last leaf of summer
wearing its “burning bush” robes no longer
read between its barren branches, and
Take off your shoes!

When sorrow presses close to your heart
begging you to put your trust in God alone
filling you with a quiet knowing
that God’s hand is not too short to heal you
Take off your shoes!

When a new person comes into your life
like a mystery about to unfold
and you find yourself marveling over
the frailty and splendor of every human being
Take off your shoes!

When, during the wee hours of the night
you drive slowly into the new day
and the morning’s fog, like angel wings,
hovers mysteriously above you
Take off your shoes!

Take off your shoes of distraction
Take off your shoes of ignorance and blindness
Take off your shoes of hurry and worry
Take off anything that prevents you
from being a child of wonder.

Take off your shoes;
The ground you stand on is holy.
The ground you are is holy.

This is the attitude that God expects of Moses, that God expects of us. It is an attitude that requires inspiration and it requires cultivation. It requires practice. Not everyone gets it. The Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett-Browning put it this way:

The earth is crammed with heaven.
Every bush is ablaze
with the glory of God.
Those who see take off
their shoes.
Those who do not
pick berries.

Let us pray:

O God, you are the Great I AM before whom we stand in awe and wonder, by whom we are fascinated, to whom we are attracted, and with whom we so desperately hope to be intimately familiar; eagerly we seek you; our souls thirst for you, our flesh faints for you; inspire us to take off our shoes of distraction, our shoes of ignorance, our shoes of mistrust, our shoes of busy-ness, that we may see the holiness in every place, that we may see the fruits of the spirit on every bush, on every tree, and in every life; may we walk the earth reverently and see that it is crammed with heaven; may we do more than just pick berries; in Christ’s Name we pray. Amen.

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

1 Comment

  1. I hear my father’s voice, “Put your shoes on, you aren’t a briar hopper.” Lots of briars in West Virginia.
    There is an intimacy about bare feet.

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