Saturday, May 17, 2014


This past week the freshmen have been clomping around school wearing their hiking boots. Their 53-mile backpacking hike on the Appalachian Trail begins this weekend, and they need to make sure that their boots are well broken in.

In the training sessions we always stress how important it is to have a good pair of boots that can protect your feet from the sharp stones and can support your ankles when the trial gets rocky.

At the same time that we were teaching this to the students I happened to be writing a retreat conference on the story of Moses and the burning bush. There is a beautiful ironic contrast between the kids who are trying to get the best boots possible, and Moses as he approaches that bush. You remember the story from Exodus Chapters 3 and 4.  

Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest if Midian; and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and lo, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, I will turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt." 

What’s going on in his head as he goes over to investigate? He will end up inserting the phenomenon he’s experiencing into his own mental framework.

This is inevitable, really. Even for the experience of divine activity. We could never understand anything without starting from an intellectual framework we already possess, and then referring any new things to that framework. We have to have pigeon holes in which to place things.

So, this is what Moses has in mind: He is going to consider this phenomenon of the burning bush as part of his view of God, of history,of God’s presence in History. So far so good. But the text continues: When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, "Moses, Moses!" And he said "Here am I." 

But then, God goes on to say something surprising to Moses: Then he said, "Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground."  

"Put off your shoes from your feet." What does this command mean? I suggest that it is actually a powerful symbol: It means something like, “Hold on, there, Moses! “Take your sandals off because you’re not going to come to me and enclose me in your own ideas!”

“Take your sandals off, because “YOU are not going to integrate ME into your personal world-view;” Instead “I am going to fit YOU into MY plan!”

When I was growing up we would walk barefoot down at the seashore. We never did it enough to toughen up the soles of our feet, and so if we ever forgot our sandals and had to walk along a road barefoot we became painfully aware of every little pebble.

Ever see someone with tender feet walking barefoot?  It’s sort of comical and painful at the same time. They take tentative, uncertain steps, they walk humbly, you might say -- with the humility of someone who’s not sure what’s going to happen next, as they wait for the next sharp pebble to cut into their foot.
So now let’s picture Moses as he continues to approach that burning bush -- only now he's in his bare feet! He has become the very picture of how to approach the mystery of God: No one can just march triumphantly into the presence of the Lord!

Muslims still have the custom of removing their shoes on entering the mosque, as though stepping before God on tiptoe, in silence, not imposing their own pace on God, but letting themselves be absorbed and integrated into GOD’S PACE.

But “Take off your sandals” is only the first half of the sentence; remember the second part: for the place where you are standing is holy ground.

Imagine what Moses must be thinking as he stands there barefoot in this desolate place, this abode of jackals, where only bandits roam and nobody would want to live anyway. This desert where Moses feels so lonely, wretched and frustrated -- this is holy ground? This is God’s presence? This is the place where God reveals himself?

Yes, maybe now Moses is starting to catch on. He’s beginning to learn about divine initiative: It is NOT MOSES who is seeking GOD and therefore has to go to some special purified and holy place to find Him. Rather, it is God who is seeking Moses, and seeking him right where he is, in the place where he happens to be, even if its a miserable, abandoned, accursed desert place. Here God is present with Moses, and chooses to reveal his Glory.

Moses’ attitude toward God has just been flipped upside down! He has experienced a conversion, a new way of seeing God.

Up until now Moses had felt that he had to do things, a lot of things, for God: start a revolution, sacrifice his own privileged position, rush to save his people only to be scorned and rejected by them in the end. But now he’s beginning to see that God is different.

Up to this point he has thought of God as someone who exploited him for awhile and then abandoned him, a master more exacting than any other master, more demanding than Pharaoh himself. Now he is starting to understand that God is merciful and loving, concerned about him, about this Moses who is a failure a refugee forgotten by his people.

Now listen as the voice continues: “I am the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham...the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.”(Ex 3:6) “I am the same God that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob knew. I dealt with them the same way I’m dealing with you.” The Lord has always been a God who was concerned about the abandoned, those who felt hopeless and ruined.  

This must have been very reassuring to someone like Moses who has bungled everything and so runs the risk of forgetting. “I am the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham…the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” In this sentence the Lord recalls for him the entire past -- a past that needs to be remembered and reflected on: This God is a God who calls him not to a contest of wills, nor to servile fear, but to a relationship of loving intimacy.

Now at this point God can start to reveal his plan, His divine initiative for rescuing Israel from Egypt.

This is a good reminder to you and me: This same God, the god of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Moses and Aaron who delivered his people from bondage in Egypt, the God who took flesh and became one of us to deliver us from sin and death, needs each of us, as he needed Moses, to take off our shoes in his presence.

The only way to approach God is without our boots on, in a spirit of humble trust and dependence.    

However we may have manipulated God for our own purposes in the past, there is a moment when we are finally called before the burning bush to truly understand who He is.

He challenges us to forget the heavy, protective boots that allow us to be in charge: “put off your shoes from your feet” and come to me on my terms!

Let's wish the freshmen luck on their backpacking adventure, and pray that their boots serve them well..