When we prepared to leave our church sanctuary last spring, we read a part of the story of Moses. We remembered the time when the people Israel were traveling with Moses through the wilderness, stranded between slavery in Egypt and a new life in a promised land. In that time of traveling, the people worshipped God in a tent of meeting, and God promised to be with them, wherever they went. So we have also created a kind of tent, for our traveling time. We have been watching and listening and paying attention to how God may still be with us, in unexpected ways, while we are away from our house of worship, and throughout our lives.
Today, as summer draws to a close, we back up to hear earlier parts of Moses’ story. We heard the story of Moses’ birth and then his call to lead the people Israel up out of slavery. When the baby Moses grows up and sees the suffering of his people, he doesn’t know what to do, so he travels far away from the problem. But God knows that Moses could help to free his people. So God comes to visit Moses, while he is taking care of sheep on top of a mountain.
God comes to visit Moses, and appears as a burning bush. Unexpected, right? A bush that is on fire, but not consumed, not burned up. God calls to Moses from out of the fire, and Moses responds, “Here I am.” And then God asks Moses to do something before they continue with their conversation: take off his shoes.
Why would God ask Moses to take off his shoes? Lots of people have tried to answer this question. Some people argue that God is demanding respect. That seems possible, but surprising. Usually, if we’re meeting someone important, we wear the nicest shoes we can find instead of taking off our shoes. Some people argue that God wants Moses to take off his shoes to be closer to creation, to the earth. Maybe. There is even speculation that Moses’ shoes symbolize something about money or politics. Not everyone in Moses’ time and place could afford sandals; and the sandals of some Egyptian rulers bore the image of conquered peoples on the insole, so they were literally walking on their subjects. Maybe God was trying to say something about who should serve her, or how they should serve. But none of these answers really satisfy me. There must be a really important reason why God asks Moses to take off his shoes.
Shoes can say so many things about us. Take a moment to notice what kind of shoes you are wearing today. What do they look like? What do they feel like? Do you have new shoes for the new season? Are you wearing fancy shoes, as a sign of respect when going to church? We choose our shoes for so many different reasons: because they are comfortable, or beautiful, or inexpensive, or even because they make us feel powerful.
I wonder if God asks Moses to take off his shoes so that he can be who he really is.
When we have our shoes on, we’re ready to be our public selves, to be students and professionals and people who are capable and impressive and important. Without our shoes, it’s harder to pretend. We are who we are: still gifted, and still giving, and also probably struggling with flaws and challenges; with bunions, or callouses, or poor circulation, or even unpleasant odors.
God calls Moses to do something really hard. He is supposed to lead a whole people up out of slavery, and away from a powerful Pharaoh. There’s no way that Moses can pull it off unless he’s honest about both his gifts, and his challenges. Moses has to be Moses, warts and all.
And if we keep reading in this story, we learn that God refuses to be anyone else than who God is, as well. When Moses presses God to give herself a name, God simply refuses. God is too big for a name. She won’t be put in a box, or made into an idol, or hidden within even the most fabulous footwear. She tells Moses: I am who I am. Or, translated differently, I will be who I will be. God will be Godsself; and if Moses will also be Moses’s self, together they can do something incredible.
As we enter a new season, many of us are facing big challenges. Some of us have started new schools, or new jobs. Some are looking for work, or looking for a fulfilling way to spend our time. Some of us are continuing or returning to familiar work, whether personal or professional or both. And all of us are living through a confusing and challenging time in our country.
Facing challenges, we could get scared and overwhelmed and run away to another land, like Moses does. Or we could pretend that we are bigger or better or more powerful than we are. But the world’s challenges are not made for perfect, polished, shiny-shoed people. They’re made for us, let’s be honest, a motley crew, both inside and out.
God tells us: if we’re really going to do these big things I am calling you to do, you can’t pretend about who you are. I won’t pretend about who I am, either. You be yourself, and I’ll be myself. And I will be with you: we’ll do it together. Thanks be to God.
After this, small blessing buttons were given out with the words “I will be with you” (Exodus 3:12) and our logo, to remind everyone that both God and their church goes with them wherever they go. We ended with a litany and a prayer:
When we say, I am afraid of new things! God says, I will be with you.
When we say, I am tired of the same old things! God says, I will be with you.
When we say, I wish I was someone else! God asks us to be exactly who we are, and God says, I will be with you.
When we say, I’m just not sure I can do it! God says, I will be with you.
Let us pray. God who is always with us: bless these things that we use in our study and in our work. Give us courage to be who we really are, and pay attention to who you really are, and to do the work that is ours to do, relying on your love. Amen.