Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

I never thought very much about shoes — especially about when to take them off or put them on — until I spent time in Japan.

God Touches Jeremiah's Mouth
God Touches Jeremiah's Mouth, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tenn. Original source: Wikimedia.

September 3, 2017

Alternate First Reading
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Commentary on Exodus 3:1-15

I never thought very much about shoes — especially about when to take them off or put them on — until I spent time in Japan.

As my husband and I traveled throughout the country we discovered that there is a very specific shoe etiquette that is unfamiliar to most North Americans.

Every time we entered our room, we took off our shoes. Every time we visited a museum, we took off our shoes. Every time we entered a shrine or temple, we took our shoes off. And in most instances, we replaced our shoes with slippers.

Sometimes we exchanged one pair of slippers for another in the same building—changing from house slippers to bathroom slippers, for example.

In the Exodus passage, the first-ever encounter between God and Moses, God tells Moses — really commands him — to take his shoes off. God doesn’t make this demand very often in the biblical text. In the Book of Joshua (5:15), the mysterious commander of the army of God tells Joshua, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy.” In the Book of Ruth (4:7), there is a scene in which a shoe is taken off to seal a deal between Boaz and Ruth’s next-of-kin who has the first right of refusal to take her as a wife.

There is something significant about removing shoes, especially on holy ground. Is this about reverence or respect? Something like, “Moses, take off your shoes for goodness sake, you’re in the presence of the creator of the universe!”

This is how I’ve understood the passage in the past. I’ve assumed that it had something to do with making sure Moses understood how to behave in God’s presence.

And I think that this is certainly part of what is happening. But if you read the rest of Exodus 3, you’ll notice that Moses doesn’t sound or act like a reverential or awestruck man, even when he takes his shoes off.

In the verses that follow, God lays out a plan for Moses: “Moses, I’ve seen my people and how miserable they are down in Egypt. I’ve heard their cry at the hands of their taskmasters. I know how much they are suffering, and I’ve decided that it’s time for me to do something about it. I want to get them out of Egypt and bring them into a much better land, a land that I promised their ancestors. So here’s the deal, I’m going to send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”

Instead of bowing in awe and humility, as a shoeless man before the deity ought to do, and saying, “Yes, with your help, I will,” Moses says, “Hey, wait a minute. I’m not ready to sign on.” He then goes on to provide a list of reasons why he is not the right man for the job.

Does this sound like a man who knows how to behave properly in God’s presence? Moses sounds more like a regular guy, a real person, a little too much like me, and maybe you too.

Upon my return from Japan I decided to investigate this “shoe business.” Why do the Japanese take their shoes off, especially when they enter their homes or temples? I discovered that taking off one’s shoes is a fairly ancient custom in Japan, going back at least to the 7th or 8th century, that it’s widespread — 98 percent of all Japanese do it — and that people have specific reasons for doing so.

In one survey I read, 81 percent of the people identified not one, but two equally important reasons for taking their shoes off when they enter their homes: 1) to keep their houses and floors clean; and 2) to be able to relax and be themselves.

So why did God tell Moses to take his shoes off? There has to be more to this story than attitude and etiquette. If I look for connections between the Japanese and Moses, the cleanliness response doesn’t go very far. Moses is in the desert after all, and tracking dirt from one area to another probably wouldn’t make much of a difference.

But let’s imagine the second possibility for a moment… Is it possible that God tells Moses to take his shoes off because he wants Moses to be himself? To remove all pretense? To be vulnerable and open to what God has to say? The closest analogy I can think of is walking into the CEO’s office for an important meeting with my shoes off –something I can hardly imagine doing because I would feel too exposed.

Here in this text, God lays out the single largest rescue operation in the entire Bible. God could have done it alone or God could have chosen anyone on earth for the job. But God specifically selected Moses. In doing so, there must have been something about Moses, with all of his flaws, gifts, and unique qualities, that God was interested in using.

Is it possible that in calling out to Moses, God wanted Moses to be Moses, to be himself, rather than pretending to be someone else?

An old Hasidic story shows awareness of the importance of being one’s self:

Rabbi Zusya, when he was an old man, said,

“In the world to come, they will not ask me

‘Why were you not more like Moses?’ 

Rather, they will ask me:

‘Why were you not more like Zusya?’”

Parker Palmer, in his book Let Your Life Speak, suggests that being one’s self isn’t always easy or automatic. “We arrive in the world with birthright gifts,” he says, “then we spend the first half of our lives abandoning them or letting others” persuade us that they aren’t worthwhile.

We often read this text and hear God’s command to Moses to take his shoes off as one about submission or respect.

But maybe we can also hear God’s voice, to Moses and to each of us, more like this: “Moses, take your shoes off! I need you, not Abraham, Isaac or Jacob, not someone with an MBA or medal of honor. Let’s talk, you and me, honestly, about this plan.”

And so Moses, being truly himself, said, “But God…are you sure this is a good idea?”