Sunday, November 11, 2007

Exodus 3:1-6 - “Holy Ground: Take Off Your Shoes”

24th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 27)
(Lutheran Service Book readings - Year C)
Thursday, November 8, and Sunday, November 11, 2007

I want to share with you some pictures from an art installation by Paul Hobbs. The exhibit is called “Holy Ground: Take Off Your Shoes” (Sections below in italics are quotes from the accompanying book from Church Mission Society).

If we had the actual exhibit, it would be a display of shoes that have been donated by Christians from around the world. Each person also wrote a short story about their life as a Christian.

The exhibit is partly inspired by the reading from Exodus that we heard today as our Old Testament reading. Moses is walking along, notices a bush that is burning but isn’t burning up, so he stops to investigate. God speaks to him from the bush, and before Moses can get any closer, God says, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”

Out of respect, honor, and devotion, Moses takes off his shoes. Taking off his shoes made him aware of his sin, his unclean heart, his unholiness, as he approach the very holy presence of God.

So artist Paul Hobbs asked a bunch of people around the world to take off their shoes and tell a story about their respect, honor, and devotion for God, a story about their awareness of their sin and need for forgiveness, a story that shows how Jesus came to save them.

For instance, the cover shoes come from Laura Calenberg, a model from New York City. She tells her story this way:

Being on the covers of top European fashion magazines was no longer a dream for me but a reality. I could hardly believe it! All I ever wanted was to be in magazines, earn lots of money, and travel all over the world. My logic was that if I was successful and working as model then I must be beautiful. But my entire life was focused on my weight, hair, clothing, and overall appearance and attractiveness. I became a workaholic, working seven days a week because I knew nothing was guaranteed. And I became exhausted and sick.

I reflected on my life, questioning my values and ideas about beauty, and the kind of person I had become within. These questions and doubts were hitting me when I was still at the peak of my career. I saw the shallowness of it all and felt very empty inside. I had built my life on things that weren’t secure. . .on what the culture or my boyfriend thought, or how much money I made, or how popular I was. I was building my life on sand. I had neglected my relationship with God and chosen my own way. No wonder I felt so empty!

So, what is beauty? It’s what’s found inside, what’s in your heart. Humility is beautiful, though not popular in my business. Security and self-esteem are beautiful.…Only Christ can make us beautiful in God’s sight.

Laura Calenberg founded Models for Christ. Over the past 20 years she has met with girls from all over the world who have sought fame and fortune as models in New York City, helping them to see that real beauty is in Christ.

I originally found out about “Holy Ground” and Paul Hobbs just because I was searching the Internet for resources about this passage from Exodus. When I ordered the materials, I expected to mainly be thinking about how each of these people has taken off their shoes—literally for the art exhibit and figuratively in their faith—and once they’ve taken off their shoes, they’ve approached God.

However, the more stories I read from the collection, the more I realized that the whole exhibit is a natural fit for talking about stewardship. These are stories about people who have been given faith in Jesus and have gone out to share God’s love with others. That’s stewardship. Taking the gifts that God has given you—gifts of your time, your talents, and your material resources—taking those gifts and serving others.

Take Haile Gebreselassie for example. Here’s his story:

As a child growing up on a farm in Ethiopia, Halie ran 10 kilometers to school each day and another 10 kilometers back home. As an adult he ran with his left arm crooked, the effect of years spent running with books under his arm.

By the time of the 1996 Olympics, Haile was the reigning world record holder at 10,000m and the twice defending world champion. It was expected that he would receive a serious challenge from Paul Tergat of Kenya and that is exactly what happened. Tergat and Haile pulled away from the rest of the field after 8000m. Haile tracked Tergat until the final lap and then surged ahead to win by six meters. Haile and Tergat renewed their rivalry at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Again they left the rest of the runners behind and again Tergat led as they entered the final lap. This time the finish was even closer, as Haile did not edge ahead of Tergat until the very last stride, in what would prove to be one of the most exciting finishes in Olympic history.

Haile himself writes:
“When I was young, I always dreamed of becoming an athlete. And it’s thanks to God that I was able to realize my dreams. I couldn’t tell you what I’d have been otherwise. It’s clear that God gives all of us talents. The question for me is: how good are we at using these God-given gifts? So I have to work hard to utilize the gifts that God has given me.

“My faith underpins all of my actions….I always say thank you to God for giving me the opportunity to do what I have done. It does not matter whether I win or lose. The important thing is to work hard and to thank God for what He gives us to do.”

Haile is a great example of stewardship in the ways that he’s so clear about knowing that his athletic talent comes from God and that he looks for ways to give God glory for his talent. Even in participating in this art exhibit, Haile is being a good steward. He took off his running shoes and donated them to Paul Hobbs, but by so doing, he also donated his story, his encouragement, his testimony so that others would hear about how God worked in his life.

After reading a couple of these stories, and thinking about the art project’s title, “Holy Ground: Take Off Your Shoes,” I started thinking that really these people are talking about what they did with their shoes on. Sure, they’ve taken off their shoes so the shoes can be displayed, but they served the Lord with their shoes on.

That sent me back to Exodus and Moses standing by the burning bush. He’s there quite awhile talking to God, God trying to convince Moses to go and set His people free. Moses isn’t quite so sure about leading the people of Israel, about being God’s spokesman, so God has to do a lot of persuasion. The whole time Moses is standing there with his shoes off, because it’s holy ground.

But when it comes time to actually go and be God’s spokesman, when Moses is finally ready to go back to Egypt to lead the people of Israel out of slavery, well, he’s got to put his shoes back on.

Moses took off his shoes to approach the Lord, but when Moses goes out to serve the Lord, when Moses is a good steward of the gifts that God has given him, then he’s got his shoes back on.

It’s just like us today. Take off shoes, leave shoes off, walk out of service at end carrying shoes We’ve got our shoes off, so to speak, right now. [Actually, some of the 7th graders knew what was coming, and they took off their shoes. We talked this week in Confirmation about one tradition in worship is to take off your shoes to remind us that we’re entering God’s presence]. Even if you haven’t literally taken off your shoes, we’ve taken off our figurative shoes in our hearts, showing God respect, honor, and devotion in our worship, realizing we’re unclean and unholy but God invites us to approach His holiness anyway. We’ve got our shoes off.

But when we leave from here, we’ve got our shoes back on, we go out to serve the Lord, we go out to be good stewards, good users, faithful users of our time, talent, and material resources. The stories behind these shoes are stories about what happens after standing by the burning bush, what happens after you leave church.

Look at the shoes of Julius Nyabicha from Kenya. As a Christian, he didn’t just stay in church; he didn’t keep his shoes off. He went out to be a faithful user of the gifts God gave him. Julius says it this way:

I was born in 1974. My father died when I was very small. When I look at my life, I have been amazed at God’s faithfulness in providing miracle after miracle to meet my needs for school and college. I am now married with two children, and it is my hope that soon we will be able to provide for other destitute children as well.

I joined Pastor Boniface Mosoti in his work with children. My vision is to help as many children as possible, to enjoy the privileges God has given me. One day, I hope to do this by starting a pharmacy business to build a financial base from which to fund these projects.

But right now, I have to work 400 km away from my wife and children, and can only see them twice a month. But I am re-assured that I have a caring, understanding wife who shares my vision. It is very hard financially, too, but I trust in the Lord who has always been faithful.

Being a good steward is about taking off your shoes only but then putting those shoes back on when you go out to serve the Lord. Stewardship is about coming before the Lord, confessing your sins, asking for forgiveness, and receiving salvation through Christ—taking off your shoes in your heart to receive God’s holy Word, but then stewardship is about putting your shoes back on, going out into the world looking for ways to faithfully serve the Lord and serve others with whatever you have.

That’s the amazing part this art installation by Paul Hobbs. He’s gathered stories from so many different places, different kinds of people, different experiences, but every one of them left the burning bush and put their shoes back on. The shoes we see in this exhibit are shoes that have gone out to serve the Lord by serving the world.

There’s Rosemarie from Germany who survived Nazi Germany. Her father, a Christian, helped Jews escape until the Nazis forced him to kill himself in 1938. Rosemarie then survived the brutality of the Russians after the war, and then years later, God led her to work in the former Soviet Union to speak about God’s forgiveness.

John Musa Puma from Nigeria who rebelled against his family as a teenager—following a native religion instead of their Christianity, stealing, drinking, and even killing. Then through an evangelist meeting, John became a Christian, quit his rebellious life, and responded to the need for an evangelist in the rural parts of Kenya. Now John has planted a church in the neighboring country of Niger in a mainly Muslim area.

Kanta from India used to work as a prostitute for 20 years. Now she’s a health worker helping prostitutes protect themselves from HIV/AIDS and other sexually-transmitted diseases. She cares for these prostitutes when most of society treats them harshly, the hospitals not even having the time to care for them. She also has many chances to share God’s love with these women and girls who know very little love in their lives.

Oscar Gonzalez from Lima, Peru, is an ornithologist, an expert on birds, who celebrates God’s Creation with his work as a field biologist. It has led him to travel all over Peru, working with researchers from around the world, and to also create a rare green space around his home in Lima.

Dr. Rob Wilson was originally a doctor in Wales in the United Kingdom, but then he felt called by God to go to Rwanda, to work for eleven years in that war-torn, genocide-ravaged country. He worked in a hospital caring for people who desperately needed medical attention and care.

I should’ve gotten each of you to donate a pair of shoes. We could have had shoes displayed all over up here and around the sanctuary, because each of you comes and takes off your shoes in your devotion to God but you also use your shoes as you go out to be good users of God’s gifts.

Since I didn’t get all of your shoes, you’ll have to just imagine it or use this last picture as a way of thinking about it. It’s a picture from Naz Hamid. It helps us think about just how many different pairs of shoes there are in this place, and that each pair of shoes represents someone who believes in Christ and who leaves the burning bush to go serve the Lord.

Somewhere along the line maybe someone has convinced you that you don’t have much to offer God, that you do your part by putting some money in the offering plate, but that you don’t have abilities or ways to serve God with your life. If someone has ever made your feel that way, I want you to remember this picture of all these shoes or imagine a display of shoes from every person in the congregation or remember the shoes of the people in the art exhibit, because each of those people is unique, different, flawed, not always so perfect, learning, still learning, but all of those people that belong to those pairs of shoes, all of the people in this place have ways to serve the Lord.

This congregation needs a lot of pairs of shoes to do what it does. And there’s not one pair of shoes that are more important than the others. God has blessed each pair of feet in each pair of shoes in this place. God does and will use each of you to help others learn and experience God’s love.

Please don’t ever think that your shoes are unimportant. God called you aside, called you over to the burning bush of His Word, called you to faith, and then He told you to put your shoes back on, He sent you out to serve Him whenever and wherever you are, in whatever ways that you are able.

Put your shoes back on as you leave worship today, put your shoes on and go to serve the Lord by serving the world.