This Sunday’s scripture text has several very recognizable themes in it. One is the revelation of the name of God (“I am who I am”); another is the burning bush (a Sunday school lesson favorite); third is the concept of holy ground and God’s command for Moses to take off his sandals. While on Sunday, I plan to focus my sermon on the first theme, I definitely resonate with the third. I wear flip-flops as often as I can and when I’m sitting and reading or at my desk typing I slip them off. I love going barefoot if possible. However, I understand that there’s a time and a place for everything, and if a guest comes into my home or a visitor to my office, I immediately put my shoes on. I want to look respectable. Funny how in the ancient culture in which Moses lived, just the opposite was true: sandals “off” was a sign of respect or reverence, among other things.
In my sermon research, I came across some insights on sandals and their meaning in the ancient world that I found interesting:
“Typically made of animal skin or plant fibers, sandals protected the sole of the foot but could also symbolize purity, property, social contracts, and social status. In New Kingdom Egypt, a pair of sandals could be purchased for the price of a sack of grain: though not strictly a luxury, footwear was nonetheless an investment. Sandals of higher status individuals were more artfully made, sometimes adorned with precious materials and other decoration. Sandals discovered in the tomb of Tut-ankh-Amon bore the image of foreign captives upon the insole, proclaiming with the king’s every step Egyptian royal power over the peoples and nations his armies had subdued.2
Scripture tells us more about the meanings associated with sandals. Later in the book of Exodus, the Hebrews are instructed to prepare for their journey out of Egypt by eating the Passover meal with their staffs in hand and sandals upon their feet (Exodus 12:11). These preparations signified readiness for the journey ahead (cf. Deuteronomy 29:4; Joshua 9:5,13). The books of Deuteronomy and Ruth explain rites in which removing one’s sandal(s) — or having them removed by another — nullified previously binding legal and social ties (Deuteronomy 25:9-10; Ruth 4:7-8; cf. Amos 2:6, 8:6), creating the conditions for new claims, new relationships, and new responsibility.
When Moses removes his sandals he will find himself at journey’s end, at the true goal of every journey. He will release himself from every claim so that he can accept the claim God makes upon him. He will strip away strivings for status, success, and stability. He will find his true ground and he will know where he stands.” Anathea Portier-Young, Associate Professor of Old Testament, Duke Divinity School
There IS something nice about arriving at your destination—whether it be home, or the hotel room at the end of a long day of travel—and kicking off your shoes. You have arrived! For now the journey is done. How much more meaningful to arrive at the place God has prepared for you; in Moses’ case, a place of encounter with God at which he will receive a calling to service. What would it be like if we viewed coming to church with that same reverence? Maybe we should all take off our shoes before entering the sanctuary this Sunday…