Take off Your Shoes
Sermon delivered by the Reverend Barbara Cawthorne Crafton
at St. James Church in Florence, Italy
on August 31, 2008 — 16 Pentecost, Proper 17
When the Lord saw that Moses had turned aside to see the burning bush, he said, “Take off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”
We came to Italy with two very heavy suitcases, for which we were punished by the airline. We now know that what you need to bring is four light ones, not two heavy ones. Mostly, it was clothes. There were a few shoes, though: I brought a pair of black shoes; I brought three pairs of flip flop sandals. I brought a pair of dressy shoes, and a pair of loafers, and my husband brought three pairs of shoes: one sandal, one brown and one black.
I left most of my shoes at home, of course. Looked in the closet and there sure were a lot of shoes. Many loafers, black pumps, many other-colored pumps as well. An old pair of beautiful red suede pumps that I keep for old times’ sake, really I cannot wear a heel that high anymore. There were lots more shoes under the bed. Several pairs of sneakers, and some shoes that I’d even forgotten that I had. . I didn’t bring them all. We didn’t really have to bring a lot here. We’re only going to be here a year – for just a year, you don’t need everything you own.
There has been a delightful lightness to our arrangements in the house across the street. Our closet is not empty, but it is not overflowing. Our drawers in our dresser: they are not empty, but they are not stuffed full of things we never wear. And my shoes: they don’t fill up the rack of shoes that I have there, but I have enough. I didn’t need all those shoes. I sure didn’t need the red pumps! But I didn’t need half of what I have. I was not aware of myself as a rich person in any way, but I see now just how lightly I can travel and be fine. And I find myself wishing that when I return home, that I remain light like that.
Some years ago, my husband and I were in New York at my mother-in-law’s Park Avenue apartment. She was in a nursing home. It was now clear that she would not return to that beautiful apartment. We had kept it open for quite a while, but that was silly. There was no point in it: she would never be coming back there. There was thirty years of beauty in that place, thirty years of accumulation. It was a huge project of unpacking, and packing, carrying away, and throwing away. Some selling. Some giving away. There was so much stuff.
And later, after she died, her things from the nursing home came home in large bags. It was just a few things. Housecoats with her name sewed in them. Clothing we did not recognize. Clothing that she woul d never have bought when she was well. Clothing she would not have liked. A few pictures of grandchildren, a few shoes and slippers. Not much. She didn’t need much. We don’t need much. I wonder: do we really need more than we can carry in two suitcases? And all those shoes?
“Take off your shoes,” God says to Moses, “Where you are standing is holy ground.” When we hear “holy,” we think of people being special and good, but it may be that when God thinks of holy, he thinks of something else. Take your shoes off! Don’t load yourself up with stuff. You don’t need your shoes. Take ‘em off! Stand before me the way you were when you were a tiny baby. You came into this world naked and alone. You had nothing when you came in. You had no shoes, you had no clothes. You did not know how to get your own food, and you would die if your mother and your father did not take care of you. You were complete weakness when you wer e a baby. Take your shoes off, and be like that again, because that is the way you are compared with me, says God. I am the One who gives you everything you need. And all of the things you collect, and surround yourself with, you don’t need. You don’t need a quarter of them. You don’t need an eighth of them. You hardly need any of them.
You only need a couple of bags full, and you could probably lighten up those bags. Take off your shoes. Be like you were when you came. Be naked, and vulnerable, and alone. Understand who you are. Understand that all the power that you want to have, and the power that you do accumulate — that it can leave you just as quickly as you got it, if not quicker.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, we are fond of saying to each other when we are i n too much of a hurry. To which a cynic can reply, Well, no, but it was destroyed in an afternoon. We can lose it all very quickly, and we will lose it all eventually. When we leave here, we’ll go out the same way we came in: naked and alone. We leave this earth in exactly the same state of powerlessness we were when we arrived. And the better we remember that while we are here, during the long walk in between our arrival and our departure, the better off we will be. The less we will cling to things that cannot save us. The less we will depend on things that are no hope for deliverance.
The strongest among us can become weak in a moment. I would venture to say that there are more people in the world who have no shoes to take off, than there are people like me who have so many shoes she didn’t even bring all of them with her to Italy. I think there are probably more people who have nothing than there are people like us, who have almost everything.
And in a moment when you can lose everything, you remember that. Oh, it comes to places far from us! This could never happen to us. This is the weekend upon which three years ago, Hurricane Katrina blasted open the city of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, and parts of Texas and parts of Alabama — swept away people’s homes, swept away everything. When you go there today, you will see a set of steps leading down into nothing, because there is no house there anymore. Many people died. Many people lost everything. It was the most terrible thing that has happened in the United States in terms of natural disasters, ever. And right now, even now, at this moment, another hurricane even worse than Hurricane Katrina is making straight for the city of New Orleans. What will happen?
People in Florence also remember when a thing that could not happen, did happen. Forty years ago, just now, a little bit more, a mild mannered river overflows its banks and torrents of water destroy not only artwork but buildings, the foundations of buildings and human lives. Cars float down the Arno. Cars and masonry and trees and everything float down the Arno and lodge beneath the Ponte Vecchio and form a dam, just like in New Orleans. And the water, which MUST go somewhere, goes all over the city.
In a moment, you can lose everything.
There you are, in your village, cooking yo ur meal, and your children playing near you, and your husband is away hunting, and you look up and there are the Janjaweed. They sweep through your village. And you survive because you hid, and some of your children hid, and some of them are no more, and you do not know what happened to you husband.
There you are. Two hundred years ago, cooking your meal again, and your children playing by you, and your husband out hunting, and you are a Native American and there are men on horseback. It is the United States Cavalry. They sweep through and soon there are none of you left, except the one who hid to tell the tale. You can lose it all in just a moment.
Take off your shoes. The place you are standing is holy ground.
Not holy in terms of being better than other people, but holy in terms of knowing who you are. Knowing how vulnerable you really are. Knowing that tomorrow is promised to none of us, so we’d better make very, very good use of today. Today could be the only now we will ever have. Yesterday is over, and tomorrow is a mystery, and there have been people for whom tomorrow never came.
And so, today. The only today you will ever have. The only today you will ever have, even if you live to be 120 years old–like the old lady in France who lived to be 120 years old. She said she knew Van Gogh – said he was a very strange man. She finally died at 120. Even if you live to be that old, you will still only have one today. And when that today is gone, you will have lost it forever. It will be gone.
Don’t blow it off. Don’t waste it. You don’t have to work all through today, but for heaven’s sake, notice it! Notice what a gift it is, to be alive. To be the person you are. To have the things that you have, however few. However many they may be, you won’t take them with you. One day, they’re going to take your stuff and sell it at the Thrift Shop. The only thing we have that survives us is the love that we spread around today. We’re responsible for that. That is our true treasure, and in that love lies our true holiness.
Take off your shoes – you’re not going to need them anyway. Take all your clothes off, if you want. St. Francis did that in Assisi. Walked out of town stark naked. Probably be an unusual thing to happen in Florence, but I imagine its happened before. Don’t depend on anything that you have, on anything that you have done, because anything can happen tomorrow.
But we are here, today.
And now, unto God in whom reside yesterday, today, tomorrow, be ascribed as is most justly due, all might, majesty, dominion, glory, and power, from this day forward and for evermore.