Nachshon, Where Are You?

Exodus 17:1-7
© Stacey Steck

So, here we are halfway through Lent. Are you suffering yet? Have you been tested by your fast? Are you becoming quarrelsome with your family due to the deprivation of chocolate or coffee, like the Israelites and their water? And imagine, Lent is only forty days, not forty years. Although both the season of Lent, and its length, traditionally correspond to Jesus’ time fasting and being tempted in the desert, in many ways, a better parallel for us might be Israel’s time in the desert, and the spiritual challenges it faced once freed from slavery, but not yet delivered to the promised land. Those forty years constituted a period of maturation, a growing up and a growing into an identity as God’s people, a coming together of the intellectual and the emotional parts of faith in God. And that sounds a lot to me like the purpose of this season we call Lent.

Our verses this morning from Exodus offer a great lesson about God’s provision for a desperate people, and I hope that you have experienced that provision this Lent when you have needed it, that water has flowed from a stone for you in the desert of your spiritual disciplines. In planning for these forty days, I thought a reminder halfway through that God does take care of us might be a relief for some in their journey this year. But I also want to put this little story back into the bigger picture, and see what larger lessons can be learned from that place Moses called Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

If this story of water from the rock sounds familiar, it may be because a variation of it appears in several places in the Old Testament, and because it is not the first occasion of the Israelites grumbling about their food and water supply. In fact, this is the third time since the very recent escape from Egypt that the people complain to Moses, first about the bitter water they encounter at Marah, then about the lack of bread and meat in the wilderness of Sin, and now once again at Rephidim. And all three times, God provides what is needed – bitter water made sweet by a tree branch thrown in it, manna and quail covering the ground morning and evening, and then water pouring from the rock struck by the staff. Each time their cry goes up, the blessings come down, even if poor Moses doesn’t like to hear their grumbling. Yes, even though Moses gets his nose out of joint quite a bit when the people remind him that they are starving and dying of thirst, God not once displays anger at this “testing” of God, as Moses calls it. Only Moses does.

There are places in Scripture where God takes issue with complaining Israelites, but these early desert stories are not among them, and maybe that is because God knows it has been only a very short while since they left the relative food security of their slavery in Egypt, and that they have a steep learning curve about trusting God. You may remember that the Israelites had been in captivity in Egypt for more than four hundred years, but had been in the desert just a matter of days or weeks, and so they have a lot of learning to do about the God who seemed to be absent for four centuries, only to show up and rescue them and demand that they be faithful. I don’t think you can really blame them for asking, “Is the Lord among us or not?” So it is Moses, not God, who seems to be bothered by that question, and you can’t really blame him either since he’s the man in the middle, catching all the heat, perhaps fearful that if his people don’t look faithful or grateful enough before God, that all his hard work will go in vain. Yes, it is Moses who describes the Israelites’ grumbling as “testing” the Lord, but it is God who provides, without commentary, just what they need.

What I would like to suggest to you from this is that despite our reluctance to seem ungrateful to God for what we already have, I think God can be trusted to receive our complaints about what we really need without striking us down with fire from the sky. The people weren’t asking for chocolate éclairs out there. They were asking for what they needed to survive, the essentials of food and water for themselves and their children. Indeed, it sometimes seems as if we have a little Moses on our shoulders who prevents us from sharing our needs with others or even God, for that fear of having our faith questioned, and our legitimate needs labeled as grumbling or complaining. And that little Moses is whispering, “Can’t you just be happy with what you already have? What kind of an ingrate are you?” while our souls are dying to cry out to God or another living soul our deepest needs for companionship or mercy or justice. And to that I say, let Moses be worried about himself, let others think what they are going to think! We know that our God is big enough to take whatever grumbling we can dish out, and to give us without grudging what we need. I can’t say that applies to the new Ford F-150 you want, but when it comes to what really matters in our lives that corresponds with the abundant life God has promised us in Jesus Christ, you can take that as the Gospel.

Now, if you are wondering why Moses should be so angry with his countrymen’s complaining about the lack of water, you are not the only one. It seems like a reasonable request. But maybe that is because you have never heard of Moses’ old buddy Nachshon, son of Aminidab, a real go-getter, a man with the power to really get the water flowing. If Moses is frustrated by the Israelites’ complaining, maybe it is because Nachshon, son of Aminidab, was nowhere to be found. You see, according to Rabbinic legend, legend not recorded in the Bible per se, but Rabbinic legend which was taken very seriously, as the Hebrews stood on the banks of the Red Sea escaping from Pharaoh, the waters would not part, and they began to be more and more worried about the Egyptian army advancing on them from the rear. One group wanted to fight the Egyptians, another wanted to go back to Egypt and continue being slaves. A third group thought they should just pray to God and a fourth thought there was no other option but to throw themselves into the Sea and commit suicide. None of these, of course, were very good responses to the crisis at hand, not even praying, because God had already told Moses, “Just go straight ahead. Don’t worry, there will be a miracle and the sea will split.” So then it was a question of who would make the first move into the sea. Finally, a certain Nachshon, son of Aminidab, strode forth and entered the waters, not waiting for them to part. And he kept going even when the waters reached his knees, then his waist, then his chest, and finally his mouth. But when the waters reached his nostrils, they began to recede, and the people could all pass through safely. It took one man’s faith in God’s promises to open the way for everyone else to trust in them as well.

Now, you may be remembering the story being told a little differently, with Moses raising his staff, and the waters parting, but that wasn’t the first thing God asked of the people. You see, first God said, “Tell the Israelites to move forward” but they didn’t, not until Nachshon. According to one contemporary Rabbi, interpreting the legend of Nachshon, “When our ancestors approached the waters with implicit faith in God, the waters saw in them a measure of the divine. Because the created being cannot controvert its creator, the water instinctively and spontaneously receded before the personification of the divine,” and that personification of the divine was Nachshon, son of Aminidab. Yes, the staff of Moses is important, but important too is the faith of the people to go forward when God tells them to, even without the security of the staff. And so in this legend, the staff becomes a sign of the parting of the waters, rather than the means of the parting the waters, because the faith of Israel is what must always go forward under the promises of God, even without the staff of Moses.

Now, you don’t have to believe this legend, but you might want to pay attention to it, because there is something important in it, namely that God’s promises for us compel us to move forward in faith even when circumstances suggest we should not, or when we become paralyzed by our fears, or when the odds seem overwhelming. So if Moses is frustrated by the complaints for water, maybe it was because nobody went looking for it, that they had forgotten Nachshon’s can-do faith so soon. You see, the water in that region of the Sinai Peninsula is just below the surface of its limestone, and sometimes you just have to poke around until you find it, but instead of everyone going out there with their own staffs poking around until they found it, they were just waiting for Moses to do it. They gave up too easily when taking matters into their own hands would have made all the difference. The challenges we face need to see in us that “measure of the divine” the waters saw in Nachshon as he waded in, faithful to God’s promise. It’s all well and good knowing God will answer your prayers even if you complain, but will you wade into the water even when it hasn’t already parted before you?

This is not a church in which I hear a lot of Massah and Meribah, the quarrelling and testing Moses had to hear. But it is a church made up of the same kind of human beings who sometimes forget the wonderful things God has done, who sometimes think that someone else should do what is needed, and who sometimes take for granted the grace of God. And when we forget, and when we hold back, it doesn’t make God less faithful to us, but it does make us a little less faithful to God, and it robs us of the opportunities to demonstrate to the world, to the waters of the Red Sea, to our friends and families, to our co-workers and our enemies that our God is faithful and generous, that our God ungrudgingly gives when we are in need, even when we complain. But isn’t that exactly what the world needs to know, and we can’t wait for someone else to do what we could be doing.

In Yiddish there is a popular saying, “to be a Nachshon” which means to be an “initiator,” because Nachshon did what everyone else knew had to be done while everyone waited for someone else to do it. I know you’ve been wondering all morning when your discomfort was coming. Well, here it is. On this third Sunday in Lent, I am giving you the opportunity to be a Nachshon, by filling out one of the Time and Talent Sheets that the ushers are just about to hand out. Here’s your chance to step into the waters, and trust God, and do something that needs to be done. Even if you are already doing some of the things on this sheet, go ahead and fill one out anyway. If you can’t find anything on there that you can wade into, there’s a space on the bottom for you to tell us what trouble you would be willing to get into. Yes, I know it’s uncomfortable to be put on the spot like this, but that’s what Lent is all about. So go ahead and be a Nachshon, and the ushers will collect these and bring them forward as part of our offering. May you continue to have an uncomfortable, but holy, Lent. Amen.

The Other Serpent

Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:1-17
© Stacey Steck

Last week we heard the story in Genesis of the serpent, the craftiest of all the creatures God made, the one that beguiled Adam and Eve and brought sin and discomfort into the world. This morning, we heard the story of the other serpent, the one that God gave as a means of salvation, and the story of Nicodemus, who learns that Jesus too must be lifted up, fixed to a pole, as a means of salvation. Scripture doesn’t tell us what species of serpent Moses fashioned there in the wilderness, but we do know one thing about it: it was an apotropaic serpent. And Nicodemus learns, or he begins to learn, that Jesus was an apotropaic savior.
Yes, I learned a new word this week, and therefore so you will too. It’s the word “apotropaic” and it is an adjective meaning “safeguarding from evil” or “intended to ward off evil.” Indeed, the roots of the word are apo, meaning from or away, and trepein, to turn. So something that is apotropaic turns away evil which might be directed at someone. It is a word which one might expect to find in a Harry Potter book, but in fact, it is a word associated with the Bible. The bronze serpent which God instructed Moses to make was indeed apotropaic. Its job, its sole reason for being, was to turn away the poisonous venom of the snakes God sent as punishment for the Israelites speaking against God, and against Moses. It safeguarded the people from the evil that threatened them. We might imagine that when the threat of poisonous snakes was past, the serpent was melted down and used for some other purpose, perhaps as some other apotropaic object for some more pressing need.
By itself, this passage from Numbers is a wonderful story of God’s patience, God’s mercy, even God’s willingness to relent on a divine decision already made. We’ll leave aside for this morning that God was the one who sent the poisonous serpents in the first place, and maybe put that down to our Lenten theme of discomfort. What is wonderful about this story is that Moses prays to God for the sake of the people who have repented, and a remedy is given. What is strange and different about this story is, of course, the making of the bronze serpent, a request very much out of character with what God usually asks. Materially speaking, this is an object not unlike the scandalous golden calf which the people convinced Aaron to make and which caused Moses to break the first set of tablets of the commandments, though in this case it is commanded by God. But for God to allow such an image, even though it was not to be worshipped, is hard to explain. But then again, “the wind blows where it chooses,” as Jesus reminds Nicodemus and God doesn’t have to be fully explainable.
Even though it is not one of this morning’s Lectionary texts, I chose the one from Numbers because it sheds some light on the Nicodemus story, in which we hear, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” But in between the desert and Nicodemus visit to Jesus, there is one other important background story to remember, and it is found in the book of 2 Kings about King Hezekiah of Judah, who, it is reported in the eighteenth chapter, “did what was right in the sight of the Lord just as his ancestor David had done. He removed the high places, broke down the pillars, and cut down the sacred pole. He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people had made offerings to it; it was called Nehushtan. Hezekiah trusted in the Lord God of Israel; so that there was no one like him among all the kings of Judah after him, or among all those who were before him.”
So, from Second Kings we learn that the Israelites had been for some time worshipping that same bronze serpent, and that it was so important to them that they even had even given it a name! And it had become a spiritual trap from which Hezekiah must rescue them. And from that introduction to Hezekiah’s reign, we learn that it was a virtue beyond all others to name and unmask idolatry in the service of the Lord. Out of the dozens of kings of the nations of Israel and Judah listed in the Bible, Hezekiah was one of only three kings about whom it was said that they “did what was right in the sight of the Lord.” For centuries, the leaders of the people, and the people themselves, practiced an idolatry which the witness of Scripture proposes as the very thing responsible for their eventual exile in Babylon. Too many times, the people ignored the counsel of the prophets and continued to worship other gods, their wealth, their power, even themselves. And in the end came the fall of a great nation and the scattering of a proud but misguided people.
And so, through the centuries, instead of being melted down and used for another purpose, this apotropaic bronze serpent must have been carefully carried along with the people, perhaps someone tending to it and making sure its pole was straight and that it had a prominent place in the temple, even when the threat of poisonous snakes had passed, for certainly this was a wilderness phenomenon. It boggles the mind to think that what began as a divine and merciful antidote to snake venom became an object of such devotion and care that people forgot its original meaning. Or maybe it’s not so surprising. After all, as Jesus asks Nicodemus, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”
You see, we human beings are actually quite adept at mistaking the gift of God for the God who gives it. We confuse the gift with the giver. In the Israelites’ case, they ended up worshipping the material object, the serpent, and not the true object of their worship, namely the God who gave them the serpent. Perhaps this is not really so surprising, seeing as how the serpent is right there in front of you, you can see it, you get healed when you look at it. Sometimes it is so much easier to hold on to what we can see, and what we are comfortable with, rather than embracing the mysterious and the ambiguous and the uncertain, no matter how wonderful, like the Spirit, it may be. It’s so much more comforting to lay our hands on something tangible and concrete than it is to shout into the wind looking for answers which never seem to come. This is true even when we know in our heart of hearts that the giver is more important than the gift. If it weren’t, we might live our lives quite differently.
If the giver were more important than the gift, perhaps we would stop worshipping our physical appearance and start tending more to the crying needs of the human beings with whom the giver has blessed us. Consider the idolatry in racism and sexism, in the disparagement of obese people, of disabled people, of people who stutter, who are bald, who are too tall or too short, or who are, heaven forbid, simply less attractive than the norm. The idolatry of the body comes at quite the cost to society and to individual human lives, all because we have raised the gift, the human body, above the giver – the God who has created all human beings both equal and good.
If the giver were more important than the gift, perhaps we would stop worshipping our money and our possessions and start using them more for God’s purposes than our own. Consider the idolatry that generates chronic poverty and malnourishment, that allows inadequate medical care and school systems, that drives the market for the newest sneakers or video games, or the latest fashion. The idolatry of wealth comes at the expense of God who gives us everything and asks only that we use it to care for one another. We have raised the gift above the giver.
If the giver were more important than the gift, perhaps we would stop worshipping our freedom and power and begin to use it more responsibly. Consider the idolatry in nationalism, in making war before it is a last resort, in emotionally controlling those over whom we have real or imagined authority. The idolatry of free will and independence exists because we have allowed those wonderful gifts of God to become more important than the God who gives them to us but showed us how to use them on the cross.
If the giver were more important than the gift, perhaps we would stop worshipping our dominion over the earth and start taking seriously our God-given stewardship of the environment. Consider the idolatry in pollution, in overfishing, in burning rainforests and holes in the ozone, in redirected rivers and green golf courses in the desert. The idolatry of private property and never-ending development is part and parcel of our higher esteem of the gift of the earth than the God who calls us to till and keep the garden and all its bounty.
I’m not giving you this laundry list of sins and forms of idolatry to depress you or make you leave here with a guiltier conscience than you came in with, but to say something about how pervasive is the tendency to worship the object and not the object of worship. But that tendency is not just seen in our worship of the material, but also with the spiritual. In our passage from the gospel of John, Jesus makes the link between himself being lifted up and the bronze serpent which Moses made. The lifting up of the Son of Man, of course, refers to the crucifixion of Jesus, his exaltation, and he is lifted up so that all who look upon him, all who believe, may be saved. The apotropaic, crucified Christ is the antidote for sin. Those bitten by the human condition merely need to gaze upon the crucified Jesus to have eternal life. This is a divine gift of mercy, given by a great and wonderfully merciful God. It is God’s great gift to us. But it is not the giver.
For Christians, there can be a tendency to worship the gift of salvation and forget the giver. If we’re not careful, we can see salvation like graduation from school, the moment we can throw our caps in the air, give a sigh of relief that it’s all over with, and kind of forget about God until some crisis enters our life. If we are not careful, the cross that brings about our salvation becomes like the serpent that never got melted down, and we wear it around our necks without much thought for what it really means. It becomes mere jewelry instead of a reminder of the giver of the gift. But the Christian life is so much more than the moment of our salvation, however wonderful and important as that is. The abundant life that John describes a few chapters later is more than the comfort of knowing that Christ did what he did for us. Being born from above, as Jesus describes it to Nicodemus, is more than an abstract theological concept. It is a way of life, and life is not always comfortable.
One of the most pervasive ways I see this working itself out is precisely in the comfort we try to make to goal of our faith. I’m not picking on you when I say that when we sit in the same pew each and every Sunday, we’ll only ever interact with the same people who sit near us each and every Sunday. It happens in every church I know. If we only hang out with politically like-minded people, or only listen to sources of news whose bias we already agree with, we’ll only have our beliefs and biases confirmed. If we only read about the Bible instead of reading the Bible itself, we’ll only ever have second hand knowledge of Scripture and our Savior. If we only ever read someone else’s prayers, or listen to someone else pray, we’ll never pray our own prayers. If we only ever think that someone else is responsible for the world’s ills and never take a look at our own role, we never have the opportunity to let God transform us and bring change to the world. All of those are ways we try to stay as comfortable as possible, and in so doing miss out on learning something new, or seeing something differently, or love someone more deeply. Our comfort becomes an apotropaic object which wards off precisely what God brings our way to become more fully human.
By now, you may be looking around for an apotropaic object which will safeguard you from hearing more of this sermon, but I assure you that I am concluding. Let me leave you with this final thought on this second Sunday in Lent: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” God gave us Jesus Christ that we might have eternal life, an eternal and abundant life which begins when we accept the gift, but which deepens with our knowledge of the fullness of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, and our worship of the giver. As you continue to journey through this holy Season of Lent, preparing yourself for Easter, may you find your eyes opening not only to the gifts God has given you, but especially to God who gives them. Amen.

On Going Barefoot in Lent

Luke 4:1-13
© Stacey Steck

Isn’t it a great feeling to come home at the end of a long day and kick off your shoes? To wriggle your toes? Maybe get a foot massage by your loved one? Or when you go to the beach and feel the sand and the water bathing, comforting your feet? Going shoeless imparts a sort of freedom, not only from pounding the pavement in your workaday shoe leather, or tottering around on high heels, but also from obligations and responsibilities, the cares of the world. Kids run and play barefoot. Vacations are better barefoot, unless hiking is your thing. Sleep is definitely better barefoot.

And yet here you are, barefoot, or at least shoeless, and probably feeling a little more anxious than you usually do in church. Maybe that’s because you are wondering whether anyone is going to see that hole in your sock, or the run in your stocking. Or whether the smell of your feet might be annoying someone around you. Or that your feet are too big or too small to be seen in public. Or that the color or style of your socks will reveal just what bad taste in clothing you really have. Or maybe it’s just because church, even though it is proclaimed as a place of freedom, isn’t a place that you normally associate with going barefoot. But maybe it should be.

The renowned Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton wrote in a famous essay he called “Ash Wednesday”, “In some monastic communities, monks go up to receive the ashes barefoot. Going barefoot is a joyous thing. It is good to feel the floor of the earth under your feet. It is good when the whole church is silent, filled with the hush of men walking without shoes. One wonders why we wear such things as shoes anyway. Prayer is so much more meaningful without them. It would be good to take them off in church all the time. But perhaps this might appear quixotic or [impractical] to those who have forgotten such very elementary satisfactions. Someone might catch cold at the mere thought of it.”

For all the benefits Merton describes, it is far too easy to “catch cold,” to be scared off, by the thought of doing or being something new or uncomfortable, especially in church. The old saying goes that the Devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know. There is safety in routine, no matter how mundane, or soul-suppressing that routine may be. Risk is not for the fainthearted. The only person who likes change is the baby with the wet diaper. Yes, we might catch cold if we run outside to see a shooting star without our coats or shoes on. But, oh what we miss to remain comfortable. You see, it is precisely in those moments or seasons of discomfort or challenge or adversity that we find our faith growing, our relationship to God deepening, our compassion expanding. We are pushed to new limits or challenged to take a step we’ve never taken before. We are forced to admit our limitations or we are shown the depths of our sins and shortcomings. We realize our dependence on God and one another, or even on people we despise or mistrust. But we usually come out on the other side of our discomfort better for it, or at least recognizing how we might be the better for it if we let ourselves next time.

Of course, I’m not talking about the discomfort that comes with a major illness or the loss of someone dear to us, or from being tortured or the victim of a violent crime, although we’ve all heard stories of how even the harshest, most horrible experiences have been transformed by God’s grace. No, I’m talking more about the kind of daily challenges we find at our jobs, as we are parents or grandparents, spouses or children, neighbors wherever we are but also citizens of the world, members of the church of Jesus Christ. Especially about that last category, as followers of Christ, but also about none of the others either, nowhere does it say in Scripture that life will or should be comfortable, or free from adversity. Yes, our God gives us comfort in times of trouble. Yes, Christ’s yoke is light and his burden easy. But that divine comfort is a generous response to the daily discomfort we find carrying our crosses, if indeed we’ll carry them.

And so there is virtue in discomfort, if we’ll allow it. The trick to claiming that virtue is, I think, to persevere, to remain in our discomfort long enough for change to come. Usually, we bail out too soon, and our chances of being transformed by an experience are cut short as well. We find an excuse to leave a conversation that is getting too intimate, although deep down we want to be able to share our heart with that other person. We make excuses to avoid an invitation to meet a new group of people even though we are withering up from loneliness. We don’t speak our mind when we’re asked our opinion, even though we’ve got a lot to say. In all those situations, by allowing God to stretch us just a little further, we could experience something amazing. Maybe we need more courage. Maybe we need more experience. But maybe we just need to allow ourselves a little more time outside our comfort zones, maybe something like forty days.

Yes, forty is the magic number, at least it is in the Bible. Anytime something significant happens in the life of God’s people, the number forty is probably lurking there somewhere. Forty days and forty nights inside the ark. Forty years in the wilderness. Forty days between the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, to name just a few. And oh, forty days of Jesus’ discomfort in the wilderness, being tempted by Satan. Yes, back to our story from this morning, and how it might speak to the perseverance we need amongst the trials and temptations of our lives.

First, let me say that most of us will not experience the temptations Jesus faced, for these were his alone, part of his particular story, because he was the Son of God. I’m not even going to try to relate the three temptations Jesus faced to modern versions of them we might face, for they belong in a different category. Jesus’ temptations were related to who he was, where he came from, and where he was going, and that’s what matters for us too, but in our own time and place. The value of this story is not so much that Jesus was tempted and did not succumb to the specific temptations, but rather that he was willing to be tempted at all, that he was willing to endure forty days of discomfort of mind, body, and spirit. In Luke’s version of this story we learn that it was not at the end of the forty days that Satan tempted Jesus, but throughout the forty days. The three specific challenges Satan poses him are written in such a way as to suggest that they come at the end, but Luke is clear that for the entire time Jesus subjected himself to both physical deprivation, which would have been harsh enough, but also to spiritual challenge. But there was, of course, nothing keeping him there. No commandment of God, no divine electric fence keeping him out there in the desert. He could have left at any time, said, “That’s it, I’m out of here. I don’t need to prove anything to anyone. I’m the Son of God after all. Even Satan knows that.” But rather, he persevered, for his sake, and for our sakes. And just what did Jesus’ perseverance do for him? What did he gain from it?

We’ll never know precisely, but author Frederick Buechner offers a helpful observation about Jesus, an observation which also speaks to us on this first Sunday in Lent: He writes, “In many cultures, there is an ancient custom of giving a tenth of each year’s income to some holy use. For Christians, to observe the forty days of Lent is to do the same thing with roughly a tenth of each year’s days. After being baptized by John in the River Jordan, Jesus went off alone into the wilderness where he spent forty days asking himself the question what it meant to be Jesus. During Lent, Christians are supposed to ask one way or another what it means to be themselves.

  • If you had to bet everything you have on whether there is a God or whether there isn’t, which side would get your money and why?
  • When you look at your face in the mirror, what do you see in it that you most like and what do you see in it that you most deplore?
  • If you had only one last message to leave to the handful of people who are most important to you, what would it be in twenty-five words or less?
  • Of all the things you have done in your life, which is the one you would most like to undo? Which is the one that makes you happiest to remember?
  • Is there any person in the world, or any cause, that, if circumstances called for it, you would be willing to die for?
  • If this were the last day of your life, what would you do with it?
To hear yourself try to answer questions like these is to begin to hear something not only of who you are but of both what you are becoming and what you are failing to become. It can be a pretty depressing business all in all, but if sack-cloth and ashes are at the start of it, something like Easter may be at the end.” Wise man, that Buechner.

What did Jesus gain from his forty days? Ask yourself that after your forty days of asking and answering Buechner’s questions, questions which are not in the least bit comfortable, but well worth asking and answering, no matter how long it takes.
Let me finish by returning to your bare feet. Lent is something like spending forty days without shoes. You may well develop blisters. You may have to pull some splinters or glass out of them. Or bandage up a stubbed toe. But at the end, here is what you will find. You will find, like Moses in his bare feet before the burning bush, that you have been standing on holy ground. You see, God is present in the midst of your trials and temptations just as God was present with Jesus in the wilderness. Remember how the story begins: “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, was led by the Spirit in the wilderness.” Not “into,” but “in.” Maybe it’s just the way my translation puts it, or the way I am reading it, but it doesn’t say that the Spirit led Jesus to the border of the wilderness, as if showing him the way, dropping him off at the edge and watching him wander in. But rather, I read it to say that the Spirit led Jesus while he was in the wilderness. Jesus spent his forty days on holy ground.

Going barefoot through Lent, you will find that you have a better understanding of the terrain of your own life, and the life of the world. When you go barefoot, you feel everything differently under your feet, every sharp object, every hot or cold surface, every wet or dry step. But you also feel every soft patch of feathery grass, or smooth sand, or gentle breeze. You touch the earth in a different, unfiltered way. Some of you know that I ride a motorcycle, and what I love most about it is the access I have to the world around me in a completely different way than in a car. You feel the temperature change going up and down over even a small rise in the road, something you miss with the windows rolled up and the air conditioning on. You smell your surroundings change subtly, between cattle farm and wildflowers. You get hit with a lot of bugs, some of them nice and juicy, but you see the world unlimited by the rectangular frame of your windshield. There is an immediacy to life that brings you closer to God. It’s a lot like being barefoot.

And finally, at the end of it all, you will feel freedom, that end of the day, toe wriggling feeling of rest and comfort and liberation, that you belong in the world without shoes, just the way God brought you into this world, and just the way the undertaker will let you leave this world, if you are lucky. For if, as Merton says, “prayer is so much more meaningful without” shoes, I for one do not want to spend eternity in even the most comfortable shoes. Through the discomfort of Lent, we become comfortable with who we are, and with who God is, the one who challenges us to grow, but loves us even with our shoes on. May we all observe a Holy Lent. Amen.