Sandal-Izing The Gospel
Usually when I take to this pulpit, I take aim at your head, or your heart, or both. Today, however, I want to take aim at your feet! Let me explain…
In Matthew 10, as Jesus was sending out His disciples on their first training mission, among the instructions He gave to them is this one: “Travel light. Take no luggage. Take only a staff, a tunic, and one pair of sandals.” I am particularly intrigued by His instructions about the sandals. In the first century, the affluent and the influential did not wear sandals. They wore boots, similar to our own. Slaves, on the other hand, wore nothing on their feet at all. They went barefooted. But those who were a part of the working class wore sandals. So as Jesus sent His disciples out to do the work of the Lord, He charged them to take and wear a pair of sandals. And frankly, I think there are some lessons to be learned from the nature of those sandals.
First, the sandals were simple in design and construction—just a flat sole of low-grade leather held on the foot by straps made of woven grass. This, I think, is a call to simplicity in our Christian walk.
I have always loved the story of the fellow who took his girlfriend out for a romantic boat ride near the end of the day. Awash in the feelings of the moment, she sighed: “Isn’t that a lovely sunset?” He quickly responded: “Actually, it isn’t a sunset at all. The earth is rotating on its axis at 1000 miles per hour, moving west to east. As it rotates, the sun comes closer to the horizon. This means that the atmosphere and the dust of the earth cause the short wavelengths of light to be refracted. Only the longer wavelengths of light pass through. They reflect off bits of moisture floating in the clouds, enter our eyes and fall upon the retina, where there are two kinds of receiving cells. One of those cells is particularly adept at receiving red light. And so these cells transmit to our brains the picture of red. What you are looking at is not really a sunset—it is an earth-turn.” To which the young woman replied: “Please take me home. I have a headache.” The young man’s error was not that anything he said was wrong- it was that it was just too tedious and complex. It lacked simplicity.
You see, things which are simple are usually stronger than things which are complex. This is true in architecture and design. It’s true in organization and administration. It’s true in music and art. It’s true in language and communication. The greatest address ever given by a great American is of course Abraham Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg. The battle at Gettysburg was fought July 1, 2 and 3, 1863.
It’s the greatest battle ever fought on American soil and it produced enormous casualties. Several months later, on November 19, a portion of the battlefield was set aside as a national cemetery, and Edward Everett, a great orator of that day, was invited to deliver the dedicatory address. When it was then learned that President Lincoln would be in attendance, as a matter of courtesy, and certainly as an afterthought, he was asked to say a few words. Everett, the featured speaker, got up and delivered a two-hour address filled with rolling, carefully crafted sentences and cadences. Lincoln, on the other hand, spoke only two minutes. Indeed, the photographers who were preparing to take his picture while he was speaking were stunned to realize that he had finished and sat down before they had gotten their cameras focused, set and ready. Lincoln’s remarks were simple, clear, uncluttered. The next day, Edward Everett wrote to the President these words: “You did in two minutes what I was unable to do in two hours.” The secret of the greatness of Lincoln’s address is its simplicity.
I think of Frederick Douglas, the escaped slave who traveled throughout the north rallying support for the movement to overturn slavery. He was often accompanied by the fiery abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison. Garrison used to say to Douglas: “When you stand up to speak, don’t philosophize. Don’t moralize. Don’t intellectualize. Just tell people your story.”
When Jesus spoke of the sandals, I think He was calling His followers not to the spectacular, but to the simple—not to the ornate, but to the useful. And He calls us to tell our story. He doesn’t call us to try to overwhelm others with the logic of our position or the cleverness of our argument, but rather simply, clearly, to tell what He has meant to us. That is precisely what I try to do in my own life. I am a simple man. I have a simple faith. I simply believe in Jesus, and I simply love to tell that story. The sandals speak to us of simplicity.
Secondly, sandals are quickly and easily removed. You can slip them off rapidly. This, I think, is a call to reverence in our Christian walk.
In Bible times, when you found yourself in the presence of God or in a holy place, it was deemed appropriate to shuck off your shoes. There are clear examples of that on the pages of Scripture; the clearest, perhaps the time when Moses encountered God in the burning bush. Moses heard the voice of God say: “I am the God of your fathers. Come no closer. Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Taking off the shoes is a sign of reverence in the Bible. So when Jesus asked His disciples to wear sandals, He was saying in essence: “Be ready for any moment when the vision of the holy comes to you. Be ready to instantly welcome an experience of God in your life.”
This is so important. Encountering the reality of God in life is virtually impossible if we move through life all laced up tight and never expecting to see, hear, or feel the touch of the Lord upon us. What Jesus is saying to us I think is this: “Allow nothing to stand between you and God. Be prepared. Be ready. Be alert for God’s great surprises in your life. If you expect them, you will find them.”
It seems to me that there are three things which rob us of our sense of wonder, our sense of expectancy in life today. Television. It flattens life. It makes life predictable, even boring, thus removing the wonder of surprises. Every sitcom is essentially the same. Every cop show is predictable in its story line. Every talk show is distinguishable only by the depths of the human experience to which it seeks to descend. Technology. It kills wonder by the wonder of its own accomplishments. We used to be amazed at the advances in space exploration, but now we are almost bored by them. We are on the threshold of incredible explorations of Jupiter, but you have to search the inside pages of the newspaper to read anything about it. This week, a dramatic new form of open-heart surgery was tried here in Orlando, and the reaction I got from some people I asked about it was: “Well, what’s the big deal?” Theology. Too many theologians today try to explain everything, or worse, try to explain away everything. And worse still, we are confronted by the asininity and the absurdity of the so-called “Jesus Seminar”. It is a group of liberal theological scholars masquerading as people of intellect and faith, pooling their collective stupidity in an effort to cast doubt on the teachings of Scripture, thus undermining the foundations of our faith. Dear friends, we cannot wrap God in the blanket of our pathetic explanations.
It’s time for us as Christians to recapture our sense of wonder at the reality and the power of God. It’s time for us to recapture our sense of worth and value as God-created human beings. When we stand in front of the mirror, we ought not to be checking for flaws in our design, but instead we ought to be looking into our own eyes and repeating the words of Paul: “I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me!” We ought to move through each day on tiptoe, barely able to wait to see all that God is going to do in us and through us. It’s only when we begin to do this that we can understand how we are held at the heart and in the hands of God. Here is Edington’s new beatitude: Blessed are the wondrous, for they know whose they are! Jesus said: “Wear sandals so that you can slip them off quickly when you encounter God and when you stand on holy ground.”
Finally, sandals are not only slipped off easily, they are slipped on easily as well. This, I think, is a call to service in our Christian walk.
Sandals which can be put on easily, equip us to move quickly out into the road of service. If we kept our sandals off all the time, then we would become hermits or recluses, living on the tops of mountains, waiting for more revelations of God. But the Bible calls us to translate our experiences of God into service to humankind. There are clear examples of that call on the pages of Scripture, the clearest, perhaps, the time when Jesus and three of His disciples were on the Mount of Transfiguration. There they had this powerful, shimmering, glorious transforming experience of God. The disciples wanted to remain there, basking in the glory of it all. But Jesus said: “No, we must go back down into the valley where people are hurting to bring healing and hope. Sandals off put us in touch with the angels in the heavens. Sandals on put us in touch with the people of the earth.
George Werner tells of taking a group of Episcopalian college students to work for a summer with Mother Teresa in Calcutta. These young people would go out each day and find people who were dying in the streets. There are so many such people in Calcutta. The young people would wash them and feed them and comfort them as death enfolded them. One young woman was pained by this experience, not only because she saw so much dying, but because she never had the opportunity to share her faith with these desperately ill and dying people. She shared her pain with Sister Luke, one of Mother Teresa’s associates, and Sister Luke said: “My young friend, yesterday I watched you as you cared for a dying woman. You washed her, fed her, held her, comforted her, and she died in your arms. When she died, she stepped into the presence of Jesus, and I believe that she told Jesus that she knew Him because she had already been washed and fed and held and comforted by Him through you.”
The service to which we are called is to be the hands and the arms and the heart of Jesus Christ in the world. Therefore, we must be ready to strap on our sandals at any time to give ourselves to that kind of service. The pay for that kind of ministry is not great, but let me tell you that the retirement plan is absolutely fantastic.
My charge to us today is to give attention to what the sandals mean. We are to be simple and direct in sharing with others our witness to Jesus Christ. We are never to lose our sense of reverence for God and our sense of wonder at His power. And we are to be quick to serve for Christ’s sake all those who need Him in the family of humankind.
Perhaps now you can understand what I said at the beginning of the sermon. Usually, when I take to this pulpit, I take aim at your head or your heart or both. Today, however, I take aim at your feet!