Wearing Shoes (June 17, 2018)
1 Samuel 3: 1-11
Wearing the Shoes
I’m going to tell you a story about a woman named Mary. Mary was a ordinary person, that you see in ordinary times, and she was going on vacation. She was going on vacation for the first time in a long time, so she decided to go to a town called Everywhere. Everywhere was beautiful. There were well taken care of streets, people were smiling and laughing with her, they waived. The food was good. Everywhere was a great town. But there was one thing that Mary noticed: no one in Everywhere was wearing any shoes.
This is particularly strange to Mary because she noticed that there was a gigantic building in the center of town, and when she inquired about it the citizens would say that “that is our shoe factory.” And Mary would ask “but you’re not wearing any shoes?” And they would reply “I know!” Then she would say, “then what happens in the shoe factory?” And the people reply “oh. Well that’s where we all get together and we talk about the great and wonderful things that wearing shoes entails. And we talk about the glory that awaits those who put on a pair of shoes. It’s great.” And she replied “then why isn’t anyone wearing any shoes?” And the people reply, “that’s the question isn’t it?”
Mary continued her time in Everywhere and she noticed that next to the shoe factory was a little cobbler shop that was full of shoes. And so she entered the shop and she asked the clerk “what is going on? You have a bunch of shoes.” And he said, “yes isn’t it wonderful? Have you heard about the wonderful things that can happen if you wear shoes?” And she said, “yes I know these wonderful things. Why isn’t anyone else wearing any shoes if you have a shop full of them?” And he replied “that’s the question.”
So Mary had an idea. She bought all the shoes in the cobbler’s store and she walked out into the middle of the square and she announced to everyone “I have good news! I have bought shoes! You can wear shoes like you’ve always talked about!” But no one came to put on any shoes. Frustrated she went back to the cobbler and returned the shoes at no refund and said “I just don’t understand; why doesn’t anyone wear the shoes they talk so much about?” The cobbler replied “well, that’s the question isn’t it?”
I have Dr. Stephen Cady to thank for that story. I don’t know if he made it up or if he got it from somewhere, but I heard it from him so I credit. If you haven’t figured it out by now I’m not really talking about shoe wearing. What I’m talking about is the religion, specifically putting the religion and the spiritual together. As we have been talking about the spiritual but not religious all month, today I’m talking about putting them together, and what it looks like to live that complete life, and why perhaps we need them both. In other words, what I am talking about is how do we wear the shoes? Because I feel like if you’re talking trying to be spiritual but not religious. or religious but not spiritual, all you were doing is simply talking about the glory of wearing shoes while being barefoot.
Sometimes we talk about Jesus the way the citizens of Everywhere were talking about shoes. We talk about how great Jesus is. We talk that Jesus saved us. We talk about how Jesus changes lives and that we are no longer enslaved to sin, but can’t live a better life the way you’re supposed to live. And then we act as if were in the same position we were before. We don’t act like were saved. We don’t act like Jesus is actually helping us to live better lives. We don’t act like Sunday morning makes any difference on the rest of the week. When we do that we’re just simply not wearing the shoes.
This passage that was read this morning talks about wearing the shoes in a society that is not wearing shoes. One of the lines that struck me the most was the line “the word of the Lord was rare in those days.” And I begin to ask: why? Because this was the time of the judges, and the judges were prophet after prophet after prophet who would tell the people what God, who was king over these tribes, wanted. The word of the Lord should’ve been more present then than it ever was because you didn’t have the king; the Lord was king and the Lord needed some way to get messages to the people. But the word of the Lord was rare in those days.
If you study The book of Judges one thing you’ll realize is that Judges is a book about a nation that spiraled further and further and further away from God. If you study Judges in its entirety, you will recognize that this is actually a pretty sad story. It begins with a group that is following God perfectly and it ends with a nation in the midst of Civil War that almost completely eradicates one of the 12 tribes. And which results in a nation where the word of the Lord was rare; in a nation where the priesthood was corrupt.
Here in the first couple chapters of 1 Samuel we see that Eli was presiding over a corrupt priesthood, and that his son’s were even worse than he was. In that they were taking the best parts of the offering, the part specifically by law slated to be offered to God, and they were taking that for themselves and they were giving God the worst parts of the offering. They were taking more than they should have been taking as well. They were getting rich off the priesthood and that was corrupt. And it was because of that state of the nation, I think, that the word of the Lord was rare: because the people weren’t expecting it anymore, because the priesthood was not correct enough to hear it. Does it really look that different from today, where the word of the Lord may also indeed be considered rare?
The Jesuit priest father James Martin wrote a book called “the Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.” And an excerpt of that book talked a lot about how we need to have a spiritual elements and religious elements. Father Martin describes the beginning of the thinking of the spiritual but not religious person in this way,
“The thinking goes like this: being ‘religious’ means abiding by the arcane rules and hidebound dogmas, and being the tool of an oppressive institution that doesn’t allow you to think for yourself. (Which would have surprised many thinking believers, like St. Thomas Aquinas, Moses Maimonides, Dorothy Day and Reinhold Niebuhr.) Religion is narrow-minded and prejudicial – so goes the thinking – stifling the growth of the human spirit. (Which would have surprised St. Francis of Assisi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, St. Teresa of Ávila, Rumi and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.)…Or worse, as several contemporary authors contend, religion is the most despicable of social evils, responsible for all the wars and conflicts around the world…You can add to this list smaller things: your judgmental neighbor who loudly tells you how often he helps out at church, your holier-than-thou relative who trumpets how often she reads the Bible, or that annoying guy at work who keeps telling you that belief in Jesus is sure to bring you amazing financial success.”
This is what many in the world see as the only result of religion. And I just emphasize the word only because it’s not completely wrong. Religion has done many of those things to many people. But there’s also an immense amount of good in the world thanks to religion. But when we either don’t wear the shoes or don’t advertise enough those who do wear the shoes, like those named above, this is what the world thinks of religion. Father Martin adds, relating to religion,
“Still, I would stack up against the negatives some positive aspects: traditions of love, forgiveness and charity as well as the more tangible outgrowths of thousands of faith-based organizations that care for the poor, like Catholic charities or the vast network of Catholic hospitals and schools that care for poor and immigrant populations. Think too of generous men and women like St. Francis of Assisi, St. Teresa of Ávila, St. Catherine of Siena, Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King again. Speaking of Dr. King, you might add Abolition, women’s suffrage, and civil rights movements, all of which were founded on explicitly religious principles.”
The good of religion is there. We must simply be our own advocates for the good of religion, because spiritual people will be lost without religion. That’s just reality and that includes us as well.
When we read the story today, sometimes think of Samuel as the only one to emulate within the story. And certainly Eli has done everything to earn that kind of reputation. What he has done, and what he’s more importantly allowed his children to do, warrants viewing him as someone we might not want to emulate. But I think that Eli has grown as a person when we see him in this story. He actually is someone many of us should emulate. We can learn a lot of good from him. I think he’s grown into wearing the shoes.
I want you to look at what he does in the story. He is, first off, the high priest. That can’t be missed. He is the leader of the largest church in the nation, is the senior pastor of a mega church if you will, and here the janitor comes up; and Eli is able to recognize that the janitor is receiving communication from God. And rather than being jealous that God would speak to the janitor instead of the senior pastor of the big church who is really famous and who advises a whole bunch of really important people like the king, Eli simply accepts what is happening and offers counsel to Samuel on how to respond to God‘s call. That is wearing the shoes. He immediately mentors Samuel instead of becoming jealous. It is worth noting that when Samuel comes back with the pronouncement of trouble against him, he accepts that whatever the Lord wishes to do let it happen as well; instead of shaming Samuel or making Samuel think that he done something wrong. That’s wearing the shoes too.
It’s also important to note that it is Eli who recognizes what’s going on. Samuel himself is too young and too inexperienced to recognize that God is talking to him, but Eli can recognize it. The reality is that almost every Samuel has an Eli. Almost every great prophet or great person of God has an Eli; a mentor behind them who is building them up and helping them grow. We can be Elis as we grow in our spiritual journey. It is often the religious side of things that gives us Elis; whether they be people we emulate from scripture, or people we meet in the church who take us under their wings and treat us like their own children or grandchildren. It is the religion that gives us mentors like Eli.
When we try and go it alone, without the structure of religion around us, we can sometimes get it right. That can happen. But usually we wind up slightly off. We won’t live into everything that we can be. Religion helps us to provide a cushion when we fall, others to lean on when things get rough, and guardrails to keep us on the path to vitality. As much as we like to think we know everything, it’s too easy to be let astray when we’re leaning only on our own understanding. Of course that applies to denominations as well; the religious institutions need someone there to act as Samuel, the propjet asked to be guardrails of the denomination when the denominations go astray. And so we need lay and clergy acting together in order to keep ourselves strong, and therefore keep the denominations strong as well. We need a balance between the spiritual, those seeking a relationship with Christ and conversing with God, and the religious, the parts that keep us together and strong and boosted up.
If you want to know what that looks like, look no further than the list described by father Martin above: St. Francis of Assisi, St. Teresa of Ávila, St. Catherine of Siena, Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. I would add to that people like the Micah interns, who are the people who go around to our various churches and help with VBS when the church can’t do it. Or the group that goes out to Washington DC and to Topeka and lobbies on behalf of the social principles of the United Methodist Church in a similar way to what the Global Board of Church and Society does as well. I would add to that those who go on mission trips to work in clinics in Honduras, to build schools in Haiti, to build houses in New Orleans, or to upgrade buildings and clean people’s houses and to work with people and build streets in downtown Kansas City or Philadelphia or Houston or Detroit. We can add to that list United Methodist Committee on Relief. We can add to that list the religious hospitals that exist in our country. That list goes on, and on, and on. These are the people who are actively wearing the shoes; those who want to advocate for the least of these in the mist of their own world, whether those worlds are large or small.
I want to close with one last quote from James Martin:
“Overall, being spiritual and being religious are both part of being in relationship with God. Neither can be fully realized without the other. Religion without spirituality becomes a dry list of dogmatic statements divorced from the life of the spirit. This is what Jesus warned against. Spirituality without religion can become a self-centered complacency divorced from the wisdom of a community. That’s what I’m warning against.”
We need both and I couldn’t agree more. Amen.