“Slipping on the Shoes”
The First Parish of Watertown
The Rev. Andrea Greenwood
February 11, 2018
Opening Words The Broken Sandal Denise Levertov
Dreamed the thong of my sandal broke
Nothing to hold it to my foot
How shall I walk?
The sharp stones, the dirt. I would
- Where was I going?
Where was I going that I can’t
Go to now, unless hurting?
Where am I standing, if I’m
To stand still now
Reading Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat
… an Italian émigré to Haiti had just opened a shoe store and was looking for a salesman. My father ran over to the store and was hired on the spot… He thought this would be a breeze. All he had to do was talk people into buying something they needed anyway.
The store carried shoes in many styles and price ranges. Men’s shoes, women’s shoes, plastic shoes, rubber shoes – and the most expensive of all, leather shoes. He was told to emphasize that all the shoes, like the owner of the shop, were from Italy. “Otherwise you can get any street cordonier to make you a pair of shoes,” the boss encouraged my father to tell the customers.
But of course very few of the shoes were actually from Italy. The rest, he discovered, came from the U.S. and Puerto Rico.
Every once in a while, my minister uncle would recommend to his growing congregation that they buy their shoes from my father. Papa, in turn, convinced his boss to offer special discounts to the parishioners, by reminding him that church people were less likely to use birth control, which meant many more potential customers.
This period in my father’s life, the early 1960s, was shadowed by much larger events. Papa Doc Duvalier…created a countrywide militia called the Tonton Macoutes, a battalion of brutal men and women aggressively recruited from among the poor. Upon joining the Macoutes, the recruits received an ID card, a denim uniform, a .38, and the privilege of doing whatever they wanted.
.. some Macoutes would walk into the store, ask for the best shoes, and simply grab them and walk away..
After losing too many shoes, the boss came up with a solution. He ordered large number of third rate non leather shoes that looked like the real thing. If the macoutes asked to try on a pair of shoes, my father was to let them try on only the three dollar ones. Papa would get a knot in his stomach each time a macoute asked him if there were other shoes. My father would try not to shake as he replied “No,” all while bending and massaging the cheap shoes to make them appear more supple. It was this experience of bending shoes and worrying about being shot that started him thinking about leaving Haiti…..
One day in 1962, a woman who was beautiful in a brooding, melancholy way, and painfully shy, walked in to the shoe store, too timid to even look up from her dusty sandals. My father wanted to keep her in the store as long as possible, so he gave her shoes to try on that he knew would not fit her. Finally when, frustrated, she walked out of the store, he followed her home.
They were married three years later.
Sermon Slipping on the Shoes
Last year, working for a few months in a church with an unfortunate combination of no microphone, mostly older congregants, and my decidedly un-preacher-like voice, I had many opportunities to talk about hearing loss. One woman bought me a portable mic to hook up to my lap top. (It didn’t work). One couple discussed the possibility of switching from the pew where they always sat to a different one, near the front row. And one man approached the issue from the other direction. His ears were not the best, he said – they were pretty much destroyed from all the music he listened to, back in the day. He told me about his love for the Rolling Stones, played really loud, and then he said that it was good to have to be still and listen, to pay attention – to work a little at hearing. He turned my flaw into a blessing, and at the same time gave me a way to talk to him about his interests, and all the previous versions of himself. A couple of weeks later, this man slipped going up the stairs, and fell backwards. He hit his head on the newell post, and broke his leg, and, once his wife was certain of his recovery, she was furious with him. He was wearing old cowboy boots and taking the stairs two at a time and rushing around as if he were still young. She said he needed to give up the vanities of youth, and called him a devil as she described how he still got dressed flamingo style, instead of cautiously sitting on the bed. Of course, underneath the anger and frustration, there was simply fear. She was terrified that instead of little losses along the way of life, she would be facing the big one.
Some of you may know that Mardi Gras is Tuesday, and that Wednesday is not only Valentine’s Day; it is the beginning of Lent. One of the traditional readings for this day is the story from Genesis about Adam and Eve and the apple. This happens to be one of my very favorite stories. It creates a vivid picture – a lovely garden, all green and peaceful and lush with life. You can envision the dew on the grass. Of course Eden was in the Middle East somewhere, — if it was anywhere at all — but to me the setting feels like an early autumn scene in a New England orchard – the smell of crushed apples turning a bit in the heat; the sun warm but not hot; a boundary set by pleasant lichen-covered boulders – and a kindly old voice, reminding us that we have everything that we need, and oh, by the way, don’t touch this one tree. Which of course just makes that tree all the more intriguing. Why can’t we touch that one? What will happen if we do? And God tells Adam and Eve that if they disobey, they will die.
This is where the snake enters the scene. Not only can this snake talk, he is also the one who tells the truth, which is that Adam and Eve will not really die if they eat the fruit of this particular tree. Their eyes will be opened; everything will seem different, they will understand right and wrong, but they will not literally die. This was an overreach on God’s part, the snake tells Eve, which is enough to convince her. For this bit of truth-telling, the snake gets branded as the devil, causing humanity to suffer. He tempted Eve to disobey, and then she gave the unsuspecting Adam a bit of the apple, and we all know the rest. As recently as two weeks ago, Pope Francis used this story to explain how fake news got started – the snake gave Eve bad intel, he said. It hissed lies because it was the devil in disguise, and its effective disinformation campaign began the tragic history of human sin.
But I have sympathy for the devil.
So Wednesday begins the season of Lent; our forty days of struggle to resist the temptation of worldly goods. We reflect on our behavior, our sins, our desires, and we come to terms with the human condition – our tendency to want things we should not want, or do not truly need. And we find the deeper comfort of faith, instead of a life based on earthly pleasures. Lent, some theologians say, is a test of our ability to choose good instead of evil.
But this of course brings us back to the story in Genesis. The tree God tells them not to eat from – and, in fact, the only tree that is ever specifically pointed out at all — is the one that would let Adam and Eve know the difference between good and evil. If they had listened to God, and been blindly obedient, there would be no story to tell – no God who fudges the truth a little bit; no snake to be the fall guy – and no way for us, human beings of this world, to be, as Emerson once said, “Gods in little packages.” And so I feel for the snake. Although he is cursed for it, he did in fact tell the truth, and give Eve the freedom to make choices, and to so make conscience possible.
Why do we call the character whose actions set us free “the devil”? The practices associated with Lent tell us we are sinners – and that it is the devil that makes it so. We are supposed to resist the temptation to choose the wrong kind of life; the temptation to listen to the snake instead of God. But what if we looked at this as a story not about how easy it can be for us to be led astray; but one that shows us how painful it can be to be fully human, and burdened with choice, of knowing who to listen to?
The devil, or satan, is the one who makes us aware of our capacity to choose. Before the snake came along, we were blissfully unaware. Despite Pope Francis’ ideas about fake news, the snake hissed the truth, and left us responsible for the decisions we make. This means we have to evaluate what is said to us; think for ourselves about right and wrong. We have to decide what to do with our freedom. And I guess one question I have is about what is presented as tempting. The practice of Lent comes from Jesus going alone out into the wilderness, where Satan tempts him with visions of a life in this world – with bread and water, with people and buildings – with anything and everything that would be of comfort. And Jesus resists. He chooses only the Word of God.
It is such a strange story, when we think about it. What does this mean for us? You would expect that choosing faith and God rather than the devil would mean some measure of happiness. But this is not a happy story at all. We end up with a picture of the spiritual life as one that not only involves suffering, but requires us to choose it. To deliberately seek out hardship; to refuse food and human companionship and to wander alone in a desert. And traditionalists relive this story by choosing some temptation and refusing to give in to it. Virtually every story I hear about Lent involves renouncing something like wine, or chocolate –all the things that Valentine’s Day tries to sell to us! Pleasurable, but unnecessary to our ordinary lives. By voluntarily choosing not to indulge, we think we are doing something worthy.
Do you think this is what God wants for you, or what the spiritual life requires? Is this what it would mean to live with faith? I don’t. There is no evidence that God desires us to suffer, or that we should choose suffering either. Instead the Bible acknowledges that we live in a real, physical world, and it is full of suffering. There is enough of that out there that we don’t need to choose it. What we need is the strength to live anyway, to keep choosing life. I think that is what the temptation is – to avoid pain and suffering, to ignore our grief and sorrow and live a superficial life. The story of Jesus in the wilderness echoes back to Adam and Eve in the garden because they are telling us that we are strong enough to live in this broken world; that we can be honest about the depth of our anxieties and burdens; and that joy remains possible even though there is death, and loss. The temptation is to pretend it is all easy; that we have it all under control. What if we learned to see that the season of Lent is actually about love? About daring to love despite the hurt that is involved? Then we could understand that we are not meant to give up our pleasures, one of which is faith – we are meant to allow ourselves to be vulnerable. It is a turning away from superficial concerns like what you look like or how much money you make, and towards caring even when it is scary or painful. It is a season devoted to choosing love, despite the cost.
Doris Salcedo, an artist in Columbia, created a huge piece called “Adding up Absences” – pieces of white cloth stitched together, and on each, written in ashes, the name of a victim of the civil violence that has broken her country. It is a little piece of salvation, created from dust and ash – and yet stitched into a kind of wholeness, too. The piece is vast – you cannot really view it in its entirety, but instead have a sense of it while seeing threads, and names that are in the process of blowing away. It is a piece of art that helps us give up the idea of death being the end — Instead we allow ourselves to feel the enormity of loss, and pain in each distinct ending, while seeing that we are all part of something much larger. How are we called to be whole in a broken world; or in our own lives? Can we see how the whole world is united in grief? Is that enough to make us give up having enemies?
The season of Lent ends at Easter, and the question it asks is how we are human – not how we will die, or how we are mortal, but how we will live. We all already know how fallible we are, how many mistakes we’ve made, the failures and frailties and losses. Lent is not really to remind us of these things — it is to remind us that we are alive in a world where what we do matters, and where we really do have the power of choice. Deciding how you will, what you will stand for – these choices can sustain you, even when they cost something, too – even when they cut you off from a life that looked easier, or seemed more expected. That is, after all, what Jesus was contemplating in the wilderness – whether or not to go to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, knowing what would happen to him if he did.
Last spring in a lecture at Harvard Divinity school, Edwidge Danticat spoke about how her understanding of grief changed and became much more physical – rooted in her own body, but also in the world – after her mother’s death. The places where her mother had walked, the buses she rode, the steps up to her apartment – they all changed somehow; shimmered and pulsed and moved back and forth in time. We experience the world differently when death actually happens; when it is not just an idea or fact about life. Danticat mentioned keeping a purse or two of her mother’s; opening them up to find bus fare, or a note – but the image that I reacted to viscerally was about feet, and shoes. Danticat said she and her mother wore the same size, and that one day after the funeral, she slipped her feet into her mother’s shoes. Immediately, her mother’s presence appeared in the room with her – yet instead of this being completely comforting, it made her more anxious about losing her mother, despite the fact that she had already died. It was as if in slipping on the shoes, her mother came back, but this time Danticat knew her mother would be leaving. She had knowledge. And it made her worry about the day when even the shoe leather would wear away; when there would be nothing but a tattered scrap of hide left to mark her mother’s presence in her life. She wanted to walk in those shoes, but knew that as she did, her steps would erase her mother.
Although she did not talk about it at this lecture, I knew Danticat’s father had once been a shoe salesman; that he had played a little Cinderella in reverse game, pursuing his future wife by offering only shoes that did not fit, to keep her in the store a bit longer, and longer still. And it had been the shoes that drove him out of his home, too – bending anxiously before the macoutes, massaging the shoes and shaking with fear, wondering when he might get shot -– made him want to leave Haiti. The shoes helped him find love, and they pointed him away from home and towards a new life. And shoes bring the dead back to life. Slipping on her mother’s shoes, the daughter could walk into the world and not be alone; not yet.
Each Gospel writer records a story about Jesus’ feet and his shoes, and each tells it slightly differently, but the essentials are the same. Jesus, having decided he will have to go to Jerusalem, despite knowing what that means, enters a house barefoot, having left his dirty sandals by the door. His feet are dusty from his travels, and traditionally, a servant would come and wash the traveler’s feet. But this time a woman, Mary, steps in. She is crying, and lets tears fall all over Jesus’s feet. She does not try to hide her fear and sadness at all. Then she takes a jar of oil, and pours it over Jesus’s feet.
The image is mixed up. Is it an anointing, or a washing? Anointing – as with the oil – would be of the head, but washing – as with the feet- would use water. Anointing would be done by a disciple, or someone with power; and washing would be done by a slave or a servant. Mary is none of these things. She is a human being who is so moved by Jesus that she gives up all that she has, and pours it out on him. She is not thinking of the worth of the oil, how expensive it is – although the disciples certainly are. They grumble about saving it, or selling it and using the money to help others. But she spares no expense, and then Mary goes even further. She throws her hair over her head like a curtain, and uses it to dry Jesus’s feet. She spreads and wipes the oil using her own hair.
The shock of this must have been enormous. Women simply did not reveal their hair. It was always kept covered. So to uncover it and then loosen it; to throw her hair around and use it to touch a man, and the oil, leaving her hair perfumed…. This was scandalous in the extreme. Biblically, women’s hair often symbolizes temptation – but it also means pride. Women had to cover their hair in order to show they were not prideful, and by using her hair to towel off the feet of Jesus, Mary was saying she had no regard for herself or how she appeared; she was simply putting her life at Jesus’s feet. She was throwing off all the rules that governed social behavior, and letting everyone know that Jesus’s message and his life meant more to her than customs or commandments or status.
This seems like an incident that would have ended with a stoning without Jesus’ intervention. He explains that Mary has done a good thing. The poor will always be with us, and always needy, he says, but I will not always be here, and so it is good to feel as deeply as we can while we can. Mary has acknowledged that Jesus will die, which is something none of the disciples would do. She is the one who is able to resist the temptation to deny reality. She chooses the truth; a world with knowledge of good and evil. Evil will happen; she can’t stop that. But she can be with him in his suffering. She can love him even if she can’t save him.
In his book A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson talks about a time hiking the Appalachian Trail when he felt abandoned. His friend left, and alone, he said I “lost my sense of connectedness to the trail. I had lost my momentum; my feeling of purpose. In the most literal way, I needed to find my feet again.” Lent — our time in the wilderness – is to help us find our feet. It is a reminder to walk in the ways of Jesus – not to believe as Jesus did, but to behave as he did, and as Mary did; to take actions in this world even if it is scary, or painful. It reminds us that the spiritual life happens right here, in and through the tangible world and the choices we make. The giving up of small pleasures is, perhaps, a token reminder of the greater lesson – that we experience the holy as creatures of skin, muscle and bone; who tremble in fear and bend to slip on the shoes; who can’t prevent disease or death but who can create new life; who can choose to act even if we are heartbroken. We are meant to dare to embrace this fleeting life; to never give in to the temptations of despair, but to step out into the world, and pour out our lives for this creation.
Closing Words from My Shoes, by Charles Simic Shoes,
secret face of my inner life:…
What use are books to me
When in you it is possible to read
The Gospel of my life on earth
And still beyond, of things to come?