Spirituality

Going barefoot on the spiritual path – a sermon preached at St Mary’s, Stockport and Brinnington

3 July 2022

Galatians 6: 7-16 and Luke 10: 1-11, 16-20 Jesus sends out 70 followers……

“Far be it for me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom the world is crucified to me, and I to the world’ Amen

Going Barefoot

Something not many people know about me is that I love going barefoot and always have. I nearly decided to go barefoot when preaching this sermon but then realised that that would be one of those sermon illustrations my preaching tutor warned us about, which is SO exciting and unusual that people get totally distracted and end up not listening to a word you say – so my listeners would be thinking, what is this mad woman doing coming to church with no shoes on – and the rest of the sermon would pass by unnoticed.

So…I kept my shoes on and went metaphorically barefoot instead!  

I go barefoot at home for most of the summer, I often go barefoot in the garden, I have even gone barefoot running – which is a thing now – and I did a lot of martial arts as a child – all of which is done barefoot. In fact it still strikes me as a little odd that we don’t take our shoes off when we come into church. Other traditions – Buddhists , my Muslim friends – all take off their shoes when entering a sacred space but Christians don’t. I suspect in our climate that has a lot to do with the fact that we build with stone and we would all have chilblains by the end of the winter.

The reason I am telling you all this is that I think it matters how Jesus sends out his followers in the passage from Luke we heard read for us. Not only are they to take no purse or bag but no sandals either and at least one translation I read said, quite explicitly, go barefoot.

Why might that matter. Well, as someone said when they read that translation, it’s hard to trample on other people when you’re barefoot. And that may explain the popularity of the barefoot schools movement – it started in Scandinavia and has spread here. Everyone in the school, staff, children, visitors, take off their shoes. The education professor researching the results – which range from improved academic results and behaviour to a decline in bullying and carpet wear and tear – says his pet theory is that teenage boys keep their testosterone in their shoes. As that person said, it’s hard to trample on people when you’re barefoot. 

Going barefoot in the ancient world was a sign of humility, of low status. Spiritual teachers might well go barefoot – it was the rich, the powerful who wore shoes.

And when you go barefoot you have to tread more gently, you have to keep more aware of the ground under your feet, of the terrain in front of you – you literally have to tread lightly on the earth.

You are, in fact, less protected and more vulnerable. So, when Jesus sends out people to carry on his work, he asks them to go humbly, gently, to let themselves be vulnerable. Lambs among wolves. As Jesus was humble, gentle, vulnerable – a lamb among wolves.

The spiritual life is not, or never should be, about trampling on others. It is about being vulnerable, gentle, humble.

But here’s the thing about lambs. They are vulnerable. They are also wonderfully playful. I heard a great sermon last term where one of our tutors told us that that thing that lambs do when they jump straight up in the air? It’s called stoating! Because, apparently, stoats do it too. Lambs are exuberant, joyful. And that’s the other truth about the spiritual life, the call to follow in the footsteps of Jesus of Nazareth  – it is, or it should be, also about playfulness and joy, as well as vulnerability.

Workers or teachers? Or even learners?

This text is often spoken of in the context of the word mission, a sending out to spread good news. But notice how, in addition to the fact that those engaging in mission should go barefoot, so they can’t possibly trample on anyone, they were also told to be open to receive, as well as to give. They received hospitality. If their host was a person of peace they shared in that peace. They were fed. In response they were to heal, to make people whole and they were to teach – the word for worker or labourer could also mean teacher – and what they were teaching was that the ‘kingdom of God’ was near.

It is easy to think of mission as some we do to others. Here mission is two way, as true teaching is always two way. The true teacher is always also learning from others. Here the people Jesus sends are also receiving blessings from those they meet and bless. Mission, the work of God in the world to bring about justice and peace and kindness – is always reciprocal and should always promote the welfare of everyone involved.

The other thing about teaching is that you cannot teach what you are not practising yourself. We cannot teach others that the kingdom of heaven is near if we are not ourselves always learning to see that the kingdom is at hand. And that is a hard practice and a lifelong practice. It is the practice of paying attention. An attentiveness that is encouraged by going barefoot, though I am not suggesting you literally go barefoot in Stockport. But more that you might think about what it means for the spiritual life to walk gently and with awareness. To stay awake. To notice the beauty around you. The beauty in each person. To recall moment by moment that God is near, that the person with me is a child of God, that the kingdom is at hand.

You’ll never walk alone

So Jesus sends us out barefoot, to walk gently. To be vulnerable but playful. To receive as well to give. And he sends us in pairs. We might be vulnerable, in whatever role or calling we are walking in, but we are not  alone.

On Monday I took part in about 45 minutes of what we call Holy Listening though it’s more properly called Lectio divina or holy reading. It’s a kind of prayer using the bible. About 7 people gathered at St Peter’s Macclesfield and we sat and read and reread the passage that would be preached on this morning. There’s a lot of silence and a lot of listening and then people shared what they felt spoke to them in the passage. And some of the ideas in my sermon came from people’s sharings. It’s less MY sermon and more a group effort. And that’s a lovely metaphor for the spiritual life and for church life. It is, it should always be, collaborative.

Holy listening in a small group on a Monday morning is a terrific way to start the week and I commend it to you as something to think about – not least because it’s a great way for you to love and support your clergy and help them with their sermon preparation. But also because it builds community – it builds the kingdom of heaven. Some writers now are using the word ‘kin-dom’ rather than Kingdom – for various reasons but importantly because it makes the point that we are all sisters and brothers in the realm of God and that everyone belongs here.

I started this sermon with a prayer taken from our Galatians passage:

“Far be it for me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom the world is crucified to me, and I to the world’

So, what is this ‘world’ that is crucified to me? Well, it’s the world that says being vulnerable is stupid and for losers. The world that says it’s ok to trample on others and which sees gentleness as a sign of weakness. The world that is preoccupied with efficiency and success – going barefoot isn’t efficient and Christ’s death was not a success. That is the world that is crucified. But the resurrection hope on the other side of that is that the kin-dom of heaven is close at hand, then, now, in and around each of us and we are all constantly being called into newness, into the future, into hope and gentleness and the playful vulnerability that is at the heart of the kin-dom of heaven.