Sermon preached at Evensong on the Sunday next before Lent (3 March 2019) by the Revd Canon Tricia Hillas, Pastor

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12:00pm Doors open for sightseeing
12:30pm Eucharist
4:00pm Last entry for sightseeing
5:00pm Evening Prayer
5:30pm Cathedral closes

Sermon preached at Evensong on the Sunday next before Lent (3 March 2019) by the Revd Canon Tricia Hillas, Pastor

Reflecting on an art installation entitled 'Holy Ground', the Canon Pastor reflects on how we can 'dare to go barefoot before God and one another'. 

She was dying. Lying in a pale hospital room a very long way from the colourful African capital in which she had been born.

Her skin had taken on that fragile translucency which so often marks the transition from this life to the next. And dry, too dry for comfort. So drenching my hands with perfumed oil I began to massage her feet – burnishing them until they regained their mahogany glory once again.                 The smell of ginger and spices filled the room – and it seemed to me we shared holy ground.

The impact of art installation called ‘Holy ground’ has never left me – it consists of a collection of shoes, paired with the stories of their owners, Christians all around the world. Its creator, artist Paul Hobbs, says:

“The stories are short statements about what it means for each person to believe in Christ in their particular situation. Among those represented are: a thief, a refugee, the despised, the rejected – people who Jesus specially sought out – as well as those who have known great opportunity, wealth and success. There are those who are beautiful, those struggling to make a living and raise a family, those who are disabled, those who have known great loss and tragedy, and those asking the deep questions of life. Some are persecuted and despised for their faith. Several need to be anonymous due to the lack of religious freedom in their lands. For some the idea of giving up their shoes for this project seemed amusing and culturally odd. For others it was costly to give their only pair of shoes in exchange for another. All have encountered the living God, arriving at a place of holy ground.”

When I first saw the installation I was moved by the very ordinariness of the worn footwear and the way in which these everyday items captured the imprint of their former owners, moulding themselves to their wearer’s uniqueness, capturing the realities of their everyday journeying.

To be entrusted with their stories; to view something as intimate as shoes, moulded to the distinctive shape of individual feet, truly seemed to be Holy Ground. A reminder that we each stand, sit, walk, kneel, crawl, lie, and trace out our life journeys on this earth, our shared home, our literal common ground. 

Moses was on dry parched ground – the Hebrew phrase implies that he was deep into the wilderness - close to Horeb or Sinai whose name comes from a root signifying dryness – ‘the parched mountain’ - for it is located a full 3 days journey from the Nile.

In the ancient Near East, where all this takes place, deities were often associated with sacred trees, but it is not a stately tree that catches Moses attention but a lowly bush. A bush aflame with glory in an arid place.

In that scorched place shoes would offer protection from stings, stones, thorns and the burning ground. Removing them at God’s bidding, Moses places himself in a vulnerable and intimate orientation towards God. Holy Ground.

We come to other Holy Ground in our reading from John’s gospel when in the lead-in to the events of his death Jesus speaks of his being lifted up.

Perplexingly then and now, Jesus describes this as the moment when God’s name will be glorified. In a place of execution, outside the city walls a despised tree would become a focus of glory as God, thirsty and bloody laid himself open, in a vulnerable and intimate orientation towards humanity. Holy Ground.

And today, well we live in wonderful and exciting times. Such progress is being made:
•    In 1970 the share of the world’s population who were undernourished was 28% by 2015 that had reduced to 11%.
•    In 1986 the number of countries who allowed lead in gasoline stood at 193 out of 195, today only 3 countries do.
•    The woman I spoke of at the beginning of this address was dying from AIDS. Today the rate of new HIV infections per million people is less than half of what it was at its peak in 1996.

More people have access to education, medical care and new forms of life-saving and economy-boosting communication than at any time in our history. 

Yet we also live in painful, disjointed times. Huge divisions remain. Susanna Snyder draws our attention to the feet of the many survival migrants who are on the move in our world saying: ‘attending to migrants feet invites us to recognise their humanity. Walking away from home expresses migrants’ fierce hope for continued existence, for life’.

The truth is that whilst some of us have the luxury of placing our feet on plush carpet or encase them in designer goods, others of us walk in search of safety, or tread fearfully when it is our turn to have our mobility assessed for Personal Independence Payments or go barefoot in the slum.

Going back to John’s gospel between the time Jesus spoke of being lifted up, and when his feet would be pierced by nails on the sacred tree, he would do something remarkable.

He would kneel in the presence of his closest friends and followers and lift their feet, washing off the grime of the day, drying them clean. He did this even for the one who would lift up his heel against him and betray him. And Jesus said ‘If I your Lord and Master have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.’

I have to confess that I still laugh when I hear the joke attributed to the British comedian Billy Connelly which goes:
‘Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes. 
After that, who cares? He’s a mile away and you’ve got his shoes’  

It’s funny because it’s ludicrous – and points to the audacity of the different way to which Jesus calls – that of opening ourselves in vulnerability and openness to God and then that which follows, to one another.

As we conclude might I invite us to live with some questions: How might we dare to go barefoot – before God and one another. To be mindful of the thorns, stings and stones, the scorching sand of one another’s lives? And so to allow the barefoot Saviour to nourish our own dry feet with oil in his presence?

If we dare to do so we may find we are indeed on holy ground.

Let us pray: May we go from this place in the anticipation that God is preparing us to stand on Holy Ground.  May we be ready to turn aside and to take off our shoes. In our attentiveness, our washing of one another’s feet and in having our own feet washed, may we know ourselves on Holy Ground.