Friday, August 28, 2015

It’s All About the Shoes - sermon 8/23/2015 on the armor of God and Jesus' difficult teaching

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“It’s All About the Shoes”
Sermon, Year B, Proper 16, August 23, 2015
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
©2015 Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: Ephesians 6:10-20, John 6:56-69

Let’s go with the lesson from Ephesians today. There is some fashion advice here, found in the New Testament about what to wear.

Put on the whole armor of God: the belt of truth around your waist, the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace - I don’t know if Prada makes those kind of shoes, but maybe. The shield of faith. The helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Interesting here that the writer, who might have been Paul, attributed to him but scholars think it was someone later writing in Paul’s name, but we aren’t sure - but what is interesting is that the writer links items to specific kinds of armor: belt of truth, breastplate of righteousness, shield, sword, helmet.

Except for the shoes. He doesn’t link anything to the shoes. He does not say to put on the shoes of peace, or the shoes of proclamation, he just says to put on the shoes that will allow you to proclaim the gospel of peace.

It always comes down to the shoes, doesn’t it? No ensemble works unless the shoes work. The shoes make the man, as they say. Or the woman. The shoes have to fit the rest of the clothing. And shoes are so important, because they are what we stand on and walk on. The shoes are there to support us.

Even the writer is using all these war terms, such as breastplate and shield and helmet, the shoes are to be whatever makes you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. So I imagine them as being comfy. Wear comfortable shoes. Shoes that offer good support. Put on shoes that don’t make you cranky. If one’s shoes are tight, uncomfortable, putting blisters on your flesh, it’s difficult to be peaceful. If you are suffering because of your shoes.

A couple years ago before one of my trips to Japan, I thought I’d take a new pair of shoes. A pair of deck shoes. I thought they’d be nice because there is a lot of taking off of shoes in Japan, entering homes, temples, spas, castles, even some stores and other public areas… so I thought the deck shoes would be nice because they are easy to slip in and out of. But I didn’t think, in fact I didn’t know, that deck shoes are a kind of shoes that need to be broken in first. What do I know of shoes? Well, I learned that lesson very painfully. After about half a day walking around Tokyo, the first place we went to, I was very unpeaceful by the afternoon. By the time we got to the hotel late that night, I was like “Hulk smash!” ready for war. So many blisters on my feet. It was so painful. I had no idea I had to break them in first.

I probably also should have worn socks with them as well, too, but the fashionistas say “Och, you don’t wear socks with deck shoes! You wear socks, people will look at you funny.”

Never trust a fashionista. And don’t care so much about what other people think.

Be comfortable.

While I was suffering that day from the shoes, we had thought, Yuki suggested that maybe we could go buy a new pair of shoes. I wasn’t sure if that would be helpful, since I already had the blisters. But also, finding shoes in my size in Japan is not easy. Finding anything in my size is not easy. When I bought my more formal Yukata - which is a casual robe similar to, but not as fussy as, a kimono [ed. note: see here some beautiful Kyoto-style kimonos worn by Geiko and Maiko], the one that I’ve worn here for World Communion Sunday - we went to a really nice store in Kyoto, with Kyoto being the place in Japan for fabrics and traditional clothing,  for it that would have a good selection and likely have something in my size. The saleswoman was very, very helpful. This is Japan, salespeople are always very, very helpful, whether it’s a 7-11 or a clothing store. The woman that helped us out probably imagined when we came in that Yuki was the one looking for something. But we said that I was looking for something. She wasn’t so sure at first when we said we were looking for me and sized me up. She got the Japanese face that shows concern, that I can’t really do, that look that is thinking inside “I’m going to be put in a position of having to say ‘no’” which is not an easy thing in Japan. Don’t like to say no. But they had some that fit me, she was relieved, I was excited to have this new outfit. We found an obi, the belt, that was long enough to wrap around me a sufficient amount of times, and beautiful. After we get me all fitted up, I thought, “You know, if I’m going to go with this traditional outfit, let’s go all the way. I should also get the geta, the wooden shoes (sandals, really) that are traditional to wear with the yukata.” And I don’t know if the salesperson had grown more comfortable with us because we’d been there for a while, but when I asked her if she had geta for these (pointing at my feet) she just laughed. "No, we don’t. Not even worth looking in the back." [ed. note: more on Kyoto, one of my favorite cities in the world]

So finding shoes, even non-geta shoes, not so easy and I didn’t want to waste the time while we were in Tokyo, so I toughed it out with the deck shoes. It was a couple of painful days, but you know, in a day or two the shoes were fine. It was about a week before my feet healed and felt fine, but the shoes were okay to wear.

There is something with certain kinds of shoes, like dress shoes, work boots, hiking boots, and as I recently learned, deck shoes, they need some time for our feet to get familiar with them and for them to get familiar with our feet. You don’t buy a pair of hiking boots the day before you hit the Appalachian trail. You wear them for a number of days, and work into them. You also don’t want to buy cheap shoes. I’ve also found that it’s worth spending good coin to get a good pair of shoes. A quality pair, well made. They are not only better for the back, knees, skeleton and the foot itself. Bad pairs of shoes can lead to body complications later in life if you are not supported properly. It’s cheaper, actually, in the long run to spend money on good shoes than to buy a series of cheap ones. I have dress shoes - like these - that are almost 15 years old. All my dress shoes are almost 15 years old. I’d have older ones, but I lost all those in the WTC attacks. I kept my dress shoes at work. A good pair will last for a long time with occasional repairs and loving care. I like to say that I spend good money on my shoes because I’m so cheap: I’d rather just buy a couple I like and never have to buy any again.

With those shoes was that difficult time of fitting into the new shoes.

I’ve found that learning new things can be like getting new shoes. Learning new habits, learning new ways of doing things, can be like getting a new pair of shoes. Very uncomfortable at first. Can feel like it’s not worth it. Can feel like the goal for which the shoe was designed - dress up, hiking, working - will never be achieved. It’s so painful at first. It can be so painful at first, to make you feel like giving up or throw the shoe away. I was so angry at those deck shoes for what they did to my feet.

But, I stuck with it. And those shoes started to fit. If I’d taken the time to break in the deck shoes, I wouldn’t have such unpeaceful feelings about them. I wouldn’t have had those days of foot pain.

But give it a little time, and then suddenly, wow!, now they are broken in, now they are comfortable, and there you are with a new pair of deliciously comfortable and usable shoes.

Comfortable enough that one is at peace within, so that one may be at peace without, and preach the Gospel of peace to the world.

Churches, too, occasionally need to break in new pair shoes. Times change, cultures change, contexts of the church changes. We need to learn new ways of doing things. The message doesn’t change. It’s still the message of God’s love. God’s unstoppable infinite love. That message never changes. The message of grace, and the beauty of being in fellowship with other people, united to the cause of peace and justice, to be relieving the pain of suffering, preaching release to prisoners. That message doesn’t change. But the way we deliver the message changes. Learning to share the message in new ways can be difficult. But that process can be uncomfortable. It is uncomfortable.

The benefits of the shoe don’t change, but the styles do. Breaking in a new style, that takes some time. When it comes to the church, that can take a lot of time, counted not in hours but in years.

We have been in a time of learning for the church. Not just for Plymouth, but the Church all over, and especially in the United States. It’s a new time for the church as the culture has changed around us, and we’ve not been so good to adjust to that culture. I think of it as the benefits of wearing the shoe does not change, but the style of the shoe changes.

Breaking in a new style takes some times. When it comes to the church, it’s not measured in hours or days, but months or years, even decades. We’ve been breaking in some new shoes here at Plymouth. Learning new ways of being the Church. New ways to organize ourselves to be more efficient, more quick at making decisions and take advantage of opportunities. Also learning new ways of being present in the city of Eau Claire. Being present in our neighborhood and community that we live in. And especially learning the shoes of invitation, reaching out and inviting people to come in. That is a very new learning. Probably for most of us, it is the shoes of invitation that are the most difficult and daunting, and maybe the most frustrating. We have many wonderful shoes in the collection of the Church, but the shoes of invitation are shoes that the church has scarcely worn, if at all, for a couple generations. Particularly for the UCC, the Methodists, the Presbyterians, and others for whom attendance and membership has gone down over the generations. It’s like we’ve forgotten how to be invitational.

I’ve mentioned a few times about where I was a year ago, when I first started working with my church growth coach and learning this new skill set of how to be out in the community, how to be invitational, how to meet people and build relationships. It was always so, well, terrifying to me before then because I didn’t want to be “that evangelical guy” who screams at people and throws the Bible in peoples’ face. I know a lot of us are afraid of looking like that, so we don’t say anything. That’s not a helpful solution.

But, I started learning that a year ago. It was really difficult. It was a time of challenge for me. It was a whole new skill set. There were a number of times that I was ready to throw the shoes in the garbage. It was painful, like those deck shoes in Tokyo, and it seemed like it never got easier. It was months of process of trying to learn how to do this and become comfortable with it. I couldn’t seem to get past the blistering stage. I had soul blisters. And they weren’t healing. It was difficult for me. It was all so new. I was taking in so much information, learning new ways to be the Church, learning new ways to be a pastor, adjusting and taking all the things I was learning and hearing and trying to make them fit the context of Plymouth. To make it work for this congregation, in this city, in this culture and community. There is more learning on my part to be done, and more learning on the church’s part. I’ve been talking about it a lot, and some of you are part of the process.

But I can sense some of that fear, the same fear and dread here at Plymouth, about that new shoe of being invitational. It is daunting. It does feel weird. Especially I feel it when I issue a challenge to you to go connect with someone, invite someone, do an elbow activity, bring a friend with you, and so on. I know it’s difficult and scary. It was for me when I first started doing this. I was so afraid of someone yelling at me, or saying a loud shouty “no” to me, or a “how dare you ask me to your church”. But you know what? I have encountered none of that. I’ve had people say, “No, not interested.” But always in a kind way. Never had anyone explode at me, or do anything nasty. Facing that fear, facing the fear of rejection or the fear of doing something new, is just part of the process I was there a year ago. But as I have said many times, I will not ask you to do something that I am not willing to do, or that I have not already done. Because I went through that process of learning how to be comfortable with inviting, and then I started offering the challenge to you and talking about it in sermons. Especially about connecting with others. That is so important. And it’s not difficult. The first couple times felt difficult, but quite honestly, the fear was only in here (pointing to my head) and in here (pointing to my heart), and not in reality.

I connected with people this week, as I strive to do every week, to connect with some new people every week. Some of them have come here. Some are in process. Some will never come. But that’s how you grow a church. That’s how you grow a church. Those invitations, connecting with people and asking them to come in. But I understand the difficulty. You even see that even with Jesus’ disciples when he is giving this new teaching. They say to him, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”

Any new teaching can be difficult. It feels that way, doesn’t it? “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”

But it does get easier. It can be done. Taking that first step can be a real struggle. But take that first step, because then the next step is a little easier, and the one after that is easier, and eventually it becomes a comfortable clothing. Like a good pair of shoes. It is a skill that is worth having. I don’t even want to call it a skill. It’s not just a skill, it is part of being a follower of Jesus. It is part of our discipleship. It’s a faith practice to be invitational and to bring people in to share the good news and spread the word of peace, to invite people in to share in that good news, to invite people in to share in the fellowship of the church, and to know that you have the Spirit with you. You have God with you.

It’s not just a wacky new thing to do, it’s how the church has existed for 2000 years. It’s how the Church grew from that ragtag group of people who were hanging around Jesus. It’s how that ragtag group of people around Jesus became a movement that has spread around the world.

All that struggle I had with those deck shoes, by the end of the trip they fit just fine. They felt just fine. They caused no problems, and they were a comfortable and enjoyable pair of shoes to wear that lasted beyond the vacation.

Amen.