First Reading: Exodus 3 “God called to Moses out of the bush and Moses said, ‘Here I am.’ Then God said, ‘Put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ (Felix Adler, founder of the Ethical Culture movement said, “The place where we meet to seek the highest is holy ground.”)
Second Reading: From Thoreau’s Journals, October 20, 1856
“I had gone but little way on the old Carlisle road when I saw Brooks Clark, who is now about eighty and bent like a bow, hastening along the road, barefooted…with an axe in his hand; (he) was in haste perhaps on account of the cold wind on his bare feet. When he got up to me, I saw that besides the axe in one hand, he had his shoes in the other, filled with knurly apples and a dead robin. He stopped and talked with me a few moments; said that we had had a noble autumn and might now expect some cold weather. I asked if he had found the robin dead. No, he said, he found it with its wing broken and killed it. He also added that he had found some apples in the woods, and as he hadn’t anything to carry them in, he put ’em in his shoes. They were queer-looking trays to carry fruit in. How many he got in along toward the toes, I don’t know. I noticed, too, that his pockets were stuffed with them. His old tattered frock coat was hanging in strips about the skirts, as were his pantaloons, about his naked feet. He appeared to have been out on a scout this gusty afternoon, to see what he could find, as the youngest boy might. It pleased me to see this cheery old man, with such a feeble hold on life, bent almost double, thus enjoying the evening of his days.
“Far be it from me to call it avarice or penury, this childlike delight in finding something in the woods or fields and carrying it home in the October evening, as a trophy to be added to his winter’s store. Oh, no; he was happy to be Nature’s pensioner still, and bird-like to pick up his living. Better his robin than your turkey, his shoes full of apples than your barrels full; they will be sweeter and suggest a better tale. He can afford to tell how he got them, and we to listen. There is an old wife, too, at home, to share them and hear how they were obtained. Like an old squirrel shuffling to his hole with a nut. Far less pleasing to me the loaded (wagon) more suggestive of avarice and of spiritual (poverty.)
“This old man’s cheeriness was worth a thousand of the church’s sacraments…It was better than a prayerful mood. It proves to me old age as tolerable, as happy, as infancy. I was glad of an occasion to suspect that this afternoon he had not been at “work” but living somewhat after my own fashion (though he did not explain the axe), — had been out to see what nature had for him, and now was hastening home to a burrow he knew, where he could warm his old feet. If he had been a young man, he would probably have thrown away his apples and put on his shoes when he saw me coming, for shame. But old age is manlier; it has learned to live, makes fewer apologies, like infancy. This seems a very manly man. I have known him within a few years building stone wall by himself, barefooted.”
Sermon: The Man Who Carried Apples in His Shoes
Moses is a mythological figure, personifying the human struggle for personal freedom, balanced by a sense of belonging to a community, in his case a religious community.
The story of Moses’ encounter with the voice of God at the burning bush is one of the most well-known and variously interpreted stories in Hebrew Scripture..
The bush was burning, but it wasn’t consumed by the flames; it’s a poetic expression that encourages us to see ourselves in the story: ‘Take off your shoes, this is holy ground.’ This is a special moment – not one of the billions of moments in chronological time, what the Greeks called Chronos: this is a moment out of the usual order of things, the kind of moment the Greeks called Kairos.
It’s the story of a turning point in the life of Moses, serving as a reminder of our own turning points in life. The rabbis say that the voice Moses heard calling from the burning bush was his own voice, coming to him from the depths of his human understanding – a spiritual experience; an epiphany that allows access to that in him which freed him from his former understanding of himself, giving him a renewed sense of meaning, purpose and direction in his life.
We all need such renewals from time to time. I’ve had my share.
One such experience happened several years ago when I made my first visit to our partner church in Alsoboldogfalva, a village in Transylvania, now part of Romania, once part of Hungary, and before that an independent state.
Prior to that visit I had spent several years corresponding with the ministers there, mostly with Biro Mihaly in whose home I stayed for a week during my visit. My dear friend, Dick Drinon, of blessed memory, was with me; it was his first trip to Transylvania – he had been wanting to take that trip for 50 years, since learning about our Unitarian roots there.
As we were leaving Mihaly’s house, and we got into the car, Dick in the back seat with Elizabeth, Mihaly’s wife, I turned to look at Dick who had tears in his eyes and he said, “Can anyone really be a Unitarian minister without coming here?”
The visit was a life-altering experience for Dick and that moment was of the Kairos nature – out of ordinary time. It’s not something I simply recall from the storehouse of memory, it’s something I continue to experience – it has become part of who I am as I hear the voice calling from some burning bush.
Moses asked the voice that came from the bush – the voice that sent him back to Egypt to free the people from bondage – who should I say has sent me? The voice said, “I am that I am,” making God a verb – the more literal translation is, “I am becoming,” or, “I am in the process of becoming.”
In his journal entry of October 20, 1856, Thoreau captures one of those moments for him – an epiphany.
Brooks Clark was a free man — Thoreau saw something of himself in the old man. He met Brooks Clark on that road to Carlisle, or we might say he ‘encountered’ him.
We’re always encountering ourselves; we continue to discover aspects of ourselves we hadn’t realized before. Most of the time we’re simply going about our business, our daily round of chores, as it were, going down the road of life with our shoes on, our minds preoccupied by what we’re going to do next, checking things off the day’s to-do list.
Here were two men for whom pockets or shoes full of knurly apples was better than a wagon load. Thoreau saw something that day – and what he saw, he said, was “…worth a thousand of the church’s sacraments…better than a prayerful mood.” He saw “…an old man’s cheeriness,” and he realized that ‘old age is tolerable.’ Notice his choice of the word: tolerable. Not over-stated, not ‘the golden years of life.’ But tolerable.
Thoreau speculates that, “If he had been a younger man, he would probably have thrown away his apples and put on his shoes when he saw me coming, for shame. But old age is manlier; it has learned to live, makes fewer apologies, like infancy.”
The encounter reminded Thoreau of the material greed he saw all around him and the spiritual poverty he felt in church.
Thoreau spent little time in churches. He quipped, “I once spoke in a Unitarian church; I spoke in the basement, hoping to undermine the place.”
Thoreau never, to my knowledge, talked about his prayer life, but here he says that ‘the old man’s cheeriness was better than a prayerful mood.’
Thoreau found his prayers out-of-doors. His spiritual needs were satisfied by encounters like the one he describes with the old man, Brooks Clark because he stopped to pay attention to what was happening around him and within him.
I’m reminded of Mary Oliver’s poem about praying:
It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.
Thoreau’s story of the man who carried apples in his shoes has all the earmarks of a good sermon – the kind we hope to hear when sitting in the pew, or engaging in a searching, honest conversation with a trusted friend…sermons that seem to emerge on their own, whether intended or not, whether planned or not. I don’t mean that the story has all the earmarks of a good sermon illustration – I mean that the story itself is a complete sermon.
“But old age is manlier; it has learned to live, makes fewer apologies, like infancy. This seems a very manly man.”
The man who carried apples in his shoes wasn’t concerned about what the young Thoreau thought; he needed a container to carry those apples, knurly as they were, and rather small to fit into those shoes.
He was on his way home to his wife that evening, carrying apples and a robin in his shoes to add to their food supply. “Better his robin than your turkey.”
But of course he was carrying something that didn’t fit into his shoes, something that would add to their spiritual supply, the way one hopes to walk out of a Sunday service, the way one hopes to carry something from a sermon — a week’s worth of holiness, a prayer that keeps on resonating on Monday and Tuesday, and maybe even into Wednesday when the appetite is whetted for more – hopefully!
The man who carried apples in his shoes presented Thoreau with a spontaneous prayer, which his friend Emerson defined as ‘the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view.’ Thoreau contemplated the simple fact of an old man carrying apples in his shoes, and it became, by Emerson’s definition, a prayer.
Just as we need food to keep our bodies nourished we also need something nourishes the spirit, the will to live, that which energizes us and inspires us as Moses of old was inspired by his encounter with a bush that was burning but wasn’t consumed!
The apples in the old man’s shoes provided inspiration for Thoreau – hopefully the retelling of his story provides spiritual nourishment for you – it has for me.
In that brief encounter with Brooks Clark, Thoreau found an Emerson-like prayer in those shoes, a prayer he obviously pondered and, Mary-Oliver like, he patched some words together without ‘trying to be elaborate’ and he opened ‘a doorway into thanks and a silence into which another voice may speak.’
We’ll close with a burning-bush-like poem by Mary Oliver:
When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness,
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”