By Zac Koons
In 2017, in the middle of Friday prayers, several Islamic State suicide bombers attacked a Shiite mosque in Kabul, Afghanistan. In the aftermath of this attack, one American reporter took notice of a strange detail standing out amid the rubble: shoes. Days after the attack, a huge pile of shoes remained.
It is, as you may know, the standard practice of Muslims to remove their shoes before entering a mosque to pray, and so in the chaos of a terrorist attack, people fled without their shoes. Perhaps in fear or perhaps in emotional fragility, most never returned to retrieve them, which has left behind a bizarre almost-monument.
I’d like to do a thought experiment, but in order to do that we have to place to one side the human tragedy and emotion of this event, and perhaps the politics of it too. Can we do that? Here’s my question: What does this pile of shoes tell us about the people to whom they belong?
Well, it tells us at a basic level that Shiite Muslims believe certain things about space. That there is, in the very least, a distinction to be made between spaces that are for wearing shoes and spaces for not wearing shoes. And because just last week we read about Moses’ removing his sandals in the presence of the burning bush — a story that’s also in the Quran, by the way — we might extrapolate from there that our shoes has something to do with indicating whether some physical space is holy.
With a little legwork, we could follow this logic all the way to one of the five pillars of Islam, Hajj, which is the expectation that all Muslims make a pilgrimage to one geographical place they consider particularly holy, Mecca, at least once in their lifetime. We might realize that we’ve thought ourselves rather close to the reason that you and I are wearing shoes right now in our Christian place of worship. The holiness of particular geographical spaces matters less to Christians because, for one, we believe God took on human flesh and walked around, and two, we believe God, in his Holy Spirit, descended, and therefore there is nowhere God can’t be present if he so chooses.
That’s kinda cool, right? All that in a pile of shoes.
Now I’d like us to do another thought experiment: God forbid, but if a group of extremist fundamentalist Christians decided to bomb St. Richard’s, what would the rubble tell others about who we are as a people? It’s a pretty dark thought experiment, I know. But it may give us a new perspective on the reality of life as pious Shiite Muslims in the Middle East who live in fear of terrorism just like many of us do. One major difference is that their fear is exceedingly more likely to be realized. Remember, leave tragedy, emotion, and politics to one side.
I think this thought experiment is instructive for our Christian life together, because, like the shoes outside the mosque, embedded within our habits, especially embedded within our communal rituals and the artifacts of our worship, are hints to who we are as a people. And this maybe gives us a chance to step back and consider again why we do the things we do, why we go to church in the first place, and what being a Christian — an Episcopalian, even — might look like to the rest of the world.
So put yourselves in the shoes of a city official, an insurance adjuster, or a member of the clean-up crew who has never before heard of Christianity or the Episcopal Church, and who has just arrived at St. Richard’s in ruins. What does the rubble tell you?
Walking the grounds, you might conclude that we have some seriously committed gardeners and landscapers and thereby that we are a people who care about our relationship to the earth.
You might conclude when walking through the remains of the parish hall that we are a people who like to throw a good party — people who enjoy cooking and coffee and one another’s company; that we are a people of hospitality.
Walking through the office building, you might conclude that your two priests are massive nerds because of all the books that are now scattered about. You might see, across the hall, pool noodles and shaving-cream cans and unbelievable quantities of root beer and conclude that St. Richard’s has a pretty fun youth group.
Upon entering the church, you might be able to tell the kind of music we sing by seeing the organ pipes. You might find books filled with ancient Scriptures and prayers written in medieval syntax and conclude that this community has been around for quite a long time.
You might conclude all these things when walking through the rubble of St. Richard’s.
There’s one conclusion, though, that I think would be inevitable. It’s this: the most important thing that these people do is eat together. Think about it. At the architectural center of our building — indeed, probably the heaviest thing on our property, and therefore if we were bombed the thing most likely to remain intact — is a stone table. Scattered around it would be broken glass, broken wood, torn-up fabric, and wine-soaked linen, but also — the only other things likely to have remained unbroken — you would find silver plates and cups. These people must really care about eating together.
The second inevitable conclusion you’d come to is that this community’s eating together isn’t a normal meal. The table’s too high to use chairs around it, for one. And there really aren’t many chair parts you’d be able to find anyway. There’s lots of candles, but it doesn’t seem like they would have needed them for light. The only food scraps you see are tiny discs of unleavened bread — hardly nutritious or celebratory. This isn’t a normal meal. The second thing you’d realize is that these people regularly shared some kind of ritualized meal.
Does that feel right to you? Is this really the most important thing we do? Is this really our most defining feature? Don’t you think it’s a little strange? Shouldn’t it be, like, I don’t know, praying? Or reading the Bible? Or doing good works? Why is this ritualized meal at the center of our life?
The answer to that lies with our Old Testament lesson for today: Exodus 12.
Exodus 12 contains instructions from God for the Passover meal. You remember the Passover. Moses returned to Egypt to set his people free. Pharaoh said no. And so God sent plagues upon Egypt to change his mind: The Nile turns to blood. There’s frogs, flies, gnats, boils, and locusts. Darkness, thunder, and fiery hail. And the Passover is the final plague. The Lord promises to strike down every firstborn child in the land of Egypt.
The Passover meal is the key to getting God to pass over your house and go to the next one. And God gives a very specific set of instructions for this meal. If you can get over the blood and guts, it reads kind of like rubrics from the Book of Common Prayer, actually — weirdly specific rules that you suspect have some symbolic significance but that you don’t fully understand.
Choose a lamb on the 10th day of the month. The lamb must be without blemish, and one year old. Slaughter it at exactly midnight of the 14th day. Spread blood on your doorposts so God knows which houses to skip. Roast it, don’t boil it. And let no part of the lamb remain. If there’s too much meat, share it with a neighbor. And eat it as quickly as you can, with your shoes on, and your staff in your hand. Whatever you can’t eat, burn.
This is, unambiguously, a ritual meal. The text even says, “This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord.” Meaning, it’s not a onetime thing. You’re to do this every year. And you might have noticed at the beginning of the reading, the implementing of this feast reorganizes the entire Jewish calendar.
God says, now this month is to be the first month of the year. In other words, this meal is now the most important thing that you do. If you follow these instructions, this meal will tell a story to the world about who you are as a people, and about the God you worship.
Why now? Why this moment? They’re about to be free. Israel was a nation of slaves, crying out for freedom for generations. And this is the last meal the Israelites will eat before they make a run for it. That’s why they have to eat as quickly as they can. That’s why they have to keep their shoes on and their staffs in their hands. They have to be ready to go at a moment’s notice. That’s why God instructed them to use unleavened bread. There was no guarantee they’d have time for a yeasted dough to rise.
This event, the Exodus, defines who Israel are as a people. This is the one thing, throughout the entire Old Testament, that God is most known for. When God gives the Ten Commandments, what’s the first thing he says? He doesn’t say, “Okay, rule number one.” He first introduces himself: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.”
Not only on that first Passover night, but once a year for every year since then, the people of Israel would gather together around a table, following a set of very specific ritual instructions, and remember the greatest thing God ever did for them. According to the God of Israel, there’s something about a meal — a ritual meal — that has the power to do something in a community more powerfully than anything else. There’s something about eating together as a means of memory that works better than anything else.
And a funny thing happens in the course of Israel’s life. As year after year goes by, as Passover feast after Passover feast is shared, and as Israel experiences the many ups and downs reported in the rest of the Old Testament and since, the Israelites realize that the significance of the meal isn’t limited to their remembering how they were rescued in the past.
It came to serve also as a reminder that God wasn’t done rescuing them. God had promised never to forget them. That one day all wrongs would be set right. This meal gave them hope in their exile, and the many other historical moments since then that they’ve found themselves as a people with no land. It was and is a meal that would bring Jewish families and neighbors together so they could look to their past and hope toward their future. It brought the past and the future together into the present.
And then an even funnier thing happens in Israel’s history. Jesus came. And Jesus ate the Passover meal, every year. And on the night before he died, he shared a Passover meal with his disciples and he said, “Just like our people have gathered for this meal once a year for hundreds and hundreds of years to remember what God has done for us, so I want you, and all who come after you, to continue to gather for a meal very similar to this to remember me. Like the Passover, this meal will reorganize even your calendar. It will bring together your family and your neighbors. You’re to still use blood and bread — unleavened bread, actually. You can even paint your doors red. But this time I will be the lamb.”
According to Jesus, there’s something about a meal — a ritual meal — that has the capacity to communicate to a community of people more powerfully than anything else. There’s something about eating together as a means of memory that works better than anything else.
The people of God, from pretty much the very beginning, have been a people who eat together. They’re also a people who used eating together to remember all the things that God has done for them in the past, and to anticipate all the things God has still promised to finish. So this meal for us is still that, and it’s more than that. It’s our way of remembering what God accomplished for us in Jesus, and it’s in a mysterious way a means of making Jesus present here, now, and a way of making us into the body of Christ. It is this and more.
And we eat quickly, with our shoes on, because God might come call us home at any minute, and we know we should never get too comfortable in this kingdom to which we don’t ultimately belong. We know God is even now calling us into the one true freedom that is a perfect relationship with him. And in the meantime, our doors are marked with red to tell the world that this is a place marked for safety amid the crazy and chaotic world, that the meal we share in here, through baptism, is open to the whole world.
When I grew up as a Baptist, people were supposed to know you were a Christian because of how little you sinned. I’m all for not sinning. But is it possible that this is not the most important thing? Is it possible that we, it turns out, actually screw up from time to time? Is it possible, then, that our most defining feature as a Christian community in Round Rock, Texas, is that we eat together?
If someone came up to you on the street and said, “Hey, I heard you’re a Christian. Can you tell me what that’s like?” One option would be to open your prayer book to page 358 and show them the Nicene Creed and say, “Well, these are all the things we believe. This is what it’s like to be a Christian.”
But another option would be to say, “Do you want to come over to my house for dinner? It’s not a big deal. We sit around and eat together and tell stories. The reason I say that is, well, I could try to tell you what being a Christian is like, but in my experience that can’t really be captured by statements of belief — as important as those may be. It’s something you need to experience for yourself. Maybe after you come over for dinner you’ll want to visit our small group. It’s kind of the same thing, but just with a bigger group of people — we sit around, eat together, and tell stories. And then eventually maybe you’d want to come to church with me, where we sit around and eat together and tell stories, just with a slightly bigger group of people.
Isn’t there something about the table? Isn’t there something about the table in your house that keeps your family together? Isn’t there something about the table here in this church that keeps us together? Isn’t there something about eating together that captures who we are as a people better than anything else?
Isn’t Christianity, in the end, something you have to taste?
The Rev. Zac Koons is rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Austin, Texas.