Confirmation Sunday – Caroline Dean 5/1/16

Confirmation Sunday, May 1st 2016

Homily: Stinky Feet

Rev. Caroline Lawson Dean at Christ Church, Summit


A reading from John Chapter 13 verses 12-16

After Jesus had washed the disciples feet, put on his robe, and returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you?13  You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am.14So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15…You should do as I have done to you. 16Truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

Let us pray:  “God of Love, sometimes we don’t always know where we belong, other times we are afraid to be ourselves.  We ask this day, oh God, that your love would soak into our hearts, into our bones, that we might know that we belong to you, and to each other and most of all that you love us no matter what.  And then, oh God, help us to go out and embody that kind of love in the world.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.”

One day Jesus’ disciples have a really important question for him, a question that they have been debating for days.  They finally come out with it, “Who is the greatest among us?” they ask. Someone else shouts, “Yea, Who gets to sit in the seat of honor at your side?!”  Jesus on his last day with his friends and followers he finally gives them an answer.  He stands up, in the middle of what the disciples would think of as a perfectly normal festival dinner.  He takes off his cloak, pours water into the basin, takes up a towel, and bows to wash the feet of his friends.

Don’t worry!  We won’t need to reenact the foot washing today, I am betting that our confirmation ritual will give your feet a good cleaning.

But when Jesus starts bowing down to wash the disciples’ feet, they are shocked!  You see, as they made the long journey to Jerusalem for the Passover festival, these sandal-wearing men and women collected a significant amount of dirt, sweat, and yes even toe jam and animal dung.  And in most households the host would provide a bowl of water for them to wash their own feet upon arrival.  In others, the lowest servant would offer to wash your feet for you.  But now instead Jesus, their Rabbi, their Lord was going to be the one to clean the dirtiest part of their body, with his own hands, during dinner!?  So Peter, speaks up and says aloud what everyone else is thinking, Jesus should surely never demean himself with such a vulgar task!  So Peter says, “Jesus, you won’t wash my feet!”  And Jesus says, “You won’t understand this now, Peter, but unless I wash your feet you have no part of me!”

“Who is the greatest among you?” Jesus says that the greatest among you must take the lowliest, grossest job, not the seat of honor but the one on the floor.  The one who wants to be a big deal in my Kindom, must be the “foot washer,” the lowest servant.

Pastor and Professor Alyce M McKenzie tells a story about a time when her church decided to do a foot washing service a few years back.  She writes about this time when the administrative assistant in their church was tasked with setting up a foot washing service.

“It was the first (foot washing service) that they had ever tried, and, to my knowledge, the last. The pastor had the administrative assistant call down the list of Board members trying to get twelve people to agree to sit in a row up front (for their Maundy Thursday service) and let the pastor wash their feet. She got turned down six times. She got discouraged & ended up settling for half a dozen pair of feet up front instead of twelve.

That evening, as the sun set and the moon rose gleaming through the stained glass scene of Jesus in the Garden behind the altar, there they sat up front, in a line of folding chairs facing the rest of us, with their shoes neatly lined up next to each of their chairs... There was Joyce up there on the end seat.  She had had a pedicure just for the occasion.  I could see her bright coral nail polish blinking from my seat.  I could see Ralph's "gold toe" socks neatly folded on top of his newly polished wing tip shoes.  I could smell a hint of Febreeze that Denise must have sprayed in her shoes just before she left home. We in the congregation got to watch while the pastor washed the six best smelling pairs of feet in the entire town.

But when I hear the story of the church elders and their perfectly pedicured feet, it does make me wonder, why is this foot washing ritual so embarrassing?  First of all, a foot washing is embarrassing because, I don’t know about you, but my feet can be pretty stinky.  I totally understand why those church leaders washed their feet before they arrived at church that day.  Don’t we tidy up our house before guests arrive?  Don’t we get dressed up for big occasions, like Confirmation Sunday?  Don’t we edit our virtual presence to reflect our most flattering selfies?  Personally I confess that I floss more regularly when the dentist appointment starts showing up on my calendar.

Molly Phinney Baskette talks about our “front stage” and our “back stage” selves.  You know how in a play or performance there is the front stage which is perfected & polished?  The stage crew has been working on it for months.  After each scene the set moves perfectly & quickly to set the stage for the next scene.  And then backstage you see the real action, the make-up artists, the set crew running to and fro.  There are costume changes.  The contraptions & lines that you pull to move the set.  And you even sometimes find the junk leftover from last year’s musical in the corner.  Backstage you see the real chaos.

And so this why we come to a foot washing with clean feet.  If we are honest this is how we move through most days.  We tuck away our imperfections, our fear, our real selves “back stage.”  We show up in the world as the sanitized, “Febreezed” version of ourselves.  And then, we live in real fear of being “outed,” having our back stage revealed to the world.

And to make things worse we them immerse ourselves with images of professionally manicured celebrities, OR photo-shopped, perfect bodies and even when we see the so called “popular” kids on social media – it is so easy to compare their perfected “front stage” self to our messy chaotic back stage self and then we feel totally crappy about ourselves!

And so this why the foot washing is so embarrassing because in a true foot washing, not the “Febreeze version,” you have to show your stinky feet, you have to be real.

The second reason that the foot-washing is so embarrassing, especially for Peter that day, is that Jesus’ radical display of love was also a radical reversal, even an undoing of the social order – which everyone is so concerned with when they ask “Who is the greatest among us?”.  Whoever we think is the “greatest among us” is maybe not so superior.  Or to put it more bluntly, Jesus’ life and ministry and death undoes the system that makes a “cool” kid cool and a “not so cool kid” not so cool completely upside down.

In Middle School (& I will share a top secret with you – even sometimes in adult hood!) there is this pecking order.  Whoever has their act together the most (at least pretends to) is at the top.  The kids who are perceived to be the most attractive, richest, most athletic, most talented, popular kids they are the best and we should all try and be like them.  And the loneliest, more “ordinary,” invisible kids are at the “bottom” of the ladder and we should avoid them, just in case anyone starts to think that we belong with them at the bottom.  But here is the twist, God’s love doesn’t work this way.  God’s love doesn’t rank us by our “cool” factor, or even by our “goodness” or our “churchy-ness.”  Jesus says I love you no matter how “cool” you are, or how much money you have, or “attractive” you are to your peers, no matter how many crushes people have on you or how many Lacrosse or swimming trophies you win.

One of the things that takes my breath away when I imagine the foot washing, is that we know that Judas was there at the Passover dinner and we know that Jesus knows that Judas will shortly betray him.  And on top of that, we know that Peter, and in fact all of the disciples will shortly betray Jesus.  Jesus, surrounded by his best friends who will betray him, does not react in pain, or anger.  Jesus doesn’t disassociate from them or shun them.  Instead he shows them the most vulnerable, display of love, this beautiful foot washing ritual, which foreshadows his death, his ultimate display of love.

While the disciples are grappling for the best seat at the table, and some are even plotting betrayal, Jesus bows and takes off his robe and washes their feet.  He says this is how much I love you.  My love is bigger than all of your betrayals, all of your “back stage mess.”  My love will pour out like water from the pitcher of a lowly servant called to wash your dirty feet.  And I will lower myself to such a place to show you how much I love you, even when you are at your worst.

Because you see, Jesus does not wash the disciples’ feet show us how important it is to have clean feet – Jesus does this to show how much he loves his friends – how much he loves us - how much he would give up for us AND he does this to show us how to love each other.

Jesus says my love for you is so big that I can handle your betrayals and imperfections.  Jesus says I love you, toe jam and all.

And then Jesus says, now it’s your turn, go out and love other people this way, with grace, humility, and forgiveness.  When you experience the amazing ways that God loves us, even in our broken places, that grace, humility and love gets somehow mysteriously stored within us and then it overflows.  At the foot washing Jesus says to us “I’m going to love you no matter what.”  And then Jesus calls us to go out in the world and be God’s love, to love people “no matter what” (Father Greg Boyle).  We are called to love the unlovable, to serve in the places that others would find reprehensible or at least embarrassing, to pray with the sick and dying, to fight for justice & peace when no one else will, to take care of the least of these – the left out kids, the invisible ones.  We are called to let go of the best seat at the table, and to serve our brothers and sisters, no matter who sits at the table.

And so sometimes when you wonder where you belong, or who would still love you if you revealed your stinky feet, your real self, know that God’s love is bigger than our embarrassment, our imperfections and our brokenness.  Today when you get dunked in that water and wash your feet, know that you are now called to take up the towel to go out and serve others with this kind of radical love.

And through it all also know that you belong here, that Christ Church.  That we are your home.  That we love your feet, even when they stink.  And that we need your help!  We need our feet washed too!  Amen.



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Once, when Jesus was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord if you choose, you can make me clean.” Immediately the leprosy left him. And he ordered him to tell no one. “Go,” he said, “and show yourself to the priest, and as Moses commanded, make an offering for your cleansing as a testimony to them.” But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places to pray.

Barbara Brown Taylor in her book, An Altar in the World, tells a story about a time when she was guest preaching at an Episcopal church in the south. She arrives early to check out the sanctuary & get settled in. She immediately noticed that behind the altar there was a striking mural of the resurrected Jesus, stepping out of the tomb. After greeting a member of the altar guild, a manicured and proper southern lady, Barbara walks up behind the altar to get a closer look at the mural. She says that Jesus looked “as limber as a ballet dancer with his arms raised in blessing…except for the white cloth swaddling his waist, Jesus was naked. His skin was the color of a pink rose. His limbs were flooded with light.”
Barbara felt protective over Jesus with so much skin showing, he is all exposed in such a public place. She recognized the beauty in this painting that in Jesus' moment of transcendence, he remained human, he came back wearing skin. But then she also quickly noticed that something was missing, the wounds in his hands and feet were apparent – though not grotesque. His arms were thin but strong, but then staring at his underarms, she noticed - that Jesus had no body hair! “Beautiful, isn't it?” asked the woman who was polishing the silver. “It surely is that,” Barbara said, “ but did you ever notice that he has no body hair? He has the underarms of a six-year-old and his chest is a smooth as a peach.” And the woman shrank in awkwardness. “Uh, no, um, wow…” she said.

This may or may not have sent me on a Google hunt to find a picture of a hairy Jesus, but alas, in the collective Christian imagination, Jesus is really into hygiene. Seriously though in a majority of these portraits, Jesus skin is silky and “rosey” and white and “hair free.”

And this perfectly manicured Jesus is problematic especially when I imagine Jesus in our gospel reading today. First of all - let's get something straight up front, Jesus was not fair-skinned, which is another sermon for another day. Second of all Jesus most certainly did not have access to spa treatments, sunscreen, or a personal trainer. I mean seriously though it looks like he baths in milk and does mint julep masks every day! And yes, Jesus was crucified, but he looked damn good doing it! The reality is that Jesus was a poor drifter teacher who trudged around in dirt and grim and touched lepers. And who knows, Jesus may have even been uglier or fatter or shorter or grey-haired or balding than our perfect-bodied Jesus! Why would that be such a scandal?

It would be a scandal - because we are generally uncomfortable with our own bodies – we decided to manicure Jesus' body and make it perfect to make us feel a little more at ease about the imperfections and struggles in our own bodies.

So Jesus' messy body – with smelly feet and bad breath and hunger and pain and a couple grey hairs – one day in his travels encounters a man who's body is covered in leprosy. And the man's frail and weak body covered with open wounds throws himself on the dirt ground at Jesus' feet in desperation. And Jesus heals him and restores him to his community. And I need Jesus to have a messy, real body in this scene. Because imagining the rosy pink flesh that is unblemished and perfect touching the broken body of the leper with open wounds just doesn't do it for me. “Rosey-skinned”

And perfect bodied Jesus doesn't fit in this story for two reasons:

1) Jesus' body certainly stands in contrast to our leper friend. The leper's flesh is rotting and open to infection, while Jesus' skin is shiny and new. If Jesus' body in our cultural imagination is perfect, unblemished, without warts or bad breath or hangnails, then we can hold his body at a bit of a distance. And the reverse is also true, Jesus can hold our bodies at a bit of a distance – and he would hold the body of a man with leprosy at a distance.

2) Leprosy is contagious, physically and socially – by touching this man, Jesus risks, pain, brokenness, loss of feeling, loss of limb, being socially ostracized. So when Jesus' body touches this leper – he risks being contaminated with this curse – this social and physical death. He puts his body on the line. And to top it off Jesus risks his own religious authority – if he contracts leprosy, everyone will think that it is his fault- that he deserves this suffering because he has sinned.

And so rosey-skinned-unblemished-no-body-hair-Jesus just doesn't do it for me in this scene. He is too ethereal, too perfect to risk touching a leper. The rosey-skinned Jesus has a special body and he can stand apart from us – he doesn't really get what it's like to be human. The Jesus with body hair, he is on our team, he is vulnerable, he touches lepers. He has skin in the game. He is moved with pity to touch a man who is untouchable.

But here is where the rubber hits the road, (START SLIDESHOW) just like the portrait of Jesus' perfect body we idealize the perfect human body now more than ever, and our relationships with our bodies are so complicated and loaded that we often cope by ignoring our bodies until they scream at us for attention.

Think about the struggles that land in our bodies: Struggles in our sex lives, with body image, with our relationship to food, our ability to balance rest and work, our relationship with other people's bodies, bodies that don't fit quite so easily into nice categories. We have an insidious cultural habit of demeaning and objectifying bodies in order to sell perfume. And don't get me wrong the Christian church has been the worst, trying to control our sexuality, and creating negative images of our bodies to suppress and oppress certain people with shame.

All of these complications and struggles divorce us from our bodies. Like the leper our bodies are fraught with illness – we are the most addicted, overweight, prescribed adult cohort in human history. These sacred vessels created in God's image are at risk of being subsumed by the quest for the “perfect body.” This dichotomy between our own body and the perfect body - divorce us from our bodies – suppress the beauty that we already are for some ideal or we ignore our bodies because they are loaded with shame

So here's the deal – This leper story is a story about isolation. This man is divorced from his own body, and kicked out of his religious, social and familial support system to battle this disease alone. And to top it off he is isolated from God, in their cultural context, this disease is proof that he has sinned before God and is therefore paying penance for his sins in suffering. So this man is left utterly isolated.

Jesus' miracle here is that he restores this man to his own body. When you have leprosy you lose sensation – you lose your connection to your nerves, which can eventually cause loss of limb. And so when Jesus heals him – he now is restored to his own body. This man is also restored unto his community, and they can now begin tending to the wounds of his soul from the pain of social isolation.

Like the leper we need Jesus to restore us to our own bodies and to restore us to authentic communities that can help us heal.

Why are people cast out in our society because of their bodies? Maybe they are too fat, too thin, too old or too young. Maybe they happen to love the “wrong body.” People are isolated because they are differently-abled, or their bodies carry the weight of illness or chronic struggles. We carry shame around in our bodies, not just eating disorders and a distorted idea of what “healthy” bodies look like but the general feeling that we are unaware of our bodies and our connection to God through them.

When we affirm Jesus' imperfect skin, we also need to affirm our own sacred skin. How does our culture try to divorce us from our own bodies? How do we lose touch with the sacred goodness of each unique body that is created in God's image, with one uniform and oppressive definition of “healthy” and “beautiful?”

Here me now when I say, “you are a person of beauty and worth, created in God's image.” How does that mantra change us? How can we develop rituals to remind ourselves of the sacred connection of our bodies and souls and minds? What does cherishing and affirming your body look like for you? Is it a yoga practice or a sport? A good bath, a long walk? Is it a nap or a morning routine?

Jesus says, “This is my body – broken for you”

Jesus body was broken

Our bodies are broken

And yet we celebrate them today as a place of sacredness – that God calls “GOOD.”

A beautiful miraculous gift – these things that we walk around in

These bodies that heal and breathe and walk and sing and dance

These bodies are our spiritual homes

May we gather in communion today with this mantra

“I am a person of beauty and worth – created in God's image”

And may that mantra heal us and draw us into communion with God and each other.