During my years working in children’s protective services, it just so happened that five of the families I was assigned all lived on the same street corner. It never failed, I would be visiting one mother and instead of focusing on her issues she would rat out one of my other clients. And, it never failed to amaze me, no matter how bad off they were, they always found something about someone else to make them look better. My favorite of these clients was Doreen. I worked with Doreen and her family for many years. I was always impressed with how bright and articulate she was. But most of all, how straight forward she was about her situation. I will never forget the day I sat at her table as she openly told me how she knew she had a problem with alcohol, that she knew it was because of her addiction she had lost her children and how she knew she needed help, but…she told me. . . at least she was not a druggie like the other women in her neighborhood.
As I heard her qualify her situation with the ,”but at least I am not….” I knew she was not ready to get help. As long as she saw herself as better than others, Doreen would never let go of the protective walls she built around herself to keep the demons of her past at bay. As long as she held onto that wall of protection, she would never allow herself to trust in the help she needed to overcome her addiction. In the years I worked with Doreen, it was always clear, Doreen was afraid of being vulnerable and that fear kept her from living a life free of her addition or even being able to imagine that her life could be any better.
In many ways we are all like Doreen when it comes to our relationship with God. At some level we are able to admit we need God in our lives, we know we too are sinners like everyone else. And like Doreen, we look over at our neighbors and sit back with satisfaction believing some how we are not as bad as the next person. Yes, we can sit back and have wonderful, prayerful conversations with God, perhaps even enjoy the camaraderie, but until we are ready to let go of our walls of ego and pride and stop comparing ourselves with others, we will never be able to experience the fullness of God’s forgiveness, and the powerfulness of God’s grace in our lives. And, our walk with Christ will be, well, at best, a lukewarm relationship as we fail to imagine the greatness of a fuller life in Christ.
This morning I invite us to ponder how we prevent ourselves from experiencing the fullness of God’s grace, because as I have spent time this week reflecting on this morning’s Gospel and the Gospel passage from last Sunday, I now realize that these passages are as much about vulnerability as they are about the love of God.
In the parable of the Prodigal Son, the younger son reaches bottom when he finds himself hungry and feeding the swine of a foreign land owner. Like Doreen, he could have made the decision that this was as good as it gets and refuse to face his father, or by having too much prideful to ask his father to let him work as one of his servants. The story of the Prodigal Son glosses over the courage it took for the child to return to his father, to risk his father’s rejection, or to discover he is both penniless and completely and utterly homeless. But somehow the son finds the courage to return home, to accept responsibility for his actions and to figuratively lay himself bare before his father in hopes of being accepted back. . .not as a member of the family, but as the lowliest of servants.
In this morning’s passage, Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, offers Jesus an act of hospitality by washing and anointing his feet. By today’s standards, Mary’s actions seem odd to us. In Jesus’s time, even though foot washing was common place, Mary’s actions may still have been out of place.
Historically, the job of washing the feet of guests was reserved for the lowest member of the household. In large, wealthy households, a young child of the lowest servant would be assigned this task. Although it does not appear that Lazarus was wealthy by any means, the task of washing another’s feet was still beneath Mary’s station in life and symbolizes the shedding of her pride as she places her dignity totally at the feet of Christ. As in the case of the Prodigal Son, Mary’s act took great courage, she risked the rejection of both Christ and all present. And, in fact, she is ridiculed by Judas for using expensive oil, oil so expensive it was worth a year’s salary for the average laborer of her day, instead of giving the money to the poor.
But Judas missed the point, Mary’s act was not about money, it was about gratitude. Some time earlier Jesus met Mary and Martha at their most vulnerable. Lazarus was in the tomb and their future appeared to be very bleak. With no husbands or brother to take care of them, their only hope was to place themselves at the mercy of extended family and hope to be taken in as a burden, if not, their only hope for survival was at the mercy of others as they had no rights to the home and property they shared with Lazarus. Jesus’ raising Lazarus from the dead not only restored Lazarus’s life but the lives of Mary and Martha as well. Mary’s most humble act acknowledges that the whole of her life is eternally indebted to the grace of God.
Two people, a man and a woman, for different reasons, were willing to kneel defenseless at the feet of God, and because of that, were able to experience the fullness of God’s grace and forgiveness. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells Simon, “those who have been forgiven little, love little, those who have been forgiven greatly, love greatly.” A reminder to us that we cannot let God forgive just the parts of ourselves that we see as needing to be redeemed, but our whole selves as we are called to give ourselves fully and openly to God.
In a week and a half, we will again hear the passage of the Last Supper. In this passage the roles are reversed, Jesus takes on the role of the servant and offers to wash the feet of the disciples. Peter, the often outspoken and at times befuddled of the Apostle’s, refuses to allow Jesus to wash his feet. In so many ways Peter’s refusal is the metaphor for our own inability to allow God to love us fully. Not only must we being willing place ourselves defenseless before God, we must also be willing to allow God to love us and tend to us fully in the ways only God knows we require.
As I think back to Doreen and others with whom I worked many years ago, one of their greatest obstacles to sobriety was to give up control and allow others to lead them to the help they needed. We, like Doreen and even Peter, will often seek God’s forgiveness and then try to control how we will allow God into our lives. Every time we gather for prayer we pray, “thy will be done,” but more often than not, in our hearts, we are truly praying “thy will be done but only if it works for me.” At the last supper Jesus tells Peter, unless he allows him to wash his feet, Peter will have no part of him.
As I have reflected on the supper in Bethany and the Last Supper, I have had to ask why feet have become the metaphor for how we love God and how we allow God to love us. One of the things I realize is, even though we are willing to openly display our feet in public, allowing another to touch or hold them is a another reality. Every year we convey how protective we are of our feet during the foot washing ceremony on Maundy Thursday. It is a service very few are willing to participate. Most sit idly as a hand full of teens and very brave adults allow me or someone else to wash their feet. Personally, foot washing is not one of my favorite rituals. Even though I love to journey through summer barefoot, I am very skittish about letting anyone actually touch my feet because they are very sensitive, or better yet ticklish. It takes a great deal of trust for me to place my feet in the care of someone else, because, like many of you, I do not like sense of vulnerability it raises in me. But I participate in this ritual every year, because I realize this is as close as we get liturgically to physically placing our trust in the Body of Christ and to get a sense of how monumentally difficult it is for us to place our whole trust in God.
For these past two weeks we have been provided examples of what it means to kneel defenseless and vulnerable before God. They also tell us that it is not until we are ready and willing to be vulnerable that we are able to fully experience the transforming power of God’s forgiveness and grace in our lives. In the days ahead, I invite you to consider what you need to do, what emotional walls you need to break down so you can freely wash the feet of Christ and what do you need to let go of to let Christ wash your feet.