Saturday, March 15, 2008

How Healthy are your Feet?

Here's another Lenten meditation, this one for Maundy Thursday, first delivered in 2004:

Scripture reference: John 13:1-17

It was an ordinary meal, as meals go. They had eaten with Jesus on many occasions—in the homes of the faithful, like Mary and Martha; at table with tax collectors and other undesirables, where they always managed to raise many an eyebrow and the ire of the religious authorities. They remembered well at least one meal on a crowded hillside dense with the smell of sweat and the sound of murmured confusion after an afternoon of sermons and storytelling. They were able to feed themselves and the crowd with nothing but the meager offerings of a young boy’s sack lunch, and still have food left over.

At first, it seemed extraordinary that they would be called by name to leave their boats, their accounting charts, their family homes, and follow this extraordinary man who looked like an common carpenter but said and did such uncommon things.

They knew that their lives, their deaths, the joys and struggles in between, didn’t mean a thing to those who held the power and status in their society. They were used to it by now, though. It was part of their everyday lives. Many among their peers had become complacent, some cooperative even complicit with the ruling Greco-Roman culture.

And then comes this man whose message and mission change everything. He interrupts the everyday-ness of their lives—walking out to their fishing boats on the very water into which they cast their nets, drinking from the same cup as a Samaritan woman, eating with expendables like them.

Extraordinary!

That he would invite them to dinner, be a guest in their homes, allow any unclean, untouchable, unlovable character in town to interrupt their important work just to comfort and heal them, teach and challenge them, at first seemed quite odd.

But by the time Jesus and his closest Disciples came to this meal, shortly before the observance of the Passover, they considered it quite normal to eat with their teacher, the Messiah, the One called by God to deliver them from their sufferings, just as God had delivered their ancestors from captivity in Egypt.

Yes, it was all quite ordinary…until something extraordinary happened. In the middle of the meal, Jesus got up, took off his robe, wrapped a towel around him and knelt before them, intent on washing their feet.

How strange…the master serving the followers. Once again, he had turned everything upside down…all the accepted thinking about social structures and status and power in their culture. They were awakened once again from their complacency.

We live in extraordinary times, but it has all become quite ordinary to us in our day-to-day living. We’ve become complacent, even cooperative with the social structures that confine us, complicit with a power structure that oppresses many in order for a few to rise in stature. Wars and rumors of wars blaring at us from wide-screen TVs; the faces of people living in abject poverty and desolation clouding our peripheral vision and obstructing our straight path down our neighborhood streets; forms of child abuse and exploitation that seem to become more horrifying and devastating by the day jumping out from the headlines and sound bites over our morning coffee…these all could seem out of the ordinary, if they were not so common.

We have technology that gives us the power to destroy the world several fold and the delicate touch to repair the tiniest heart inside the tiniest little body, even before she leaves the protection of her mother’s womb. It’s really quite extraordinary.…But it has become just part of the ordinariness of our ordinary lives.

I am reminded of a recent doctor’s appointment. It was pretty ordinary, as doctor’s appointments go. By now, I am used to living with diabetes, although at first, it was anything but ordinary. I was diagnosed on a Good Friday over 10 years ago. I spent the weekend feeling sorry of myself, staring pathetically at the chocolate bunnies, longing to bite their heads off one by one, saving their feet to nibble on later.

But counting carbs, pricking my fingers to measure my blood sugar, having every part of my body—literally from my eyes to my toes—poked, prodded and penetrated had become routine, as had the bevy of doctor’s numbers I kept in my appointment book.

It was my first visit to this particular doctor, the first doctor I had seen since moving to DC. Everything about the exam was familiar, no surprises in the questions, the warnings, the referrals to specialists, the cold stethoscope against my breast bone with the request to breathe deeply.

“I see you managed to mangle your feet,” she said, glancing down at my bare heels cracked and dry and my exposed toes, the cold skin peeling on the sides. I was used to that kind of comment. There was plenty of evidence to reveal my bad habit of pulling and tugging at the cracks and crevices instead of treating the tough, dry skin. But I wasn’t expecting what came next.
(Smacking sound with hands)

Suddenly, she hit the soles of my feet and admonished, “Don’t do that!”

What a strange thing for a doctor to do. And I had just begun to like her. But before I could object to her shocking gesture, she did something even more extraordinary.

She took my feet in her hands and cradled them gently and murmured “Don’t do that” in more soothing tones. I had the impression of gentle hands cupping an injured bird to protect it from the elements and its own bad judgment.

She didn’t say much more, just referred me to a good podiatrist and recommended a home remedy for dry skin. But what I heard her say clearly in her actions was, “Arlene, you are worthy of love and capable of loving, even loving yourself.” I heard her say, “Allow me to care for you. I want you to be well and whole.”

As I got up from the exam table that day, I thought about how radical her care for me was against the backdrop of what most of us have come to experience—and accept—as assembly line healthcare.

Do you see a parallel here in this story of Jesus washing the feet of his Disciples? Have I made my case that Jesus’ ministry was radical—bringing the extraordinary to bear on the ordinary? Well, let me make it plainer: the radical nature of Jesus’ ministry was not in turning water to wine, or healing the sick. It wasn’t even in his raising the dead. What was radically extraordinary about Jesus’ ministry was the way he cradled the hand of the Samaritan woman at the well, redefining her relationship with God and to the world—you are lovable and capable of loving.

It was how he cradled the faces of the children who flocked around him, telling the disapproving adults—these are my children, they are not expendable; they are precious.

Jesus offered his Disciples something extraordinary in the midst of an ordinary meal when he cradled their feet redefining their relationship, asking them to be the servant and the served.
At a meal described in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus cradled the ordinary bread and the cup and redefined his relationship to God and ours to one another. “When you eat this bread and drink from this cup, we are one, I am in you and you are a part of everyone around this table. There is no longer separation or alienation one from another.”

What a radical, extraordinary message. It’s not about the occasional miracle, but about plain, old, every day, ordinary relationship! Jesus’ ministry, his life and his death, his resurrection…are all about relationship. Defining relationships, challenging our concepts of them, showing us how to nurture them, was his ministry, his gift to us.

It is in the way Jesus cradles us…each of us, calling us by name, inviting us home to dine, redefining who we are by reminding us of whose we are. Imagine, just for a moment, that Jesus is cradling your feet in his hands. Feel the warmth, the gentle touch of his fingertips. Don’t worry about how your feet look or smell. If your feet hurt, let the cool of the water and the rhythm of the massaging carry the pain away. Don’t even look at your feet just now, but into the eyes of Christ, who loves you. Listen. What’s he saying? It’s a message just for you, calling you out of the ordinariness of your life into a new life, one that is quite, quite extraordinary.

Conspicuously Claiming the Story

Here's a Lenten meditation I first gave in 2004:

I started going to Sunday School when I was three or four years old, and I loved it. I remember the corner classroom with all its sunny windows; the toys; the big board covered in soft, velvety blue felt where we placed the figures of Jesus and all the people from Bible times when the teacher told her stories.

I loved to sit in front of the little worship center and listen to My Sunday School teacher tell the bible stories. She told us about Zacchaeus climbing the sycamore tree to get a better look at Jesus, and the woman at the well offering Jesus a drink of water. And remember the one about the children gathering around Jesus? The disciples wanted to send them away, but Jesus said, “no, let them come.” I loved every story, but my favorite one of all was about Jesus coming into Jerusalem on a donkey and all the people waving palm branches in the air and spreading them on the ground as he passed, shouting “Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest!”

I wasn’t sure what exactly “Hosanna” meant, but I knew it was something good, something joyful. I was right there in the street with the crowd as, each year, a different Sunday School teacher told the same story. I heard the crowd, felt the excitement, as Jesus approached on the little donkey. I could see myself shouting “Hosanna!” Right along with the grown ups. and waving my palm branch. I would lay it on the road as he passed and reach out to touch his sandaled foot or a piece of his robe.

And, you know, no matter how many times I heard the story, no matter how well I knew it by heart, I always wished…well, it’s kind of embarrassing to admit it now, but I always wished it would turn out differently. As the season of Lent unfolded in the Sunday School room week after week, I would wish that each subsequent story would be different—that the fig tree would bear fruit for Jesus, the people would realize that selling things in the temple was not right, Judas wouldn’t take the thirty pieces of silver, Peter wouldn’t deny Jesus and the other disciples wouldn’t run away and hide. I wished, oh how I wished, that the crowd and religious leaders would ask for Jesus to be released, not Barabus, and that the cries of “Hosanna!” would be louder and more powerful than the cries of “Crucify him!”

But, despite my fervent imagination and my wishes to the contrary, the stories always unfolded in the same way and Jesus was always put to death. Like Jesus’ followers, I had to wait until Easter and the resurrection story to feel joy again.

Looking back on my stubborn, wishful thinking, I can see it as more endearingly innocent than foolishly embarrassing. As a world-weary adult, I no longer look for the story to change to suit my wishes, but re-read and re-live the story every year to find nuances and gather new insights that escaped me in past readings. As part of my Lenten journey one year, I went to see Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” with some church. I admit, I wasn’t anxious to see it because of the controversies surrounding it. But I was able to experience the story in a new way by watching someone else’s reliving of it. That is what the movie represented, after all. Mel Gibson was putting himself into the story.

As I watched the graphically violent and intensely emotional movie, I started thinking about how bizarre this story really is. I wondered, not for the first time, what others must think of us Christians, following this gruesome story that invariably and inevitably ends in the death of our beloved leader and friend. Kind of weird, don’t you think? Doesn’t make sense, seems foolish. As Star Trek’s Mr. Spock might say, “It is not logical, Captain.” As I watched the character of Peter insist, “I don’t know the man,” it occurred to me that the reason Peter denied knowing Jesus may not have been based solely on fear. It might have also been from embarrassment!

This story that we claim as pivotal to our faith in the resurrected Christ is, on the surface, embarrassing. When we agree to pick up our own cross and live in Christian community, we are agreeing to live our lives out loud, to be conspicuous, foolish, exposed. We know the story won’t change into our fantasy of a happy ending; we know it doesn’t get any easier. We can’t claim that suffering will no longer enter our lives or death will not take the lives of those we love. What we get in the claiming of this story is suffering, pain, brutality and death…even after the resurrection has taken place! Why in the world, then, would we continue to claim it?

That’s a question we each have to answer in our own hearts and minds. However, I think Paul gives us good answer, at least a starting off point for discussion and contemplation. In essence, he says “I can’t help but be compelled by this story…it is just part of who I am; it’s in my blood.” He says, “This is personal.” He tells us he wants more than the world can offer. He’s going for the bigger prize of eternal life, where death does not have the last word. Listen to part of his letter to the Philippians, chapter 3, verses 8-10, in the contemporary American English of the Message Bible:

“Yes, all the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant. I've dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him. I didn't want some petty, inferior brand of righteousness that comes from keeping a list of rules when I could get the robust kind that comes from trusting Christ - God's righteousness. I gave up all that inferior stuff so I could know Christ personally, experience his resurrection power, be a partner in his suffering, and go all the way with him to death itself.”

Why do we cling to the Passion? Because even as we are repelled by the violence and degradation that the cross recalls and represents, we are even more compelled by Jesus’ compassionate love and grace—shown even in and through the very suffering and tortured death he was forced to endure at the hands of a cold, constricted humanity. It is a passionate compassion that lives and grows far beyond our meager abilities to name and express it. I’ll tell you one thing, though. There is nothing conservative about this compassion!

No, God’s compassion, expressed through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is messy, contradictory, controversial, unpredictable and incomprehensible. It’s a compassion that led Jesus to teach his followers such ridiculous notions as “love your enemy,” and “turn the other cheek;” “walk an extra mile,” and celebrate when one who was lost is found, even though you already have 99 in the flock at hand.

When we claim this illogical, shocking, complex story, we run the risk of looking foolish, of being caught out like Peter. “You are one of them, aren’t you? Yeah, I’ve seen you going into that church.” What are you going to say? “No, man, I just go in there for a meeting. I’m not one of them.”

What about when they say, “That stuff you all believe, that turning the other cheek stuff, and loving your enemies, what’s that about? You know that’s not the way the real world works.” Will you look them in the eye and say, “You are absolutely right. It’s not the way of the world, but let me tell you a story. It’s a strange story, an ancient tale about one who was so close to God, he was able to live in the world and shine above it at the same time….”

This story we claim as ours, as our heritage, our legacy, our gift, is not an easy story to tell. It’s painful at times and sometimes I still wish I could just leave out parts of it,…or at least change them to make the story prettier, tidier. But that wouldn’t do it justice. It is the whole story we claim. We claim this story—we enter and re-enter it over and over again—just so we can walk with Jesus, even into death. Because we know, that in doing so, we share in the new life of Christ’s love and grace.