John 13:12-17; Mark 10:42-45
The Rev. Tom Herbek
August 16, 2015
In Jesus’ day, washing someone’s feet was considered to be one of the lowest jobs you could have. Bathing– at least for everyone but the wealthy, did not occur very often. The roads were dirt and dusty, and open-toed sandals provided little protection from the dirt. The disciples must have been in shock when Jesus washed their feet.
Joan and I have been watching the seasons of the show “Everybody Loves Raymond” on Netflix, and there is an ongoing joke about how bad Raymond’s brother Robert’s feet smell. It is funny, but as I was watching it, I thought: “I bet there were people like Robert among the disciples, people whose feet really stank.” And yet, Jesus washed their feet. Jesus became their servant after their meal together, and they were shocked. This upside-down gospel that Jesus taught was as foreign in Jesus’ day, as it is in our own day.
Chaplain Joe Grant describes Jesus’ invitation for us to follow his example:
Every age, tradition, and culture presents its own variations on a life well lived. In the Gospels, Jesus invites us to follow his example of holiness, a holiness quite different from the religious and cultural understandings of his (and our) own time. His expansive understanding of a full life goes deeper and wider than having the right ideas, abiding by appropriate religious etiquette, or amassing social (or spiritual) accomplishments. The holiness Jesus embodies is not an invitation to protect ourselves from those places and faces that society deems unclean or unworthy of our attention, nor is he asking us to be piously aloof or fastidious. Instead, the Gospels call out of us a whole, or complete, love.
According to Jesus, enlightened or holy living has a definite trajectory toward lowliness or littleness. Paradoxically, he points to children, along with the ones who know they are poor, lost, or forsaken, as the vanguard on our pilgrimage into God’s domain. For Jesus and his followers, wisdom is only accessible to those who are small and humble enough to join the meek and the mourning, the poor and the persecuted, in God’s “reign of reversals.” Blessed humility, the gateway to wisdom, shrinks our self-importance even as it stretches our hearts, so the enlightened Christian (and Christian community) does not try to rise above humanity, but rather aims to embrace it wholeheartedly. According to the upside-down wisdom of the Gospels, muck, meekness, and mercy have more to do with maturity than physical strength, intelligence, age, or social standing.
Last week, I made another pilgrimage to one of my favorite places, Barnes & Noble. Although I grieve the reduction of floor space allocated to books and the smaller number of books each time I go, I can still find something of interest in almost every visit. I usually browse the sections on Christianity, Comparative Religion, Self-Help and Personal Growth, and Contemporary Psychology. What continues to amaze me is that much of the Christianity and Self-Help sections are all about how to make more money and have more power and control over others. It seems that Jesus’ upside-down gospel is still foreign to so many in our society. But perhaps we can look for opportunities to change things in the lives around us, and continue to look for places and opportunities to care as servants, as caretakers.
Regina Brett, in her book, God Is Always Hiring describes how sometimes these opportunities come to us out of the blue:
Annette Fisher was comfortable running a bridal store until she volunteered to take care of a friend’s farm animals while the woman was on vacation. While Annette was feeding the animals, she noticed a dark corner of the barn stall full of cobwebs. She brushed them away and discovered a crippled pig. The potbellied pig had been neglected and looked as if its legs had been broken. The pig had no hair and couldn’t walk. It turned out the pig had once been fat and happy until someone dropped her while unloading her from a truck.
Annette’s career path had taken her into graphic design. She owned an advertising agency for 11 years, got married, bought a few acres, and owned the bridal shop. She had reached all her goals at age 26, but something was missing. Her “aha moment” came the day she took that sick pig to work to give it medicine. A bride-to-be was upset that the Alfred Angelo gown she was trying on didn’t match her shoes and purse. As Annette watched the woman in the designer dress, she looked at the pig and realized she’d rather be working with the pig.
“When you look at the big picture, no one really cares if your shoes match your dress,” Annette told me.
When the farm owner returned and asked how much money she owed Annette for taking care of the animals, Annette told her, “How about you just give me that crippled pig?”
That pig haunted her. Annette wondered how many other farms had animals like that, abused, neglected, or forgotten in dark musty stalls. Annette closed the bridal shop and opened Happy Trails Farm Animal Sanctuary.
Annette pampered the pig until Janice died seven years later in 2007. She calls Janice the founder of Happy Trails. Annette fed the pig peppermints, and Janice lived out her last days in a tiny log cabin with heat lamps. She slept under a thick pink comforter beneath a piggy pinup calendar on the wall.
Annette has since expanded Happy Trails Farm Animal Sanctuary in Ravenna, Ohio. Once word got out about her refuge, the Humane Society, Animal Protective League, and law enforcement officers started bringing in abused and neglected animals. She has barns full of hogs, horses, ducks, geese, and chickens. Happy Trails has rescued more than 4,000 animals. The nonprofit finds foster and adoptive homes for farm animals. Volunteers clean stalls, repair fences, build shelters, and unload hay. The farm’s mission is to rescue, rehabilitate, and adopt out animals removed from abuse, neglect, or abandonment situations by law enforcement officials, like the 40 roosters police rescued from a cockfighting ring in Cleveland.
Annette is forever grateful to Janice the pig, who changed her life by expanding her comfort zone. Annette wears shiny pink lipstick, dark eyeliner, silver earrings, a dusty blue coat, and work boots covered in, well, you don’t want to know. She’s come a long way from the bridal shop, but she loves it. You might say she’s in pig heaven.
In Jesus’ day, the next worse job to washing people’s feet would have been taking care of pigs. I think he would have approved wholeheartedly of Annette’s choice.
I would ask us each to keep our eyes open for opportunities to be care-givers in ways that will surprise us as much as it will surprise those who see us doing it. We may just discover something that we just love doing, something that expands our comfort zone.
And Jesus said:
“Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, for the son of man came not to be served, but to serve.”