Sermon – The Rev. Leah D. Schade
“Mary at Jesus’ Feet”
Lent 5, Year C; John 12:1-8
Some women spend a lot of time at a man’s feet. Some sisters find themselves looking at a man’s feet for most of their lives. What does the world look like when feet are all you see? What does the world look like when you have a view from below? I would venture to say that the view is pretty dirty from down below. You see a lot grime. You see a lot of shhhhhapes and sizes of trash that collect on the bottom of a man’s shoes.
When you spend your life at a man’s feet, you learn a lot about him. You learn where he walks and who he walks over and who he steps on to get where he’s going. You learn the power of a man when his foot is in your face, or in your stomach, or on your head. Some women spend a lot of time at a man’s feet.
But it’s not just women. Whole races have found themselves looking at a man’s feet for generations upon generations. Whole shiploads of men and women in chains heard and watched men’s feet on the deck above them, pacing, stomping, kicking.
And not just whole races, but also entire populations. There are countries filled with factories lined with women and children bent over sewing machines and mechanical presses to make $100 dollar pairs of shoes and sneakers and boots for the feet of their oppressors halfway around the world. And they won’t make enough in one month to even afford to purchase one pair of the footware they make. Oh, they know an awful lot about our feet.
Life is not pretty when you spend your life at someone else’s feet.
Mary knew what it was like. As a typical Hebrew women in a typical first-century household, she would have spent her life looking at the feet of men. As a young girl, she would have followed the feet of her father and brother, tending to their needs, cleaning up their messes, perhaps even stooping to wash their feet each night when they came in for their supper. She probably never questioned her life lived from down below because it was the life that her sister lived, her mother lived, her grandmother lived and all the generations of women who came before her. And as soon as a marriage could be arranged, she would stoop at the feet of her husband, and teach her daughters to do the same. And so it would go for generations to come.
And then one day a certain man came to their house. A rabbi who was unlike any other rabbi, unlike any other man she had ever encountered. As she overheard him talking with the men, speaking about the kingdom of God like a woman searching for a lost coin, or a woman kneading yeast into bread, she was so shocked to hear her experiences voiced by this man that she could not help herself. She stopped in her stooped-over task and looked up.
Do you know how it feels to be bent over, sweating over some dirty task, and then to raise your eyes, straighten your back, lift your chin, square your shoulder, and look up? Your spine straightens and your lungs expand and you can feel a smile spread across your face. So without even thinking Mary found herself at the feet of this strange rabbi, not to cater to his needs, but to learn from his teachings.
And it wasn’t the men who told her to get back to work – it was her sister! Who do you think you are, trying to be all big, trying to be like the men. You get back to your station! You get back to work! Isn’t that just the case when someone tries to better themselves? It’s the ones still stuck down below who try to pull you back down. Are they jealous? Or do they fear something else? What do you think you’re doing, Mary? You think I’m gonna clean your feet now? You think you’re better than me? You get right back down here with the rest of us.
But Jesus says, no. She has chosen the better part. And so Mary is no longer picking the grit out of this man’s feet. She is sitting at his feet as a student, as a disciple, and, I daresay, as a full citizen in the kingdom of God.
But that’s not the last time Mary would find herself at Jesus’ feet. One chapter earlier than our reading today, we find Mary at Jesus’ feet again after her brother Lazarus has died and lies buried in a cave for four days. She is collapsed at Jesus’ feet this time, not to serve, not to learn, but to cry and mourn with him. So moved was Jesus by her tears that he himself wept. This time as Mary knelt at Jesus’ feet, she might have seen the salty drops falling on his dusty sandals. But then, miracle of miracles, Jesus’ raises her brother from the dead. Lazarus, come out, he cries. And this time her tears mingle with his not in agony, but in joyous surprise and gratitude.
And that brings us to our reading today. Mary is once again at Jesus’ feet. She’s not his student. She is not weeping. She is anointing him. And she is anointing him with a perfume that had to travel 2500 miles from the mountains of Nepal, at a cost of nearly a year’s wages, in order to be what? Poured on his feet? It’s bad enough that she’s wasting this expensive nard anointing him at all, but to pour it on his feet? And then to wipe his feet with her hair? She is washing that man right into her hair. She is practically committing fornication on him with her audacious, extravagant act of sensual intimacy. What does she think she’s doing?
I'll tell you what she’s doing. She is giving thanks for Jesus’ feet. She is glorifying his feet. She is giving thanks for feet that did not kick her down but somehow lifted her up. She is glorifying feet that did not walk all over her, but walked with her in her time of deepest sorrow.
When Mary is at the feet of Jesus, a reversal happens. He brings her in from the margins of society, places her in the center of the men’s discourse about what it means to be a disciple, what it means to learn about God. He recognizes her intelligence, her passion, and, I daresay, her leadership potential.
When Mary is at the feet of Jesus, the world is turned upside down. She is no longer a non-person, a throw-away female, a dispensable object. Jesus recognizes her personhood, her value, her worth, her belovedness as a child of God, not for use and abuse by another, but as a free and dignified person in her own right. No longer relegated to the dusty down-below, Mary is now just as much a human being as the ones she serves. She is a full-fledged, card-carrying member of the household of God.
And so I want to ask you, whose feet are you looking at? Whose feet are you sitting at? Whose feet are walking beside you? Whose feet are you glorifying?
Being at the feet of Jesus means that, from now on, you are no longer authorized to be under the foot of another. Being at the feet of Jesus means that, from now on, you are no longer permitted to be wiping your hair across the shoes of your superior because he is no longer your superior. Being at the feet of Jesus means that, from now on, you are no longer allowed to clean the bottom of another’s shoe of whatever excrement he may have picked up along the way. Being at the feet of Jesus means that, from now on, you are no longer authorized to be the doormat of another to be walked on, stepped into, or wiped across.
Being at the feet of Jesus means that, from now on, you are no longer allowed to be at the feet of another.
Unless . . . you choose to. Unless you choose to be at the foot of another and learn what they have to teach you so that you will be treated with respect and appreciated for your intelligence and lifted up to then teach another.
Unless you choose . . . to be at the feet of another sharing your tears with them, stooping in solidarity with them as they mourn, kneeling in prayer with them as you together ask for the mercy of God.
Unless you choose . . . to be at the feet of another and clean their poor, cracked feet, weary with long years and heavy burdens; to be at the feet of another and pour out on them a blessing of abundance they have never before known, like sweet perfume that they could never have asked for nor expected, and, because of your respect for who they are, even in their miserable state, they experience as the grace of God through you.
You can choose to be at the foot of another. Because less than a week later, the master himself, taking his cue from the woman who stooped, knelt down, and bent over to anoint him, the master himself will take off his cloak and strip down to nothing but the uniform of a janitor, a hotel cleaning lady, a sanitation worker, a hospital orderly and he will stoop, kneel down, bend over the feet of his disciples to wash their dirty, smelly feet. It was shocking enough to see Mary “wasting” all that perfume on the feet of their teacher. But to see their rabbi wasting all his status and power and glory and might on this most menial, and yet intimate, sensual task . . . well it was too much for them, and Peter had to protest because he didn’t understand.
Do you understand? Do you see what has happened here? Jesus has taken the social/cultural world order and he has pulled it inside out. The ones on the margin are now in the center. The woman with a shoe in her face is now standing erect and dignified. A race enslaved first by chains and then by laws and then by attitudes and economic policies is now standing erect and dignified. The children slaving over our sneakers are now standing erect and dignified. The man stooping to clean the toilets is now standing erect and dignified. The undocumented immigrant bending over to pick our strawberries, fearing to be found out, is now standing erect and dignified.
We are all standing erect and dignified. Because now we’re all at the master’s feet. And we’re all being put into our proper place. You know where that place is? Prepare yourself. Because you’re about to see something else dripping on those beautiful feet. You’re about to see blood. Because we’re coming to our proper place this coming week, my sisters and brothers. We’re coming to the foot of the cross. You’re coming to the feet of the cross, the feet with nails in them. Keep your eye on those feet. Keep your eye on those feet. Keep your eye on those feet.