It Smells Like Feet!

Maundy Thursday                                                                                           21 April 2011

(1 Corinthians 11:23-26   John 13:1-17; 31b-35)         

“It Smells Like Feet!”

Much of this sermon this evening is somewhat of a re-working of a few pages from the book, Tattoos on the Heart, The Power of Boundless Compassion, written by Gregory Boyle.  The pages I’m re-working are from a chapter, entitled, “Compassion,” where the author is describing an event that took place at the Dolores Mission church.  And so he writes:

The strategy of Jesus is not centered in taking the right stand on issues, but rather in standing in the right place—which is, with the outcasts and those relegated to the margins.

Once the homeless began to sleep in the church at night there was always the faintest evidence that they had.  Come Sunday morning, we’d foo foo the place as best we could.  We would sprinkle I Love My Carpet on the rugs and vacuum like crazy.  We’d energetically place potpourri and Air Wick around the church to combat this lingering, pervasive reminder that nearly fifty  (and later up to one hundred) men had spent the night there.  About the only time we used incense at Dolores Mission was on Sunday morning, before the 7:30 am crowd would arrive. Still, try as we might, the smell remained.  The grumbling set in, and people spoke of “churching” elsewhere.

It was at about this time that a man drove by the church and stopped to talk with me.  He was driving a nice car, and had arrived at some comfortable life and living.  He knew I was the pastor.  He waxed nostalgic about having grown up in the projects and pointed to the church and said he had been baptized and made his first communion there.

Then he takes in the scene all around him:  gang members gathered by the bell tower; homeless men and women being fed in great numbers in the parking lot; folks arriving for the AA and NA meetings and the ESL classes.

It looked like a Who’s Who of Everybody Who Was Nobody meeting.  Gang members, drug addicts, homeless, undocumented.  This man sees all this and shakes his head, determined and disgusted, as if to say “tsk, tsk.”

You know,” he says, “This used to be a church.”

I mount my high horse and say, “You know, most people around here think it’s finally become a church.”

Then I ride off into the sunset.  Roll credits.

The smell was never overwhelming, just undeniably there.  Those in charge figured that if “we can’t fix it, then we’ll feature it.”  So we determined to address the discontent in our sermons one Sunday.

Sometimes we did dialogue sermons so one day I begin with, “What’s this church smell like?”

People are mortified, eye contact ceases, women are searching inside their purses for they know not what. “Come, on now,” I throw back at them, “what’s the church smell like?”

“Huele a patas”  (smell like feet), Don Rafael booms out.  He was old and never cared what people thought.

“Excellent,” I said.  “But why does it smell like feet?”

“Cuz many homeless men slept here last night?”  says a woman.

“Well, why do we let that happen here?” I respond.

“Es nuestro compromiso” (It’s what we’ve committed to do), says another.

Well, why anyone commit to do that?” I say.

“Porque es lo que haria Jesus.”  (It what’s Jesus would do.)

Well, then, what’s the church smell like now?” I ask once again.

A man stands and bellows, “Huele a nuestro compromiso (it smells like commitment).

The place cheers.

Guadalupe waves her arms wildly, “Huele a rosas” (smells like roses).

The packed church roars with laughter and a newfound kinship that embraced someone else’s odor as their own.  The stink in the church hadn’t changed, only how the folks saw it.

Compassion isn’t just about feeling the pain of others; it’s about bringing them in toward yourself.  If we love what God loves, then, in compassion, margins get erased.  “Be compassionate as God is compassionate,” means the dismantling of barriers that exclude.

Compassion, service, as well as washing feet is always, at its most authentic, about a shift from the cramped world of self-preoccupation into a more expansive place of fellowship, of true kinship.  On that evening before he died, Jesus forged and fostered a new type of community, a community of compassionate service, one where all feet are washed.  Amen.


Tattoos on the Heart, The Power of Boundless Compassion.  Gregory Boyle.  2010.  P. 72-75, 82.


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