Maundy Thursday at Trinity Church, Saco
April 17, 2014
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
It’s been my practice to preside at a service of foot washing on Maundy Thursday every year since 1985 – almost 30 years. And it’s always been embarrassing. I can’t recall a time when I haven’t flushed with embarrassment to get down on my knees and wash the feet of some gentle folk who have been willing to have them washed. And it’s been almost equally embarrassing to allow my feet to be washed.
Why is that? Why haven’t I gotten comfortable with this practice in 30 years?
Well, consider the foot: Essential to our mobility, our health and well-being. But often terribly abused, poorly cared for, crammed into shoes more designed for fashion than comfort. Necessary for standing and walking and running and driving, but often misshapen and calloused and smelly. Most of us don’t think are feet are our most attractive parts. And we don’t let others touch them.
Feet in Jesus’ day were even worse. They were always dirty. Footwear was rudimentary, roads were rough and unpaved. Feet were very dirty and perhaps sometimes bloodied as well. Little wonder that cleaning feet was considered an act of gracious hospitality on the part of any host. Little wonder as well that the job was relegated to the lowliest servant! It was not a job anyone wanted.
And consider that feet may actually be a metaphor for something more than feet. They may actually be a metaphor for our need to be washed, to be cleansed and forgiven by God. The footwashing is a sign that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and that God’s son has come among us to forgive us and to make us clean. As Jesus tells Peter, it’s not about bathing. It’s about our need to be cared for by Jesus.
And here, I think, is the heart of our embarrassment. We don’t want to need God. We don’t want to come to God with our weakness exposed to God and to one another. We want to pretend to be clean. We want to pretend to be self-sufficient. But God already knows who we are. And God wants to do something about it. As Jesus said, “One of you will betray me – and all of you need your feet washed.”
Which gets us, I think, to the fundamental misunderstanding we have about Jesus’ betrayal and crucifixion. It’s not simply about how bad we are. Oh, indeed, we are sinful. But no… it’s not about how bad we are, but about how much God loves us. To cleanse us even at the moment of our betrayal, even in the midst of our pride and our denial. When we sit at table with Jesus, he kneels at our feet.
Today in Portland, the city churches led by the Roman Catholic Diocese offered footwashing and foot care for the city’s homeless population. I venture to say that they, for the most part, were not embarrassed. Because their feet really need care. And because they know their need. They have few illusions about their need. Perhaps they can be an example for us – to be forthright in our need.
Here in this liturgical action, we recognize our need for God – for God’s love and God’s forgiveness. And yes, it’s embarrassing. It’s also our deepest need. We all need God – I need God and you need God; here together we see our common need and our common humanity. Here we hear God’s call to recognize our common need and to care for one another.
It only makes sense in the context of love – that we are God’s beloved children, created in love, for love, and called to love. There are no limits to God’s love and nothing that can separate us from that love. Not life, not death, not even Jesus’ death. For even in Jesus’ death God forgives us and sets us free to love one another.
Whether you’ve participated in the footwashing many times or never before, I hope you will consider taking part so that you will know that God loves you and forgives you and invites to love others in return.
Good Friday at St. George’s, Sanford, and St. David’s, Kennebunk
April 18, 2014
The Passion According to John
Why do we call Good Friday good?
On this Good Friday it might seem to you that the world is in going up in flames… We despair over the genocidal warfare going on across the globe – in Syria, the Sudan, and the Central African Republic, in Afghanistan and Iraq. We worry about a civil war in the Ukraine and a confrontation between Russia and Europe. We shake our heads over the inability of Arab nations to peacefully transition to democracy after the Arab Spring. We wonder what can be so profoundly wrong. Why can’t all these peoples get their acts together? Haven’t we evolved beyond all that?
We forget our own history. We forget the bloody war which attended the founding of this nation. We forget the Hundred Years War between Britain and France, the bloody religious battles in England, and the blood drenched French Revolution. And we forget what we know of human nature. We forget that human beings find it hard to address any sort of real change without demonizing and killing those with other points of view. Consider how badly we as a nation are dealing with the major issues of our day in our own country: health care, climate change, relations between races and religions, gun violence. Too often each side describes the other as evil-incarnate, as needing to be eliminated. And given how resistant most human beings are to change, even to driving higher mileage vehicles, the appeal of simply eliminating the opposition is self-evident. For as long as there have been human beings, change has been paid for in blood.
This is one of the profound truths of the Passion Narrative. The characters who populate the story are not in some essential way different from ourselves. They’re people with desires and commitments, with hopes and fears, who are struggling to preserve what they have in the face currents and forces too strong for them to control. Judas wants a revolution to overthrow the Roman Empire. The Temple crowd wants to protect its fragile arrangement with Rome and the lucrative system of Temple worship and ritual sacrifice. The Empire wants to preserve peace and order and to maximize profits. And in their midst is this agitator and prophet, miracle worker and healer, who is threatening everything, proclaiming a God who neither resides in the Temple nor respects the power of the Emperor, a God who seeks not a revolution by arms, but a revolution in the human breast, a transformation of the human heart. As Caiaphas suggests, “It is better that one man die for the people.”
Once Jesus began to proclaim that God had come among us, that God intended to pull down the mighty from their thrones, that God meant to lift up the poor and lowly, that God sought not sacrifice, but a humble and contrite heart, that love of God was revealed in love of neighbor and, even, of enemies – once Jesus had done that – then there was no place the story could end, but at Golgotha. And God could not stop it except by opposing force with force. And then Jesus’ words would not be true. Once begun Jesus’ journey led inevitably to the cross.
It is a sorry picture of the human race, no doubt. A murderous and grievous portrait, but an accurate one: the goodness of our creation defaced by our fear and sin. It’s truth is everywhere self-evident today. Part of the pain of the Passion Narrative is that the picture of humanity that it paints, the truth about us that it exposes, is so accurate. We are guilty as charged.
But that, thank God, is not the whole story. The other story that is told has to do with God, how God receives and responds to what God’s children do. God in Jesus receives all that is done with equanimity. Jesus protects his disciples when he is captured in the Garden. He stops Peter’s attempt to defend him by force of arms. He debates with the High Priest about the nature of truth. He debates with Pilate about the nature of power and corrects Pilate about the source of Pilate’s power. From the cross, Jesus addresses the care of his mother, who will be without support in a patriarchal society. And then he surrenders his spirit to God. Jesus receives all that is done with love and a respect and turns himself over to God’s care.
A second profound truth of the Passion Narrative is that the love of God for the human race is an inexhaustible well-spring that continues to reach out to and love God’s children in the face of the worst we can do and, even at the very end, can be trusted with our lives and our spirits. God loves even God’s enemies who, at any given moment, can be you and me.
And that’s what makes Good Friday good. There is another way. Fear of change, fear of one another, can be addressed in a different way – with love, with grace. Caiaphas was actually right. It was better for this man to die for the people. It was better for human fear and hatred to be absorbed by the only one who could absorb it. It was better for God to demonstrate once and for all that God’s love is inexhaustible and that, even at the last moment, such love will not be turned to rage against God’s enemies. It was better that human anger and frustration and fear be spent futilely against the rock of our salvation.
The good news, the hope, of Good Friday is that, in the end, we can rest in God. The harm we human beings do to one another seemingly has no limit, but murder is not the last word on the human condition. In the midst of it all, we can rest in God. We can trust in God to love us. We can offer our lives to God knowing God will receive them and keep them safe. It is not, perhaps, the way we would have written the Passion Narrative – it’s not the fairy tale ending we would prefer. But it is the ending which finds us resting in God’s arms hoping for a new day. And it is enough.
Easter Vigil at St. George’s, York Harbor
April 19, 2014
Easter Day at St. David’s, Kennebunk
April 20, 2014
I imagine many of us have had the experience of being near ground zero during a thunderstorm. If you have, you know it can be a pretty spectacular experience.
Every summer my family spends a week in Vermont at a cabin – camp we call it – built by my great-grandfather in 1909. It’s a lovely, rustic place nestled against the eastern shore of a mountain lake. Because it’s in the mountains, it’s a pretty exciting place to be during a thunderstorm. The wind blows sharply across the lake out of the west – you can watch a thunderstorm sweep toward you. And the sound of the storm rattles and rolls around hills, echoing and echoing. I’ve always loved thunderstorms at camp – and been terrified by them as well.
Last summer was an active summer for storms at the lake. We lived through several during the course of our week. And one was simply terrifying. We’d spent the day watching thunderheads pass by, both north and south of us, some of them close enough to cause us to abandon the shore for the house, but none of them really hitting us. As we were preparing for supper, though, we saw one heading directly across the lake toward us. The wind picked up, a curtain of rain descended across our view of the lake. We went into our three minute drill of clearing clotheslines and closing windows. And then it hit. What I remember most is the sound of it – the wind howling, the rain pounding against the windows. Suddenly a flash so bright that it felt the sun had risen in the middle of the room, and – instantaneously – that distinctive crack and explosion that indicates lightning has struck close by. The windows rattled, the house shook. There were more than a few gasps – or screams. Suddenly the fun was gone. Suddenly we were all scared. Suddenly it was important to hug small children and check for damage. Whatever illusions of control we might have had were gone. We were at the mercy of the storm and could only hope the next lightning bolt would hit further away.
That, says Matthew, is what the resurrection of Jesus was like: a cosmic lightning bolt, an earth splitting strike, the naked power of God displayed for an instant to terrified soldiers and frightened women. The stone of the tomb was rolled back, and Jesus was not there, was not dead; was gone, is risen.
And then an incongruity, the lightning bolt of God, the angel of God, sitting casually on top of the stone, saying, “Nothing to be frightened of here. It’s all good news. Jesus is raised from the dead, and you will see him in Galilee.” Galilee – Galilee of the Gentiles, the world beyond – out there.
What? Are you kidding? Good news? Jesus is not dead? He will meet us in Galilee? Talk about mixed messages… So the women left quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell the disciples.
Fear and great joy. That pretty much sums it up. Fear and great joy. The naked power of God overthrowing all expectations, raising Jesus from the dead. A cosmos shattering display of power which is not to be feared, because the power is love.
This is the night (day) when all the norms and expectations about power were shattered. This is the night (day) when the course of human history was re-directed. This is the night (day) when humanity was recreated with a renewed capacity for love.
And it’s terrifying. Because all our expectations about power, all our understandings of truth, that might makes right and winners write history, have been broken. There is a power that sustains the universe, but it is not the power of the gun or the atom. The power that sustains the universe is the power of love. And there is a destination toward which humanity is moving, but it is not some earthly utopia, some perfect nation. The destination is the kingdom of God where a reconciled humanity feasts together at God’s table. So there is nothing to fear, unless we’ve happened to pin our hopes on another power or a different kingdom.
Jesus’ resurrection changed everything: our identity as human beings, the nature of truth, the source of power, the goal of history, our relationships with one another. It was the divine lightning bolt which shattered and recreated the cosmos. It’s the only reason any of us are here in this place today.
There is nothing to fear. You are beloved children of God, created in love and for love and called to love others. There is nothing that can thwart the power of that love, not even death itself. So give yourselves to love. Go… go and love, Jesus has gone ahead of you and will meet you there.
Alleluia! Christ is risen.