Friday, March 21, 2008

I know what you're thinking

Maundy Thursday, 2008 (Updated)

I know what you are thinking.

You may not think so, but I know. I know because I have been there, and every year at about this time…in a church at night, a few days before Easter…I have thought the same thing.

Here is what I believe you are thinking:

“I really hope Father Gerns doesn’t make me come up and get my feet washed.”

Am I right? I thought so.

I don’t know about you, but I am very glad that of all the things that happened that night in the Upper Room that this did not become the chief way of celebrating our Lord’s death and resurrection until he comes again!

Of course we are not alone.

Peter and the other disciples were stunned when Jesus started washing their feet. In those days, before cars, and paved roads and sidewalks, and before shoes and socks, foot washing was pretty common. It was something that might have been apart of the hospitality that anyone in those days might have experienced. But the task was left to the lowliest of the low. It was left to servants and slaves.

You didn’t interact with people who washed your feet, you talked with your hosts as if they weren’t there.

So Jesus, the host of the feast—it is his last supper after all—assumes the role of a slave and washes his disciples feet.

Peter and the others are shocked and offended. First, they try to show Jesus honor by trying to stop him. You will never wash my feet! You are my Lord, my teacher! How can I let you do that?

Jesus tells them that if they don’t let him do this, they cannot serve him.

Okay, then, Peter says, wash all of me…not just my feet.

The lesson is that Jesus comes as one who serves. Jesus is about to undertake the road to the cross so that we will become God’s own new people. Jesus will give up all power so that he might be glorified. He gives up all power so that we might be reconciled to God. And there is more.

Jesus said:

You call me Teacher and Lord--and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.

Jesus not does do this for just us. Jesus also asks that we do it for each other. He asks us to become as servants and slaves to each other.

This is a real challenge on a number of fronts.

In our culture we place a lot of emphasis on being competent and self-assured and in-charge. Do you think anyone would win Donald Trump’s job on The Apprentice by washing the feet of the other contestants? Do you think that if you were on some desert island in Survivor you could avoid getting voted off the island by washing the other competitor’s feet? Does anyone become the Next American Supermodel by being the servant to the others? Of course not. That is how it is in the world.

But Jesus asks us to be just the opposite with each other. To be as servants, even as slaves to one another.

And there is more.

The rubber really meets the road when we see Jesus challenge our notions of generosity. We like to give and we like to help those less fortunate. It makes us feel good. But look closely at that transaction.

Typically, there is a separation between the giver and the person who is helped by our gift. Everyone knows who has the resources and who needs the help. So the giver is always the one who gets to set the terms and the one who can choose to feel good, warm and fuzzy or put upon and inconvenienced when we help the one in trouble.

The challenge of generosity is to be changed by the person or people that we are helping. To turn our giving from act of largesses to act of solidarity. To turn from giving our of our left-overs into giving from the heart. Our giving should cost us, rather than cost the people we help their dignity.

What if we allow ourselves the chance to serve, really serve, the people we meet—especially the ones we feed, or help clothe, or house, or counsel or help get clean and sober—in a way that reinforces their dignity? What if we chose to see in the face of the poor the face of Jesus, who served us and died on the cross so that we might have restored our life and our dignity? What would happen?

Our generosity becomes a relationship that changes us.

There is one more challenge.

We like to look and feel competent and in charge, and we like to be generous givers because we hate to be the one being served. The only time we like it is when the roles are very, very clear—as when we are in a restaurant or in the bank teller line. The only time we like to be served is when we know we are paying for the service.

Otherwise being served makes us look weak, vulnerable and out of control. We often defer being served by saying "I don't want to trouble you" or "I don't want to be a bother." Frequently, I will hear the more honest reason "I don't want to be dependent."

But we are dependent. Ultimately, we are not as self-sufficient, in charge and as competent as we think or want others to think. The truth is that we all need one another to live, to grow, to learn and to become our fullest selves. We have allowed the truth that we are to grow into well-individuated persons to become the myth of solitary self-sufficiency. We have allowed ourselves in the process to prize the severing of connection and relationship--and interdependence--as a virtue.

When we allow ourselves to be served…to allow ourselves to let Jesus wash our feet…to allow another Christian to care for us…to allow another person to serve us and to expect nothing from us in return…that, my friends, is a challenge.

Because in order to allow someone else to serve us, to really take care of our deepest need, we have to allow another to see something vulnerable in us. It is allow this person to see that we are not as competent as we wish we were, that we are not as in charge as we’d everyone to believe, and not as self-assured as we think we ought to be. To let another person serve us in meaningful way is to reveal a deeply vulnerable and lonely part of us.

That is risky because we must trust that this vulnerability will not be used against us. That is a deep, scary spiritual challenge. But the reward is that we discover that we are loved anyway—in fact, we were loved all along!

And that is why you are hoping that I won’t make you come up and let me wash your feet. It is not just embarrassing. It is not just that we feel a little silly doing it. It is deep down to the depth of our soul scary!

So I won’t make you. Trust me. Come up or not, I won’t think any more or less of you. But what I think is irrelevant.

Whether you come or not, Jesus has already served you. He has already washed you all over in baptism. You are already His.

Obviously what is being washed here is more than feet. But to know that means taking a leap of faith and letting go. Letting Jesus wash our feet means that we must let go enough of our embarrassment and pride and insecurity to trust the One who feeds us with his body and blood to also wash our deepest vulnerability. The one who came to serve has come to touch us and care for us and wash us even at the point of deepest, most hidden need.

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