Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Scandal of Foot Washing

Maundy Thursday

March 20, 2008

This service begins and ends with the memory of the Passover. At the beginning we hear the story of the Passover (Exodus 12: 1-14); at the end we shall all go over to the parish hall and eat a modified version of the kind of meal the people of Israel might have on that historic night when they escaped the slavery of Egypt.

First, we hear the ancient story from Exodus; we remember once again how the people of Israel were commanded to sacrifice and eat the Passover lamb; how they were told to spread the blood of the lamb on their doorposts as a sign to the angel of death to pass them over. Thus the term, Passover. In the dead of night, God sweeps over the towns and villages of Egypt and kills every firstborn child, while sparing the Jews.

This is a grisly story; it is a horrifying idea – that God would kill every first-born Egyptian child – so that the people of Israel could be liberated from slavery.

We don’t tend to linger over this image of God as an angel of death. But it’s important to wrestle with this. When images in the Bible are difficult or horrifying it’s important to look at it – we learn about ourselves as well as about the Bible.

This is a terrifying image of God; and we have to say, this is a primitive image of God. What kind of people would tell this story? A people that has lost its innocence; a people who are accustomed to war.

The people who tell this story are not innocent and they know it; they know that their liberation has come at a great cost; they know that innocent children died so that they could escape slavery.

These are not people who believe in a world where everyone “just gets along.” They do not believe that their problems would be over if everyone just went shopping. They do not believe in a world where everyone can have what they want all the time. They believe in a world where pain and sacrifice and struggle are required in order to make progress.

This is the world of Abraham Lincoln, who knew what a great price in blood had to be paid in order to rid our country of slavery. This is the world of our own WWII generation; ask anyone who lived through that horrible war if they think freedom comes cheaply. No, freedom has a price. Justice has a price. The angel of God on Passover meant liberation for some, and it meant death to others; just as our own democracy was not possible without sacrifice and terrible loss.

This is the great psychological adjustment that we are witnessing right now in our culture. For over a generation now, we have been living in this fantasyland in which the concepts of sacrifice and pain have been effectively silenced. Families have grown up believing they can have whatever they want, when they want it; and so we have wracked up so much credit card debt that personal bankruptcy is at record levels.

I read in the paper this morning that the city is trying to come up with some strategy for overcoming its massive debt; just as the state government is doing. Meanwhile our military budget is the highest that it’s been since World War II. That’s adjusted for inflation! Now, I wasn’t alive during WW II, but I seem to remember a lot of newsreels talking about all the sacrifice required – all the war bonds that were sold, all the paper drives and rubber drives and food rationing that made that enormous effort possible. But today, we think we can have that same enormous output, without asking for a single bit of sacrifice – except from the men and women who are fighting and dying and in the desert.

And then there’s our own parish. It used to be that churches talked freely of sacrificial giving. When’s the last time you were asked to give sacrificially? And now, like our governments and our households, we are looking at deficits and scratching our heads.

On all these levels – the personal, the church, the city, the state, the federal, even global markets – we are waking up to the reality that nothing comes without a price. We can only spend so much. We can only do so much. We can only absorb so much information. The ocean can absorb only so much sewage and trash. The atmosphere can absorb only so much carbon dioxide. The earth can sustain only so much human prosperity.

The Rolling Stones might have sold a million copies of “You can’t always get what you want,” but no one really believed it.

And so we are entering a time when the concept of sacrifice once again will become meaningful. For those of us raised in the Baby Boomer generation and later, this is terrifying – terrifying because the one thing that makes sacrifice seem worthwhile is the idea that you are sacrificing for something. But as a culture; as a people; we have lost all sense of what we’re sacrificing for. If we can’t agree on what we are sacrificing for, there’s nothing to be gained.

Which is why we are so desperate to figure out: What is the point? Where is the hope? Teenagers are committing suicide in record numbers because they can’t figure out the answer to that question.

All of which is another way of asking, What are we living for?

As for me, I am living for Jesus.

We call Jesus the Paschal Lamb; the sacrificial lamb. The root of the word sacrifice is “to make sacred.”

Tonight we see Jesus with his disciples, huddling in the heart of the city of Jerusalem, surrounded by danger, fearing death. For them, the Passover angel of death must have felt very close, as Roman guards and collaborators spread out looking to arrest them.

What was the point? What was in their minds? What was that great cause that they were sacrificing everything for?

On this night of death and betrayal, he knelt down in front of his disciples, taking the form of a slave; and washed their feet.

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, "Lord, are you going to wash my feet? You will never wash my feet." Jesus answered, "Unless I wash you, you have no share with me."

This is what Jesus came to accomplish. He had a lot of options, on that final night of freedom; but this is what he chose. He was not wallowing in self-pity; he was not plotting his escape. He was moving into the deepest level of what it means to be human. He was choosing love.

And he felt so strongly about this that he told Peter that unless he was willing to accept this, he would have nothing to do with him.

Jesus was clear and he is clear: we cannot be his disciples unless we are willing to accept the scandal of his love. This is a condition for membership. There are a lot of ways in which Christianity is an inclusive religion but this is not one of them. This is the exclusive obligation: If you want to be a part of this group you have to open your heart. You have to subject yourself to love. You have to let Jesus love you. You cannot enter the Kingdom of God that Jesus is talking about unless you allow yourself to be loved.

This isn’t some kind of arbitrary rule Jesus came up with; this is just the way it is: it’s a law like the law of gravity. You cannot get into my house unless you actually step through the door. You cannot hold yourself apart from me and claim to be my brother or sister; you cannot spend your life parked in front of my house, and then say to people you are a part of my household. You cannot claim to be in relationship with Jesus if you reject the terms of that relationship, which by the way are not up to you to determine. Jesus sets the terms of the relationship. And these are his terms: that you open your heart to his love. That you allow him, the Prince of Peace; the Messiah; the one through whom all things were made; the 2nd person of the Trinity; to wash your feet.

This is what his sacrifice was for. It’s almost Zen-like in its simplicity. For love, he sacrificed everything.

“I give you a new commandment: that you love one another as I have loved you.” This is not a suggestion. This is not an invitation. This is a commandment. In the Latin, the word is, “Mandatum”. It’s where we get the word “Maundy.”

This is what I live for; and what, I pray, we are all living for. To strive to ward this greatest height of what it means to be human. To love without conditions; to love completely and sacrificially. This is what we are here to practice. In this simple ritual of washing one another’s feet, we are practicing this commandment. We are signaling to one another and to God that we fully intend to strive for this great ideal. It is guaranteed that we will fail – that’s what we’ll talk about tomorrow. But we dedicate ourselves nonetheless to this great goal, knowing that Christ blesses us in this grace.

Thanks be to God. AMEN.

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