Faces of Christ

Can we see God in humiliation? Can we see God in human brokenness?

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Maundy Thursday
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

Exodus 12:1-14
Psalm 116
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31-35

A few weeks ago I opened the mail in my office and found, to my delight, this year’s ELCA World Hunger Lenten study. Even though I don’t always use the Bible study, I’m always excited and intrigued by the study. Sometimes it provides good material for sermons, and sometimes it’s just an edifying study to read through on my own.

Cover of the 2018 ELCA World Hunger Lenten Study Guide. Copyright ELCA World Hunger. Fair Use.

This year’s study, titled Faces of Christ, has a cover that immediately caught my attention. The cover is composed of 30 individual portraits of Christ, and not all of them come from the same culture. It was interesting to see the different interpretations of Jesus, especially the Eastern, Asian interpretations of Jesus. We as white Americans in churches descended from Scandinavian and German ancestors are so used to seeing pale-faced, blond haired, blue eyed Jesus that it can be a little jarring to see a picture of Jesus not in our own image.

 

It reminded me of my visit to Israel and Palestine, the Holy Land of Christianity. In Nazareth there’s a huge cathedral, the Church of the Annunciation, built over the traditional location of Mary’s house. It’s truly a massive basilica, and all around the church and the grounds are artistic representations of the Virgin Mary and the boy Jesus donated by different countries. I remember walking through the church, looking at all of these different depictions of Mary and Jesus, and being in awe. Jesus was Mexican. Jesus was Japanese. Jesus was Ethiopian. Jesus was Thai. Jesus was Mongolian. Jesus was Irish. Jesus was Argentinian. Jesus was Palestinian.

I had never seen Jesus that way before. To put it plainly, even though I “knew” that the image of Swedish Jesus I grew up with wasn’t what Jesus really looked like, that was all I could ever imagine Jesus to be. Seeing Jesus depicted as a member of other ethnic groups was jarring. It didn’t match my expectations.

I imagine Peter felt very much the same way. This is the same Peter who in other Gospels sees Jesus transformed into a glowing super-person on the mountaintop. He listens to Jesus teach and preach. He watches Jesus heal and cast out demons. He sees Jesus walking on water and gets out of a boat to join him. He walks down the streets of Jerusalem as people throw their coats and palm branches on the ground, rolling out the “red carpet” for Jesus, so to speak, treating him like a king. Jesus was everything Peter expected the Messiah to be.

So when Jesus then gets on the floor, strips out of his outer clothing, and starts washing his disciples’ feet, it totally throws Peter for a loop. That was a servant’s job—the job of a menial worker. Think about how many of us like having our feet touched or, God forbid, touching someone else’s feet. It’s humiliating, what Jesus is doing. It doesn’t match Peter’s expectations, which leads him to protest. He just can’t see Jesus in this role, doing this work. He only sees Jesus in glory. He can’t see Jesus in humiliation.

What about us? Can we? Can we see God in humiliation? Can we see God in human brokenness? Can we see God in places, and in people, we would much rather ignore?

Very often I think we’re tempted to see God in “our image”, the way I remember seeing Jesus as I grew up in a Swedish Lutheran church. It’s tempting to see Jesus in the Peter Popoff’s Miracle Waters of the world, or in the smiling, never-sad, always-happy Joel Osteens, or in the military conquests done in Jesus’s name. It’s tempting to see Jesus as supporting the American upper-middle class that lives in the suburbs with sensible white American values. It’s easy to imagine someone we would admire and respect, and then project Jesus onto that, the same way Peter did.

We want Jesus to be strong. We want Jesus to be powerful. We want Jesus to be mighty. We want Jesus to be sensible. We want Jesus to be logical. We want Jesus to be military. We want Jesus to be respectable. We want Jesus to be respectful. We want Jesus to be clean-cut. We want Jesus to be pretty. We want Jesus to be successful. We want Jesus to be rich.

We want Jesus to be everything we wish we could be and more, because how else is he going to save us? How can Jesus save us if he isn’t better than us?

And yet here is Jesus, on his knees, half-naked, scrubbing people’s dirty feet.

Later, he’ll be dragged out of a garden and in front of a court. He’ll be mocked. He’ll be humiliated. He’ll be put on display and tortured, in public. And he’ll be put to death, executed by the state, like a common thug.

Can we see God in that? Can we recognize Jesus, the savior of the world, in all of that? I hope so.

I hope so because if I can recognize Jesus, the savior of the world, in a broken and beaten body on a cross, then I can recognize Jesus in so many more places and people than I thought possible.

Which is a good thing. As Martin Luther himself reminds us,

“God says, ‘I do not choose to come to you in my majesty and in the company of angels but in the guise of a poor beggar asking for bread. … I want you to know that I am the one who is suffering hunger and thirst.’”
(Luther’s Commentary on the Gospel of John)

It means that I can throw out all of those ideas about who Jesus is and where Jesus can be found and instead start recognizing where Jesus has been all along–

In the minimum-wage gas station attendant that sells me donuts and orange juice every Sunday morning for my Confirmation class.

In the members of our community that come to the Three Lakes Christian Food Pantry and are overlooked by the rest of the community.

In the overwhelmingly Native American population of the Vilas County Jail.

In the rising number of opioid users and abusers in our community.

In the homeless who try to survive the winter in trailers, cars, and tents without heat or electricity.

In the LGBTQ+ community, who has no place in too many of our Christian communities.

In the victims of human trafficking that pass through Vilas and Oneida counties under our very noses.

In those who don’t think or vote the same way I do in politics.

In every face, every person lovingly created in the image of God who is ever brushed aside, ridiculed, forgotten, humiliated, or deemed “unworthy” by those around them.

In them, I see the face of Christ. In them, the image of God, the person of Jesus Christ, the savior of the whole world, is given a real and tangible form.

And if I can finally open my eyes to the face of Christ that has been around me the entire time, the face that I have for so long been willfully blind to because it didn’t meet my expectations, then maybe someone else can see Christ in me. And they can see Christ in you.

Jesus getting down on his knees to wash his disciples’ feet in an act of personal humiliation was more than just a gesture of kindness for his closest friends. It was an explicit acknowledgment that Christ isn’t found in power, or might, or wealth; but is instead found in acts of service, acts of love, humiliation, demeaning circumstances, and everywhere else we’d rather not look. The people “out there”. All of you. Me.

When you leave this place tonight, you will be Christ for everyone you meet. Bless them, as you have blessed me.

Featured Image: “Church of the Annunciation, Nazareth, Israel 16” by Hoshvilim is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Very, Very Uncomfortable

Maundy Thursday
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

Exodus 12:1-14
Psalm 116: 1-2, 12-19
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Back in 2003, I was part of a program out of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago for high schoolers who wanted to more intentionally delve into their faith. It was a three week program. The first week and the last week were spent at the seminary, living in the residence buildings, and either doing classwork or other activities.

The middle week, however, was spent in Mexico City. It was my first time ever being out of the country. I knew enough Spanish that, if I got lost, I wouldn’t die in a gutter, but I was by no means fluent. I was thrust into a new world, a new culture, a new society, that while recognizable in some aspects, was very foreign to me.

On top of that, we as a group were being asked some challenging questions, and having some really deep discussions that weren’t easy to have. And on top of that, we were going out into some of the poorer areas of Mexico City to do service projects.

Split into three groups, my group headed out to spend time at an orphanage, just sitting, playing with, talking with the little children who lived there. I’m an introvert, so throw me into a room full of kids I don’t know, speaking a language I don’t know, in a culture I don’t know, and, well… let’s just say that I was very, very uncomfortable.

I had the same experience five years later as I traveled to Costa Rica with my Liberation Theology class at Capital University. I’ll never forget visiting the Iglesia Luterana Costarricense, the Lutheran Costa Rican Church. The church got its start in one of the poorest sections of San Jose. As we toured the old stomping grounds, we passed through a section of cinder block houses that were the new government-sponsored housing. But beyond that, where the church started, we left cinder block behind.

The houses there were little more than sheets of corrugated aluminum slapped together for shelter. Raw sewage ran through channels down the hillside. Electricity barely functioned here, even though down in the valley, the sprawling city of San Jose gleamed in the sun. In the midst of such poverty, desperation, well… let’s just say that I was very, very uncomfortable.

I had the same experience four years later on my internship. First Lutheran Church in Muskegon, MI is one of the churches that hosts Family Promise, an organization that relies on churches to provide a week of shelter for homeless families, as no homeless shelter in the area lets families stay together: men go to one, women to go to another. The host church is responsible for providing meals for the families, who are then taken by van to job interviews, and the like. The most important meal is dinner, and the churches are encouraged to have people eat with the folks, play games with the kids, and keep the parents company.

Again, throw me in a room with a bunch of people I don’t know, including kids, people who’s current life situation was very different from my own… well, let’s just say that I was very, very uncomfortable.

I had the same experience the first time one of my friends confessed to me that, if I were gay, he would want to date me. At the time, I had no idea how to react to that; I didn’t even know many women who wanted to date me, let alone any men, and I’m not really sure how I responded. I can say though, that I was very, very uncomfortable.

It almost makes what Jesus does in the Gospel according to John seem… quaint.

Now I don’t know about you, but the whole footwashing thing has never made me uncomfortable. Feet don’t gross me out just because they’re feet, and the idea of pouring a little water over dirty feet and wiping them dry doesn’t bother me. Maybe I’m just a weirdo who’s not grossed out by such things, but I know that for many people, this story is what nightmares are made of.

It was no less awkward and uncomfortable for some of Jesus’s disciples, like Peter, who has a penchant for running his mouth when he should be quiet. Peter’s uncomfortable for all sorts of valid reasons. Maybe his feet are ugly; at the very least, we know they’re dirty. Washing feet was the work of a servant, and Jesus is no servant: he’s the Teacher, the Master. This work is beneath him—there’s a reason it’s relegated to servants, they should be the ones dealing with dirty work. Maybe Jesus stripping off his outer robe made Peter feel uncomfortable, I don’t know. What I do know is that, well… Peter is very, very uncomfortable. So uncomfortable that, at first, he refuses to let Jesus wash his feet.

It’s not the first time a follower of Christ has been confronted with something uncomfortable, and it won’t be the last. What we are called to do is very, very uncomfortable.

We are called to treat those we consider enemies as we would our friends; even people like Assad.

We are called to extend the very fullness of hospitality to people, including the poor and the homeless, even if we secretly or not-so-secretly believe that they’re scamming us or are responsible for their own condition.

We are called to feed the hungry, even if we know they’re going to go to the food pantry in the next town over and get more food.

We are called to love our LGBTQ+ neighbors, even if their love and sexual expression makes us uncomfortable; and not some superficial “I love you, but…” love, we’re called to actually and fully love them.

We are called to challenge the idolatry of our society that puts money, flags, political ideology and military might above all things, justifying all sorts of atrocities in the name of security and profit; even when we benefit from that idolatry.

We are called to check our own privilege as, for the most part, heterosexual cisgender white Wisconsinites, to recognize the ways in which we contribute to unjust systems that keep minority populations under oppression, and to speak up for and work for change.

We are called to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, which is all of the above and more, to a world that instead feeds on fear and complacency, refusing to heed God’s will for creation; even when we are the fearful, ignorant, complacent ones.

And it will make us very, very uncomfortable.

And yet, Jesus does something uncomfortable: he washes his disciples’ feet. And he tells them, “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.” And also, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

On my trip to Mexico City, I learned something about poverty, and I learned something about humanity. I was pushed out of my comfort zone to experience life in a way I never knew. And I came home better for it. And I hope we left those little children a little better for it, too.

In Costa Rica, I visited a church that was born in and out of extreme poverty. And through them, I learned and saw what it was like to live the radical good news that Jesus taught and preached, from people who had no hangups about eating with the poor, or the sick, or the dirty; people I realized I’d been avoiding.

Spending the evenings with the Family Promise folks made me realize that I had so many preconceived notions about poverty and homelessness in the United States, and that those preconceptions were harmful. They influenced my actions in ways that hurt real human beings on a personal scale. Spending time with them opened my eyes to my own privilege.

Even hearing from my friend that he would date me if I were gay made me realize my views on sexuality were uninformed, that my views hurt people, and that I needed to do some soul-searching and introspection for myself and who I am.

Each and every time, it was uncomfortable. But each and every time, the experience opened me up to the working of the Gospel, to the movement of the Holy Spirit. Each one was an experience of love, the same kind of uncomfortable love that Jesus showed his disciples in washing their feet.

The same kind of love he showed them in the garden later that night, when he went willingly with the guards to protect his disciples.

The same kind of love he showed the following night when he was willing to die, a scapegoat, a state-sponsored sacrifice, so that he could demonstrate God’s willingness to break the cycle of hate and violence that has so consumed us as human beings.

We are called into uncomfortable situations because in those situations, we find God. We find God who has been there the whole time, showing unconditional love to the people in those situations and challenging those outside them to really see the people affected by them. God is not comfortable—anyone who’s told you otherwise was outright lying—because God never lets discomfort get in the way of acts of self-giving, sacrificial love.

Just as God enters uncomfortable situations to make divine love known, so too are we called to do the same. Though us, God is experienced and known, just as God is experienced and known though those whom we encounter. Because it is in the most uncomfortable places and situations that we experience love.

Featured Image: “Washing of Foot” by Josh Ragai is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

How Can You Spot a Christian?

How can simple acts of love contend with hypocrisy, judgmentalism, hate, insensitivity, kidnapping, arson, murder, genocide?

Maundy Thursday
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

Exodus 12:1-14
Psalm 116: 1-2, 12-19
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35

I did a Google experiment preparing for this sermon.

If you go to Google, the world’s most popular internet search engine, and you start typing in what you want to know about, Google will attempt to predict what you are looking for based on what other people generally search for and “auto-complete” your search term.

So I went to Google and typed, “Why are Christians…” The only auto-complete suggestion Google gave, the most popular search that includes that phrase, is “Why are Christians so mean?” The actual search results for “Why are Christians…” include: How do we know that Christians are delusional? Why are Christians so ignorant about their faith? Why are Christians so hypocritical and judgmental?

When I typed in “Churches are…” the suggested auto-completions of that search were: Churches are tax exempt, churches are evil, churches are cults, churches are corrupt.

In their book unChristian: What a New Generation Really Things about Christianity? … And Why It Matters, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons go even deeper. Over a period of three years they interviewed a few hundred young adults ages 16-29 to get an idea about what they thought about the church. It turns out that they describe the church as judgmental, hypocritical, anti-homosexual, too political, insensitive, and sheltered.

Sobering thought, isn’t it? That this is what people think about churches and Christians? One of my favorite songs as a kid said “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love; yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” But it would seem that in our day and age, Christians are known more for the things some of us hate than any good we do for the world.

It’s not too difficult to see how this is the case. There’s a saying that goes, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” or the loudest voice gets the most attention. People who scream about how much they hate something and appeal to people’s own fears get lots of listeners.

There are a lot of Christians out there who are bent on hate. As part of a conversation with a friend, I looked up statistics on Christian terrorism across the world. I found information on groups like the Anti-balaka in the Central African Republic, which are groups of Christian militias who have destroyed nearly all mosques in the country and committed multiple massacres, driving nearly every Muslim out of the country.

Or there’s the National Liberation Front of Tripura, a Tripuri nationalist Christian terrorist organization in northern India that has launched hundreds of terrorist attacks in the country, including killing and kidnapping.

There’s the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, led by Joseph Kony, a Christian. They massacre, abduct, mutilate, torture, rape, and use children for soldiers and the sex trade, all in the name of God.

In our own country, Christians bomb and attack abortion clinics. Timothy McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Prominent Christian leaders like Franklin Graham call for the use of weapons of mass destruction against other people, particularly Muslims. Christians all over the country enact policies that open the LGBTQ community to violence and terror. There are even churches that still condemn interracial marriage as against God’s will (the church in that story later reversed its decision after the massive public outcry).

And into the midst of all this hate, this terrible collection of evil done in the name of God, we have… Jesus. Jesus getting down on his hands and knees, stripping off his clothing, and washing people’s feet.

It feels like a bit of a non-sequitur to go from all this talk about Christians hating and hurting, raping and murdering other people, to this image of Jesus in nothing but a towel, on the floor, dealing with feet. But I can’t think of a better or more needed image right now than this.

The act of foot-washing, as a friend of points out in her sermon for tonight, is a weird, very uncomfortable ritual. Have you ever washed someone else’s feet? Probably not. You know why? Because people don’t like having their feet touched. And people don’t like touching each others’ feet. It’s just not done in our culture. People’s feet are vulnerable—we’re often embarrassed about them, the way they look, the way they feel, and definitely the way they smell.

Washing someone’s feet is a job for someone else, preferably someone we don’t have to talk or see while they do it. Someone we can just pay to do it and get out, back to our lives. In Jesus’s day, the job of washing feet went to the servants of the house, the ones always stuck doing the uncomfortable, gross, disgusting, weird things that needed to be done.

And here Jesus is, taking on the role of the servant, doing the uncomfortable, disgusting, humiliating job of washing his friends’ feet.

I wish I could say that this was the exception in Jesus’s ministry, that this was a one-time thing and that Jesus pulled back from the uncomfortable and the unpleasant. But it’s not the case.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus repeatedly entered territory that everyone around him thought was inappropriate. He washed people’s dirty, disgusting feet. He touched lepers, people who carried horrible and communicable diseases. He touched dead bodies, which is disgusting even today. He entered the territory of the enemy and preached among them, not to condemn them but to give them the Good News of God’s salvation come into the world. He associated with women, who like today were viewed with contempt and disdain. He dined out with prostitutes and tax collectors, people shunned by society. He called his disciples from the unlearned, who had no business being the disciples of such a great teacher.

Over and over again, Jesus reaches out to those most vulnerable, those whom everyone else is so uncomfortable around. He never does anything particularly complicated, even though it is miraculous. He washes, he touches, he heals, he welcomes, he forgives. Or put another way, Jesus loves.

I am struck by the simplicity of all of these acts. When Jesus healed, he didn’t build a state-of-the art hospital named after himself. He didn’t host $100 a plate dinners for guests. He didn’t start a multimedia campaign to get his message out. And he didn’t open a luxury spa to wash people’s feet.

He acted simply, out of love, breaking down barriers instead of setting them up. Love infused every act, every word, love for those on the margins, love for those society wouldn’t touch, literally and figuratively. Jesus reached out, and simply loved. It was his norm, not his exception. Which, as I said, bothers me.

It bothers me because Jesus, having finished washing his disciples’ feet as yet another example in a long line of examples of what he came to do, looks his disciples dead in the eye and tells them that they should do as he has done to them—and he’s not just talking about dirty, smelly feet. And if he told his disciples at the time that this is what they were to do, then he’s also telling his disciples now the same thing.

As Christ has done for us, we also are to do for others: to touch the sick, to care for those on the margins of society, to feed the hungry, house the homeless, rescue the oppressed, speak up for the marginalized. As one of my favorite hymns in our hymnal says, “We are called to act with justice. We are called to love tenderly. We are called to serve one another, to walk humbly with God.” We are called, as Jesus was called, to love simply, to act with charity and kindness.

But what’s the point, if all anyone seems to see in the church in the public eye is horrible and evil? How can such simple acts of love contend with hypocrisy, judgmentalism, hate, insensitivity, kidnapping, arson, murder, genocide? A charge to which I answer: simple acts of love are the only things that can.

It is not a mistake that Jesus combated the powers of sin and death not with overwhelming force but with simple love. It’s not an error that Jesus’s act of salvation was an act of self-sacrificial love in a death he willingly met. It’s not a coincidence that some of Jesus’s last instructions to his disciples are instructions to love another and share that example with those around them. It was God’s love, Jesus’s simple love, that loosened the grip sin had over humanity and banished its absolute influence.

Love isn’t complicated, not matter how much we try to make it so. And the best part is, love is contagious and infectious. Once it gets a hold, it doesn’t let go, and it continues to build up and strengthen. It consecrates the lowliest, humblest of actions and turns it into something sacred and mighty and powerful, far more powerful than hate.

Love has been the hallmark of God from the very beginning. It was the definition of Jesus’s ministry. And it’s the heart of what it means to be Christian.

“And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

Featured Image: “Washing Feet” by Ed Bierman is licensed under CC BY 2.0.