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.

Sermon–April 17, 2014–Maundy Thursday

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

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

We as a culture can’t get enough of two types of movies. We love our action flicks, like Die Hard, the Avengers, anything by Michael Bay or starring Steven Segal, Jean Claude Van Damme, Sylvester Stallone or John Wayne. The kind of movie that gets our blood pumping, gets us all revved up, that surprises and shocks us with just how awesome they are.

Then, there’s the other type we can’t get enough of. We love our romances and loves stories. Stories of overcoming impossible odds to find the perfect man or woman, finding our one true love among the 7 billion people on the planet, and living happily ever after.

The secret to movie success, of course, is to combine the two. To make an action movie with a powerful love story woven in, maybe as the motivation for the hero’s incredible actions. To make a romantic movie with a suspenseful, action-filled climactic scene that really hammers home just how incredible this love is.

In our storytelling, the two are often combined. What makes a hero, if not love? Whether it is love for a partner, lover, or simply the human race, the deeds done by our action heroes are, for the most part, motivated by a devotion that far surpasses what we ourselves think we are capable of.

And why love at all, if one is not willing to go the extra mile, to beat the impossible odds, to rescue him or her when they are in distress, to sweep them off their feet, and to be their hero? The truest love, it seems, is forged in the heat of conflict, when life and death are on the line. If love can survive that, it can survive anything.

I confess that, while I am usually a sucker for these movies, they do make real life feel a little… inadequate. I try to imagine myself in some of the situations action heroes find themselves in. Not counting the situations that are clearly over-embellished for dramatic effect, I look at those situations, and I’m pretty sure I’d be dead. I couldn’t leap from a building to a helicopter, or swing on a rope across a fiery gorge, or beat up two dozen bad guys with just my fists, all to get to the person I love and save the day.

With such high expectations prominently displayed in our entertainment fantasies, it’s not too hard to understand why love and marriage can be disappointing for some people. Rarely does our romantic, movie-induced idea of love and what it can go through match up to the reality. We expect perfection, the ability to know perfectly what the people we love are thinking, and to be able, literally, to move mountains for love.

Love is connected to these grand ideas. Love is big. Flashy. Exciting. Dramatic. It is bold, catchy, larger-than-life. And yet, at the same time, this idea of love is entirely unrealistic. If love is to be defined in this way, by its glory and grandeur, then I suspect that most of us are in big trouble.

I like Jesus’s idea better. John says, “Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1 NRSV).

This is the day before the crucifixion. Arguably, that event is one of the greatest ways God has shown love for all of creation. After all, doesn’t Jesus say a little later in John’s Gospel: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13 NRSV). That certainly is the case with the crucifixion.

The crucifixion is the centerpoint, the fulcrum of God’s action in the world. A good chunk of the Gospels is devoted to this very event. Hardly anyone familiar with the tiniest bits of Christianity does not know about the crucifixion. In some accounts, it was literally an earth-shattering event. Just like an action movie, it captures our imagination, wrenches at our hearts and emotions, and makes us really feel. Lots of movies have produced dramatic, glorious interpretations of this great act of love.

But that’s not our story for tonight. This is the first day of the Triduum, the Three Days, the most holy days in the Christian calendar. Our story is still about love, but about a very, very different type of love. Our love story tonight isn’t flashy. It isn’t glorious. It doesn’t get our hearts pumping or our adrenaline flowing. It’s not very big or exciting.

And it’s about feet.

For being such an important part of our body, we seem to be, as a general rule, really opposed to feet. We don’t like see them, we don’t like to touch them, and we certainly don’t like to smell them. Feet are relegated to the category of “Things that make you go, blegh”, better left hidden and out of sight.

So when Jesus gets down on his hands and knees with a basin of water and starts to wash the dirty, grimy feet of twelve men, the reaction for many is, “ewww”. I can’t say that’s an unreasonable reaction, given the time and place how those feet must have been.

I also think, though, that that reaction is part of what makes the story so moving. Jesus is about to die, be hung on a cross, and he decides to show his love for his disciples by getting down on the ground, in the dirt, in a humiliating and vulnerable position. He shows his love by degrading himself, touching people’s feet, providing a necessary, but unsavory service that would have most of us cringing.

The true love of Jesus is shown not with bells, whistles, trumpets, Oscars and Emmies, but through the simple acts of compassion that others feel are below them.

How often do we as Christians seek to emulate Jesus on the cross? We want to be the center of attention, to have our deeds shown before others, to go out in a blaze of glory that has onlookers saying, “Truly, these people were children of God.” The theology of glory pervades our sense of self. It makes us important, and we like to be important.

What would it look like if we emulated Jesus in the dirt? Washing feet is uncomfortable. It makes us cringe. It makes us dirty. It is not an activity most of us would see ourselves doing. But precisely because of its simplicity, it’s degrading nature, it’s discomfort, it also makes us like Jesus.

For tonight, this is how Jesus chose to show love—by getting on his hands in a simple, intimate act of compassion.

Tonight, this one time during the year, we are invited to participate in that same act of love and compassion. “Just as I have loved you,” says Jesus, “You also should love one another”. It can be uncomfortable. It can make us vulnerable. It may offend our normal sensibilities. But in it, we find the heart of Jesus before the storm.

Featured Image: “communion elements with candles” by Lars Hammar is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.