Thursday, March 28, 2013

A Commandment to Love

A sermon preached at St. Francis Church on Maundy Thursday, March 28, 2013

Tonight’s gospel reading comes to us from what the Biblical scholars call “Jesus’ Farewell Discourse.” He and the twelve have gathered in the Upper Room. According to John it is the Eve of Passover, the night before his death. Jesus essentially summarizes everything that he has tried to teach them throughout his public ministry. One last time he goes over it all, as he says his goodbyes to those whom he no longer calls followers, but friends. In fact as John has shaped his Gospel, this Farewell Discourse goes on for five chapters—which is like 25% of the entire Gospel. So it’s big!

I have never confused myself with Jesus and I know you haven’t either. We are, together, servants of Jesus in this place where the ministers are all the people. We are FOJs—friends of Jesus. And while I know that diocesan ministry will have some challenges for me, I’m not expecting to die on a cross doing that work. Even so, all of us are meant to see our lives reflected in the life of Jesus. As the Christmas hymn puts it, “he is our lifelong pattern; daily when on earth he grew…”[i]  Now I know it is Holy Week, but given this winter we have had, I hope you will excuse me for quoting Christmas carols!

So I hope it is not too presumptuous for me to be identifying tonight with this whole notion of a “farewell discourse.” This is my sixteenth Holy Week as your rector: that’s a lot of words, a lot of sermons and Bible studies and a lot of “Rector’s Notes” for the Little Portion. But over these past couple of months I’ve been trying to distill it down to what I think is essential. Ultimately, of course that will take some time and in the end it is not up to me but all of you to figure out what mattered when the next edition of the history of St. Francis Church is written.  

But for my own part, I believe that this lived-out parable of foot-washing and this novum maundatum to love one another is a place where my own farewell discourse intersects with that of Jesus. What I hear Jesus saying here, and doing here, in this liturgy tonight—and in this commandment given to us in the thirteenth chapter of John’s Gospel is what I have tried to be about here. Earlier in his ministry, Jesus said the whole of Torah could be summarized in two rules: love God and love your neighbor. But tonight it gets it down to one action that says the same thing without any words at all. Just love each other.

It has always been interesting for me as rector of this parish to watch a person who is new to congregational life make the journey from enthusiasm to disappointment, and then hopefully (with God’s help) to spiritual growth. I’ve seen it enough to observe a pattern that mirrors the Paschal mystery. Someone walks through the doors with her eyes wide open and is just so excited because this is the greatest parish ever. Perhaps they have been out visiting other congregations and they’ve seen that many of them are struggling just to keep the doors open. Or maybe they are paralyzed by conflict. So they are genuinely glad to be here and rightly so because there is vision and energy for mission here. And let me be clear: I thrive on that energy and passion. It is so nice to see yourself and the parish you love through such eyes. This truly is a great parish and there is so much for which we need to give God thanks. New eyes sometimes see that better than old eyes, which can become a bit jaded and weary. Those who have been here a long time may be tempted to take the richness of this faith community for granted.

So that energy and positive attitude of new people is very real and no doubt a gift of the Holy Spirit. But it does not last forever. Eventually, new people get asked to become more involved. They join the choir or the altar guild or they teach church school or they serve on a search committee or they sign up for coffee hour. If they don’t do this of their own free will, then someone usually twists their arms—gently of course. As a community, we try to find ways to utilize their gifts and we challenge them to become more involved because we really do believe that the ministers here are “all the people.”

But here is the thing: in so doing they come into contact with real flesh and blood people. They no longer see their idealized version of St. Francis Church from the distance of a webpage but the real deal—warts and all. And we are a mixed bag; all of us. Even the healthiest among us are wounded and fragile birds and sometimes we get cranky and impatient and even mean. Yes, even in Christian congregations; even in this one. Jesus promised wherever two or three are gathered together in his name that he would be in the midst of them. But what he didn’t say is that when two or three humans gather together there is also sure to be some conflict. And when that inevitably happens to us, our image of the Church is shattered.

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once put it in Life Together, our “wish dream” for the Church is challenged. C.S. Lewis addressed this same issue famously in The Screwtape Letters in own his peculiar way, from the angle of the Deceiver. But both Bonhoeffer and Lewis wrestle with something very real: this notion of how we move from an idealized community to the real thing. For this to happen, there has to be some measure of disappointment. Because no rector, no staff member, nor lay leader, no congregation can ever live up to that “ideal.”

In a congregation where the bumper stickers on the cars in our parking lot run the whole spectrum of political opinions, if you become involved it’s fairly certain you will be hurt and disappointed sooner or later. You will be offended or you will offend someone. It is inevitable. And here is the thing: I have come to believe that it is precisely at those moments in time that the true journey of the spiritual life begins—a journey that takes us to a place where we no longer need to gather more information about Jesus, but where true formation in Christ can happen. It is there that we begin to learn why Jesus doesn’t just suggest love, but commands it, and why forgiveness takes us to the very heart of the matter and the heart of what these three days are about. We are all in need of healing and we all rely on grace because we all miss the mark. When we see that we begin to realize that the Christian journey is not about fixing other people, but doing our own soul work (in fear and trembling.) It stops being theory in those moments and takes on flesh as we discover that the gospel is about way more than being nice to the nice. It is about the work of reconciliation.

It is in such moments that we begin to discover the beauty of authentic Christian community—a body of real people who, with God’s help, are growing into the full stature of Christ. It is a lot easier to just be “spiritual but not religious.” It’s a lot easier to take long walks on the beach and to come to the garden alone while the dew is still on the roses. Don’t get me wrong; we all need personal spiritual practices and if forced to choose between spiritual, but not religious or religious, but not spiritual I know which way I’d go. But the Christian life is not about choosing one over the other. The Christian faith is about integrating the two together, because the Christian faith is an incarnate/embodied faith.

Community is messy. We sing of one bread and one body because we know full well that we are many, and we experience the dangers of fragmentation. If this week teaches us anything at all, it is that sometimes even Jesus’ friends will betray and deny him and one another. Sometimes we will just plain get it wrong and sometimes we run away and sometimes we stand and fight. But eventually by God’s grace we ask another question: is there a future for us that is not merely a repetition of the vicious patterns we get stuck in? Is there another option when we are hurt or disappointed, when we discover that this congregation and every congregation is far from perfect? Is there a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul?

Tonight takes us to the very core of that new identity that is ours to embrace in Christ at such times. It is an invitation to discover the way forward by going deeper. This day takes its name from the Latin words novatum maundatum: Jesus gives us a new mandate to love one another. These words represent Jesus’ final instructions to the Church before his crucifixion. In John’s Gospel he will reiterate this commandment one more time, tomorrow, when from the Cross tells the beloved disciple and his mother to love one another like parent and child. And then his work will be “finished.”
Tonight, Jesus acts out this parable that is so central to our identity as Christians. We are invited to a hard and difficult path and it is not because we are embarrassed that we didn’t remember to get a pedicure before church. It is in allowing ourselves to be served and to serve. This always requires trust, and trust always requires risk and vulnerability and intimacy. This is scary because it is easier to lord it over one another. This isn’t Hallmark-card-love tonight and it isn’t The Bachelor. It is a hard saying and a challenge to so much that we believe we stand for—so much we want to stand for.

So notice Jesus’ posture on this night. He isn’t standing. He is kneeling at the feet of his friends. Jesus—king of kings and lord of lords and Word-made-flesh and very God of very God (begotten not made) gets on his hands and knees and takes a basin and a towel and he washes his friends’ feet. In all of that vulnerability—all the way to tomorrow’s conclusion at Golgatha he gives us this maundatum novum to love one another.

You cannot wash a person’s feet and not see them as a beloved child of God. You can definitely stand up and note that they drive you crazy, that their politics are totally wrong and maybe even that you don’t particularly enjoy their company. But you can no longer write them off. Jesus washes even Judas’ feet. And he washes even Peter’s feet, after some back and forth. Washing another person’s feet shows us how to truly love: not by lording it over them or imposing our views on them or convincing them that we are right, but by seeing them as a beloved child of God.

These three holy days that now enfold us are about the compassion of God and the invitation to each of us to be a more compassionate and merciful people. To be more religious—that is bound together—and to be more spiritual. To allow God to be God by ourselves becoming, with God’s help, more and more God’s faithful people. By letting go of our wish dream for community and in sheer gratitude thanking God for companions and friends among whom it is our great privilege to serve.

In particular I am grateful tonight for wardens who have already been so gracious in their service to build up this congregation as it faces a season of change. I feel immense gratitude tonight that this is a place where we can see the face of God and embrace the new life that is ours in Jesus Christ daily. Throughout the year as we enter more deeply into the Paschal mystery week by week and day by day, that it is the kind of place that helps us to see in ever changing ways what it means to love one another, as we have first been loved.

[i] “Once in Royal David’s City,” Hymnal #102

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