Do you all remember Gary Larson? There’s an old "Far Side" cartoon that I am always reminded of on Maundy Thursday. God is in the kitchen cooking up the world. He’s got all kinds of ingredients to sprinkle over the globe, which is in a skillet on the stove. There are birds, and trees and reptiles; light-skinned people and medium-skinned people and dark-skinned people. But the “spice” that Chef God is holding in his hands says “jerks.” And the caption reads: “…just to make it interesting…” (See the image here).
A few years back The Alban Institute published a little book for clergy and lay leaders with the title “Never Call Them Jerks,” which was about dealing with difficult behaviors in congregations. It’s a good book and I think the title is right; it’s a little like a mother saying to her child, “I don’t want to hear the word ‘hate’ in this house.”
So we won’t call anyone a jerk. But here is the thing: the fact that a book needed to be written on this topic about the challenges of congregational life make the point that it’s not always easy. Sometimes in the midst of our own disappointments and conflicts and hurts, we are tempted to see those who stand in our way or who hurt or disappoint us as “jerks.” And if you become involved at any level in congregational life, then it’s fairly certain you will be hurt or disappointed sooner or later. And to be fair, sometimes we don’t bring our best selves to church. Behaviors that would never be tolerated in the workplace and more closely resemble a two-year old tantrum are all too commonplace in congregational life.
Now here is the good news that I want to share with you tonight: it is precisely at that moment in time that the true journey of the spiritual life really begins. It is precisely at this moment that we need tonight’s gospel reading and that we need community, and that we need to know that it has ever been so. It is precisely at this moment that I recommend two books by two giants of the Christian tradition: C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. In the fifteen years that I was the rector in Holden, I read each of those books probably a dozen times and every time I realized anew that the biggest challenge I faced was, to put it as Bonhoeffer puts it, to let go of my own idealized “wish dream” for Christian community and give thanks for what was, even in all of its messiness.
Because people are a mess. And because authentic communities of faith are messy. It’s a whole lot easier to be spiritual, but not religious and to go for long walks on the beach than it is to be part of a community of faith. But this is what Baptism into Christ demands of us. We are called into a communion of saints. And here is the thing: every saint is also a sinner. And sometimes sinners behave a lot like jerks. But at least it keeps things interesting…
As these three days unfold, we see Judas betray not only Jesus but the rest of the gang too. And Peter, who denies the faith that is in him. “I do not know the man.” And all of them who fall asleep even after Jesus pleads with them: can you not stay awake with me for one hour? Sometimes Christians get it wrong. Let’s be honest – we get it wrong more often than we get it right. And sometimes Christians run away in fear. The question is this: what happens next? What do we do when we are hurt or disappointed—when we learn that this congregation like all congregations in our diocese and across the Church is not perfect and cannot fulfill our own personal “wish dreams” of what a congregation is supposed to look like? Easter is a time for new beginnings.
And tonight is, as I read it, an invitation to find a way forward. As you heard, we are commanded to love one another. This day takes its name from the Latin words mandatum novum—a new mandate that we love one another. That is strong language. These words represent Jesus’ final instructions to the Church before his crucifixion. In John’s Gospel he will reiterate this commandment from the Cross by telling the beloved disciple and his mother to love one another like parent and child. And then his work will be “finished.”
The Word became flesh and pitched tent among us not so we could all like each other and not so that “jerkish” behavior would be eradicated from the planet. According to that theologian Larson, that is what makes life interesting. So tonight’s gospel isn’t first and foremost about the people we like or already feel committed to or who always get it right. Tonight isn’t Hallmark card love on Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day. Nor is about giving people a free-pass or not holding them accountable for their actions.
But in the end, tonight’s gospel is far more radical and scary than that. Jesus acts out a parable that is incredibly relevant to the Church in our time and in every time. It invites us to transform the way we talk to one another and about one another not just face-to-face but in the parking lot and when we are whispering. To enter into the mystery of what our Lord does on this night is a hard and difficult path. And not because we are embarrassed that we didn’t get a pedicure before church, but because such an act really does require risk and vulnerability and intimacy that most of us are scared to death of.
This is a hard saying and a challenge to so much that we believe we stand for—so much we want to stand for. But notice Jesus’ posture on this night. He isn’t standing, but kneeling at the feet of his friends. As the African folk song puts it: Jesu, Jesu, kneels at the feet of his friends. Silently washes their feet. This king of kings and lord of lords and very God of very God (begotten not made)—humbles himself in the form of a servant, and gets on his knees and takes a basin and a towel and washes his disciples’ feet. All of them, including the betrayer, and the denier and the sleepers. In that vulnerability—all the way to tomorrow’s conclusion at Golgatha, he gives us this mandatum novum to love one another.
Now I want to invite you to think about one other Christian—ideally in this congregation but if you just love everyone here at St. John’s to pieces it’s ok to look beyond these walls. But it has to be someone you really do not like. And it can’t be some caricature of evil like Adolf Hitler. It has to be a person you know, a person who claims to be a Christian, a person who is sometimes kind of a jerk even if we aren’t supposed to say that in church. Maybe it is someone who has served on the vestry with you or sung in the choir. Or maybe she just rubs you the wrong way because—well you know because you were in that Bible study together that time and she did all the talking. Or none of the talking. Or maybe at coffee hour two years and seven months and four weeks ago he didn’t speak to you. Or maybe it’s someone who wanted to spend money you felt this congregation doesn’t have, or maybe it’s because they have no clue about how a church is supposed to operate or at least how things run here, because they are from away. The reasons don’t matter much. Just picture that person—one real person (not a composite of your own anxious projections)—with a story and real hurts and real joys and real questions and real problems.
And then imagine what it would be like for you to wash that person’s feet tonight. Imagine praying for that person in all of her vulnerability. Imagine what it would be like to listen to that person’s life story, not from the position of power but of vulnerability and weakness. And then imagine what it would be like for you to have the grace to let that person be your servant, too, and to wash your feet. And to reverse positions so that the shoe, as it were, might be placed on the other foot and they would hear your story, and they could pray for you.
Now as a parish priest I had this experience more than once, because when you are a parish priest in a congregation of strong-willed people there are ample opportunities for hurt and misunderstanding. So I’m not in those relationships here. But this liturgy remains for me one of the great gifts given by Jesus to the Church, and this is why I basically invited myself here tonight – because I needed someplace to be where I could be reminded (even in a diocesan job) why it is I am a priest. And what I can tell you is this: you can wash a person’s feet and still get up and still disagree about many things. In fact that’s probably a given. You can even get up and still not want to invite that person to your home for your next dinner party. That’s ok too. But it is very difficult, and maybe it’s even impossible, to hate a person after you have allowed yourself to be vulnerable to one another in this way. It’s very difficult to ever again call them a jerk.
I am convinced that the God who sprinkles all these different kinds of people into the world and into our congregations and into our lives is a God with a terrific sense of humor. So I expect that at the Great Banquet in the Kingdom of Heaven, the seating arrangements may well be such that we have to continue to deal with people who get under our skin. As it turns out, they really do make life interesting and among other things they help us to figure out a great deal about ourselves and to glimpse the kingdom of God which is much bigger than any of us can imagine on our own. And I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed this or not, but sometimes the traits that most irk us in others are ones we possess ourselves. It turns out that sometimes it is in fact easier to see the splinter in their eye better than the beam in our own.
This is no cure-all for conflicts and disappointments in the church or on how to deal with bullies. But the mystery of the commandment given to the Church on this night is that it invites us to see one another differently—to look through a different set of lenses than we are used to. It asks us to look for the face of Jesus in one another, and to be servants to one another in love. To love and to serve one another as we have been loved. And that has the potential to change us for good.