Our Stories This Story: The Others

I recommend reading/listening to the sermon from Ash Wednesday, which functions as an introduction to this Lenten series. You can access it here. For the previous sermons in this series, (“The Youth”) click here, (“The Parents”) click here, (“The Worker”) click here, and (“The Old”) click here.

Sermon on John 13: 6-9, 12-17

Psalm 116: 13-16 Precious in the sight of [God] is the death of his servants. O Lord, I am your servant; I am your servant and the child of your handmaid; you have freed me from my bonds. I will offer you the sacrifice of thanksgiving and call upon the Name of [God]. (53)

Introduction

“I think they’re all pretending like they know what they are doing. But I sit here and watch them walk by…this one with their fancy boots and jacket and many bags…I see you. Do you see me? …I am hungry, and I am cold, and I am lonely. Never hearing your name does something to a person. Being someone’s shame also does something to a person. I’m a person. Sometimes I forget that I am because I get lost in being ignored; I get trapped in their blindness. When I lost everything material did I lose also my being, my personhood, my body and arms and legs and identity with humanity? … I don’t have a job, or a house, or food, or … why do I feel bad and shameful because of that? Why do I feel pointless, superfluous, nothing better than kindling fuel for the fires that keep them warm, maybe I’m better off burnt up…”[1]

We have become a people who passes on exclusion rather than story.

This is the barebones, honest-to-goodness, absolute truth about one side of our humanity: we like groups. Us. Them. We, in here; they, out there. Our group. Their group. We do this; they do that. And, to be fair, grouping isn’t inherently bad. I don’t ascribe to a relatively high or low anthropology; I kind of see humans as mix bags trapped in narratives and systems, both willing and unwillingly. To group isn’t bad; it indicates a common interest or goal. We group up to get big projects done; we group up to learn a certain thing in a certain way; we group up to talk about things and to share common interests and experiences.

Grouping isn’t bad.

But grouping can become bad.

It becomes bad when we assign a moral value to one group and deprive it from another. Because we do this, this is good; anyone else who does not-this is bad. When we have to vilify another group so that we justify our own group, we assign goodness to us and badness to them. Maybe it’s because our culture is oriented toward and consumed with power and might, right and wrong, our way or the highway. It’s the “believe or die” that swept over this country from east to west, as peoples lost their land and stories. It’s the subjection and oppression of human beings based on the levels of increasing melanin in their skin, their sex and gender, their sexuality, their education and productivity, and their age and heritage. Grouping becomes bad when one group has more power thus more goodness, more dignity, more humanity, more right to life and liberty than another.

Funny thing is (or maybe not so funny?), I believe we vilify other groups so that we can create for ourselves some modicum amount of comfort and security: at least I’m not them… And some how being born into this group, achieving status in this group, and adhering to the ideologies and practices of this group make me safe from the predicament of those other (inferior/bad) groups. But yet, that security and comfort is illusive because it’s placed on either aspects of human existence that are out of our control or on material elements that can be torn from our hands no matter how tightly we cling to them. We’re all precariously moving through life, one quick trip-up from tumbling into realms we’ve designated for not-us.

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” … After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord–and you are right, for that is what I am. 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. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

John 13:6-9, 12-17, NRSV

In our gospel passage for this Maundy Thursday, we read about Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. It’s a tradition we honor in The Episcopal church. Maundy is from mandatum (Latin, N, N/A, S), command) and is found in our gospel passage (John 13:34): I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. That commandment is not foot-washing, by the way. That command isn’t about finding ways in Lent and Holy Week to make yourself really uncomfortable and awkward and then feel good about it (that’s my job!). It’s not about getting through something real quick like and then move on about your day. It’s significantly way more profound and simpler than any of those interpretations.

The commandment Jesus gives to his disciples is to love one another. Simple and profound. Sensical and magical. In other words, linking the command to love one another to foot washing is the means by which the disciples are charged—IN LOVE—to dismember human made hierarchies where we designate in-groups and out-groups, where we refuse to deign to do something because…not my _____ (fill in the blank), where we shuffle human beings off to the sides and fringes because they’re… harshing our buzz, making our main-streets uncomfortable, or taking things from me that I’ve earned for me and mine.

In the reign of God, ushered in by Jesus, there is no such thing as a hierarchy of human persons, there is no distinction between peoples based on money, job, homes, birth, addresses, clothes, and homes, etc.. When Jesus takes the role of the one who washes feet—the role of the servant—he categorically disrupts for Christians—those who follow Christ then and now and tomorrow—the tendency to create structures and orders around the hierarchy of human beings from best and most privileged to least and most destitute. And especially, Christ’s example crushes any attempt to dehumanize another person based on whatever our society has deemed “normal” and “acceptable”, “good” and “bad”. Maybe when Jesus drew in the sand that one time, it wasn’t anything but him mixing up all the grains, creating a new and level ground on which all beloved of God can stand and walk with honor and dignity inherent in human bodies and souls.

Conclusion

“With what shall I come before the Lord,
    and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
    with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
    with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
    the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6:6-8

We’re trained to look down on and pity those who don’t have what we have—the myriad of things we’ve deemed desirable and good, the mark of a well-made person. We equate our wealth with blessedness: the blessedness of being able, the blessedness of access and achievement and self-building; the blessedness of riches. But none of that stuff is what God declares blessed. Blessed are the poor…Blessed are you when you are reviled… For it to these God goes to liberate and defend.

Christ exposes our dastardly tendencies to ostracize, oppress, wound, ignore, isolate, exclude … others. In our best attempts to create structure, we—on our own—create systems by which some are in and others are out, some are good and others are bad, some are clean and others are dirty. And Jesus comes and lovingly shows us another way by telling us a different story. He gives us a story that includes everyone we’ve excluded; he takes our wretched story of exclusion and estrangement, and gives us one so heavy with love, it’s light. This story of love is so tremendous, it even changes our name to Beloved.


[1] Taken from the Ash Wednesday 2022 Sermon

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