Thursday, April 09, 2009

The Sacrament of Servanthood:

Maundy Thursday

It's Maundy Thursday again ... "MONDAY" Thursday ... as my kids used to call it. It's not "Monday" Thursday, of course ... it's "maundy" for maundatum the Latin for commandment. For on this Thursday in Holy Week we remember the commandment our Lord gave us in one of his final acts before his arrest, trial and crucifixion: "A new commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you so you must love one another. By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."

The very familiarity of these words can take away their power when we hear them these centuries after our Lord spoke them that night in the upper room to those "still didn't quite get it" disciples. They celebrated the Passover meal symbolizing God's deliverance of Israel from death in Egypt – even while the impending tragedy of the death of God's Son loomed on the horizon. "A new commandment I give you," he said to these faithful Jews who already had ten perfectly good commandments, thank you very much.

Not a recommendation. Not a suggestion. Not a "resolution" ... but a COMMANDMENT -- elevating it to the status of the ten that came down the mountain with Moses ... elevating it to "the Word of God."

This, my friends, was precisely the kind of talk that had gotten him into this no-going-back place to begin with.

This insistence that God's revelation didn't quit on Mt. Sinai didn't sit well with those who considered themselves the champions of orthodoxy … the leaders of the religious institutions of his day. Invested in the status quo, there was no room for new commandments ... for "continuing revelation" ... for Jesus -- this rabble rouser from Nazareth. "A New Commandment?" Blasphemy! Apostasy! Heresy!

Imagine what the conservative bloggers of his day would have done to him -- and he would NEVER have obtained unanimous consents if he'd been elected as -- oh, let's just say the Bishop of Northern Michigan. No Siree Bob -- for the orthodites of the 21st century bear a remarkable resemblence to the orthodox of the 1st ... no coloring outside "their" lines allowed: no new commandments, revleations, understandings needed here -- thank you very much!

And so the gloom darkened, the troops gathered -- and the cross loomed. And yet, "Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end." Loved them enough to tell them the truth -- no matter what the cost.

Loved them enough to share all of who he was with them – and command them to do the same to each other.

But where does the foot washing part fit in to all this? One commentary I read reaches this conclusion: "Jesus was showing us that we are all equal when we gather around the table of the Lord. If the Creator could wash the feet of the created, should not the creatures wash the feet of one another in equality? And if Jesus saw himself in his creatures, shouldn't we see him in each other?"

Does that mean we're supposed to REALLY wash each other's feet? Well, let's look again at our criteria for primary sacraments in the church: We do it because Jesus told us to. ("given by Christ to His Church" in the loftier words of the catechism)

Baptism in Matthew 28: GO THEREFORE and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son & Holy Spirit.

Eucharist in Luke 22: And he took bread and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them saying, "This is my body which is given for you. DO THIS in remembrance of me.

And in today's gospel: John 13: So, then, if I -- your Lord and teacher -- have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example that you also should do as I have done to you.

I imagine our Lord shaking his head and saying in gentle despair, "What part of go and do likewise didn't you understand?" Peter certainly didn't understand ... at least at first. "You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand," said Jesus -- in words of profound reassurance. That's the beauty of sacraments: you don't have to understand them to do them -- to accept them.

Could it be that part of the reason the "kingdom" hasn't come yet is that the church missed the boat on what Jesus intended to be another primary sacrament "given by Christ to his Church": the sacrament of servanthood?

Sadly, examples are all too easy to find -- such as the story that made the rounds a few years ago about a church edict forbidding women and children to participate in ceremonial foot washings on Maundy Thursday. It declared that the act of foot washing was symbolic of Jesus choosing an all male priesthood -- therefore the ceremony would consist of twelve men from any congregation -- no women and no children.

Can you imagine our Lord saying to his disciples gathered on the night before he was handed over to suffering and death: “A new commandment I give you: exclude women and children.” I can’t imagine that – instead I imagine Jesus hearing that story, shaking his head in discouragement and saying, “What part of love one another don’t you understand?”

The priesthood of all the faithful: that’s the calling we gather to celebrate when we share with each other the bread and wine made holy.

The priesthood of all the faithful -- ALL the beloved people of God: not just the ones with white plastic around their necks and seminary degrees hanging on their walls.

Can we – in this "out-of-the-ordinary" week – dare to claim that extraordinary calling? Can we – each and very one of us – believe that God will give us the grace to obey this New Commandment if we will but ask – if we will but follow the One who calls us to walk in love as He loved us and gave Himself for us.

As in that upper room you left your seat
and took a towel and chose a servant's part
so for today, Lord, wash again my feet
who in your mercy died to cleanse my heart.

So in remembrance of your life laid down
we come to praise you for your grace divine;
Saved by your cross, and subject to your crown,
strengthened for service by this bread and wine.

May the Lord who has given us the will to do these things, give us also the grace and power to accomplish them. Amen.


Donadl said...

Susan, thank you for a graceful piece and a clear call to faithfulness. Two related things come to mind

---one was a long ago relationship workshop at St. John the Divine in NYC. It included the editor of the co-habitation newsletter, Episcopal Marriage Encounter, some marriage counselors, clergy developing a process for pre-marital counseling, a group telling the story of their group marriage, and John Snow, professor of pastoral theology at EDS. 1975 it was. I don't remember that there were any speakers talking about same sex union at that gathering, but we were on our way to asking what makes a loving relationship and how the church stood vis a vis blessing what people were learning about love.

John was talking about sharing authority in equal partnership and said he worried about a strand of feminist rhetoric that called housework "shitwork." John said it was servanthood, the real foundation of relationship and that the problem wasn't that women were forced to do caring, support work in heterosexual marriage, but that we were having a very hard time learning to honor that work, share it equally and do it with love. I don't remember if he talked about the footwashing in John's Gospel.

--- the other is a deep discomfort with the theological judgment that's swirling around the consent process you name for Kevin Thew Forrester's election as bishop of Northern Michigan. What I'm noticing is that it's a lot of guys talking. They're talking about gnosticism and atonement, but they seem to lose sight of knowledge-in-relationship and God's work of drawing all to God's self in love. Is the upset about Kevin's theology or is it about Northern Michigan's process and ecclesiology that are so deeply committed to servanthood and mutuality in leadership? And the first place I heard that question was from a woman and the next from a gay man. What do we need to re-learn about power and serving one another? Who is going to teach it to us?

Donadl said...

Woops. I thought I'd signed my name to the the response above.

Donald Schell

Fr Craig said...

I can't stand the footwashing - not because I mind doing it, I don't. But it makes people so uncomfortable, isolates those who refuse to participate, and it's just sloppy. Bad liturgy. I agree with all the symbolism, and I don't mind making folks uncomfortable with preaching - I do it all the time. But something about that really bugs me. The parish where I have come recently has never done it, and that's fine with me. I will say this - willingness to serve = willingness to be served and that is probably what makes people uncomfortable. but I don't think that liturgy changes any hearts.

Donadl said...

Fr. Craig,

We started footwashing at the Maundy at St. Gregory's in 1980. In 1984, my son Peter, now a priest, was four years old. The morning after the Maundy liturgy he said, 'Jesus washed my feet last night.'

Our pattern was that all washed someone's feet and all had their own feet washed. We do it at a table Eucharist (using the Didache liturgy). There are a few people who do stay away. The parish announcements are clear about what's happening and people who have come to love the service encourage and orient newcomers.

Over the years some have found this liturgy the most powerful of the year.

What's intriguing to me about comfort level is that many people say it's harder to allow someone to serve them than to serve. Once the power differential that distinguishes those at table from the servants is gone, we want to choose active servanthood (can be another form of power) and stumble on our difficulty to welcoming grace. I think that your comment echoes this observation, and yes, of course, there are many other ways to find our way to joy of offering generous service and the patience required of us in receiving it when it feels genuinely personal.

Donald Schell

Christopher said...

Mthr. Russell,

You preached:

Imagine what the conservative bloggers of his day would have done to him -- and he would NEVER have obtained unanimous consents if he'd been elected as -- oh, let's just say the Bishop of Northern Michigan. No Siree Bob -- for the orthodites of the 21st century bear a remarkable resemblence to the orthodox of the 1st ... no coloring outside "their" lines allowed: no new commandments, revleations, understandings needed here -- thank you very much!

I think the issue of the bishop-elect of N MI redraws these tired lines. After all, Fr. Gunn, Fr. Haller, myself, and Lisa of "My Manner of Life" have theological concerns regarding the bishop-elect's christological thought in his preaching and liturgy composing as well as in his explanations. We're all gay or lesbian. Lumping all who have concerns on these core matters as "conservative" and "orthodite" masks how much more complex the world really is than that. And yes, coloring outside of Creedal christology is problematic in a bishop; charge me as orthodox and even orthodite if you must.

I want to know why this sort of jab was needed in a Maundy Thursday sermon; it smacks of the same hijacking of high holydays and seasons just as much as PB Jefferts-Shori's call for a "fast for lgbt persons" in the midst of Lent.

Further, Fr. Schell,

I frankly find it problematic to reduce persons to having a particular relational style or lack of christological concern based on affectional orientation or gender, or suggesting that because someone like Derek at "haligweorc" is about something other than servanthood and discipleship or that if someone has christological concerns, he or she must be out for power-over. That's reductionistic non-sense.

Moreover, I would say that a Nicene christology and trinitarianism has at it's roots a radical criticism of human misuses of power, indeed, is it's best criticism.


Christopher ...

Thanks for taking time to write. (FYI I don't "do" the Mthr thing, but thanks anyway!)

It doesn't have anything to do with being gay or lesbian. For me it has to do with being Anglican ... with being part of a particular part of the Body of Christ that has ... up until now ... been a bastion of diversity on everything from degree of protestant to percentage of catholicity ... with lots of divergent theological positions in the mix.

As for a "jab" ... sorry you experienced the contextual illustration that way but that's that's pretty much how I preach. In season and out of season. It's the old "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable" thing.

With all best wishes for a Joyous Easter,


PS -- Honest critique and respectful disagreement is one thing ... a thing I respect in Tobias' and Lisa's blogging. What I was talking about was the vicious attacks from the Orthodite wing of the blogosphere. So if the shoe doesn't fit, don't feel obliged to wear it.

MarkBrunson said...

Hello, Susan,

I wasn't sure how to e-mail you, so feel free to chuck this in the garbage rather than publishing on this unrelated thread.

A friend of mine sent me a link with an article I thought you might find both incensing and interesting - if a bit nauseating.

it's at the bottom of the post, the link being the headline and in larger type

Priscilla said...

Susan, thank you for this lovely sermon! It made me think of when I converted to Roman Catholicism many years ago (I joined TEC 12 years ago after leaving RC.)

As a new candidate for confirmation I was chosen by my priest for the very public foot washing ceremony on Maundy Thursday.

I was not yet a full member -- that would come later with my confirmation at Pentecost. I had a deep unease about letting the priest wash my feet, feeling unworthy and sinful, yet when he did I experienced a healing love that I had never known before and it changed me for the better and deepened my relationship with the priest and with the church as a whole. It also gave me a new way of looking at the world.

Your points about the conservative bloggers reaction was right on target -- I made a similar (but not nearly as eloquent, mine was sarcastic, LOL) comparison between the radical inclusion of Jesus and the kerfuffle over Rev. Forrester's consents in the comments over at Preludium. Two of the well-known conservative drive-by commenters completely missed the point and argued that Jesus was a special case, etc. What they ignored was the fact that Jesus was so radical and innovative they worked to have him killed.

Yesterday I read about an 11 year-old boy who hung himself in MA for being gay taunted and bullied at school. My heart broke and I couldn't help but think about Jesus welcoming him and washing his feet and soothing away the hurt this child felt inside.

May God bless you this Holy Week!

Donald Schell said...


I apologize that something in my comment seemed to "...reduce persons to having a particular relational style
or lack of christological concern based on affectional orientation or gender..." That was not my intention.

I don't mean to suggest that women or gay men have never participated in McCarthyism or witch-hunting, but would suggest it's more typically straight men who start us on that path. I speak as one myself. I've spent the better part of my adult life resisting a blood lust in argument that most of my women friends and gay friends don't fall to so quickly. Knowing that in myself is why I took a twenty-four hour break from participating in the Thew Forrester arguments at Episcopal Cafe.

So, I mean to be taken to account if I exclude myself from this. I was noticing that in our church's discussion of Kevin Thew Forrester's Christology WE had fallen to be prioritizing words and dismissing relationship. I can play that game as well as anyone, and I was angry at cavalier dismissal of good work by a theologian/liturgist who was struggling with real questions of apologetics and mission. My first queasy hint that I was playing the same game was how frustrated I felt at people for 'not listening' to my careful, well-reasoned responses to their arguments. The next hint was noticing people I disagreed with making that same complaint as they reiterated (more vehemently) points they'd already made. We weren't listening to one another or to the voice of the bishop-elect.

When additional witness came from Louis Weil and Rusty Kimsey, several anti-Thew Forrester voices said, in effect, "What do Louis Weil or Rusty Kimsey or Kevin's other friends and colleagues know? Don't pay attention to them, after all, they're FRIENDS of the bishop elect." That's when I knew I needed to step out of the conversation for some quiet and reflection.

In Christ these friends of the bishop elect are our friends too. Louis Weil is someone I knew well, love, and trust. And in our church we have known these two (and others who speak on KTF's behalf) to be faithful, leaders we have reason to trust and have trusted.

Does that mean we have to assent to whatever they say in support of the bishop-elect? No. That would simply substitutes one power move for another. We are having an appropriate inquiry and reflection. It's a new and intriguing bit of electronically-enabled ecclesial discernment. In that context these faithful witnesses offer us helpful ways to hear and understand our brother Kevin. Their voices invite us to move our questions from judgment toward graceful listening where questions are really questions and not rhetorical swords or scalpels.

But don't we care about theology? What about orthodoxy? And isn't Thew Forrester's emphasis on knowing who we are in God just 'gnosticism?'

Plato dismisses 'orthodoxy' as a very low kind of knowing; for him it's mere 'right opinion' (one meaning of the Greek compound word). Plato holds 'orthodoxy' as the knowing that doesn't know why it knows so is very open to error. Christian neo-Platonic theologians claim and rehabilitate that word by emphasizing a different aspect of Doxos - for the church that framed the Creed and shaped the ecumenical councils orthodoxy is right (true, rightly aligned) worship or praise. Christian orthodoxy transcends 'right opinion' because it's relational - the right relationship of a worshiping community and the right relationship to God in praise and prayer.

Appeal to relationship is at the core of Irenaeus' claim that the church has the true knowledge (gnosis) of God. Public teaching is available to all (free relationship) rather than a few (power-controlling, limited relationship). Irenaeus further legitimates the public teaching by his appeal to the most revered, loved names of his community, his own teachers - Polycarp, Papias, and John the Apostle. For Irenaeus Christian knowledge (gnosis) is held by ordinary people and comes to them through esteemed and beloved public teachers whose witness to the Resurrection the 'gnostics falsely so called' were quick to dismiss.

Argument that dismisses personal witness, argument that pushes hard fine points of what we 'know to be the faith' over listening to the heart and mind of someone speaking is the real gnosticism in this conversation. Knowledge that's Good News it is deeply personal. It's contextualized, local, pastoral, and missional. Free-standing theological facts (or beliefs or opinion) inevitably verge toward "gnosticism falsely so called." The false gnostic teachers were peddling free-standing esoteric knowledge as personal power.

Can we call our inquiry back from dissection of our brother Kevin's faith and teaching to 'speaking the truth in love?' Kevin Thew Forrester speaks movingly of his faith in Jesus and love for Jesus. Our inquiry needs first and last to hear that. Jesus' own voice in the Gospel of John makes joins all this together Our Truth (our Way, Our Life) promises that knowing the Truth will make us free. That's intellectually challenging. It sounds anarchic. It leaves us less room to judge and evaluate. It's easy to dissect words and harder to live into Truth which is personal, relational, and always loving.

And then, back to power. I do agree completely with this statement of yours, "...a Nicene christology and trinitarianism has at its roots a radical criticism of human misuses of power...' though I'd insist the best criticism of power isn't the Creed but our Lord Jesus.

However, knowing what we have done with the Creed and in the name of Nicene faith from the day the ink on it was dry I mistrust the claim, "I/we are only teaching the Creed," or "I/we are only defending Nicene Faith." I do mean 'what WE have done,' what our church has done (and does), our service to small 't' truth at the expense of ours and others' relationship with Jesus our Truth.

Again and again Christian history shows us imperial and episcopal authority using the Creed against theological discovery and against community practice of Godly prayer. Today we claim the councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon. Those who convened other councils, offered their anathemas, proclaimed other teaching, and fought those councils to the end, steadily claimed they were only defending the orthodoxy of Nicaea

Yes, the Nicene Creed is a narrative of God's power coming to serve, raising up the lowly, going to the darkest places in our lives, being present God-with-us, overturning oppression; the creed is a narrative of God's own self-emptying love for us. But the text of the Creed has been used again and again in cold and sometimes brutal power moves meant to stop conversation, protect those in power, and defend the status quo. "We're only defending the Creed," has been said by Christians, that is, by US, when we were - worst case - torturing and killing 'heretics' including some our church later came to honor as saints.

The Truth we serve is Love. He washes his followers feet. He speaks Truth to Pilate and when Pilate says, 'What is Truth' blinding himself to who stands before him, the Truth speaks no further words. All that remains is to stretch out his arms on the cross to draw all people to himself.

Knowledge as power and all sorts of other power moves show up when theological discourse tries to hold itself aloof from Love, when it values logic over listening, when it seizes on words and ideas and summarily dismisses the witness of trustworthy friends.

Donald Schell