Friday, April 18, 2014

Good Friday . . .

     I suppose it is only natural, since we have been looking at the spiritual disciplines, that I have viewed this season of Lent in light of those which we have been studying.  I know last night’s reminder that the towel is the symbol of the second Great Commandment touched, but it really came out of our discussions of Service and Submission.  My thoughts on this day, this Good Friday, probably arise from our discussions of Meditation, Prayer, and Solitude.  I say that as I have been considering how important the liturgy is in the life of the Church.  More often than not, we pay attention to the pretty colors.  Is today a red today?  Is today a green day?  Wait, why is everything white today?  We certainly pay attention to Lent because we lose our alleluias for a time.  Today, however, is unique in the life of the Church.  Today is a day in which the Church is called to remember the shocked silence of almost two thousand years ago.
     Seemingly near instantaneously, and certainly overnight, our Lord’s disciples went from a happy time, the celebration of the Feast of Passover, to utter dismay and sorrow.  In one moment they were eating with Jesus and reminding themselves of God’s promises; in the next, He was mocked, crucified, dead, and buried.  Perhaps even more sobering, their Lord had been betrayed by their own.  Judas, one of them, had arranged to hand Jesus over to the authorities.  The Sanhedrin and priests, the very representatives of Yahweh on earth, manipulated the system and rules to have Jesus killed--whose miracles testified to all that He was beloved by God!  Lastly, Pilate had sentenced Jesus to death, even though he understood that Jesus had done nothing wrong.  The disciples had been betrayed by a friend, by the religious authorities, and by the political authority.  No doubt they each felt betrayed by God.  After all, could not the God who empowered Jesus to bring Lazarus back to life or the blind man to see have put an end to all this?  But He had chosen not to act, and Jesus paid for all this duplicity, all this failure, with His life.
     It is a challenging effort to contemplate the deeds of this day.  How could God have loved me that much?  How could God sit and watch His beloved Son go through all this?  Was their really no other way?  Like many of those who came before us, you and I have far too many idols in our lives.  Whether we serve them or not, there are simply too many that they could ever be avoided.  The message of the culture has always been, “We got this.”  I think in the Midwest, it is even more prevalent.  Stop and listen to the narratives around you.
     How many of us know people panicking over the economy?  The old message used to be, “work hard, earn a secure retirement, and enjoy the golden years.”  Know anybody fretting about their inability to retire?  Know anybody who has given up on their ability to enjoy their golden years?  Know anybody who can’t get a job in order to start worrying about retirement?
     How many of us are worried about medical care?  Disease rightly frightened us, as it often reminded us of our frailty and even death.  Nowadays, though, most are concerned with cost.  There are people in this neighborhood, heck, even in this congregation, who sometimes have to choose between medicine and food or medicine.  Years ago, people worried whether they could survive an exotic illness.  Nowadays, people worry if they can afford the cure.
     Discussions of disease and death naturally lead to a consideration of pain.  There is so much in the world that can cause pain.  Illnesses can certainly hurt us, but many of us know other pains.  Many of us have relationships which hurt us.  Some of us have esteem issues which cause us to see ourselves as insufficient to the task, whatever the task may be.  Naturally, we seek something for the pain.  How many of us know people who turn to alcohol or drugs to dampen the pain?  How many of us turn to them for our own?  Perhaps we know people who seek their value in the arms of temporary lovers?  
     At least we don’t have to worry about wars, right?  Seriously, though, think how war weighs on those in our lives.  We have several of our parish “kids,” now all grown up, who have had to experience war first hand.  They have been asked to serve in conflict.  And, although we have been fortunate that none of our own have been wounded our killed, what damage has been done?  A quick peek at the world’s stage ought to cause us some concern.  Whether one is worried about the Middle East or the designs of Russia or China or bemused by North Korea, we cannot but help feel anxious about the outlook for peace.
     This list could go on and on and on.  Each of us has a number of fears and worries.  Unfortunately, many of us have short memories.  Like the psalmist today, we need to be reminded that God wins.  He always wins.  Though we remember our Lord’s crucifixion and death this day, we do so cognizant that the Easter dawn is not that far off.  Unlike those who lived this day, and the darkness that accompanied it, you and know the ray of hope that will be bursting forth.
     But today, this day we call Good Friday, you and I are called to ponder the significance of the silence.  Like our brothers and sisters a couple thousand years ago, we may be convinced that God has failed.  When we are faced with financial insecurity, disease, broken relationships, and any number of hardships combined together, it is easy to feel overwhelmed, easy to feel insignificant.  We can understand all to well the feelings and deep pain of those disciples who fled from our Lord at the time of His trial, who denied Him when the world’s examination hit too close to home, and who could only stand and watch as He was mocked, scourged, and killed.  That is why Good Friday is so important in our liturgical life together.  This day, you and I are called to ponder the amazing love of God.  We are called to deafen our ears to the noise and subterfuge and  temptations of the world.  We are called to consider anew the wondrous love of God which would cause Him to suffer this indignity, this injustice on our behalf.  We are called, each and every time we remember this day, to pause, to remind ourselves that this day is unlike any day that ever came before.  Even at the darkest time in history, God was not powerless.  Even at the time it appeared His enemies had finally won, God was still able to work His redemptive plan.  The same old, same old no longer holds true.  Even in the face of such a tragic death, our Lord is in the process of bringing all things to their perfect end, just as He is about bringing us to His perfection as well!


Thursday, April 17, 2014

The sign of the Towel . . .

     We had a wonderful discussion about this scene a couple weeks ago during Wednesday evening study.  We were chatting about the discipline of submission and how the practice of the discipline frees us from any numbers of fears or idols.  Chiefly, submission teaches us that we do not need to get our own way.  We can rest in the arms of God confident that when things seem not to be going our way, He still is in control.  But submission also helps us deal with the fear that motivates us to try and take charge of everything, to do things our way.  Who’s afraid, you might be asking.  All of us.  But what we fear is perhaps not what we think we fear.
     As the disciples have been on this journey with Jesus, one of their consuming discussions has been questions of power.  Lord, when you come into your glory, permit us to sit at Your hand, one on your right and one on Your left.  At times, they even argued over their own hierarchy.  Jesus repeatedly taught them that the kingdom which He was ushering in was turning all understandings of power and authority on their ears.  To be greatest in the Kingdom of heaven is to be the servant of all.  One of the problems with pride, brothers and sisters, is that it enslaves us to a terrible fear.  Nobody wants to be least.  Think of your time in gym class.  Were you as concerned about being picked first, or were you more concerned about not being picked last?  We you more concerned about getting a date to prom or Homecoming with Mr. or Miss Popular, or were you more afraid of being stuck alone?  Or worse, going with the nerdy, comely next door neighbor?  Even as adults, we still understand that visceral fear.  Ever been through a company merger or takeover and had to worry whether you were expendable or redundant?  You are not alone.  Better still, our Lord understands that fear.
     Ever noticed one of the small, weird details in this story?  It was the custom in the ANE that if you hosted a party, you provided foot cleaning.  Part of it was, no doubt, for your own house cleanliness.  After all, who wants a ton of dirt or other stuff being tracked into one’s home?  More importantly, though, it was for the purposes of hospitality.  In the ANE, people mostly walked to and from their destinations.  And, even if one was wealthy enough to own a horse or traveling over roads smooth enough for carts, one still arrived at the destination dusty, particularly one’s feet.  Now, on these roads were animals, mostly beasts of burden.  We live in the Midwest, so we might understand how well trained the animals were when it came to bathroom breaks.  Yes, what caked travelers’ feet was not just mud!  So, one lucky slave or servant was assigned the task of washing peoples’ feet upon their arrival.  If it was a big party, more than one might be assigned.  Hopefully, you get the idea.
     Flash forward to our scene for Maundy Thursday.  The disciples are celebrating the Passover Meal with their Rabbi, the one they believe to be the Christ.  By the time we get to the foot washing part of story, how far are they into the meal?  Imagine, if you will, not washing up for Christmas or Easter dinner before coming to the table.  That is what has happened here.  During the biggest meal of the year, nobody washed the feet of those in attendance.  Consider that for a moment in light of Jesus’ instruction to His disciples regarding favoritism and power and authority.  Of that motley group of fishermen and tax collectors and whatever other jobs they held, who was willing to serve as a slave to his or her brothers and sisters and wash the road dust off their feet?  
     I know we like to think of those early Apostles and disciples as Saints, and they rightly are.  But they are not yet in His story.  Like us, they struggle with what they see, what they hear, and what they have been taught.  What the world claims, sometimes, seems to be in conflict with Yahweh revealed.  And it does not help that those who represent Yahweh get so far off His message.  These same disciples who argued over where they were to sit or who was to lord over each other still do not understand Jesus’ teaching and still do not recognize the path to greatness in the Kingdom.  The author of this account of the narrative points out that Peter had to ask him to find out who the traitor was!  Nobody wants to be the slave that washes feet, so nobody gets their feet cleaned for the Passover Meal.  Nobody wants to be the least!  Nobody wants to be the last!
     Then, we are told, He rose, took off His out garment, and wrapped a towel around Himself and began to wash their feet!  Think of that act for just a second.  We so often spend time fixated on the Cross.  Rightly so, we equate the cross as a sign of our salvation.  Most of us are humbled by the thought that someone would love us enough that they would die for us, let alone God.  Yet, that is the message of the Cross.
     But what of the message of the Towel?  Jesus was so immersed into the lives of His disciples that he was willing to humble Himself and wash the mud and dirt and other wonderful items off their stinky feet!  He who was and is and will be God condescended to wash the feet of those whom He created!  Have you ever heard anything so scandalous?  Have you ever heard anything so absurd?  For those of you who have a hard time coming to me in this service to have your foot washed, I can only imagine how hard it would be for you to come to Jesus.
     Wait!  I don’t have to imagine.  There is one like you!  Peter says to Jesus that He will never wash his feet.  Jesus tells Peter that unless He washes him, Peter will have no part in Him.  He understands and tells Peter and the others that they will not understand the events of the night right away.  And Peter gives in and asks His Lord to wash ever part of Him.  It is an amazing gift of Jesus.  He has freed all those who follow Him from worrying about being least.  He has freed all who follow Him from the dog eat dog worries of corporate life.  He has free all those who follow Him from caring whether they are picked last for kickball or some other contest.  He has freed all who follow Him from the need for pride, from the need for power, from the need for authority.  All those who follow Him learn from this example that such concerns are immaterial to Him.  He loved each one of us enough to die for us; He loved each one of us enough to wash the grime from our feet!
     As I said a moment ago, we talk long and hard about the Cross being a sign of God’s love of us.  We would do well, I think, to ponder the Towel as a sign of God’s love of all those around us.  Better still, we would do well to ponder this amazing event and its results.  By virtue of our baptism into His death, you and I have died to ourselves.  By virtue of His rising again, we have been baptized into the Resurrection.  By virtue of His gift of the Spirit, we have been called forth as ambassadors!  When we see or hear a need, we are called to remember the Towel.  We are called to remember that the One whom we are called to represent got down on His knees and washed the feet of those who dined with Him.  Can we do less than emulate His behavior, if we truly intend to glorify Him in our lives?
     Brothers and sisters, like those who came before us, you have heard the same teachings of Jesus.  You shall have no other God but the Lord.  And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments hang all the torah and the prophets.  Just as we are called to contemplate the Cross as a sign of His willingness and love to save each one of us, each of us is called to remember the Towel as the sign of that love for those in the world around us.  He has called you into a glorious inheritance!  He has promised you a double portion of the firstborn!  How can you truly honor such a gift of grace without picking up that cross and towel and following Him?
     Like those in our narrative tonight, we do not truly understand what He has done for us.  Oh, unlike them, we know that He will die and be raised again as the first fruits of the Resurrection, but we really cannot understand what comes next.  All we can do is look and marvel at what happened to those men and women in tonight’s story.  Those who were arguing over position and power were amazingly transformed by their experience of the Risen Christ.  Some of those who fled later became martyrs; those who denied later became amazing witnesses; even those who doubted became certain!  And none, none worried about power and authority and ranking after that experience because they then understood however haltingly, however incompletely, the joy to which He called them.  May those in our lives, by our wielding of the Towel, recognize that same transformation in us and feel called to share in this wonderful inheritance!