Forgiveness & Freedom in Foot Washing

Sermon for Maundy Thursday, March 29, 2018 on John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Forgiveness and Freedom in Foot Washing

Foot washing—it’s a little uncomfortable, isn’t it? I’ve only done foot washing once or twice in my many years of serving congregations for this reason. We feel too exposed, it’s too intimate—we don’t want anyone seeing our feet up close and certainly not touching them.

If we had a third Sacrament, most of us think it would be coffee and donuts, but many scholars and church leaders in our tradition say that it would actually be foot-washing. We could have a baptistmal font there and foot washing fountain over here. (Whew! Good thing that didn’t happen!).

But why foot washing? This was an essential practice in the Middle East because walking was the primary mode of transportation. The roads weren’t paved and the only shoes were sandals, so the moment you walked out the door, your feet were getting dirty from the arid, dusty ground. Foot washing was an essential act of hospitality--any time a guest arrived at the house, it was the job of the slave or servant to wash the feet of the guests. If the household had no slaves or servants, it fell (of course) to the woman of the household.

So you see why Peter protests when Jesus kneels down to wash his feet—Jesus is assuming the position of a slave—the very bottom rung of the social and economic ladder. They had just called Jesus Lord and Teacher who can heal and calm storms--and a man to boot—Jesus didn’t belong on the floor doing a slave’s or a woman’s work.

Jesus says Peter, the disciples and us—must be willing to receive Jesus’ hospitality and service in order to be a part of him. That’s why it’s uncomfortable—it not only takes humility for Jesus to kneel on the floor and wash feet, but it also takes humility and vulnerability to receive it, especially for us, since we don’t need to wash people’s visit when they visit our house. We take their coat, offer them a seat and give them something to drink—no feet are involved unless we ask them leave their shoes at the door.

And foot-washing the way Jesus does it requires even more from us—it’s actually harder than we thought. Are you ready?

You’ll notice that our passage is missing some verses, and those verses are the ones that tell us what Jesus really means. Jesus foretells that one of them will betray him. He takes a piece of bread and hands it to Judas Iscariot, saying “Do quickly what you are going to do.”

The passage says that Satan entered Judas and he left them and went out into the night. This is the dramatic moment of the passage because the night symbolizes that Judas has gone to the dark side (for you Star Wars fans). Not only that, Peter is beside Jesus and will deny him; the rest of the disciples sharing the meal with Jesus will abandon him. The only exception is that in the Gospel of John, John stands with Jesus’ mother Mary at the cross.

Nearly every last one of them will fail Jesus in some way. So it is in this setting of serving those who will betray, deny abandon him that Jesus gives them a new commandment: "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

Jesus isn’t saying love your family, love those who are good to you, love those who love you back--all of which are good things to do. Jesus is saying—kneel on the floor and wash the feet of your enemy—the one who has betrayed you; serve the one has denied you; love the one who has abandoned you. We have heard this in Matthew in the Sermon on the Mount, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."

That’s easier to do when they’re far away—enemies in another country over there somewhere. But here Jesus says, show hospitality to and serve those who have betrayed you, denied you, abandoned you; wash their feet, show that kind of love. That’s how others will know that you follow me—because you love and serve those who have hurt you.

Perhaps you, like me, have a had a relationship where you felt hurt, abandoned or betrayed. It’s hard to let go of that kind of pain and the anger. One such person came up in my prayers this week—the Spirit showed me that I was still hanging on to some of the hurt.

The painful truth is, I’m not sure I’m ready to wash this person’s feet, but the miracle of God’s love is that Jesus still washes mine—Jesus loves me and serves me and forgives me—even though I don’t deserve it. And because Jesus loves and forgives me today for hanging on to resentment, I know that through the power of his Spirit working in me, I can forgive this person, and finally let go of those remnants of pain.

Jesus kneels in front of all us tonight, ready to wash us clean of sin and doubt and hurt and resentment and unforgiveness. Through his power working in us, we can be healed and even love and pray for those who have hurt us. If there's someone in your life that you are struggling to forgive, then I encourage you to start praying for that person every day, so through Jesus' love and power, you can be set free from anger and resentment. That’s the hard, soul-work of following Jesus—opening ourselves to being transformed by his love, to love, as he loves.

Yesterday I had lunch with the pastors in this northern are conference of our Synod. One of the pastors told us about giving the children’s sermon in the preschool this week. He had a picture of Jesus doing the foot washing and asked the children who were those people with Jesus. One little kid couldn’t say the word, “disciples”, so he said, “the di-bibles.”

Perhaps that’s a better pronunciation of the word! I can’t remember who said it, but I love the saying, "Your life may be the only Bible some people ever read." We’re not just disciples, we’re "di-bibles"—the only bible some people may ever read. "By this everyone will know that you are my 'di-bibles,' if you have love for one another." When through Christ, we can forgive, and even enter the freedom of serving our enemies, that's a life--that's a bible--that shows forth Jesus.



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The Passion of God's Love: A Palm Sunday Reflection

The Passion of Gods LovePalm/Passion Sunday Sermon after the congregational reading of Mark 14:1-15:47 on Sunday, March 25, 2018 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

It’s difficult to say, isn’t it? Crucify him! Crucify him! From the distance of 2000 years, it’s easy to convince ourselves that had we been there at that moment in history, we would not have felt it or said it. It’s easy to imagine that we would not have betrayed Jesus like Judas, denied him like Peter, and run away like the other disciples. It’s easy to believe that we really would have stood with Mary and the other women, as Jesus suffered and bled and died.

But saying those words, Crucify him! Crucify him!—pops the bubble of our idyllic picture and our self-deception. Crucify him. Crucify him. When we say those words out loud, ourselves, we have to admit that we do not want a God who dies. We do not like a vulnerable, seemingly weak God who will not fight back, who will not upend evil and oppression, who will not use the power he possesses to get the bad guys.

Because we love superheros who fight back—whatever your flavor of vanquishing hero—The Jedi, Guardians of the Galaxy, Batman, Wonder-woman, The Flash, Super-Girl, Spider-Man, Thor, Black Panther, DareDevil, Iron Fist, Jessica Jones, DC or Marvel. The most popular movies and Netflix addictions (including my own—I’ve seen them all) are of superheroes crushing the enemy—and it feels so good when those enemies are finally beaten and victory reigns.

But that is not our God. That is not this Jesus. We crucify him too, because he does not behave like the superhero-God we crave. Why does he just take it and not fight back? Do a miracle or something, Jesus—anything to show the Romans, the religious leaders, and the people that you hold the power of God!

But he doesn’t. Instead, Jesus just takes it—he absorbs into his body and into his being, the worst humanity can do. Bullying, torture, mockery, abandonment, suffering, death. It’s as if his life has come full circle—Jesus was born among the beasts of the stable to now take on that which is most beastly, most vile, most broken in us.

Instead of fighting back, Jesus returns violence—not with violence—but with love—a love that absorbs the worst of who we are, widening his arms as if to embrace us in love, as he dies. God’s ways are not our ways. Love is what God does because Love is who God is. And violence is not the pathway of love. God will not assert power over and against us by force because that is not love.

Even when we try to kill God, God loves the worst of who we are, to show us the best of who God is—love, a love that is much greater than even death itself. On the cross, we behold a God who created us out of love, for love, to live and die in love, and to return to love. Ramon Llull, a 13th century Spanish mystic wrote this dialog on God’s love:

They asked the Lover where he was from. He replied, 'from love.' 
What are you made of? 'Love.' 
Who conceived you? 'Love.' 
Where were you born? 'In love.' 
Who raised you? 'Love.'
What do you live on? 'Love.' 
What is your name? 'Love.' 
Where do you come from? 'Love.' 
Where are you going? 'To love.'
Where are you? 'In love.' 
Do you have anything besides love?
He replied, 'Yes, sins and offenses against my Beloved.'
Does your beloved pardon you?
The lover said there was mercy and justice in his Beloved, so he found shelter between fear and hope [in love]. 

We may have shouted, Crucify him—but Jesus responds with a love stronger than violence and hate. Jesus responds with a love stronger than death. So bring the worst, and the best, and all of who you are, and come to the table of love, Holy Communion. This table of forgiveness was set by love, in love, for love, for you, for-ever.

Receive the greatest power in the universe—God’s love—trusting that Jesus is the only superhero we need.




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Lent: Let Go and Let God

Lent Let Go and Let GodA Sermon preached for Lent 5 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas on John 12:20-33.

It was 1988. My husband, Dan, and I became good friends when we met in seminary because we were otherwise involved in or recovering from other relationships. About a year later, we were both free to date, but still only good friends. I would drop subtle hints to get him to ask me out. Things like, “Dan, we should go on a date” or the even more subtle, “Dan, I think we should get married.” He would laugh and say, “oh, no, we’re too much alike, it would never work.”

Well, he was not picking up what I was putting, so after a while, I thought I’d better accept that I was going to be single for the rest of my life. I was about to become ordained and move to my first church in Detroit, MI. I’d seen the statistics about how a woman’s chance of marrying dropped like a rock after they become a pastor.

So I prayed, “Well, God, it’s just going to be you and me in urban ministry, and it’s going to be ok. I’m going to trust that you’ll be with me and give me what I need to follow this call.” I had a sense of peace.

About 2 weeks later, guess what happened? Dan called and, as if it was his idea, asked me out on a real date. The rest, as they say, is history.

In 2008, I sent my book, Motherhood Calling: Experiencing God in Everyday Family Life to several publishers. I wanted that sense of accomplishment and recognition; my ego was invested in it because I wanted to “prove” that I was a worthy writer, a good Mom and pastor. All I got were rejection letters, or no response at all.

My Mom died in 2012 and one afternoon a few years ago, I was standing in my kitchen missing her terribly. I got down the cookbook that she put together late in her life, which includes her best recipes, as well as family pictures and poems that she wrote. I hugged the cookbook to my chest and thought, “I’m so grateful she spent the time putting this together, because cooking from it is so comforting to me now that she’s gone.”

It was like scales falling from eyes, when I realized that’s the only reason to try and publish my book, so my kids have these stories when I’m gone. Who cares if anyone else reads or even likes it?

Guess what happened? 8 years after my first attempt, my book was published.

Are you noticing a pattern here? New life comes once we die to our ego, let go of control, and stop trying harder to force the outcomes we want—BUT!—we resist this process mightily.

Our need for control, for programs, projects, plans and preferred outcomes layered with our American flair for rugged individualism makes it hard for us to die to self. We like to hang on to control, fighting for our own goals rather than seeing if perhaps God has another path or different timing for us.

Then we are bombarded with cultural messages like, “winners never quit” and “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” and “never, ever, give up” as if we could master all of life alone. What’s worse is that our culture conflates these messages with our Christian faith, thinking that this is what the Bible says—as in, “God helps those who help themselves.” I like to tell people that passage is found in the book of First Hesitations. People are surprised that its not in the Bible; it’s a motto popularized by Benjamin Franklin in his Poor Richard’s Almanac, written in 1733.

Our Gospel lesson makes clear that God’s way of operating is quite different from these popular mottos. Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit…Jesus adds, Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—'Father, save me from this hour?’ No it if for this reason that I have come to this hour.

With his very life, Jesus models for us what it means to let go, to die to self, to release our preferred outcomes, and submit our self and our life to God’s will and purpose. Jesus let go of his preferred outcome and followed through with his suffering unto death, even death on a cross.

In so doing, Jesus shows us that the only way to handle the troubles in our soul and dying to self is through prayer; he prays, Father, glorify your name. Jesus knows in his very being that he is not facing death or suffering alone—God, the Creator is with him in every breath, in every cell, in every thought, and in every second of his existence, and he confirms this through his on-going conversation of prayer with the Father.

Our second reading from Hebrews, verse 7 says this beautifully, In the days of his flesh—that is when he was human—Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death.

Jesus demonstrates that the troubles of our soul need to usher us into prayer—into conversation with God—so that God can grant us the peace and strength we need to let go, to die to self and to follow Jesus in giving our life to God’s purpose, and bearing the fruit of kingdom. We don’t do this alone as rugged individualists—we do this together—with and for each other in Christian community.

So the question for us today, for this week, for Holy Week, is, where in your life do you need to let go and let God?

Whatever it is you are tightly clinging to, whatever it is you are resisting, that is where God has been nudging you to let go—that is where God is calling you to pray and have a conversation about why it’s hard for you to die to your ego in that situation.

Maybe you are getting up in years, (you’re chronologically gifted!) and your adult children or friends are encouraging you to move to safer, more appropriate residence. Maybe your family life has become so over-scheduled and stressful, and you’re resisting the conversation of what needs to come off the calendar, so you can have more balance and time together. Maybe your body is trying to tell you not to push so hard, but you keep trying to ignore it and muscle through.

We resist because we have to let go before we see what comes next, before we know what will happen, before we see what God is up to. I had to accept being single and trust God to take care of me before I was ready for marriage. I had to tame my ego be okay with just plain old Linda before God could bring me a book (you'll notice it took eight years!), so it could be a tool for God’s love and purpose, not mine.

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

Letting go of ego needs and expectations, agendas and control, always precedes receiving something new; that is the paschal mystery—death always precedes resurrection and God is in all of it. That’s the hard part for us—to trust that God is with us even in loss and death—the small deaths we have as we grow older, and the big death at the end of our life.

But you’ll notice that God doesn’t leave Jesus hanging out there alone in our Gospel reading. God confirms Jesus’ prayer and their unity with one another in a voice from heaven that everyone around them can hear—I have glorified my name, and I will glorify it again. In John’s Gospel, this glory is the LOVE that they share in this intimate relationship, in this close, moment by moment conversation through prayer. We could read, “I have love you and I will love you again”—and not just in name—"name" means the whole being of Jesus as the embodiment of God’s love.

God speaks aloud for OUR sake—so that we know that God is in this with and for Jesus—and not only him; God speaks aloud so that we know that God is in this life with and for US.
Jesus didn’t die into nothingness—he died into God’s love and intimate presence and was raised to new life—a resurrection his followers couldn’t fathom or imagine!

When through prayer, we release control, we fall into God’s love and presence trusting that God will raise us to new life. When we let go, God can bring us something we cannot fathom or imagine. Then we can bear the beautiful fruit of God’s love and intimate presence in our daily lives.

Image: from Fr. Andrew Ricci blog


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Seeker-Worthy Worship Welcome

Seeker Worthy Worship WelcomeI have worshipped at seven different congregations since arriving in Texas and it’s been an interesting education on how well we welcome visitors. One congregation did a particularly great job, so I would like to share what worked as a visitor attending church alone.

  • The congregation's website had an “I’m New!” button at the top. In addition to a map with directions, they also listed what to expect, how to dress, programs for children, and so on. They also posted their worship time and address on the first page, so I could easily find it. Congregations that did not design their website for visitors were also not very friendly in person.
  • The most visitor-friendly congregation had clearly marked, visible signs for me to find the sanctuary, the restrooms and the welcome desk once I got inside. Greeters were friendly and seeking me out, rather than chatting with their friends.
  • Worship was about an hour with an engaging sermon. Relevant images on the video screens were used to enhance the sermon; the pastor also used a movie clip in the sermon to help us experience the good news of God’s love rather than just hear it.
  • Brief instructions for Holy Communion were given with visitors in mind, so I knew exactly what to do.
  • Church announcements for "insiders" were kept to a minimum and instead, they relied on two colorful, well-designed announcement pages in the bulletin.
  • Church members sitting near me and in the foyer after worship were friendly and engaging (at over half the congregations, no one spoke to me before or after the service if I did not initiate the conversation).
  • In the parking lot, there was a traffic guide pointing the best way to leave.
  • The week following my visit, I received two emails—one from the pastor and one from the outreach coordinator—thanking me for attending with an offer to receive more information.

Here are the only two suggestions I would make to this most visitor-friendly congregation: designate parking spaces for visitors, and add greeters in the parking lot and at the entrance to the church building so all worshippers are welcomed early and often, including directions for visitors.

How does your congregation fair on these points of a seeker-friendly worship experience: website welcome, signs in the building, easy Communion (or other) worship directions, minimum time spent on insider announcements, friendly members who talk with visitors, engaging sermon with effective use of media, traffic assistance, follow-up emails, visitor parking spaces, and multiple teams of greeters? These practices can help shed the "insider-outsider" vibe we unconsciously emit when we've been a part of a community for a long time. Your congregation could send out your outreach and worship teams in pairs to visit other congregations; encourage them to notice what helps welcome first-time visitors and what does not. This may add new energy and insight on how to become even more seeker-friendly than you are right now!

Image: Calvary United Methodist Church, Ambler, PA (click the link to read their awesome new visitor page on their website!)

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Linda Anderson-Little

Quotation of the Week

The church does not have a mission in the world, God's mission has a church in the world.