Sunday, April 26, 2015

Sermon for the 4th Sunday of Easter: 26 April 2015

Sermon for Sunday, 26 April 2015
4th Sunday of Easter


The Rev. Carrie B. Smith


Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd.” I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to proclaim Jesus as our Good Shepherd in a time when the sheep are facing persecution and violence in Libya, Egypt, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya, Iraq, and Syria (among other places). I’ve been wondering how we hear “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want” when Arab Christian members of the flock face economic and political threats right here in the land of the resurrection. It seems every day we hear reports of a wolf just outside the gate, sometimes holding a sword to our heads, and other times holding a pen to paper, drafting unjust or racist policies that cause the flock to suffer.

And how do we even process the tragedy unfolding in Kathmandu?

These are trying times. In difficult times like this, I often look to Psalm 23 for comfort:
“Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me."

But I admit that I also understand the perspective of my Facebook friend—a Palestinian Christian—when he recently suggested:

“You should phrase it “though I walk through the valley of death I shall fear no evil, because I am the meanest SOB in the valley”. That's when you get respect!”

The Lord is our shepherd, and we are his flock, but when the wolves are circling the gate, the truth is we can start to act very un-sheep-like. When we feel threatened, our human instinct usually isn’t to trust in the shepherd and take shelter with him. Our human nature tells us to show that wolf that we aren’t sheep—we’re bigger and badder wolves. We will huff and we’ll puff and we’ll blow the house down before we stop to listen to the voice of the one who says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

Sisters and brothers, whether we are feeling like good and obedient sheep or wolf wannabes, on this fourth Sunday of Easter it’s difficult to miss the Good News in the familiar Gospel text we just heard: Jesus, crucified and risen, is our Good Shepherd, and in his love we are secure. Safe within the sheepfold, nothing can threaten the gift of forgiveness, grace, and eternal life we have in him: no wolf, no sword, no power or principality, no terrorist threat or extremist rhetoric. No earthquake. No avalanche. No, not even death itself can separate us from the love of God we have in our Good Shepherd, Christ Jesus, who has laid down his life for the sheep.

Alleluia, Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Thanks be to God, we have heard the Good News again that Jesus is our Good Shepherd. But it’s also true that we hear this Good News two days after the centennial commemoration of the genocide of 1.5 million Armenian Christians. We hear this Good News one day after the memorial service here in Jerusalem for thirty Ethiopian Christians murdered in Libya. We hear the Good News of Jesus, our Good Shepherd, in the context of a political situation causing Christians to suffer hardships even in the land of Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection.  

In light of this reality facing the sheep of the flock, we may hear today’s Gospel text not as Good News but as a call to bare our teeth, to bear arms, to build up fences or walls, and to fight off the wolves ourselves. Instead of tuning in to the voice of our Good Shepherd who says “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” and “I know my own and my own know me”, we are distracted. Instead of resting in the sure and constant care of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, we rest in our own thoughts, Photo-shopping faces on the wolf. He only gets a brief mention in this Gospel passage, but in our imaginations, he becomes bigger than life, bearing the face of ISIS, or the xenophobes in South Africa, or Israeli lawmakers, or whoever else we see as being diametrically opposed to peace, to justice, to freedom, to the safety of the flock. Confident that we’ve identified the wolf, the threat, the “Other”, we roll up our sleeves for a fight and say, “The Lord is my shepherd—and you certainly are not.”

But hear again the words of this almost too-familiar Gospel text:

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.”

Notice how the focus of this passage is not the Good Shepherd vs the Big Bad Wolf, but rather the Good Shepherd vs the Hired Hand.

In other words, when Jesus tells us “I am the Good Shepherd”, he’s not differentiating himself from the wolf (as if we couldn’t already see the difference!) Rather, Jesus wants us to be clear that he is not the Hired Hand.

Yes, there are wolves in our midst. Yes, there is evil and there is hatred, there is racism and Christian persecution and Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, and the violence and suffering of the world are often just too much to bear. The powers and principalities that oppose the Gospel are always lurking nearby, hoping to claim a foothold in the pasture.

But when Jesus says “I am the Good Shepherd” he isn’t warning us about the wolf, but rather about putting our trust in people and powers which promise things they cannot deliver.

“The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.”
Who is this hired hand? The hired hand is whoever and whatever we think provides us security in this life, but cannot be trusted with the job. The hired hand promises life abundant, but runs off when the going gets tough, leaving us defenseless. The hired hand can be a person, but it can also be our own talents and skills, our money, or our home, or our power and popularity.

The hired hand can be our unquestioning confidence in a political party, or in our own intelligence, or in our institutions.

The hired hand can be our guns. Or our fighter jets.

Or a wall topped with razor wire.

We sheep have many ideas of what will provide us security in this world (and the next) and we have tried them all.

But if there is any Good News for us in the midst of genocide, persecution, occupation, and even natural disaster, it is that we need not seek security in a hired hand. 

Our security is in our Lord Jesus Christ, the shepherd of the sheep.

We are secure in the Good News that Jesus laid down his life for the sheep.

We are secure in the Good News that Jesus is risen, and has defeated the power of death once and for all.

We are secure in the Way of Jesus and in the footsteps of the saints and martyrs who have gone before us, showing us the power of loving our neighbors, the power of praying for our enemies, the power of reconciliation over retribution, and the power of forgiveness over firepower.

Dear sisters and brothers, fellow sheep of the fold, we know that power over others is never the witness of the cross, and revenge is never the witness of the empty tomb.

Building higher walls and strengthening battle forces and being armed for the inevitable is never the witness of the Good Shepherd.

For Jesus said, “I am the Good Shepherd. I lay down my life for the sheep.”
Our Lord Jesus, the Good Shepherd, has already fought the good fight for us, and won. He has already prepared a place for us in the Father’s house. Therefore, no matter what we face in this life—whether we face a sword like the thirty Ethiopian Christians did in Libya this week, or the devastating loss of life and homes as our Nepalese neighbors are even now—we remain safe and secure in the love of God in Christ Jesus.

So when we stand against the forces of hate, extremism, racism, violence, and exclusion, we do it as sheep of his fold. We do it as ones who know his voice. We do it as witnesses of Our Lord’s self-emptying love for the Other.
Michael Patrick, Child of God

This morning we were witnesses to the baptism of little Michael Patrick. Through water and the word, Michael Patrick was washed clean and made a member of the flock that is the Body of Christ in the world. Given the situation for Christians today, this little bit of water might seem to the world to be a weak defense against the powers of terror and violence and persecution. A little water and the words of Jesus might seem to provide very little security in a world where guns and bombs and the sword seem to have the last word.

We don’t know what life will bring for Michael. But we know that it is exactly in his baptism where Michael is the most secure. We know that it is through Water and the Word that Michael finds life, hope, and his true identity—not as baby brother or third child or precious grandchild, but as a sheep of the fold.

And although he didn’t come to the waters himself, we trust that Michael, as he is raised within the community of faith, will learn to recognize the voice of the shepherd. He will hear the stories of God’s love and faithfulness. He will sing songs of praise for creation and salvation. He will be fed and nourished by the Body and the Blood.

And therefore Michael, Child of God, beloved sheep, will know the voice of the Good Shepherd never sounds like the beat of the battle drum.

He will know the voice of the Good Shepherd never excludes or divides, but always draws in the lost sheep and those who do not belong to this fold.

He will know the voice of the Good Shepherd speaks freedom, and liberation, and love of neighbor, and respect for creation.

Thanks be to God (and thanks to his parents and our Sunday School teachers and the whole community of faith) Michael will know the Good Shepherd has laid down his life – not only for him, but for the entire world.

Say it with me:
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me.  You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.  Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long. 

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Sermon for 3rd Sunday of Easter: 19 April 2015

Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Easter
19 April 2015


The Rev. Carrie Smith


+++

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
 Alleluia, Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed, alleluia!

Holy fire procession
through Jerusalem's Old City streets
Orthodox Easter 2015
Photo by Carrie Smith
Today, the 3rd Sunday of Easter, we are still processing the resurrection news. Like Thomas and the disciples to whom Jesus appeared, we are still working out what life post-cross and post-empty tomb means for us. Christ is risen, he is truly risen. And now what?  What does it mean to be people of the resurrection? Who are we, the Christians?

Sadly, Christians are the ones who were thrown overboard from an immigrant boat on the way to Italy this week.

We are also the ones who did nothing about the Holocaust until far, far too late.

Christians are the ones whose heads were removed by terrorists in Libya.

We are also the ones making headlines for refusing to bake cakes for gay weddings in the United States.

Christians are responsible for the Crusades, but we also played a part in pressuring South Africa to end its apartheid practices.

Christians have been both oppressed and oppressor, both agents of the empire and the voice of the people.

This complicated history shows that it hasn’t been easy for the people of the resurrection to live out the Good News of Easter. We haven’t always gotten it right! We have not been perfect witnesses to the resurrection.

It’s also easy to see how we can be misunderstood by our neighbors. After all, the world does not really know us.

Of course, this is nothing new. I remember learning in church history class how outside observers believed early Christians must be cannibals, maybe even cannibals who practiced infanticide. There were rumors that the recipe for communion bread included some shocking ingredients! After all, how else do you explain the strange practice of sharing bread while saying the words, “This is the Body of Christ”?

The same confusion about Christian identity exists today. In various places across the world, the label “Christian” is synonymous with the establishment of safe schools and much-needed medical clinics. We are known for running soup kitchens and homes for the blind. We march for civil rights and monitor checkpoints and stand for peace with justice in Israel and Palestine. At the same time, “coming out” as a Christian in some contexts means we are branded as backward vestiges of a bygone era—anti-science, anti-intellectual, anti-gay, anti-woman; as well as pro-gun, pro-patriarchy, and pro-status quo. Some of these labels are unfair. Some are completely justified.

It’s no wonder the world doesn’t know what to make of us! The confusion of our neighbors reflects our own struggle to answer the question, “Who are we, the people of the resurrection?” With so many claims on our time, attention, and allegiances, we are left grasping for something definitive.

The current precarious situation for Christians in the Middle East has caused some of us to respond by claiming a perceived minority status as a flag of honor. This is what we see happening in Christian majority places, where interest in and sympathy for persecuted Christians is growing, but unfortunately active interest in helping is not. Christians who live in the luxury of religious freedom enjoy changing profile pics to honor suffering sisters and brothers in far off places, but are mostly unwilling to risk comfort or privilege for their sake. We’d rather point and click—and feel part of a special group—than challenge our governments to stand in true solidarity.

Of course, another response to feeling misunderstood or misidentified is to impose our beliefs on others. You don’t know who we are? Let us show you! We’ll make you like us! This is what we see happening in the United States, where some politicians want to make the Bible the “official state book” and efforts are increasing to make the culture conform to a certain interpretation of the Christian faith. But a quick look at world news reveals how this same impulse to create a “righteousness zone” or a “circle of similarity” is also behind the xenophobic attacks in South Africa, the tragedy in Yarmouk refugee camp, and recent violence against journalists and Jews in Paris. Claiming power over others—and imposing our identity on others—is hardly a path to mutual understanding. When we fall into such thinking, we resemble the terrorists more than witnesses to the resurrection.

So who are we, the people of the resurrection?

Our 2nd reading today, from 1 John chapter 3, was written to the early church to address this very issue. They, too, were having an identity crisis. They, too, were misunderstood by the world around them and were suffering persecution. It seems that they, too, were having internal community conflicts about what it means to live out the Good News of the resurrection. In fact, some had already left the church, frustrated over the question of the relationship between faith and action in the Christian life. Those who remained were understandably concerned about the future of the community. Who were they now? In response, the author of 1 John writes:

“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”

Sculpture, Mamilla Mall, Jerusalem
Photo by Carrie Smith
“We should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” Dear sisters and brothers, God’s Good News to our Bad Identity Crisis is that first and foremost, above and beyond any other identity, we are members of God’s family. This belonging is no result of our own efforts.  We didn’t become God’s children by our history of good behavior or excellent theology or political savviness—as one look at church history will remind us. We are God’s children because in great love, God claimed us as God’s own. We are God’s children because God sent Jesus to walk with us as and share in our joys and sorrows. We are God’s children because Jesus suffered death, even death on a cross. We are God’s children because Jesus was raised from the dead, giving us all the hope and promise of eternal life with him.

This is the Good News: that God’s love for the world extends all the way to the cross, and is even powerful enough to move the stone away from the entrance to the tomb. “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are!”

Alleluia, Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Thanks be to God, we know both who we are and whose we are, even if others do not.
But the author of 1 John chapter 3 continues:

“The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”

This Scripture text is daily encouragement for all of God’s children who, in gratitude for the love and the adoption into God’s family we have received, strive to live as witnesses to the resurrection. First, we ought not be surprised when we are misunderstood by the world. “The reason the world does not know is that it did not know him.” After all, the Christian witness has been counter-cultural from the start. Where the world values individuality, the Gospel values community. Where the world values wealth and privilege, the Gospel values sacrifice and sharing all things in common. Where the world values self-protection, self-interest, and self-esteem, the Gospel values self-emptying love for the Other. We don’t always get it right, but we should not expect that our efforts to live into the Good News of the resurrection will be met with accolades and awards and pats on the back. We cannot count the success of our witness in dollars or shekels or seats of power. The witness of the cross and the empty tomb can never be identified with empire. Just as the resurrection defied the status quo and turned the expectations of the world upside down, so does the Gospel in action defy and upset the systems and institutions of the world.

This is an especially important message in this time when Christians are being persecuted in real and dramatic ways in many places around the world. Because we are people of the cross, we do not see persecution or opposition or unpopularity as signs of weakness or failure. And because we are people of the resurrection, we have hope even when we face the sword. This hope is what empowered our twenty-one brothers, members of the family through baptism, to stand firm in their faith before their executioners in Libya. This hope is what keeps Bishop Jean Kawak, of the Syrian Orthodox church in Homs, ministering to the last Christian families left in town. This hope is what strengthens our Palestinian Christian sisters and brothers to continue working for peace based on justice in this holy land, in spite of a seemingly unending occupation of their homes.

Some of God's children,
making silly faces after church
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem
Photo by Carrie Smith
As children of the cross and the empty tomb, we know that nothing—not even death—can take away our identity as beloved children of God. Nothing can separate us from the love of God we have in Christ Jesus—no amount of churches burned, no number of Christian villages destroyed, no sword, no unjust law, no wall, no evil thought or spoken word. For "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me” (Matthew 5:11) and “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.” (2 Corinthians 4:8-10)

My sisters and brothers in Christ, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” Be strengthened. Be encouraged. Be witnesses of these things to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.

Alleluia, Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Easter Sunrise Sermon: 5 April 2015, Mt. of Olives, Jerusalem

2015 Easter Sunrise Sermon: 5 April 2015


The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith


(Preached on the Mt. of Olives, Augusta Victoria Hospital Campus)
+++

Grace and peace to from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Alleluia, Christ is risen! Christ is risen, indeed!

Just before the Easter sunrise service on the Mt. of Olives
Photo by Cindy Alexander
As I was preparing to move here to Jerusalem eight months ago, I received a lot of advice from family, friends, and church members. Some of it was helpful, some…not so much. A few of my favorites were these two, seemingly contradictory bits of advice:

“Just keep your head up, Pastor!”

 And:

“Whatever you do, keep your head down, Pastor.”

Of course, it’s impossible to do both of these things at the same time, but I think these well-meaning folks were trying to say nearly the same thing. In other words, “Keep your head up – watch out for trouble!” and “Keep your head down – stay out of trouble!”

I’ve tried my best to do both in my time here so far, with limited success. After all, trying to avoid trouble when preaching the Gospel—whether you’re in the middle of an occupation or the middle of nowhere—is like trying to avoid getting scrapes on your car when driving in Jerusalem.  Impossible. Never going to happen. Or, as I’ve learned to say in Arabic: “Bukra fil mishmish.”  (“Tomorrow, there will be apricots.”)

Just keep your head down! On the first Easter morning, it was Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome who kept their heads down as they walked to the tomb. Of course, Scripture rarely gives us details about the women in any story, but a few small words help us to imagine their posture as they approached the tomb:

When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.”

When they looked up…” These women were not looking around to enjoy the scenery as they set out that morning. They weren’t enjoying a bit of exercise strolling outside the Jerusalem city gates, either. They were walking with shoulders heavy with grief and heads lowered in determination. They were just trying to get to Jesus, whom they loved.

Many of us here today can identify with this kind of journey. Whether you’re here in Jerusalem for a few weeks, a few months, or a few more years than you planned, you are here doing difficult work—studying far from home, providing humanitarian aid in Gaza, teaching children, running a hospital, advocating for human rights, and parenting small children in the middle of a military occupation. As it was for the women charged with the task of anointing the body of Jesus, getting the job done around here often requires keeping your head down and your eyes on the few steps immediately before you.

Keep your head down! There are times when we keep our heads down simply to avoid trouble (some more successfully than others), but more often we, like Salome and Mary and the other Mary, find ourselves weighed down by a different, greater concern: “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” Like those faithful women, we know very well that what lies on the path ahead of us is a tomb, and in front of the tomb sits a stone, and the stone is very large indeed.

We know that in this place, the stone at the entrance to the tomb looks like a wall topped with razor wire. It looks like checkpoints and guns. It looks like demolished houses. It looks like failed peace talks.

It looks like persecution of Christians in the Middle East and Africa.

Here, as in every place, it also looks like cancer, and depression, and broken relationships.

It looks like death.

Sadly, in these last weeks—and even days—the stone seems larger than ever. The tomb even seems to have an ever increasing capacity, as 147 of our Kenyan brothers and sisters werelaid there just a few days ago.

In these difficult times, the journey we are on starts to feel less like a pilgrimage of faith or a walk to freedom and more like a last goodbye. Like the women who set out early in the morning to anoint the body of their friend, we may wonder if we are on our way merely to say goodbye to the dream of peace, of justice, of equal rights, and a hopeful future.

The sun rises over the Jordan Valley during the Easter service
Photo by Cindy Alexander
But “when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.”

Salome and the Marys may have been walking with heads lowered and their eyes to the ground, but after all they knew what to expect when they arrived. They expected to see the stone which was placed on Friday afternoon to be standing in place on Sunday morning. They expected large, intractable problems to remain large and intractable. They expected dead things to remain dead. Oh, what a shock it must have been when they looked up and saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back!


Alleluia, Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Along with the women of that resurrection morning, we come to the tomb expecting to see the stone. We come expecting the same obstacles, the same powers and principalities, and the same barriers to peace and justice and abundant life standing in our path.

But when we look up on Easter morning, we see that the stone has already been rolled back!

When we look up, we see the sun rising over this land that we love.

When we look up, we see the international community pushing back against the stones of injustice, hatred, and indifference.

When we look up, we see the resurrection of the Cremisan Valley’s future.

When we look up, we see the living hope and strength of our neighbors, standing steadfast in the land of the resurrection.

When we look up, we see this loving and diverse church community, our family away from family, our home away from home, which gives us life.

When we look up, we see an open door and the empty tomb!

Alleluia, Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Dear sisters and brothers, Easter Sunday is not a day to pretend that all is well in the land called holy, to ignore the present reality of the wall which stands in the valley behind me, or to downplay the suffering of our sisters and brothers in Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan and many other places.

But this is the feast when the people of the resurrection proclaim the risen Christ has already defeated the powers and principalities of the world. On Easter, we rejoice that the stone has already been rolled back by the power of the living God. That open door, where the stone once was, is our hope and our strength.

Because Christ is risen, we know the rules of the game have changed.

Because Christ is risen, we know the power of love is greater than the power of guns and tanks.

Because Christ is risen, we know the power of forgiveness and understanding to open hearts and minds is greater than the power of hatred to keep them closed.

Because Christ is risen, we know the power of God’s love for all humanity is greater than humanity’s brutality toward one another.

Alleluia, Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed, Alleluia!


Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
Photo by Cindy Alexander
As people of the cross, we are called to continue on the path to peace, justice, and reconciliation—even when it is difficult. Even when it is dangerous. Even when others call us foolish. Even when the world insists the stone is too large, too heavy, too complicated to be moved.

But on Easter morning, we are reminded of the Good News that the stone has already been rolled back! Therefore, as people of the resurrection, we walk not with heads down and backs bent with grief, but with eyes on the empty tomb. As people of the resurrection, we lift our eyes to the hills and mountains of Jerusalem, the city of resurrection, from which we draw our help and strength. As people of the resurrection, we have nothing to fear: no stone, no terror group, no extremist rhetoric, no unjust policy, no racist agenda, no diagnosis, no wall. For we know that our Redeemer lives, and what sweet comfort that sentence gives!

Dear sisters and brothers, fellow workers in the kingdom, faithful servants of the Gospel, on this resurrection morning I pray the Good News of the empty tomb will strengthen and encourage you on your journey. I pray that the rising sun of Easter will shine the light of God’s love on your path.

And I pray that peace of the risen Christ, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Alleluia, Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Jerusalem, Easter morning (on the other side of the mountain!)
Photo by Cindy Alexander







Thursday, April 2, 2015

Maundy Thursday Reflection: 2 April 2015, Jerusalem

This reflection was preached for the joint Arabic/English/German Maundy Thursday Service at 
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem. 


Children attend the Maundy Thursday service
at Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem.
Photo by Danae Hudson, ELCJHL
Maundy Thursday Reflection
2 April 2015

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Early tomorrow morning, Redeemer Church members will join their sisters and brothers in Christ to walk the Via Dolorosa. Slowly, deliberately, and prayerfully, we will retrace the movements Our Lord Jesus made on his way to the cross, where, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved us to the end.

But tonight, we hear the story of the Last Supper, in which Jesus makes his way not to the cross, but to the washbasin. This short journey is a foreshadowing of the longer, sorrowful walk to Golgotha. If we were to mark the journey by stations, as we do the Way of the Cross, it might look something like this:

Station 1: Jesus gets up from the table.
Station 2: Jesus takes off his outer robe.
Station 3: Jesus ties a towel around himself and pours water into the basin.
Station 4: Jesus washes the feet of his disciples.

By this walk from the table to the washbasin, Jesus demonstrated for his disciples what was to come next. He gave them (and us) a sneak preview of the events of Good Friday, when again he would humble himself, taking on the role of a servant, and love us to the end.

“You do not know what I am doing, but later you will understand,” Jesus said. To be fair, we’re still trying to understand, so many years, so many Good Fridays, so many Easters later. We still struggle to comprehend the significance of the radical, subversive, self-emptying love Jesus showed for us. And…we’re still working on living the command he gave us on the night in which he was betrayed.

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

Just as Jesus loved us, so are we to love one another. It seems a simple request, really, and fairly easy to interpret, especially since we’re given this helpful object lesson: Love = feet, water, and towels.

But living this command is harder than it sounds, and the difficulty has nothing to do with our dislike of feet.

The author's feet in the Sea of Galilee
Photo by Carrie Smith
If you’ve ever participated in a foot-washing liturgy, you know the anxiety produced by the mere mention of taking off shoes in church. In anticipation of Holy Thursday, church members will head to the nail salon for a pedicure, or they will buy new socks…or they will skip the service entirely. Most people will point to their dislike of feet –theirs and their neighbors’—as the reason this Maundy Thursday foot-washing spectacle just goes too far. “I can love my neighbor with my shoes on, Pastor,” someone once said to me. 

But our real trouble with the mandatum of Maundy Thursday has nothing to do with feet at all. In fact, our struggle to love as Jesus loved us begins before we take off our shoes or kneel at the feet of our friends, before we ever pour the water, before we even pick up the towel.

Jesus said, “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet.” But when we, like Peter, focus only on feet and water and service, we miss the scandalous reversal of roles and renunciation of power Jesus demonstrated at the washbasin—and on the cross.

For Christ Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8)

This is why the new commandment to love is so difficult—because the first step of the journey from the table to the washbasin is this: Jesus got up from the table.

In other words, if we are to love as Jesus loved us, we must begin as he did, by relinquishing our positions of power and privilege at the head of the table.

If we are to love as Jesus loved us, we must shed our outer garments—the robes of class, or education, or patriarchy, or institutional power which set us above and apart from others.

If we are to love as Jesus loved us, we must tie a towel around our waists in solidarity with workers, with the poor, with the oppressed, with the foot-washers of the world.

Then, and only then, can the water be poured. Only then are we ready to serve. Only then are we prepared to love as we have been loved.

The truth is, we cannot do this of our own power. We can only do this through our Lord Jesus Christ, who in laying down his life and picking it up again has empowered us to follow in his steps, to the washbasin and to the cross.

And, so, beloved, let us love one another. By this will everyone know we are his disciples, if we have love for one another. Amen.