Footwashing and Faithfulness

Every Monday morning like clockwork, I walk into Tudor’s Biscuit World, go up to the counter and order my usual (decaf) coffee. Then I sit down at a table with several folks. We share food, and conversation, and then we open up our Bibles. We’ve been going through the Gospel of John for the past I don’t know how may weeks. Sometimes it feels like forever. In fact, I can’t even remember what we studied before we decided to dive into John! John’s writing is heady and dense. Jesus is far more philosophical and verbose in this fourth gospel than he is in the other three. We’ve spent ages talking about Jesus’ identity and the failure of those around him to truly grasp the nature of that identity and the kingdom that Jesus is working to bring about.

We sit in the midst of people coming in and out of the restaurant – ordering their food, having conversations, and then going on about their day. We sit in the midst of TV screens flashing the latest news and workers doing their daily tasks. We sit in the midst of a world that is meant to be growing toward the kingdom of God.

Image result for footwashingToday, we started studying John 13 – where Jesus gets down on his hands and knees and washes his disciples’ stinking, dirty feet. It’s not a glamorous job. It’s not a job for the master. It’s not a job for the guest of honor. And yet, it is what Jesus does because it is who he is. And in washing his disciples’ feet, he shows them the nature of God’s kingdom. It is a kingdom of humility and servanthood. It is a kingdom of messiness and vulnerability.

It’s no coincidence that immediate following the footwashing, Jesus and his disciples gather around a table and Jesus speaks of the one who is to betray him, Judas Iscariot. Judas has always been a controversial figure in Christianity. Was it inevitable that he would betray Jesus? Was Judas damned for his actions? What motivated him to betray Jesus? We don’t fully know the answers to any of those questions, but I have some speculations about what led Judas to betray Jesus, and I think it has something to do with this common theme we find throughout John and the Synoptic Gospels – that even those closest to Jesus fail to grasp the nature of the kingdom that he has come to inaugurate.

Related imagePerhaps Judas betrayed Jesus because he just could not grasp a kingdom characterized be servanthood and sacrifice. After all, that hardly translates well into a world of empire and oppression. How in the world is humility supposed to overcome the forces of the world? How is it supposed to overcome a powerful emperor and an even more powerful army? I suspect that Judas was getting impatient with Jesus, wondering when he’d start getting to the business of overthrowing Roman oppression and establishing a new rule for God’s people. Even though Judas had been present for Jesus’ miracles and teachings, he did not understand Jesus’ work in bringing about the kingdom. Now that they had entered Jerusalem, maybe Judas thought it was time for Jesus to stop messing around and to get down to the work of building a revolution – of showing his power and using it to subjugate Rome.

But Judas had it all wrong. He completely ignored the fact that time and time again, Jesus refuses to exert power over others. Jesus has demonstrated consistently that his kingdom is about giving up power, not grasping after it. Judas’ betrayal may have been motivated by what he thought were good intentions. But when it comes down to it, he failed to trust Jesus and the mission to which Jesus called the disciples: to wash one another’s feet, just as Jesus washed theirs.

All of this talk about Judas and his betrayal got me thinking today. It made me think about what it means to be faithful to Jesus and his kingdom. The temptation to grasp for power is great, and Christianity has a muddy history when it comes to seeking and exerting power. Whenever Christianity has become entwined with empire, this happens. And whenever Christianity becomes entwined with empire, it betrays Jesus and his kingdom. We like to demonize Judas for his betrayal of Jesus, and yet our own history as a Church is bursting at the seams with the same betrayal. It has been happening from the forced conversions of the Christian Roman Empire, the Crusades, the Inquisition, through today. We live in a time and place where Christianity continues to grasp for power – we see this in the constant talk of trying to make America a Christian nation by force – by political manipulations and rhetoric, and through the legislation of morality. And we do it through backroom deals and for exchanges of money and power. Like Judas, we may have good intentions of wanting to see a Christian world, and yet our striving for and exertion of power subvert the very kingdom Jesus set out to establish.

I can’t pretend like my thoughts are totally fleshed out. That’s the nature of studying Scripture and of Christian discipleship. Our theology is never complete. And yet, as I dwell on Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet and Judas’ betrayal, I can’t help but think that we, I, am not so different from Judas. I struggle to imagine the alternative of Jesus’ kingdom in the midst of a world filled with violence and unjust power dynamics. I struggle to understand the way of the cross when I perceive that exerting power might be the only way to stop oppression and injustice. I’m just like Judas in that way. So I ask God to do this: May God work in my heart so that I may be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ, living his way, working for his kingdom, rather than the kingdom I think he should bring. May he teach me to learn and live the way of footwashing and faithfulness.

– Cindy+

Flutters of Hope

It’s before 5 am. It’s before the time the cats will start to meow incessantly at me to put food in their bowl. It’s well before the time I have any intention of getting up for the day. Perhaps it’s my pregnant body or perhaps it’s the heaviness on my mind that keeps me awake. Perhaps it’s a little bit of both. Waking in darkness seems to be my new norm.

charlottesville clergyI can’t get comfortable. I toss and turn, but no position I find gives me ease. Thoughts toss and turn in my mind, but none give me comfort. I can’t forget images and stories from clergy colleagues of their experiences in Charlottesville this weekend, just 250 miles from where I now sit. I can’t un-see images of people who look like they could be my brothers or classmates bearing images and shouting words that stand for oppression and genocide. I can’t forget the fact that many of those same people are people who are likely sitting in church pews just like mine on Sunday morning. Nor should I forget any of those things.

I’ve reached the point in my pregnancy where I think I’m starting to feel movement from the baby. Often, it’s just as I’m lying down to go to bed, when I’m still enough to notice it. And there it is – a slight flutter, maybe a tiny pulling sensation. But then it goes away, and I slide back into a kind of forgetfulness that there is something living and growing within me.

Watching the events unfold in Charlottesville was like experiencing one of these moments. In that moment, I could see more fully that there is something living and growing in our society. Sure, I’ve cognitively been aware of it before now, in the same way I’ve been cognitively aware that I have been carrying life inside of me these past few months. But in that moment, I really knew – the kind of knowing that isn’t a disconnected sense of being intellectually aware, but the kind of knowing that comes like a gut-punch, where your head and heart connect at last and you wonder if you were ever really awake before.

Our society is pregnant with fear and hatred – and fear and hatred grow into racism. They grow into white supremacy. They grow into violence. They can even grow into genocide. History has shown this to us time and again, and yet it seems that we, as a collective whole, continually slide back into a kind of forgetfulness that fear and hate are living and growing.

My instinct is to want to lash out at those who claim white supremacy. My desire is to condemn and use choice words to say what I really think. And actions of hatred and violence do deserve condemnation. At the same time, my instinct is to try to distance myself, to say, “Hey, I’m one of the good guys. See how against all of this I am?” My instinct is to deny all culpability in contributing to a society where white supremacy has been given voice and validation.

It’s now a number of hours later. I was able to fall back asleep for a little while, and for the past little bit, I’ve been going about my day as a pastor, doing pastoral things – making phone calls, checking on those of my flock in the hospital, contemplating next Sunday’s sermon, and planning for a celebration of life for a church member who passed away. Even through these and other aspects of pastoral responsibility, I find myself pondering some things in my heart: perhaps one of my greatest pastoral duties is to model confession for the people who look to me as a spiritual leader. Perhaps one of my greatest pastoral duties is to lead the way in modeling what it looks like to repent of the fear and hate that exist within my own heart.

Darick and I had a conversation the other night about what we would do if the KKK/neo-Nazis/other white supremacist groups came to Charleston. For both of us, we knew we would make sure we were present, offering a witness to the love of Christ in the midst of it. We would not stay at home and hide. It wasn’t even really a question of where we would be. One might think that my pregnancy would make me more hesitant to put myself out there and potentially make myself a target – but I find the opposite to be true. As I was talking to a friend this afternoon, I told her that I feel like being pregnant is calling me to task. I have realized that in bringing new life into the world, I will be responsible for showing him or her what it means to work for the sake of the kingdom. I have realized, if Darick and I do not speak and act, showing our child the way, how will he or she ever know how to live it? (As an aside, I would not act in a foolish way while pregnant or with a small child in tow, placing my child in a situation where physical harm may be a known potential outcome. I would, however, find appropriate ways to be a public witness where my child could see, learn, and participate.)

mustard treeMy thoughts are incomplete. My theology is incomplete. My work is incomplete. I remain restless in thinking about that which is living and growing inside of me, and that which is living and growing in our society. And I find myself anxious and fearful. But I am also reminded of Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed. Jesus tells us that God’s kingdom is like a mustard seed. It is the tiniest of seeds, but when it is planted, it grows – it grows into the largest of shrubs and even the birds find rest within its branches. Yes, fear and hate grow. But so does love, and love is the stuff of God’s kingdom. I find hope when I see the way clergy and other people of faith gave (and continue to give) witness to the seeds of God’s kingdom in Charlottesville. I find hope when I see many people here in my own town planting seeds of love and justice. Fear and hate grow, but so does love. May love live and grow inside of us and among us. May it grow and grow and grow until all people may rest within love’s branches.

– Cindy+