If our efforts at charity and justice don’t call our lifestyles, our assumptions, or our financial beliefs into question, are they really part of Jesus’ ‘new commandment’ to be servant leaders washing feet?
It’s just before Passover – preparations would have been evident everywhere. People would be streaming into the city. Jesus and her Jewish friends have set some time aside in the midst of this major festival. What most of them don’t know or understand is that Jesus knows this is the beginning of the end. His life is coming to an end. There is both an urgency and poignancy to this moment. And we read, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”
Already poignant, the setting turns intimate. “The evening meal was in progress, … so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.”
These are friends. Travel companions. But nonetheless, Jesus surprises them with what he does next.
“He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
“No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”
Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”
“Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”
His act turns the expected order upside down. Did you see how Peter resisted? Jesus was the leader; he wasn’t the one to wash feet. Washing feet was for the house servants, the ones who made life comfortable for the invited guests.
Upside down – you must become a servant
Upside down – before you serve others, you must first know what it is to be served by your master
In modeling what it means to be a servant, we see a very personal approach. It’s in the clothes that are being worn or not worn, the table around which they were gathered, the truth that Jesus knew his betrayer was in their midst.
And through this simple act, Jesus set a standard that has never changed. A model of how to live into his ‘new commandment of love.’ Because for Jesus, love was always about both the inner conviction and the outer action.
But every time we read this story – often during Holy Week – we encounter this call for upside down service.
About 30 of us from Orchard Ridge and Good Shepherd Lutheran had been in Nogales, Dominican Republic for most of a week to work with Habitat for Humanity. In the hot sun, we had been asked to dig trenches for the foundation of two houses. The problems related to the task were legion.
- We had limited, and mostly ineffective, shovels.
- The ‘dirt’ wasn’t dirt at all, it was caliche – which the dictionary defines as “a sedimentary rock, a hardened natural cement of calcium carbonate that binds other materials—such as gravel, sand, clay, and silt.” We just knew it was as hard as concrete.
On Thursday morning, we all gathered around a beat up pick up truck to marvel at a sight for sore eyes – a gas-powered cement mixer secured for the day so we could pour the foundation and begin laying cement blocks. Before our astonished eyes, the local guys struggled to unload that mixer off a truck, inexplicably letting it fall to the ground, breaking off a critical part, rendering the mixer useless.
Needless to say, we spent the day mixing cement by hand, hauling it wheel barrow after wheel barrow to the hand dug trenches that served as foundation frames. We then carried hundreds of blocks to the two foundations, and slowly watched the foundations grow up inch by inch. By the end of the day, we were sweaty, filthy, tired and our feet weighed a good 5 pounds extra because of the caked on mud and cement.
All week, children in the area kept asking to help and each day we had to turn them away. Maybe it was insurance, I’m not sure. But when it became clear that we were starting to clean up the building site for the evening, a young boy, a hanger on of about 10 years old, saw his opportunity to be useful. He scampered to the finished house next to the worksite, turned on a hose and asked in haltingly English, ‘May I wash your feet.’ Tenacious in his caring, determined in his self-appointed task, he hosed off the shoes of everyone near by, getting on his knees to scrub off cement. I was the last one to have my feet washed. Cold water running through shoe and sock. Tender care given by a young boy with whom I had little language.
As I gathered myself and others back on the bus for the 30-minute drive to our hotel where showers and dinner awaited, it dawned on me that it was Thursday. Not just any Thursday, but Holy Thursday. Mandy Thursday of Holy Week. The night from which this text about washing feet comes.
As beautiful as this story is, it cuts to the heart of tensions we in a justice seeking church cannot avoid.
When and how we serve.
With whom we serve.
From whom do we receive care and support and compassion.
Listen to some of the inherent tensions around this story.
Over 2 trips in 2 years, we helped up to 6 families build new homes in a small development. Habitat for Humanity, with its requirement of sweat equity and local community control of the affiliate is better than many international charities. In addition, the money spent for our experience mostly went to the DR, not the Habitat International staff in Atlanta. Finally, we also brought a gift of over $30,000 from Habitat Dane County for the Dominican affiliate.
We had a moving and profound week. In fact, for some it was life changing. It inspired one young woman to go into international relations in college. Another young man spent several years leading similar trips with high school students. He gave up countless of his own vacations to serve others. Others were moved in ways just as profound if not as visible.
Several meaningful friendships were established across cultural lines. So we did much good that week and in subsequent weeks in the following two years.
On the other hand, 30 of us paid about $1300 each to travel to and spend a week in the Dominican Republic. Almost $40,000 spent to help build houses that with local labor would have built 4 entire homes.
And what we probably didn’t see was that an exciting and energizing week for us was just another week for this young boy and his friends – another week in which their world was dominated and shaped by a group of wealthy foreigners.
I don’t regret the trip, but I also am mindful how, if we are not careful, such trips or service in this style only serve to reinforce the very dynamic Jesus sought to up end.
If our charity, if our engagement with the poor, if our gifts of volunteer time and money only serve to reinforce and legitimize the social structure all around us, then they can quite easily become what long time community developer Robert Lupton calls “toxic charity.”
If our efforts at charity and justice don’t call our lifestyles, our assumptions, or our financial beliefs into question, are they really part of Jesus’ ‘new commandment’ to be servant leaders washing feet? In a culture that increasingly sees charity work as way to build a resume or application, we can fall prey to following the practice of loving our neighbor through the path of least resistance.
Our work in the world – be it local or national, hands on our through letter writing, with our sweat or with our dollars, should make us feel better about our place in the world. But, if we come to value feel good experiences rather than opening our lives to transformation – have we missed Jesus’ point?
If we engage in loving our neighbor while never engaging in the personal self reflection that is ALWAYS required of the wealthy, the privileged, and the majority culture – are we not actually contributing to the problems that plague the world because of those status’? You see, for Jesus, serving the poor wasn’t about doing a good deed. It was an act of prayerful listening to the voice of God.
Because we are a well meaning, a well off and a justice seeking congregation, these tensions will be, must be, part of the fabric of our lives. We will always have to balance personal desire and spiritual transformation; the needs of our neighbors and the convenience of our lives.
I don’t diminish what we try to do. But I do worry that without being reflective about what we are doing, we’ll be missing Jesus’ point completely. I worry that in our efforts to make it easy, risk free, convenient and tidy – we are like Peter who doesn’t understand Jesus’ new message and commandment.
Recently I read daily meditation from Cameron Timble, director of the Center for Progressive Renewal. It is a thoughtful, ecumenical resource center for progressive mainline churches.
She boasted about being UCC, a ‘denomination of firsts.’
- The first to lead the efforts to abolish slavery,
- the first to ordain an African American man,
- the first to establish a school for the deaf,
- the first to ordain a woman,
- the first to push for legislation that protects our airways as public property,
- the first to ordain an openly gay man,
- the first to call for marriage equality
- and the first to adopt a commitment to divest from investments in fossil fuels…
She continued, “Together with others in the “the Mainline Church,” we have made a huge difference in shaping the world. Bravo to us.
The question is: What is next? What is our next “first?” What (would) all of us who identify with the progressive mainline church movement would say to the question?
What is our next collective “first?” Here are some ideas. We could be the first in:
- Demanding public, official acts of reparations to combat white supremacy;
- Creating a legislative framework that welcomes immigrants into our country;
- Funding free college education for students;
- Building all new buildings using environmentally sound, LEED-rated designs and material;”
She listed several other ideas, but the first one grabbed my attention, “Demanding public, official acts of reparations to combat white supremacy,” and frankly gave me shivers up and down my spine. I hold two conflicting ideas about reparations.
It is impossible to do. It is absolutely necessary to move our nation forward. Absolutely necessary to talk about if we are serious about racial issues.
The church cannot pull it off alone. No one will lead the way unless the church does.
It is absolutely right. It is profoundly terrifying to think about.
My own fear, I began to realize, is bringing me close to the upside down justice, the upside down service Jesus called for. That conflict of emotions, the rawness of what being a faithful follower of Jesus might look like – that’s our call here at ORUCC. That’s the call we’ve inherited from our forebears; and it is the call we owe to our children and successors.
What I know, more than anything else, is I need to ‘start close in.’ I need to pay attention to the ways I seek justice and to ask the really hard question; Is it part of turning the world order upside down, even in small ways? And I need to do it within community.
If I give my time and energy to nearby neighborhood organizations and it’s work with at risk kids without deep reflection, am I not prone to repeat mistakes and offenses of the past? If I want to help raise up grass roots leaders, am I willing to truly learn from them rather than expecting them to behave as I want? All I can say is I struggle everyday to find the balance. Several of you have helped me find my way.
Can we acknowledge that the wonderful benefits Epic Systems has had on our community (and the related high tech sector that’s developing because of Epic) without also noting that precisely because of that success, neighbors of the church are becoming homeless? If we can’t see how development for one demographic usually displaces another, how can we honestly say we want to be good neighbors? Many of you have struggled with this truth
If I endure this recent charade of male dominance, male denial and male mistreatment of women without being honest about my own benefit from those very systems – without challenging my sons and nephews to acknowledge how the system is stacked in their favor, have I not bypassed an opportunity to teach those I love about Jesus upside down but faithful masculinity? My life is dependent on observing and befriending so many of the men of this church.
Peter struggled mightily with Jesus’ call to a different world order. It’s not even clear in this passage that he actually understood Jesus. But the call remains.
Jesus offered this new command within the context of a loving, engaged group of friends and followers. He knew that to live into this new ethic, we would need each other.
Can we lean in to this new and transforming world order, despite our fear and uncertainty? Can we lean into it as a community in ways that overwhelm us as individuals?
Can we, together as people of faith, lean into this tension. For the sake of the community, our schools? For the sake of our souls?