Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Wrong Thing, The Wrong Time, The Wrong People

If you were to ask me to describe Jesus’ ministry in one sentence, I would put it this way: "Jesus’ ministry was largely a matter of doing the wrong thing, at the wrong time, with the wrong people." Even the most ordinary actions: picking grain, touching a woman, going fishing, sharing a meal, washing someone’s feet, became strange and amazing events because of the way, and the time, and with whom Jesus did them. Jesus had a knack for seeing extraordinary possibilities in ordinary life, in ways that were both liberating and threatening, depending upon your point of view.

Now most of us probably experience doing the wrong thing, at the wrong time, with the wrong people as a recipe for disaster. I have to confess that I’ve had more than my share of such experiences, from the girl I took to my senior prom (need I say more?) to getting into a power struggle with my ten-year old about making his bed. Guess who won that battle? Most of the time, such events are harmless enough and we manage to survive. But sometimes, we are called to do the wrong thing, at the wrong time, with the wrong people to bear witness to God’s love for each and all.

That is what Jesus did so often, and so well, that it got him killed. In Jesus’ time, much as in ours, there were powerful forces at work to make sure that people didn’t do the wrong thing, at the wrong time, with the wrong people. The guardians of social propriety are vigorous in their enforcement of the rules, making sure that people know their place and that public order is maintained. The forces of social convention are so powerful, so well internalized, that we often fail to even notice how they operate. So much the better for those who benefit from them.

In the midst of such a world, Jesus continually does the wrong thing, at the wrong time, with the wrong people. This rather curious business of washing the disciples’ feet recorded in the Gospel of John is a good case in point. In fact, in John’s Gospel it takes the place of the Passover meal, the institution of what would become Holy Communion, as the symbolic action that reveals the whole meaning of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. However obscure it may seem to us, this action of washing the disciple’s feet is crucial to our understanding of Jesus.

Washing his disciples’ feet was definitely the wrong thing to do, primarily, I would suggest, because it was an act of gender role subversion. Jesus’ humiliation consisted in his doing “women’s work.” Generally, commentators have interpreted the meaning of this action in terms of Jesus taking on the role of a servant or slave. That is true, as far is it goes. More to the point, however, is that Jesus takes on a female role. In all of the extant biblical and rabbinical references to the action of foot washing, it was done always by a woman as a practical act of hospitality for guests who entered a home after walking along dusty roads in sandals.

The English translation of Jesus’ action in the Gospel of John actually betrays a certain prudish reserve. The Greek text literally states that during dinner, Jesus took off his clothes, wrapped a towel around him self, poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet. This is a scene of tremendous intimacy and physical vulnerability. No wonder Peter responds initially by saying, “You will never wash my feet.” “Uh uh, I’m not going there!”

The physical vulnerability and humiliation of the Cross is prefigured here in the physical vulnerability and humiliation of a half-naked, gender-bending rabbi washing his disciples feet. For the community from which the Gospel of John came, it was this strange and disconcerting act of gender nonconformity that became the symbolic action par excellence of self-giving love. Jesus says to his (male) disciples in effect, “If you want to know what it means to love, you need to act more like women.”

My point here is not to promote traditional gender stereotypes about compassionate women and unfeeling men, nor am I suggesting that what it means to be a man or woman in 21st Century America is the same as what it meant in 1st Century Palestine. My point, rather, is that the liberation that Jesus offers in his death and resurrection entails freedom from bondage to the social constructions of “male” and “female,” as well as those of “slave” and “master” already transcended by the Hebrew slaves’ exodus from Egypt celebrated in the Passover meal. Our freedom to love and serve one another must not be constrained by social conventions of propriety. These conventions far too often serve to trap us in structures of sin such as racism
and patriarchy.

We need to hear the good news that God’s love shatters the bounds of social propriety to embrace the whole of humanity. Acts of humble service and hospitality to guests and strangers, even when such acts make us vulnerable to the chastisement of the guardians of social propriety, are part and parcel of what it means to love one another as Jesus loved us. This means defying gender roles or any other social expectations contrary to the New Commandment, that we love one another. Nothing is more important than the self-giving love that Jesus exemplifies for us and calls us to offer to each other.

Not only does Jesus’ love for his disciples entail vulnerability to charges of impropriety; it even embraces his enemies. Imagine what it must have felt like for Jesus to gently bathe the feet of Judas. How his heart must have ached to know that the love he offered so freely would not only be rejected; it would be betrayed. Now, perhaps we can imagine loving our enemies; at least enemies are known entities; sometimes, they are even honorable. But to love someone who betrays our trust, that is another thing altogether. And yet, we are commanded to love. Love is not a sentimental feeling, but an act of the will directed toward the good of the beloved regardless of whether or not the beloved “deserves” it. There is not one of us who is too good to wash another's feet. There is not one us who is so evil as to be denied such washing; not even Judas.

Tonight, as we fill these bowls with water and wash each other’s weary feet, we defy all kinds of notions of propriety. In so doing, we may feel uncomfortable, exposed, even a bit silly. Given the many messages we have internalized about what it means to be divine or human, male or female, young or old, gay or straight, rich or poor, undocumented or legal, stepping outside the bounds of what is considered “normal” can feel threatening.

We don’t normally wash the feet of people we know very well, much less those of strangers. Jesus calls us to go even one step further and wash the feet of those who have hurt and betrayed us. The lesson in this is that our willingness to love others through compassionate service must continually transcend the bounds of our safety zone. Jesus’ entire ministry was marked by the courage to challenge social norms that served as barriers to the expression of God’s love. His was not a juvenile flouting of the rules for the sake of self-expression, but a creative and challenging transvaluation of values for the sake of self-giving love. Jesus broke the rules for the sake of those oppressed by the rules.

This ritual of foot washing is an opportunity to examine the many rules, norms, and identities that we have internalized. Whom do they serve? Do they help or hinder me in following Jesus in the way of the Cross? Are they rooted in love, or in fear? As followers of Jesus, we are not called to be nice, or pure, or even politically correct. We are called to be holy, completely open to receiving and sharing God’s love; however foolish, vulnerable, and risky it may seem.

“Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the religious authorities so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 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.” Amen.