We usually read this passage on Maundy Thursday so to deal with it this early in Lent gives us the chance to look at it in a very different context. (We have skipped a chapter so it’s worth reading chapter 12… there are lots of connections!)
In this passage the washing of feet happens during dinner!!! During the last supper.
Foot washing didn’t happen during dinner.
It happened when you arrived to wash away the dirt of the journey.
You did it yourself.
Or a slave did it.
So, there this is something else going on here apart from hygiene.
This is a Gospel moment… but we know that. It’s a demonstration of what love looks like. OK.
But it’s also near the end of the road.
Judas is there. The man who leaves and betrays him.
Peter is there. The man who denies even knowing Jesus…
and both get their feet washed, even though Jesus knows what they both will do.
This is an incredible act of love. Way beyond what we might imagine. Jesus loves them despite their anger and doubt and denial.
And what does Jesus do? Something else. There’s no hurry. No rush to see him or any hint that he might save him. So many miracles, so many strangers healed, made whole, restored… why not Lazarus?
Again the story is laden with symbolism but there’s some real raw emotion in here too. Mary and Martha are two of his closest followers and Jesus seems pretty indifferent about their brother’s fate. I wonder how they felt about Jesus at that point?
Of course it all turns out well in the end… or does it? Lazarus will spend the rest of his life as the man who died. And not just for a moment. He was dead for days. Long enough for decay and stench to set in.
How do you come back from that and live?
How do you come out of the darkness of the tomb back into the light?
But that’s exactly the point… I AM the resurrection says Jesus.
I love when someone asks,”Can we do ….?”. Mostly the answer is easy… YES!!! (And why are you asking me? It’s YOUR church!)
A Burns Supper… a family meal with poems, dancing, song and speeches. And this is what it looked like. 150 people of all ages enjoying haggis, neeps and tatties, the talents of children and adults and, most importantly, being together in community.
And it was brilliant.
But, so what?
Look at the picture. Do you see what’s happening?
We could have had separate tables but the long tables meant people were sitting next to other people they might not know, that older people were sitting next to young children, that people made new friends.
I used to have a colleague that talked about planning moments of spontaneity. I love the idea that what we do is to create the space and the opportunity for stuff to happen… and then get out of the road. One of the biggest temptations in ministry is to fill the space, to programme every moment and to make sure there is no opportunity to go off course.
As I read a large chunk of the story of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion this morning I was struck, not for the first time, by the role of the Empire.
Pilate is the Roman Governor and so plays the part of the Empire in political terms. He tries Jesus and finds no crime but does the will of the people because politics isn’t about right and wrong, it’s about getting things done. Pilate’s conversation with Jesus is fascinating. Throughout we read again and again that Pilate is astonished and amazed because Jesus refuses to play the political game.
The whole pattern of the crucifixion mirrors the coronation of the emperor. It’s a subversion of the story of power. Right from the first line of the first Gospel, Mark, we see this counter story laid out.
The beginning of the good news (gospel) of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. (Mark 1:1)
For us that seems like an obvious, even bland introduction. But it’s not. It’s a hugely loaded political statement. It says Jesus is Lord… not Caesar. The Roman Empire spread ‘peace’ across the known world through fear and violence. The Emperor was a god and ruled as such.
Jesus is the opposite. He has no army, no political ambition to rule or to dominate. He does have one thing… authority. And it terrifies those in power. Pilate can see it. The religious leaders can see it. And their Empires can’t live with it.
Empire stretches far beyond the rule of Rome. The religious Empire was just as powerful. Even the Roman governor is scared of facing off against them. They have contained and codified God. They have quite literally put God in a box in a room that nobody is allowed to go into, even though the box isn’t there anymore. They have regulated how and where and when God should be worshipped. They have decided what is and is not pleasing to God, what behaviour will be tolerated and what rituals must be performed. They even dish out the punishments, including death, when people break the religious rules.
This Empire can’t cope with a God who isn’t angry and vengeful. This Empire doesn’t know what to do with grace.
So, when this Jesus comes along and challenges both Empires by being all that they should be but are not, there can be only one outcome… he has to die.
If Good Friday teaches us anything it surely has to be some kind of lesson about power. A king who washes feet, who has compassion and love for the poor and the sick, who has no place to live, never mind a palace, who has no army or uniform and no claim over territories or governments or countries, stands before the might of two empires and is executed in a brutal manner on a garbage heap. Power and ambition and rules and authority and fear and hatred win…
Each time we try to claim Christ as ours and ours alone, each time we try to create rules and regulations, to enforce our way of thinking or our way of doing it, or when we just plain want our way, we join the empire and take the side of domination. We stand with the crowd, shouting “Crucify him!”
I’ve just spent a few days at college considering play and creativity in the context of church. I have lots of notes and thoughts, but the one that has stuck with me is about space to play and create art.
Play is at the centre of creativity.
Play is about trying things out. It’s about testing ideas, positions, opinions and options by imagining what they would be like without committing to them. Art then, at least partly, capturing what you discover as you play. This process of imagining something then making it if done reflectively can be a spiritual practice.
That must surely begin with a playful attitude, the expectation that church is a place that encourages and enables play and art and creativity. And that means you! Yes, YOU!
So, how do we create both the expectation and the space for our churches and communities to be creative places?
I don’t think it’s accidental that Messy Church and Godly Play have been two of the most successful things to happen to the church for years. Why? Because they centre around play. Spill the Beans works in a similar way because it centres on story, a playful and imaginative exploration of an incident or idea.
The strength of these approaches is perhaps that they don’t expect masterpieces, just that you take part and see what happens.
That your contribution is valued and valid…
no matter what your art teacher told you at school.
I’m fed up with church being about finding the one, correct answer. The idea that a parable has one right, correct and universal meaning is just nonsense. They are stories designed to make us think, imagine, test, explore and create meaning. So, how else can we explore these meanings except by play and art?
The kingdom of God is like…
Imagine is the kingdom of God is like…
‘is like’ is an invitation to imagine.
What if it is like:
a man in a field
a box of treasure
a prodigal son
or whatever else we are invited to imagine.
How does that playful, fun, imaginative engagement help us to understand more about God, life and each other?
I have all kinds of issues with that statement, but for now it can just be a few words that give context to what follows.
Part of my training is to spend time with the Scottish Episcopal Institute studying a diploma in theology for ministry. I had very little experience of the Episcopal Church prior to this so their use of written liturgy and the way they celebrate the Eucharist (communion) was odd to me. I had never experienced a sung compline or evensong. My experience up to now had been of preaching box churches, cubes of Mother’s Pride and shot glasses with a varying quality of content, all ‘dispensed’ in a way which is often the antithesis of communal. But that is my primary experience. Most of the other times I’ve participated in communion have been in ‘informal’ gatherings with a common cup and a lump of bread which feel more communal but sometimes lack a sense of connectedness to much beyond the people we are with at that time.
I know that church is odd, but because of my previous experience with my brand of oddity I thought Episcopalian liturgical practice was just plain weird. It sits a little uncomfortably with my view of ‘priesthood’ and what happens when we celebrate the eucharist, but there is also something about it that speaks to me. There is great depth in the weirdness which seems perhaps to be missing in what I’m used to.
So, confronted with this ancient ritual and drama, I wonder a little more about what we think church is, and is not, and what we might have gained and lost in our rush to be ‘relevant’.
If you search back on this very blog I’m sure you’ll find me railing against a church that finds itself ‘irrelevant’, and I still believe that to be true. The relevance I hope for is that what we do helps people to connect with God, each other and their communities. That relevance is captured in what we do and say, not necessarily in adopting the latest cultural fad or style.
This would be the stage that you point at me and call me middle aged, expose my growing ‘conservatism’ and wonder what happened to the rebellious youth…
He’s still here. I hope.
I’m still passionate about people who lead worship being creative, engaging and taking risks, but all that happens within and around a central act where we gather around a table and break bread and share wine together. We join in a great and mysterious act that binds us together with what was, what is and what is to come.
“I want a service that is not sensational, flashy, or particularly ‘‘relevant.’’ I can be entertained anywhere. At church, I do not want to be entertained. I do not want to be the target of anyone’s marketing. I want to be asked to participate in the life of an ancient-future community.”
That’s nothing less than radical. That’s nothing less than transformative. That’s nothing less than deeply relevant.
And it’s weird. And I like that.
I’ve come to like the use of the same words at the same point. The words of Compline have become dear to me and the appearance of some of those words in my mother’s funeral service struck a real chord, exposing that deep connectedness again.
It’s there that relevance lies for me. In the depths, not the shallows.
It’s in the words of our rites and rituals. It’s in the words of carefully crafted sermons. It’s in the poetry of prayer.
Some of the mystery and life in those words is in the speaking of them. Rob Bell told a story in a recent podcast of his preaching class at seminary where a student preached a very boring sermon. The teacher picked up the script and started to read the same words… The class were amazed. It turned out that the words were great, it was the initial presentation that was lacking.
Church is weird.
I hope it stays that way.
But I also hope we can remember that the weird stuff we do and say needs to be done and said well.