April 2, 2015, Maundy Thursday, Year B The Rev. Nancy Gallagher Texts: Exodus 12:1-14, Psalm 116:1, 10-17, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer.
I was introduced to Brené Brown’s essay, “The Power of Vulnerability” while doing a residency as a hospital chaplain. We were exploring the awful feeling of vulnerability that can overwhelm us when we are hospitalized. This essay has stayed with me, this paradox of vulnerability and power. Usually we don’t think of power through vulnerability, we are more likely to think of vulnerability versus power.
We associate vulnerability with those who suffer without power; children in poverty, battered women, those who are homeless. These are the vulnerable—those directly in harm’s way. We often feel the need to push vulnerability away from ourselves, to be big and strong, to assert that we have the power to fix life’s problems ourselves.
Yet we are all vulnerable. Vulnerability is about our soft places where we are least protected and can be most easily hurt, where there is imperfection, where we are not quite enough. Vulnerability is also central in what it is to be human. As humans, we are vulnerable to any number of bad things—to illness, accidents, crime and to death.
Brown, a researcher with a Ph. D. in social work, focuses on human connection—that thing which most fundamentally determines a person’s ability to thrive. As research has long since concluded, we need connection. Connection is why we’re here. It’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. Brown adds the crazy assertion that the key to successful connection is the very thing most of us try to avoid: vulnerably.
Among her research subjects, those who were most in touch with the fact that they could be hurt, could lose, could get it wrong, but went ahead seeking connection anyway were more likely to be happier, to have more satisfying relationships and a higher sense of self-worth. And so these folks had, very simply, the courage to be imperfect. They had the compassion to be kind to themselves first and then to others, because, as it turns out, we can’t practice compassion with other people if we can’t treat ourselves kindly. They had connection, and as a result authenticity — this was the hard part — they were willing to let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they were, which you absolutely have to do for connection.
The other thing that they had in common was this: They fully embraced vulnerability. They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful. They didn’t talk about vulnerability being comfortable, nor did they really talk about it being excruciating. They just talked about it being necessary. They talked about the willingness to say, “I love you” first, the willingness to do something where there are no guarantees, the willingness to breathe through waiting for the doctor to call after your follow up mammogram. They’re willing to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out. They thought this was fundamental.
We seldom associate God with vulnerability. Our hymns and prayers describe a God who is all-powerful and all seeing, using salutations like Almighty God, hymns like What a Mighty Fortress is our God. And then the Incarnation happens. And God is exceedingly human, a helpless baby, made to flee and live as a refugee in Egypt. This is vulnerability. God in Jesus is on the run. And then comes Lent and Holy Week. This is Jesus tormented, tempted, challenged, distrusted and unjustly arrested. Those who love him cannot protect him from what lies ahead. Jesus is struggling; he’s distressed, wishing he could take another road. He knows what he has been asked to do. He sees the risks, feels them and yet goes ahead anyway, letting things unfold, as they will.
On Palm Sunday, amidst our joyous cries of Hosanna! Blessed is the coming kingdom of David! Hosanna! The King of Israel! I think what we wanted was a big, powerful, invincible kind of deity. Someone who would rise up and rescue us from oppression, struggle, and evil with some powerful smiting. But that’s not what we got.
What if Jesus in his full humanity must be vulnerable in order to be fully divine? What if Jesus in his full divinity must be vulnerable in order to be fully human?
Jesus is the one who says, “I love you” to us first; who weeps over us, who trudges toward death knowing it’s the only way to get to resurrection, who acknowledges his betrayer as he washes his feet.
On the night before the crucifixion during dinner, Jesus washes his friends feet. Jesus, knowing he has come from God and is going to God, has the courage to love his own right to the very end. Jesus has the courage to redefine relationships yet once again. Master, Lord, and Teacher, he gives a new commandment that we love one another just as he loves us.
So tonight, when we go up into to the sanctuary after our feast, it will be time to allow our feet to be washed. Our church culture teaches us to be givers to each other. In our announcements we list opportunities to serve, to teach, to feed, to give. We seldom announce opportunities to receive. So we learn to be givers and not receivers.
While most of us are happy to sit quietly aside and not get involved, I still think more of us would be comfortable washing other peoples’ feet than having our own feet washed. This foot washing is just weird, awkward, and inconvenient. Plus our feet aren’t our most attractive body part. Why on earth should we offer ourselves up for the inconvenience of taking off part of our clothes and showing our rough, bumpy, perhaps even ugly feet for our leadership to wash?
For liturgy to be transformative sometimes it has to be awkward, weird, and inconvenient. Our liturgy tonight allows us to practice embracing vulnerability. We could pretend to believe that bare feet might make us both awkward and vulnerable and make us beautiful. We don’t have to be comfortable doing this and I can promise you that it is not excruciating. Your feet will not fall off. No one will laugh at you. Accepting this service, this gift is practice for the really vulnerable times of accepting help or service at when we are ill, in pain, and or in fear. We can practice hearing God’s “I love you” in our sacred stories and see having our feet washed as an act of accepting God’s love. We can pretend we have the willingness to do something where there are no guarantees, the willingness to breathe through awkwardness and anxiety.
Some days I think I would prefer a God who rises up and smites all my enemies, who protects me from pain and risk, and who makes love safe. Although that might put me in line to receive some smiting. So perhaps I don’t want that.
Why on earth should we offer ourselves up for the inconvenience of taking off part of our clothes and showing our rough, bumpy, perhaps even ugly feet for our leadership to wash?
Because Jesus said, “If I don’t wash you, you can’t be part of what I’m doing.” And we want to be part of what Jesus is doing; we want to be part of the Good News.
Here is the Good News. Here is how God loves the world …
God came among us, incarnated as Jesus, not to judge the world, but to save it. God came among us, incarnated as Jesus, to love and to be loved by. God came among us, incarnated as Jesus in order that we might learn from him, to grow with him, to join him as a part of the family of kingdom people. Amen.
I recommend Brené Brown’s TED talks and her books. You’ll find the TED talks on the Internet at https://www.ted.com/speakers/brene_brown.