Overwhelming Intimacy: A Homily for Maundy Thursday

I preached this homily last night at All Souls Unitarian Church, in Tulsa, for our first ever Maundy Thursday Foot Washing Service.

The Washing of the Feet by Ghislaine Howard (2004), Collection-Oxford Brookes University.

I know many of you aren’t used to seeing me up here during a worship service. I’m usually back there, and moving quickly between services on a Sunday morning. But I have done this before, just not here. I was a ministry intern, at East Side Christian Church here in town, and before that, I preached a few times at College Hill United Methodist in Wichita, and at Northwest Christian Church in OKC. And besides working here at All Souls, I am a full-time student at Phillips Theological Seminary, where I am getting my Masters in Theological Studies, with my area of focus being the development of theology in the early Christian church.

So all that to say, you are in good hands tonight.

And in more ways than one, because I know many folks are nervous about the concept of a foot washing ceremony; so let me also say this: I’ve done this before. Several times, in fact. And usually with youth groups. So never fear.

But that discomfort is what I want to focus on tonight. In the time since Joseph and I committed to doing this service, and began planning and executing it, the main reaction we have gotten from folks is one of discomfort. The idea of either exposing your feet and having them touched by someone else, or of touching someone else’s feet, is something that strikes most of us as something intensely intimate and vulnerable. And it makes us ask ourselves: do I want to be that vulnerable? Do I want to be that intimate with these people? With anyone really, anyone besides maybe our partner, or our children.

I know the answer for me, personally, is often “no.” Vulnerability and intimacy are things I struggle with immensely. Emotional depth, sharing intimately with others, wasn’t something I was brought up with, and so is something I’m inherently, almost to a fault, uncomfortable with. It’s not the fault of my parents; I didn’t have a poor, cold upbringing. On the contrary, my child was happy and I never doubted the love of my parents. But white Midwestern Protestantism isn’t exactly known for its expressiveness, and good rural Midwestern folks like my family aren’t known for talking about their feelings. Especially the men. They don’t call us for the “Frozen Chosen” for no reason after all.

But in a day and age when a striking proportion of white, middle America Christians voted for a politics seemingly of borders and boundaries and separation in our most recent election cycle, in a culture where individuality is often taken to a logical extreme of disengagement with those around us, even those closest to us, maybe we need more vulnerable, intimate, and uncomfortable practices in our lives.

I drew a lot of inspiration from an essay in this wonderful book, called “Christianity, Democracy and the Radical Ordinary.” It is a series of essays, letters and lectures between two men: one being Stanley Hauerwas, considered by some to be the preeminent Protestant theologian alive today, and the other being Romand Coles, a political philosopher and humanist thinker and writer. In this book, they explore the tension between democracy and Christianity, and how they can come together in unexpected and disparate ways.

In the essay I draw from, Coles is discussing the writings and practices of Jean Vanier, the French founder of the L’Arche communities, which are non-hierarchical, dignity-preserving homes for special needs adults, in which there isn’t a sense of “us and them” between the caregivers and the cared for. Instead, all are equal and full participants in the creation of the community, each with unique and wonderful gifts to give. Vanier uses the practice of foot washing in the community as a way of leveling the playing field, so to speak, breaking down any hierarchies and power structures through the radical and vulnerable practice of washing another’s feet. The word Vanier uses to describe the sense one gets from the practice, and I really love this, is “overwhelming.” Not bad overwhelming or good overwhelming, but maybe a bit of both.

And the practice is drawn from the Christian tradition, with Maundy Thursday being the night not just of the Last Supper of Jesus and his disciples, but also the night on which Jesus got down on his knees and washed the feet of his disciples during the meal. Needless to say, this was a bit outside of the cultural norms of the time. Coles quotes Rev. Paul D. Duke in the essay, who wrote of the disciples: (pg. 217)

“You can feel them squirming. Their embarrassment is palpable, as enacted by Peter. But the dread is not so much centered in how menial an act Jesus has undertaken for them, as in how painfully intimate it is…The indignity for the disciples resides in their teacher’s disarming initiative to touch them in this way, to bring himself so near and naked to their need, to apply himself to their private rankness, to cleanse for them what they would prefer almost anyone else to cleanse. No wonder Peter resists. He has signed up to follow Jesus, not to have unpleasantness at the foot of his life exposed and handled for him. He prefers the dignity of self-reliance, the fantasy of being heroic…Who can blame him? Who wants to be so powerless, so humbled?””

Who indeed?

But Jesus did this that night with intention. It wasn’t just a gesture, a throwaway act of “servant leadership” that we all hear so often about. Instead, what Jesus understood, and showed so often, was that the love that binds a community together, an authentic and full-natured love for your fellow human beings, isn’t found at arm’s length. It isn’t enacted over small talk during coffee hour or in line at dinner. The foundation of authentic community, that intimate love of neighbor that invokes a sense of shared purpose and direction, is only enacted through moments of deeply personal connection amongst members of the community.

Vanier writes, “A community will always need times of intimacy, just as it will always need times of openness. If it has only one or the other it will die.”

And those moments of connection, of intimacy build something; they are cohesive, like a good glue, that enables that community to hold together in times of stress and strain and tension, in order to continue being a group of people, together, doing good in the world as a whole.

Which, as Vanier says, are just as important. It’s a balancing act: a healthy community requires moments of inwardness, in order to feed moments of outwardness. He writes, “A community that isolates itself will wither and die; a community in communion with others will receive and give life.”

We do outward really really well at All Souls. Our justice teams attest to that. And honestly (And this is the Worship Coordinator in me speaking) we do inward really really well too, with beautiful worship and great moments of fellowship and togetherness.

But do we do intimate? Do we do vulnerable? I’m asking that as an honest question, not as a rhetorical one hinting that we don’t. Many people, I know, do in spaces like soulful circles, or ReWire and Shadz.

But sometimes, we need to get down on our knees, and touch the rankness at another’s feet. We need to wash, and be washed, by those in community with us. And in doing so, we break down walls we may have put up. We enter, each time, into a relationship with that other person, that is built on more than handshakes and conversations about local sports teams. And each of those little moments, one by one, build a foundation that our church, our community, sits upon, and which is awfully hard to shake or crack.

So that’s what I want us to get out of this act tonight. We are going to have our feet washed by one another. And its going to be uncomfortably intimate and vulnerable for many of us. And it;s going to also be overwhelming. But let it. Allow those walls to come down for a moment, and be in that close moment with the person sitting across from you, washing or being washed. And know: this is what community feels like.

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