Humble Service

Exodus 12: 1-8, 11-14; ICor 11: 23-26; John 13: 1-15

One thing that Pope Francis reminds us of all the time is our gospel mandate to serve the poor. He says we are a “Church that is poor for the poor.” Certainly there is a superficial element to it when it comes to material goods and the greed, as he often says that accompanies it in the Western World, but there’s also a deeper meaning to it and a deeper longing that it often comes from deep within us, a place of poverty that yearns for us to be. Our avoidance of it so often in our lives leads us to where we do find ourselves in the world with countries like our own about accumulating while others lack beyond our imagination. It says something about our own poverty and what it is we are being invited into on this three day retreat and how we use the symbols that are a part of these days to lead us there.

On this first night, we hear a familiar gospel from John of the washing of the disciples feet as he too leads them to a place of poverty within themselves in what appears to be a rather uncomfortable position for them. The first symbol we encounter in the passage is Jesus disrobing. For the disciples of that time, something like that would have been scandalous, accompanied by the fact that the leader of this movement will then go on to wash their feet; unheard of. But as this liturgy goes on this evening we will do the same thing to this altar. Before we leave we will leave this space in a rather unusual place. None of us would do it if we were expecting guests in our own homes; we’d want it to look the best and for everyone to see what we’re about. We move away from that place of poverty within ourselves and put on a show. But the service that Jesus mandates this evening is quite the opposite. Disrobing, the stripping of the altar, the bending down, the place of humility calls the disciples and us to a different kind of service.

We are often much more comfortable with the service that we can do indirectly. There’s no harm in it all, but a Church that is poor and for the poor demands something different from each of us, to go out and within to where we are most uncomfortable, most vulnerable, and allow ourselves to be exposed as Jesus does and as we will do to this space as the evening wears on and in turn allow ourselves to be changed. John’s Gospel is predominantly about conversion of heart and it’s done by being led to those vulnerable places in our lives, humbling us, bending down, disrobing, allowing ourselves to be exposed, not to change the other but to allow our own hearts to be changed. We heard that in the weeks leading up to this point with the Woman at the Well, The Blind Man, and the Raising of Lazarus.

It was a concern for Paul as well as we are invited into Corinth today. Paul was aware even at this point that the poor were being separated from the community celebration of breaking bread. The community began to become elitist and separating itself from anyone that it deemed worthy to participate. If they were allowed it was at a different time than everyone else. In many ways, to eat the scraps left over. There was a disconnect in the mandate of the gospel to serve. Although John doesn’t come out of this community, he does originate from one of Paul’s communities and in many ways takes it all a step further. Paul lays the groundwork for this theological basis for what’s going on and then John puts skin to it and makes it real, bringing it down to earth and what it means to serve on a deeper level. It is obvious that Paul and John knew and had allowed themselves to be taken to that place of poverty within themselves and their lives are changed for ever, while remaining connected to their larger story of faith.

That’s what we hear in the first reading today from Exodus and the Passover celebration. Our Jewish brothers and sisters just a few days ago told this very story around their tables. They tell the story not to take them backwards to that place, but rather as a reminder of their story and their own journey, as a people and community, to that place of great struggle and poverty in their lives. They mustn’t ever forget who they are and where they had come from and so the telling of the story and the participation in the great symbols of the faith lead them to a place of change in their own hearts.

These days are filled with many symbols as our the readings we are invited to enter into this day. Some would say that John’s story of the washing of the disciples feet was one used in early baptisms, connecting what it was all about and the service that was being demanded of them. It throws everything off kilter from the other gospels because it’s out of order, happening not during the Passover, that somehow this Christ was breaking through even at this very moment, from the depths of their being, that place of poverty within.

The challenge for us to allow all the symbols to speak to us and to lead us to that place of conversion in our lives. It may be the bending down, the washing of feet, the humbling movement, the stripping of the altar, disrobing as Jesus does. Which of the symbols makes us most uncomfortable? That’s so often the place that God is trying to break through in our lives. This isn’t just about Holy Thursday and all we have made it out to be over the years. Rather, for John, it’s already about Easter. Lent has ended and we enter into the great feast. John is going to ask how we make resurrection a part of our lives in this moment, and this evening it comes in the form of humbling service from that place of poverty within. We are a Church that is poor for the poor, but maybe in ways we don’t always expect. Allow the symbols to speak and to change what it is we hold onto in our lives, now being washed away in the humble giving of Jesus, and as Peter eventually teaches us today, through our humble reception of that giving. That’s the point of change, the point of conversion in our lives.

Make America Great Again?

Please note…just because I’m using Make America Great Again as the title of this blog, it in no way means I support the candidacy of Donald Trump. This is a spiritual reflection on why I think that slogan works and a deeper meaning behind such a statement. This is simply one perspective on a much more complex issue.

It is said that there is a beginning to everything. Certainly there is a beginning to our lives, a beginning to a relationship and marriage, even a beginning to an end. Something that I have reflected upon greatly these past years is the beginning of that end for the United States, happening on a fateful day back in 2001, September 11th. Any of us alive can remember where we were and what we were doing. I can still remember the silence that night as I walked on the grounds of the seminary, very few cars and no planes flying overhead. There was something distinctly haunting about the whole experience.

If we study the development of human beings, there is nothing that takes a toll more than trauma, to the body and the psyche. We have certainly seen that as part of the cost of war, the ongoing violence in our cities, and terror that is thrown upon us with no warning. Think about the amount of disbelief we had when those planes struck. I can still visualize them slamming into the World Trade Center and the ash heap next to the Pentagon. It was said even then, terror struck at the heart of this country. Of course we now know the other plane was also enroute to similar locations but cut short by courage. Just think about it, the heart of who we are, the epicenter of both the military and finances both struck, and yet we describe that as our heart. Is it really the heart of who we are as people, as country, or better yet, should it be? They’re questions for all of us to reflect upon.

But something happened that day. When trauma hits an individual, as I said, it does something to the psyche and the body. It wants to shut down and the mind wants to keep reliving it, over and over again, an ongoing nightmare. In the span of literally minutes, any illusion we tried to cast upon the world about who we are had been shattered. We were the country that couldn’t be hit, invincible. We were the youngest on the playground, still filled with such innocence. Yet, in those very moments, it all came crashing down and the illusion we portrayed showed its dark side. For a period of time we sat in disbelief but then it became time to react, and we did. We would do anything to try to recreate the illusion of something that was never real in the first place but a persona we felt we needed to portray and one that protected us from any outside harm.

Since then, it has seemed like a patchwork, trying every which way to recreate the illusion rather than collectively allowing ourselves to stop and fall into the question of identity that it opened up for us. We’ve managed to continue to fight wars now for longer than we could have imagined. We’ve also allowed ourselves to be duped into believing we needed to somehow shore up the banks a few years back, for fear of a total collapse. If we can learn anything from our history and certainly of the great empires that have existed over the centuries, is that they all eventually fall. An illusion of greatness and strength, built on realities that will not last, such as war and greed will undoubtably fall, and as usual, just as our faith has tried to teach us, those on the bottom are the ones who are most impacted, the normal everyday folk who work to make ends meet from week to week, scraping pennies together, sending their kids off to war, and for what? To try to defend an illusion that for all intensive purposes, crumbled before our very eyes on that beautiful day in September. Everything we thought we were was no more and all we can do is seek out a new way, a new greatness, one with greater depth, a truer identity and a heart that had gotten lost by divisiveness, darkness, despair, war, and greed, among other things.

In walks Donald Trump and this campaign to make America great again. How can anyone argue against that? But the question we never seem to follow up with is, but what made us great to begin with? Was it winning as he suggests or better yet, strength that we can somehow destroy every enemy out there, a restoration of authority to the rest of the world that we’re back. But is it once again, merely an illusion of what once was. Growing up I think about what made America great. Now growing up in small town Pennsylvania seemed rather vanilla. But I learned of this sense of the melting pot that first established this country. Give me your tired and your poor, yearning to be free. Somehow there was a sense of unity despite and in relation to our diversity. That’s what made us great and different from the rest, our greatest strength.

Times have changed and sure there are still people I meet that want their kids to have it better than them; that too has been part of our greatness. However, I’ve also met a lot more younger people, the next generation, that has a respect for the other and a willingness to seek out the common good for all people, but in particular, the poor. The greatness and strength of a country is often grounded in how it treats the poor. But in the process of trying to rebuild the illusion of what was, we’ve had to play the victim game and with the victim game comes the blame game. We fight and we divide, but all of it comes down to that very question of what makes us great in the first place, and for that matter, what will once again make us great.

There is a struggle for the soul of this country, if we can move beyond the superficialities and our politics that has often taken the place of our moral compass. The illusion wants and lives off of us fighting and reaching for something that could never be attainable and will never fulfill and decide how we go forward. If making us great again is built on more war and the endless pursuit of defeating enemies, greed and the stockpiling of money, then we will once again find ourselves casting an image of a country that just isn’t anymore, and for that matter, never was. If we look at it in terms of development, the United States has reached a critical time. Not in the sense that politicians like to portray it, as an impending apocalypse, but rather as a time to grow up and become no longer the kid on the playground, often bullying others around, but rather a responsible adult who finds strength through its people and the very heart and soul that can give us the true strength, direction, and life we desire. That’s how America can be great.

The election gives us all pause to reflect upon what we want, yet, distracted by smoke and mirrors and clashes of personality that in the end helps no one, certainly not this country nor the world. It’s time for us to grieve what was lost and that’s ok. That’s what adults do. We weep for what was, knowing in faith, that it’s the only way for a new direction to be revealed. I have never lost hope in the country, despite what has unfolded the past years, because I believe with all my heart that this is where we are. And you know what, I’ve been there and so have many others. What I thought made me great as a child no longer seems to fit and no longer works. Scripture tells us through Paul, “When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things.” He goes onto say that giving up chilling things challenges me to think about what I value. As a country, it’s time for us to ask the tough questions and not be so glib and quick to react, but rather to reflect on what we really want and desire as a nation. That can only happen when we allow it all to fall away, all that will pass, and seek what lies at the heart of who we are and what we are. Our history has not always been great because we sought greatness through an illusion all too often. At this moment in history, we the people, in order to form a more perfect union, must seek the greater good, the greater strength, that can only come from deep within our very being. Yeah, it is time to make America great again, but it’s time to root it in reality and a strength that comes from our ability to love, not an illusion nor war nor money, but the people that make it up from wherever they have come, seeking a better life, a great life, that only this country can offer.