Act with haste, that is, without prayerful discernment seeking guidance from trusted voices, and action becomes an end in itself. Those who seek to be seen as the hero who sweeps in and saves the day act hastily. Ask anyone who has been caught up in another’s hasty pursuit of hero worship and they’ll tell you such action may look good on the surface, but there is collateral damage aplenty. Is there compassion or consideration in the face of collateral damage, or, willingness to put aside being the hero for the greater good? No. Inevitably, collateral damage, in whatever form it comes, is considered an acceptable loss, and the price of doing business.
Others live with perpetual inaction. Able to articulate and argue relevant points of whatever their issue is with passion – they generate points of consideration without engaging the issue head on. They feed on energy of the problem itself so their motivation to articulate and act upon change is muted by the fear that if the problem is solved, the “stuff” that feeds their lives is gone. They know the issue. They know the problem. But they are crippled to do anything about it. A vicious cycle, that.
The transcendent truth of either approach to life is indeed self-defining.
Maundy Thursday is one of those days when the abstract and absolute, the flesh and the spirit, the universal and the particular collide. It is one of those occasions where “the rubber hits the road.” It reveals through action the character of the One who draws us into this worship space tonight.
It is action that drives us, defines us – makes our liturgical words have meaning. For without action to match the gospel that at once comforts and confronts, affirms and afflicts, inspires and indicts, then we are doing little more than playing mind games and even Karl Marx isn’t right because if religion, in his understanding, is little more than an “opiate for the masses” then I feel gypped because half the time the buzz ain’t that good anyway!
So, action, these actions give meaning to what Jesus has taught. They give meaning to what we believe. They make all this Jesus business real – incarnate.
On this night we focus on an action of Jesus found only in the 4th gospel. Synoptics don’t have it. John, historically considered the last of the canonical gospels written, has a particular agenda – the writer has a bias, (which should surprise no one, don't we all have a bias in whatever point we're seeking to make?) one too often criticized and discounted when placed alongside the synoptic gospels. After all, Matthew, Mark and Luke have particular parallels. John at times, seems out there on his own, and he is.
Only he tells us of the wedding at Cana, the woman at the well, we know of Nicodemus’ visit by night, from which we hear “For God so loved the world…” Only he tells us of the “I am” sayings of Jesus – good shepherd, vine, door, light of the world, bread, way, truth and life. Only in John is Lazarus raised.
And only John has this text – Jesus, at Passover, after sharing table fellowship, takes upon himself an action that will be self-defining from hereon, as it will be for all of us who carry his name.
He, the one called, Rabbi, Teacher, Lord, Messiah, Christ – comes now to assume the role of the menial laborer – the literal dirty work is not beneath him – he embraces it.
To do so was not a choice absent other options or other considerations – it was a matter of integrity. He did this thing, both in the upper room with his disciples, as well as walk the Via Dolorosa because that’s who he is.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross. Philippians 2
To have done anything other than to be a servant, than to identify with the suffering of humankind by embracing the cross, would have been to have missed his moment – the moment when his action told the truth of who he was.In his book “Let Your Life Speak” Parker Palmer talks about integrity – he says:
Jesus did what he did because it was in keeping with who he was. It was whole, it had integrity – in this moment of self-giving, Jesus was not conflicted, neither was he divided. He was who he was – and his actions bespoke that reality.
.. We would be wise to listen intentionally to the voice of our own lives and to discern what our very soul is saying to us in the depths of our being, there where truth abides. As we listen to ourselves, we can become ourselves.
Rarely in your observance of Christian liturgy will you find something so profoundly intimate as the washing of feet. Maybe that’s why it’s not a sacrament (which it should be), there’s really no way to observe this liturgy with integrity without literally touching someone. It’s too close, too intimate. It’s not “churchy.” Getting on our knees and taking off shoes, using water, towels and basins, it’s beneath the dignity of our erudite gathering. To which I say, “right.” It is. But it is supremely of Christ. And if we are going to be “of Christ,” with integrity, then tonight, our action or inaction is, guess what? Dare I say it again? Self-Defining.
And maybe that’s what all this dramatic fuss is about this Holy Thursday night and there following into the Great Three Days. If nothing else, we observe integrity at work. That’s an awe inspiring thing. For to live with integrity is joyful, because in it we are complete. We are fully what we’ve been created to become.
Don’t forget, though, that just because we live with integrity, even joyfully, does not mean our work is pleasant, or that we’re giddy about it.
Ministry is hard. Giving yourself away is hard. Placing yourself in the role of servant and not hero is difficult. Doing ultimate good without lusting for credit for your good works is extraordinarily difficult. If it were easy, wouldn’t more folks be doing it? Instead, too many of us play at Church, play at following Jesus, use our religious pursuits as a contrivance of convenience rather than a covenantal commitment.
Too many of us live that numbed (“I just love my Jesus”) religious life giving credence to Marx’s critique, and that’s a sad thing - it perpetuates the body divided, if not fractured. And it's a choice - I've really come to believe that to live with integrity or not is far more in our control that we'd care to admit.
It’s in your grasp, sisters and brothers – right here, right now. Jesus gathers with us in this room, as he has done with his companions for millennia and says, “here’s who I am, here’s what I’m prepared to do, here are the depths I’m prepared to plunge – for you.” How far are you willing to go? Could it be that tonight it is at least to bended knee with a basin and towel?
Child of God, companion of Jesus – this is the life that we are called to follow – “Listen to your life,” and go where that takes you - you will not know integrity, yourself, God - to the full, until you do.