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In John’s Gospel we hear:
‘Jesus knew that God had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.’
This story presents a great scandal of the Christian faith. That Jesus the Son of God humbled himself and took on the role of a servant. As a servant he stripped off his robe and in his underpants knelt down to bathe and dry the feet of his followers.
Peter didn’t want Jesus to do it. In part I suspect because Peter realized that he would be asked to do the same for others.
There is something particularly intimate and humbling about kneeling at the feet of another, washing their dirty, smelly feet. There is something particularly unsettling about Jesus the Christ serving in such a way.
Last Good Friday Pope Francis created controversy when he visited a shelter for youth living on the streets of Rome. As with Jesus the Pope kneeled down, washed and kissed the feet of the young people. The controversy was heightened when Pope Francis washed and kissed the feet of a girl and a Muslim boy. He was rebuked by some in the Church because it was so ‘unseemly’.
Pope Francis is being embraced within and beyond the Christian tradition because he understands the scandal of Jesus. He understands that God came in humility to show us how to live by showing us how to love. In Jesus we learn that compassion has come not just for some but for everyone, those who are like us and those who are different.
There’s something profoundly unsettling that God’s own child would come to serve in this most humble of ways. The great paradox of the way of Jesus is that the path to spiritual enlightenment comes only through a life of humility and service. Its a great mystery that we find our self as we give our self away.
As always the opportunity to serve and find is extended to you and me. May the scandal of Holy Week continue to unsettle and inspire.
Elizabeth O’Connor was a co-founder of Church of the Savior, a radical church formed in the 1950’s in Washington D.C. She along with Gordon Cosby put into practice the core words of Jesus in Matthew 25: 40 “Whatever you do unto the most vulnerable of my sisters and brothers you do unto me.”
Never focused on brick and mortar this church opened free medical clinics, summer camps for inner city kids, workshops on leadership development, a hospice for street people, micro loans, and the list goes on and on. Always their work was rooted in the radical teachings of Jesus to love and include those of us on the margins. For this church, works of compassion and advocacy became a mystical place for meeting the risen Christ.
Evelyn O’Connor wrote: “When the church starts to be the church, it will constantly be adventuring out into places where there are no tried and tested ways. If the church in our day has few prophetic voices to sound above the noises of the street, perhaps in large part it is because the pioneering spirit has become foreign to it. It shows little willingness to explore new ways. Where it does it has often been called an experiment. We would say that the church of Christ is never an experiment, but wherever that church is true to its mission it will be experimenting, pioneering, blazing new paths, seeking how to speak the reconciling Word of God to its own age.”
It’s been said that we live in a post-Christian era. In part this refers to our increasingly diverse culture that finds meaning in many places both religious and secular. The church is just one of many voices competing to be heard. In many ways this is good. It is easy to become complacent even arrogant when you are in the majority.
In many ways for the Christian movement the twenty-first century is similar to that of the first century. First century Christ followers like Paul, Peter, Lydia and Silas realized that they were but a minority voice and fueled by their passion went out into the public realm to share their story.
Two thousand years later we are once again a minority voice. The question is will we stay hidden away in isolated enclaves? Or will we like the early church, (and like Church of the Savior) be willing to let go of what is comfortable and familiar and become a part of the wider community where we can serve, learn from and share with a wonderful mix of perspectives and traditions.
It takes courage to leave the familiarity of what is. It means having clarity that you have something of importance to share. But it also requires a spirit of humility, that those with a different belief have something of value to offer as well.
In the fourth century, a bishop in the fledgling way of Jesus, Augustine of Hippo in North Africa said this:
“Do not think you must speak the truth to a Christian but can lie to a ‘pagan’. You are speaking to your brother or sister, born like you from Adam and Eve: realize all the people you meet are your neighbors even before they are Christians; you have no idea how God sees them. The ones you mock for worshiping stones … may worship God more fervently than you who laughed at them…. You cannot see into the future, so let every one be your neighbor.”
For those of us who love what the church can be and love the way of Jesus, this is a challenging and exciting time. The days of waiting for people to come to us are over. Are we ready to leave the safety of our buildings? Are we clear on what we have to offer? And, are we open to the blessings, the wisdom that other traditions and voices have to offer to us?
To say ‘yes’ is to be open to being changed. To say ‘yes’, is to know that we don’t journey alone. It was true in the first century and it is true today.
This past weekend I gathered with friends for a weekend ski trip. The six of us have known each other since High School and in some cases since elementary school. Having lived in other parts of the country for much of my adult life, these times with life-long friends are to be savored.
We’ve lived long enough to know that friendship, both new and longtime are not to be taken for granted. On this trip we remembered our good friend Larry who died of cancer over a year ago. Larry was a graceful skier with a playful spirit and as we skied down the mountain we sensed his presence.
In gathering we were mindful of the many blessings in our lives. But we were also mindful of struggles and losses that each of us have experienced. Rather than dampening our mood we made a conscious choice to celebrate the gift of being together. We laughed and played and skied with joy.
Richard Rohr in his wonderful book,’Falling Upward: Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life’, says by the second half of life we’ve been humbled, stumbled and fallen on our nose. Our struggles may have come from poor choices but more often by circumstances beyond our control. Paradoxically says Rohr, it is when we struggle that we become most open to that which is most important. The painful times says Rohr can help clarify that which we hold most dear.
For this group of childhood friends, now in our late 50’s we have lived long enough to know that the gift of a good friendship is something to give thanks for, a gift to savor. So we gathered for our annual ski trip to Loon Mountain. We skied remembering those no longer with us and we skied with gratitude for those who remain by our side.
(Photo of ‘the boys’ left to right: Frank, Rob, Dave, Tom, Clyde, Kent)
Thich Nhat Hahn the Buddhist monk speaks about the practice of ‘mindfulness’. He says: “When I walk I know I am walking. When I eat I know I am eating. When I see I know I am seeing.” His words remind us to be fully present to what we are doing.
I recently heard a TED talk on the theme of anxiousness. Several presenters mentioned that as we multi-task in life our anxiety level rises in proportion to our busyness. Those who are least anxious are those who are able to live in the now, to be present to what is.
I was thinking about this a few days ago on a drop-dead gorgeous afternoon in Massachusetts. After a historic winter with over 8 feet of snow and numbing single digit temperatures, my wife and I went snowshoeing on a sunny Saturday and a balmy 30 degrees.
We went to a local state park whose trails were busy with cross-country skiers, snowshoeing and romping dogs. People greeted each other with: “Today is perfect!”
After a long grey winter the days were warming, Spring was but a few weeks off and we
that this snow which had seemed never-ending was to be enjoyed, even savored. As I walked in my snowshoes I tried to walk mindful of the beauty that was before me. I tried to be in the moment, pausing often to bask in the sun and enjoy the beauty of freshly fallen snow.
As I walked I knew I was walking. As I breathed I knew I was breathing. As I shouted:”Woo hoo!”I knew I was shouting.
In 1997 a Scot named William Dalyrmple wrote a book called ‘From this Holy Mountain’. He travelled in the footsteps of a Christian monk, John Moschos, who lived in the 6th century. Moschos went on pilgrimage to Christian monasteries in what are now the modern day countries of Greece, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and Egypt. It was a time when the Christian majority was giving way to the growth of Islam.
Travelling in 1997 aided by the journal of this 6th century monk, Dalyrmple visited those same monasteries. A minority continued to flourish (particularly in Greece and Egypt), most however hung on with a few caretakers or in ruins. What he found was an uneasy coexistence between the Muslim majority and the Christian minority. But what seemed inevitable given the trajectory was a time when no Christians would remain in their historic homeland.
One area where Christians were thriving in 1997 was Syria, with approx. 20% of the population being Christian. Given that Syria was ruled by a secular dictatorship of the Assad family, minority groups including Christians were paradoxically allowed freedom of religion. The Christians worried what would happen to their fragile freedom if the secular dictatorship were replaced by Islamic extremists.
Now we see an unintended consequence of the destabilizing of the Assad government (as with the ouster of Saddam Hussein in Iraq). The vaccume of power has unleashed widespread persecution of Christians. In today’s news it was reported that 150 Assyrian Christians were kidnapped by ISSIS (Islamic State) in NE Syria.
Assyrian Christians have been a community since the first century and are referenced by the Apostle Peter in 1 Peter 5:13. They have survived persecution throughout their history including an attempted genocide by the Ottoman Turkish Empire in 1915. As a people they have fled from place to place seeking freedom to worship and walk in the way of Jesus.
Today more Assyrian Christians live outside the middle east than within their ancestral lands. Even today they speak Aramaic which was the language that Jesus was believed to have spoken. For those of us who are Christian this little known group is a living link to the earliest days of the church and to Jesus himself.
Dalyrimple in his 1997 journey found holy places venerated by both Muslims and Christians where both groups lived and worshipped together. This was particularly true around places of healing and fertility where saints were venerated. Such places of common ground had occurred since the 6th century but now are rare.
Now Islamic extremists such as ISSIS have twisted Islam to fit their message of intolerance and hatred. If left unchecked a day may arise in the foreseeable future when there is no longer a place for minorities such as Yazides, Bedouins or ancient Christian sects such as the Assyrian Church. When that day comes all of humanity will be diminished.
Join me in praying for these 150 kidnapped Assyrian Christians and for all who suffer intolerance and persecution. Let us pray and work to build bridges of understanding and hope.