We’ve all Got Feet–A sermon for Maundy Thursday

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Maundy Thursday 2016
Rev. Anna Woofenden
The Garden Church, San Pedro, CA

Listen to the Audio

In 2008 I came down with a debilitating illness, one that put me on disability for months, and for many weeks of that had me lying on my friends’ couch, only able to walk tentatively to the bathroom and back, the rest of the time only able to lie on the couch. I had always prided myself in being a self-sufficient person, living on my own, taking care of my home, traveling solo, unplugging clogged disposals and changing car tires, taking meals to those who needed them, and being the one who was always available to help others. I didn’t need help, I didn’t need other people, I could do it all myself.

Until… I couldn’t do any of it myself. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t cook for myself. Or do laundry. Or drive. I couldn’t work. Or be productive. Or useful. Or accomplish things. And all I could do was be there. And receive. And be taken care of. And receive the love and care from others.

I will never forget the Maundy Thursday service that year. Even in my weak state, I didn’t want to miss the service. So a friend picked me up and drove me to church. She helped me walk slowly inside, where I was able to direct the final decorating and setting up of this service that every other year I had been intimately involved in preparing for and leading, and giving to others. It was a joy to be around the table with these people I loved, and to participate in worship with them. I soaked up the candles and the taste of the lamb in my mouth, and preciousness of being together in community.

And then it came time for foot washing. We drew names out of a bowl, and one by one, people came and took the hand of another and brought them up to the front of the sanctuary and washed their feet. I sat there in the candlelight, waiting and wondering. And then, a familiar hand came towards me. It was the pastor, but not just our pastor; this was my colleague, and dear friend. The person who, along with his wife and family (who already had a house filled with small children at the time) had been taking care of me during the months of my illness.

This was the person who had been cooking food that I could eat, and making sure I ate it. This was also the person who had been without a co-worker for all these weeks and months, and had been doing both his job and mine at church. The person who, probably more than anyone else, had been affected by my illness, and by the fact that I was not able to be doing things for others, let alone take care of myself. This was the person who was reaching out to follow Jesus’ example, love one another as I have loved you, wash each other’s feet. And I was the person who was to receive it.

10152019_1773450689554298_796215167823181571_nWe gather around tables tonight, to celebrate Maundy Thursday, Maundy, the mandatum, the mandate, the command to love one another, picturing and creatively wondering what it would have been like to be with Jesus that last night before his crucifixion as they gathered in that upper room in Jerusalem to share the Passover meal together.

This Passover meal had been being celebrated over the decades and centuries, since the Children of Israel, held as slaves in Egypt had first celebrated this meal on the eve of their liberation. Remembering how on God’s command, they had marked the doorposts of their homes with the blood from a lamb, as a sign that the angel of death should pass over them. They had eaten the bitter herbs and baked the unleavened bread, all eaten in preparation, as they were ready to make their move to freedom the next day. And this feast, remembered and celebrated every year since, in the years as they wandered through the desert, through the decades, to the Passover meal Jesus celebrated with his disciples, through the centuries to this day. The Passover is celebrated, and the God of liberation, the God who calls us to free those in bondage and free each other, is always moving in the way of liberation for captives, and freedom from the things that hold each of us in bondage.

As we share in our Passover meal together, we’re invited to continue to reflect on these questions as we share this meal of invitation, of liberation, of freedom. As we eat the lamb, we’re reminded of the innocence that God places within each one of us, the innocence that believes that joy is possible, the innocence that despite all the painful and hard things we’ve experienced, can still reach out for freedom and hope. We share the bitter herbs, reminding us of the temptations, the struggles along the way. That there are struggles, and they are part of the meal as well. We share the bread, the bread of life, God’s love incarnate in the world, and we remember the Love that is present here and present in our world, available to all.

12670549_1773483089551058_6020044807004343430_nIt’s during this feast of Passover, as Jesus and his disciples celebrated it in Jerusalem that year, around that table in the upper room that what we now refer to as “the Last Supper” was celebrated. It was during that meal that Jesus took the bread and blessed it and broke it and said, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”

And so, for the years and decades and centuries since, people have been gathering together around tables, throughout the world, in different languages and places and cultures, and doing this in remembrance of Jesus. In remembrance of these acts of love. Sometimes humans have gotten hung up on the who and the how and what of this sacred act. But the Spirit persists, and keeps calling us back to the table—God’s table—where all are welcome to feed and be fed. Expressing and experiencing the expansive love of God and the reciprocal love of other people.

And then, on that Last Supper Passover evening, Jesus takes the embodiment of love a step further, showing us how to love one another, as vulnerable as it can be. That last evening with his disciples, he took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself, poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. After he had washed their feet, put on his robe, and returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

5515_1773450799554287_3634859720897877678_nJesus gives us this command, to love one another, and then shows us an example of what that looks like. By humbling ourselves to each other, being willing to wash each other’s feet, yes, but maybe even more difficult for many of us, by being willing to have our feet washed by others.

Receiving the expansive love of God and the reciprocal love of others, means being vulnerable, admitting that we can’t do it all ourselves, to need each other, to care for each other. And that isn’t always easy, and it’s usually messy, and we may feel a little uncomfortable, vulnerable, shy. Because really seeing each other, following Christ’s example to love one another, it’s the real deal. It’s not something that can be kept clean and pristine, something we just talk about or think about. Following Jesus’ command to love one another means engaging with the messiness of life, helping others and letting them help us.

This vulnerability, this realness, is embedded in this very act of washing feet, because friends, Jesus washed His disciples’ feet because they were dirty. They hadn’t gone out to get their Maundy Thursday pedicures in preparation for this service. These men and women had been walking in the hot, dusty, Palestinian streets, wearing sandals; no doubt their feet were probably filthy, and dry, and in need of some attention. Jesus washed His disciples’ feet because they needed washing. And He told them, “as I have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet, for I have set you an example…do as I have done to you.”

12524248_1773483266217707_8263322057590132625_nFriends we all have feet. We all have feet. And we all have the parts of our lives that have been walking through the dust. That are messy, that are dirty, and that we don’t want to share with anyone. And being willing to take off our shoes, even our socks, and say to another person, “Yup, I’ve got feet just like you, I’ve got parts of my life that aren’t as pristine and put together as I would like to be.” I’ve got parts of myself that I have to say, “I can’t do it all by myself.” I have to receive. “These are the feet that Jesus washed, these are the feet that we’re commanded to love and wash for each other.

Just as the disciples let their teacher, their guide, their friend, bend down and wash their feet, as he saw them for who they are—messy, vulnerable, hurting, beautiful, and beloved people. Not loved because of how they got it right, because certainly the disciples rarely did. Not because of following the rules perfectly; Jesus was often breaking the cultural norms himself. Not because of what they had accomplished, or how they looked, or any other thing that we believe makes us worthy to be loved. No, Jesus bent down and washed his disciple’s feet just because he loved them. As they were. Dirty toe nails and all. Whole and messy, vulnerable and beautiful, loved, loved, loved. And then Jesus tells us to love each other, and do likewise.

12799411_1773464592886241_5030245574190186351_nOn that Maundy Thursday in 2008, I felt this love. As my friend and colleague came and took my hand and asked, “May I wash your feet?” and then bent down and carefully poured the warm water over my weak feet and dried them with a towel.

In a place of deep vulnerability, where I could not do it all myself or be “just be fine on my own,” I was shown love. Shown the love that is always available from God, no matter whether we feel we deserve it or not, and shown the love that the Lord invites us to show each other.

The love that we have we have an opportunity to share with each other, to be in community together, as we follow this command of Christ, love one another as I have loved you. Go now and do likewise…

Amen.

Wrestling Vulnerability

Jacob-Wrestles-with-God

Sermon for Richmond Church of the Brethren
Richmond, Indiana

January 12th, 2013
Genesis 32:22-32
Audio:

I will love the light for it shows me the way,
yet I will endure the darkness because it shows me the stars.

–Og Mandino

Og Mandino’s words echo with me as I ponder our text for today. I wonder if Jacob would have had the self-reflection to speak these words the night he stood by the ford of Jabbok after wrestling all night? I wonder how he framed the feelings that churned inside him as he prepared to face his estranged brother, the brother that he had so much to apologize for; the brother who he feared would meet him with retaliation and violence?

Oh Jacob the “grabber,” or the “supplanter” the one who had tried to seize his twin brother Esau and pull him back into the womb as they were being born so that he could be the first-born and all that would offer him. Teen-age Jacob, who having failed at his pre-birth acquisition of inheritance and power, tricks his twin by taking advantage of him as he returned famished at the end of a long day, by offering the immediacy of a meal in exchange for Esau’s claim on the family inheritance. A trade which Esau later responded to with the vow to kill Jacob, which understandably sent Jacob fleeing far away to his Uncle Laban’s home, where he met his wife, Rebecca, and lived and grew his family for many years far away from his brother and from the retribution that seemed inevitable.

It is at this moment in time that we pick up the text this morning. Jacob is now returning to his family land and preparing to meet this brother that he had wronged so many years ago.

I picture Jacob, sitting surrounded by scrubby grass, on a rocky shore, near the edge of the Jabbok River. He has sent his family across ahead of him, where they are camped safely on the other side. But he hung back, and as the night fell he was left alone on the side of the river. I see him—a thick garment wrapped around his shoulders, his knees pulled up by body, head in his hands, wondering what the next day would bring. Not knowing what the future holds, fearing for his life, the life of his family, and the world he knew. What faced him that night with the dark sky encasing him, as he looked straight into the fear or guilt, shame, and utter vulnerability.

Wrestling in the Dark

The extreme cold this past week has brought vulnerability in front of us. As the polar vortex swept through the country, we know that many struggled, and the already vulnerable become even more so. In this community, many of us were extremely blessed to have warm houses, woodstoves, electric blankets, and heating vents to cuddle up next to. Even with a warm house, there’s a tension and tentativeness I’ve heard expressed by many this week as we’ve navigated the cold. I heard tell of the exhaustion after a normally “easy drive,” taking hours longer on icy roads, the stories of broken pipes and flooded floors, the care for keeping children, aging parents, pets, and ourselves protected from temperatures where any period of exposure would bring frostbite. I have watched, and participated, in the “icy sidewalk shuffle,” as we do everything in our power not to come crashing down onto the ground. We are reminded how we are not in control, we don’t know what is going to happen next—we are vulnerable.

Brene Brown, a researcher-storyteller whose TED Talk on Vulnerability captured many addresses this topic head-on. Because she believes, from her extensive research, that vulnerability is a key ingredient in people who are whole-hearted, who experience themselves as worthy, loved, and belonging—people who are alive and awake and whole. The whole-hearted, she says, are the ones who are willing to walk into the vulnerability, to be with the feelings, to have the courage to wrestle in the dark, rather than numbing the feelings when they arise.

She offers the idea that we cannot selectively numb emotion. We can’t numb our grief, our shame, our fear, or our vulnerability and still expect to be able to feel joy and delight, purpose, meaning, and happiness. The path to whole-heartedness, to living a authentic life is not to numb the pain and feelings with whatever our favorite coping mechanism is, it’s not to explain them away with a false grasping for certainty, it’s not to turn and go the other way and avoid the struggle. Instead, this is a call to enter into an honest conversation with our vulnerability, to be willing to walk knowingly into the dark and wrestle until daybreak.

Demand a Blessing

“Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed. Then Jacob asked him, “Please, tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, (the face of God) saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved” (Genesis 32:23-32)

Can you picture this all-night wrestling match? The physicality of legs and arms, the ebb and flow as one person rises and leans into control, the other trapped, until that twist, and move, and flip, and coming out on top again. The anguish and struggle, the desire to give up and lie, exhausted on the ground, and the determination and strength to keep going.

This all-night wrestling partner later referenced as an “angel” by Hosea (12:4), and a “man” according to many Hebrew translators, or a “water demon” according to ancient tradition stuck with Jacob through the night, and Jacob would not let go until he demanded a blessing. Whatever the being Jacob encountered that dark night, he experience that he had, “seen the face of God and lived” (32:20).

In this deep night of wrestling, we can imagine that Jacob comes face to face with himself, his God, and his own vulnerabilities. The possible consequences of his past choices are looming in front of him, and he is unsure what is next and whether he will survive it. In all that he brings to the tangled match—all the questions, the fear, the shame—he does not give in. He continues to grapple, to be present with the fight, to feel the feelings, to be in the vulnerability. And, then he demands a blessing. He will not leave this wrestling match until he has found the blessing, and has claimed the conversion that comes out of confronting and working with our deepest vulnerabilities.

A number of years ago, I spent an extended period of time dealing with a life threatening and life-altering illness. It was certainly a season that I could compare to this dark night on the Jabbok River bank. It was a time of profound vulnerability, unknowing, and fear of what might be coming next. At some point early on, I remember saying out loud, “If I have to go through this, I damn well better come out stronger, wiser, more loving, and more compassionate on the other side.” The struggle and grappling didn’t magically dissipate; there was no escape from the all- consuming vulnerability of body, mind, and spirit. But there was a determination, an intention, and a reason to keep going through the struggle. And so I wrestled and I demanded a blessing. That journey was too painful and difficult to waste and not come out on the other side transformed.

Now I do not believe that God ever gives us struggles or challenges as a test, a punishment, or to teach us a lesson. This is not the God I know. The God I know walks with us through struggles, changes, transformations—a God that accompanies us. Emanuel Swedenborg, an 18th century Christian Mystic of my spiritual heritages writes: “Nothing, not the least thing shall occur that some good cannot come out of it.” I have often found encouragement and challenge in that notion. It’s not that good will necessarily come out of our challenges and hard times, but that it can come out of it. The God of wisdom and transformation is always drawing us towards goodness and love, walking with us through the challenges and struggles. But how we emerge? This depends on how we wrestle, how we engage, and if we demand a blessing. When we can, in the midst of our darkest nights, name a good that God is drawing us to, and put our stake in the ground that we will come out the other side renamed and changed forever.

We can demand a blessing when our communities, our families, our churches are going through transition and challenge. Because these seasons of questioning, change, and struggle seem to be an inevitable part of the individual and collective experience of being human, transition, and the vulnerability that comes with it, being an integral part of the life and movement of community. As you—my Richmond Church of the Brethren friends—know so well right now.

The process of transformation is not easy, and embracing vulnerability and change—I would posit—is often more difficult in our collected communities than it is in our individual lives. These times when everything is stirred up and we’re offered the opportunities to look at our past, present, and future with new eyes. In so many denominations and churches we find story after story about the change in the church. The way we’ve always done church is not how church is happening. We are walking through the night of wrestling and vulnerability when we see budgets decreasing, upcoming generations not expressing interest in church the way it’s been done, and congregations across the country closing at a rapid rate. It can leave us wondering what is next for us and bring up whatever our individual and collective coping mechanisms and numbing techniques are. We grasp harder at how it’s always been. We go into hyper-gear to raise the funds, find the volunteers, overcome the challenge. Anything we can do to avoid entering into the water, engaging the night of vulnerable wrestling. Until we land exhausted on the riverbank and name the gift of entering the vulnerability, the transformation that can come from the wrestling.

Renamed

When we face ourselves, our present reality, our vulnerability, our collective transformations, it is often uncomfortable. And it often makes for uncomfortable conversations. But, maybe being comfortable is not the point of spiritual life or church or being human. Maybe the church really isn’t about what our needs are and having our needs met. Being the church is about following the movement of God and community. Being the church is about being a gathered embodiment of the two great commandments—loving God and loving the neighbor. The church is about collectively being willing to tussle with what it means to be faithful to God and to our community in this season. The church is about being willing to be together, in the beauty and joy, and in the vulnerability and wrestling.

Go Out With a Limp

When we face these seasons in life with the demand to become, “stronger, wiser, more loving, and more compassionate” on the other side, we are forever changed. We are not the same person we were before the illness, the loss, the change, the struggle. When we face the changes in our churches, communities, and denominations with the God of change and transformation, the belief in death and rebirth on our lips, then we are not the same churches and communities that we always have been. We are transformed and re-imagined, changed and reborn. And we can imagine, as our it was with Jacob, being re-named as Israel, the one who prevails with God, moving forward in the morning light to meet his brother who would be awaiting him, awaiting him, as it turns out with an embrace, forgiveness and reconciliation.

Friends, we stand on the edge of the Jabbok River, looking out towards the unknown that will greet us in the morning. The call is in front of us, to live in the way of Jacob, with the willingness and courage to wrestle all night, to persevere through the vulnerability, to demand a blessing, receiving our new name and identity, and walk forward into the journey forever changed. Knowing that the God who met our ancestors face-to-face, the God of Rachel and Leah and Jacob, the God of Israel, is the God who walks with us into the dark, and the God who shows us the stars. And that we walk forward together with community, naming God’s work with, pointing out to each other the stars that guide us forward into the hope and transformation, sharing the conversations of curiosity, honesty, and reconciliation, and celebrating together the strength, creativity, and vitality that comes after the night of wrestling, with the morning dawn.

As we continue our sermon together:

Where do you see yourself in this story?
Where do you see this community in this story?
What resonates in you with Jacob’s night of wrestling? What blessing will you demand?

May we walk forward into the dark of the starry night, to wrestle, demand a blessing, to be changed and renamed, when in dawn we will again walk forward, but this time with a sacred limp. 

Vulnerability

photo“I’m just so grateful, because to feel this vulnerable means I’m alive.” –Brené Brown


The day before Thanksgiving the right side of my body and a sidewalk had an abrupt and violent encounter.
My shoulder burst into searing pain, I tried to stand, felt the world close in, sat down again on the sidewalk, and felt the vulnerability of pain.

A few weeks later I sit on the rug in my bedroom and feel the muscles around my upper arm and back twinge as I use careful motions as my pen moves across the page.

“It feels vulnerable” is how I described my shoulder when the doc and then the acupuncturist moved it around to access the damage. Painful, tender, and vulnerable.

Vulnerability is a word that has been present in my life of late. It’s vulnerable to move yet again to a new place, with new people, start from scratch building relationships and community. Vulnerable to be staring the end of graduate school in the face and knowing that student loans end in May, and salary, health insurance, housing, and all those other necessary things are not yet a known quantity on the other side. Vulnerability of yet again taking large life steps as a single person, with the freedom, and the deep loneliness of moving through these decisions on my own. Vulnerability around my family of origin as final steps of my parents recent divorce are approaching. And vulnerability that over the last few months I have said out loud in a variety of settings, “I am going to plant a church.” Without knowing exactly where, when, or how, I keep saying out loud this call and vision that God is growing within me and around me. Speaking something into being that I have yet to know is possible. It’s audacious. It’s vulnerable.

Mary, Mary the mother of Jesus comes into my meditation as I walk up the hill. Great with Child, traveling away from home, prepared to birth the Son of God, carrying the one who she knew was destined to turn the world upside down. And yet, here she was, in Bethlehem, far from her family and community, and without even a room at the in. I wonder if she wished that she were back home in her own bed, with her mother and sisters nearby. I wonder if she would have said she felt vulnerable.

I go home and pull up the Ted Talk on Vulnerability. Damn your deep, wise, hits-too-close-to-home, wisdom Brene Brown. She winds up her talk with with these words:

“Let ourselves be seen…deeply seen, vulnerability seen. To love with our whole hearts, knowing that there is no guarantee. Practicing gratitude and joy in the moments of terror… I’m so grateful—to feel this vulnerable means I am alive.”

To feel this vulnerable means I am alive. The crisp air at the top of the mountain had a similar effect.

As does Advent. Divinity incarnated through deep vulnerability. God didn’t show up fully-grown, clothed in armor, or sleek and strong with black-belt karate moves. God came to this earth and slipped into the skin of baby Jesus. Carried by a mother who as young and vulnerable herself. Traveling far from home, no place to lay her head, let alone give birth to the Son of God. And it is this tale of vulnerability that ushers in the Divine presence in human form. It is this Christ, this anointed one, who says “come and follow me.” The One who embodied vulnerability as the gateway to life.

It’s scary writing this blog post. I don’t like being vulnerable. Especially in public. And yet this is part of being alive. Being human. Being created by the Divine.

And so I write. And share. And remember. And pray. And I keep rubbing Arnica in my shoulder, honoring this world of flesh and divinity, strength in vulnerability.

A gift of physical pain can be the reminder of vulnerability. And a gift of vulnerability is being open to others and alive to life. May it be.

The Shell

I spent this summer in Northwest Washington, reconnecting with my childhood state, spending time with family and friends, and working as a hospital chaplain intern. Each morning I would ride the bus into work and when I wasn’t nodding off, I would often write poetry as I searched for words for the experience. Here is one such offering. 

The Shell

The old shell is cracking,
peeling
sloughing off.
As I straighten my neck,
another layer slides,
gently
crackling on the way down
to the
floor.

New skin is exposed,
some raw, quickly
chapped and irritated
by the elements.
Some fresh,
clear and clean,
glowing like a newborn,
with the elasticity and
tenacity of a toddler’s knees.
The rippling muscles of a
marathon runner,
pulsing underneath.

Rising up
Vulnerable wholeness
Exposed strength.