Grace, peace, and forgiveness to us all from Jesus Christ, our Lord! Amen!
Last week at our Social Justice Group’s “Moral Monday” discussion, Amanda Arbour, Executive Director of the Central PA LGBT Center asked a simple, but stunningly important question of us: What categories of folks at St. Stephen’s find themselves marginalized? It was a two-part question as she phrased it: “Who are “the last people” to be considered inside St. Stephen’s and who are “the last people” taken into account in our neighborhood? As a deacon I have thought a lot about the needs of our neighbors outside our walls, but no one had ever challenged me to consider the marginalization of folks inside our congregation before. We’d all love to say – “Well, no one is disregarded in this house.” But, in fact, on deeper consideration, our discussion group began to offer some ideas.
That’s both scary and challenging that inside a Christian community exist people who don’t feel regarded, heard, or affirmed. It certainly flies in the face of tonight’s Gospel and the verses that follow. “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them fully.” Jesus sets us the example of love in the foot-washing of his disciples. “If I your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you too must wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example: Just as I have done, you also must do.” And a few verses beyond tonight’s lection, “I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other.”
So where have we gone astray? Perhaps there is a larger human problem that we have failed to consider. Henri Nouwen, a Dutch Catholic theologian, and priest who died a mere 25 years ago put it this way: “You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests.” It certainly is not easy to hear that voice in a world filled with voices that shout: “You are no good, you are ugly; you are worthless; you are despicable, you are nobody – unless you can demonstrate the opposite.” My dark side says: “I am not good… I deserve to be pushed aside, forgotten, rejected, and abandoned.” The great darkness in our world from Nouwen’s perspective is the “darkness of not feeling truly welcome in human existence. Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls each one of us the “Beloved.”
Maybe that is why Peter says, “You will never wash my feet!” Perhaps Peter cannot hear the voice of Jesus saying, “You are my beloved,” – and instead is listening to other louder voices saying, “Prove that you are worth something; do something cool or spectacular or powerful and then you will earn the love you so desire.”
Being washed clean may well mean becoming open to receiving the freely given, unconditional love of God enfleshed in Jesus.
Pastor Caroline Lewis writes “The washing in the Gospel makes possible having a share with Jesus, being in relationship with him, in his community, in the fold, as opposed to being cast out, or going out, like Judas.” Please note that even Judas’s feet were washed by our Lord.
We humans seem to be wired for self-centrism as individuals, as family groups, as communities, and indeed as races and nations. Stephanie Spellers in her 2021 book, The Church Cracked Open states: “I would not say we emerge from the womb wishing others ill or thinking we’re the only ones who matter. Rather, it seems we harbor an original terror that we are not wanted or welcome on this earth, and that if we do not value and protect ourselves or our group, no one else will . . . not even God. Not being welcome is our greatest fear. It connects with our birth fear, our fear of not being welcome in this life, and our death fear, our fear of not being welcome in the life after this.
We must choose life. At every moment we have to decide to trust the voice that says, “I love you. I knit you together in your mother’s womb.” This is one of the most common threads in scripture: we don’t trust we are beloved, even as God reassures us that God made us in love and for love. We still don’t believe there’s enough love to go around. God tries to free us from this deep-seated fear so we can participate in extending love with one another. God’s love simply will not run out; if anything, the supply grows as we share it.
And how do we prepare ourselves for this mission of sharing love? How do we follow this “new” commandment of Jesus? Nouwen in his book, Life of the Beloved, suggests each of us has our own work to do:
First, we have to keep unmasking the world around us for what it is: manipulative, controlling, power-hungry, and, in the long run, destructive. The world tells us many lies about who we are, and we simply must be realistic enough to remind ourselves of this. Every time we feel hurt, offended, or rejected, we must dare to say to ourselves: These feelings, strong as they may be, are not telling me the truth about myself. The truth, even though I cannot feel it right now, is that I am the beloved child of God, precious in God’s eyes, called Beloved from all eternity, and held safe in an everlasting embrace.
Second, we must keep looking for people and places where our truth is spoken and where we are reminded of our deepest identity as beloved. Communities of faith, the different support groups helping us with our addictions, our family, our friends, our teachers, and our students: All of these can become reminders of our truth. The limited, sometimes broken, love of those who share our humanity — can point us time and time again to the truth of who we are: precious in God’s eyes. We can also find help in the many folks in history who, through their lives and words, call us back to loving relationship with God and one another.
Third, we must celebrate our beloved-ness constantly. This means saying “thank you” to God for having chosen us, and “thank you” to all in our lives who remind us of our chosen-ness. Gratitude is the most fruitful way of deepening our consciousness that we are not an “accident” but a divine choice. It is important to realize how often we have had chances to be grateful and have not used them. When someone is kind to us, when an event turns out well, when a problem is solved, a relationship restored, a wound healed, there are very concrete reasons to offer thanks. However, precisely those same situations also offer us occasions to be critical, skeptical, even cynical because, when someone is kind to us, we can question their motives; when an event turns out well, it could always have turned out better; when a problem is solved, there often emerges another in its place…Where there is reason for gratitude, there can always be found a reason for bitterness. We can decide to be grateful or bitter. We can decide to recognize our chosen-ness in the moment, or we can decide to focus on the shadow side. Every time we decide to be grateful, it will be easier to see new things to be grateful for. Gratitude begets gratitude, just as love begets love.
As we become more in touch with our own beloved-ness, the fact that we matter to God and to others in our lives, we will find it easier to share our love with the world. These tactics are spiritual disciplines. They are not easy to practice, especially during times of crisis. Before I know it, I find myself complaining again, brooding again about some rejection and plotting ways to take revenge. But when I keep these practices and my beloved-ness close to my heart – I find myself better able to keep tonight’s “new” commandment. I’d invite you to try them out – on yourselves, in your relationships, within our congregation and with our neighbors. Perhaps then we will finally fulfill Jesus’s words: “This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.”