March 24, 2016

Maundy Thursday

Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35; Psalm 116:1, 10-17


This particular holy night of storytelling and prayer is rife with emotion; grief, sorrow, detachment, mutuality and love. The Buddhist monk and teacher, Tich Naht Hanh, reminds us that our strong emotions are best used as fertilizer for our spirit. He teaches that in meditating on our passions – even anger – rather than bracing against them or attempting to deny their existence, we can become more centered and reconciled. We must acknowledge these invisible forces of emotion in order to negotiate a peace with them.  We must show them a mutual regard, so that they do not rule our lives, and also so that we do not attempt live our lives without feeling.

If we can master the habit of demonstrating mutuality with our emotions, then I imagine we may begin to show suppleness as we face one another. But we are programmed to be defensive against our needs and our feelings. We pretend we are indifferent and fully self-sufficient, which is of course the lie that leads to loneliness and social fracture. How often we reject help. How often we refuse hospitality. So how can we then have the capacity to provide help and hospitality, not having accepted assistance in times of subtle or even desperate need? The culture of self-sufficiency is a fantastical foundation on which little stands and from which so many people fall.

So tonight let us be students - disciples - who come to learn to wash and be washed; to give and to receive. Like Peter we may come with discomfort.  Peter seems to reject hospitality provided by someone so great as Jesus.  Or perhaps more deeply Peter resists this sacrament as the portal to all that lies ahead for Jesus and the disciples. It is as though Peter was digging in his heals against what was foreboded. Peter it seems went rigid in the face of what must have been overwhelmingly strong emotion; sorrow, fear, uncertainty, grief, unworthiness.

And so like Peter at the insistence of Jesus we practice this night  revealing one to another, the base part of ourselves. We present our feet for washing as a sign of a covenant of mutuality and the preferential option for intimacy and love over separation and fear.

In 2003 Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and his wife Leah, American Christian evangelicals who had taken on New Monasticism as way of life, joined a Christian pilgrimage to Iraq. The went in order to be a sign of love to the so called ‘enemy’ and to take a stand against the war. After their mission ended as they were leaving Iraq by way of caravan, the last car in the queue hit a piece of shrapnel and crashed into a ditch. None of the preceding cars noticed. So they kept on, unintentionally abandoning the last car and its passengers in the middle of the desert. Mercifully, an auto full of Iraqis stopped, pulled them out of the ditch, and drove them to a hospital. There the doctor declared to the American patients, “Three days ago your country bombed our hospital. But whether you are American or Iraqi, Christian or Muslim, we will take care of you because we take care of everyone.”

In a state of extreme human defensiveness, this radical principle of hospitality and care will not prevail. So we must allow our emotions life and make them to serve as fertilizer for our souls.

In January of 2006, I myself traveled to the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan to learn about ways that Christians and Muslims were practicing intentional reciprocity. Their habits turned out to be simple. Anglican priests reached out to neighboring imams just to talk. They talked about things like the weather. Later they might progress to topics such as wives and children. The only theological discourse ever undertaken was an embodied exchange of radical hospitality. The imams invited the priests to Eid prayers. The priests invited the imams to Christmas and Easter services.  At such times simple gifts might be exchanged. These were modest yet powerful acts of intimacy in lieu of separation; a preferential option for friendship instead of fear.

William Willimon “…Ministry begins in the heart of God…” When we cross lines of difference – global, spousal, or filial – it can feel like we have entered the heart of God. Those brief moments in which we feel we have entered the heart of God are moments in which we would wish to reside forever. It is a sensation like that described by the poet who speaks of a waterfall:

Christ look at you pouring from the rocks.
You’re so cold you’re boiling over.
You’ve got stars in your hair.
I don’t want to be around you.
I don’t want to drink you in.
I want to walk into the heart of you
And never walk back out.

Oh that we could enter the heart of Divine and never leave. Oh that Peter could have remained at the dinner party with his beloved teacher and feasted forever. Oh that we could put violence and terror back in a box, but from a box they were not born and bred. No, these tragic vices come rather from the heart. When we reach for a balm in the face of attacks such as the one that befell humanity in Brussels this week, we must reach for the divine impulse of love in the world and do everything we can to enter and remain there.

Howard Thurman wrote “There is a universal urgency for both personal and social stability.” Jesus tonight invites us to seek our stability in radical acts of vulnerability and service as well as friendship and love. We must learn to be at once powerful and powerless, active and passive, guest and host. We must choose to love in lieu of slaying and to serve in lieu of sacrifice, exchanging our very selves across lines of any and every difference that separates.

“It’s time,” wrote a singer songwriter from Austin, Texas “It’s time to make the world a better place. Let your love put your fears to waste. No matter who you are or where you’re from. Its time to get together and drop the Honeybomb.”

You are invited into the sticky, sweet mess of mutuality and love that may not dismantle bombs but which does dismantle fear and terror. Come to the table. Before that wash and be washed. Embrace your vulnerability and practice compassionate care of another’s physical base as a symbol of his or her most base and basic need.

Nico Alvarado’s “Time Riggins Speaks of Waterfalls” published in Best New Poets 2014 by University of Virginia Press.