Friday, April 18, 2014

On dirty feet and overwhelming love…A sermon for Maundy Thursday

(We have  a few technical difficulties with the mics last night, so just ignore the rough start of the video.  I started this sermon from the chancel.) Sermon Text: John 13:1-17, 31b-35
You probably notice that I am barefoot right now… You are most likely wondering why. You might think I am breaking some kind of dress code for worship or forgetting how I am supposed to act in church. You might be afraid that there is a footwashing ritual awaiting you…  And there is a reason that you are most likely uncomfortable…because it is shockingly vulnerable to bare our feet in public.  They are a part of our body that is not pretty and we would prefer to keep them hidden. And prepare to feel even more uncomfortable, because I am going to invite you to take off your shoes and socks for the remainder of this sermon or of this service, if you feel comfortable doing so. Tonight is the start of the three Holy Days.  This is Maundy Thursday where we have Jesus meeting us where we are, out of pure love and service, despite our dirty feet.  So take off your shoes. 
This story of footwashing is unique to John’s Gospel, but it was not a unique practice in first century Jerusalem. In a time where travel by foot was the norm, it was customary for hosts to offer a chance to wash up before a meal began. The feet of guests would have been dusty and dirty from many hours of walking, and it was an act of hospitality on the part of the host to provide this opportunity to be clean prior to eating.  But it was not the host who did the footwashing, it was the job of some forgettable person without a name, who would do the hard and dirty work and then fade into the background.  That Jesus would kneel down with a basin and a towel and wash the feet of the disciples was bizarre.  It was shocking.  It was offensive.
            I imagine the disciples looking at one another, their eyes meeting over Jesus’ head, eyebrows raised slightly.  Sitting in the sort of awkward silence that happens when it is clear that someone is breaking a well-established social norm.  Perhaps exchanging glances about who should break the tension.  Finally it is Simon Peter, who asks Jesus, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”  Jesus answers, “You do not know what I am doing, but later you will understand.”  Peter protests.  Jesus insists.  And Peter, perhaps thinking that this is an opportunity to improve his hygiene after a long and busy week at work in Jerusalem, asks for Jesus to wash his hands and head also. But Jesus corrects him and says this footwashing is not about being clean.  It is an act of service. 
            It would have been shocking enough that Jesus himself kneels down on the floor, ties a towel around his waist, and physically washes the filthy feet of the disciples.  After all, this is the man who just days before triumphantly rode into Jerusalem amid shouts of “Hosanna!” and “Make way for the King!”  He has taken the posture of a servant, he is literally getting his hands dirty.  It’s a nice model for how to be of service to others and is certainly an important consideration for those who would be leaders. But there is something else going on here. 
            The writer of John’s Gospel inserts an editorial comment into this account of Maundy Thursday, writing, “The devil had already put into the heart of Judas to betray him. And during supper, Jesus, knowing that the father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, removed his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.  Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet.”  (John 13:2-5a)  Jesus knew that he would be betrayed by one in this close circle of friends, that is Judas Iscariot, yet he knelt down and washed the feet of the man who would betray him and turn him over to those who would kill him. 
            If this is not an act of pure love, I am not sure what is.  Perhaps because I have a finely honed sense of self-preservation, or a general intolerance for being in the presence of those who want to hurt me, if it was up to me I would have thrown Judas right out of that upper room then and there.   But Jesus saw Judas for who he was, the man who would be forever known as the betrayer, and loved him anyway.  He saw how dirty his feet were, and knelt before this man, the one who would betray him, and washed his feet.
            And friends…this is good news.  Because while we would prefer to see ourselves as the rest of the disciples who enjoy a last meal with Jesus and have their feet washed, and manage not to turn Jesus over to the authorities for 30 pieces of silver, we have some Judas in us too.  How often do we put our own needs before those of another?...How often do we betray Christ by refusing to love someone who is different than us?  But Jesus sees us in the midst of all our brokenness and despite our dirty feet.  Jesus meets us in love right where we are, not after we have managed to become holier or cleaner or a better version of ourselves. 
            I asked you to take off your shoes tonight so that you might experience a little bit of what it means to feel vulnerable and seen and loved in the community of Christ’s body.  Many of you have asked throughout this year about the moment when I felt called to ministry.  It was on a perfectly ordinary day eight years ago at the homeless shelter where I was working.  A woman who frequently came to the shelter had told us that she had relapsed after many months of trying to stay sober and stop using cocaine.  This was also a perfectly ordinary thing to happen in this shelter. But then this woman said, “Please help me” and collapsed onto the dirty floor.  While one of my coworkers called for an ambulance, I sat on the floor with this woman, holding her hand and stroking her tangled hair and hot forehead.  And I told her that it was going to be okay, although I had no idea how this would be true.  But I only knew that Jesus shows up in the most impossible situations and loves those who are most unlovable. And I didn’t see this woman as a homeless drug-addicted sex worker, but as a child of God, and that my only command was to love as I have first been loved.  This was ministry and this was the place to where I am called. 
            But this sort of loving of one’s neighbor is really, really hard, and more often than not I do not manage to show this sort of love.  I avert my eyes from those holding signs on street corners or keep walking when someone asks me for spare change. None of us manage to exemplify this sort of love all the time and on our own, which is why we continually need to be reminded that we are loved so deeply by Christ despite our dirty feet.  Our feet that are dirty from walking past those who are in need.  Our feet that are dirty from being in a hurry to have our own desires fulfilled.  Our feet that are dirty from running away from our identity as beloved children of God.
Hear this, people of God…we are loved and we are fed by Christ so that we might love one another as we have first been loved. We hear each week before we commune together, “The Table is ready.  All who hunger and thirst for God’s love are welcome here.”   Tonight as you make your way forward to receive communion, I hope that you will continue to be barefoot and know that you are seen, that you are loved, and in turn, realize that you are freed to love one another.  Amen.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Prayer Series Part IV: Kinesthetic Prayer

When I was a camp counselor up in Montana, one of the things that we introduced to our campers was the idea of moving prayer.  Some people struggle with prayer because of needing to sit still or kneel or keep your eyes closed.  Sometimes you fall asleep (this is my problem) or your mind wanders.  I think that somewhere along the line we were taught that it is wrong to be anything less than little pious statues while praying.

One of my favorite ways to pray is by walking.  It clears my brain and opens it to hearing God. But you can pray in different positions, like laying on your back in the grass or facedown in a pile of pillows or on your side on the beach.

You can get up and pray and move around at the same time.  Or you can be silent while moving.  But getting deeper into your body while moving and praying is a different way to encounter the divine.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Prayer Series Part III: The Labyrinth

A.Hanson 2012
Denver, CO
Prayer labyrinths are one of my very favorite things.  They are often works of art.  The picture to the left is of a prayer labyrinth at Montview Presbyterian church in Denver, CO, which is still one of my favorite labyrinths.  In the summer, I like to take off my shoes and walk the warm stones at dusk.  I have walked labyrinths all over the world and in many different places.  I have walked them in massive French cathedrals, in pastures in rural Minnesota, in church basements, on mountaintops in Colorado.  There are so many places in which to experience this prayer practice.

There is a fair amount of controversy surrounding prayer labyrinths, because they are an ancient pagan symbol that was adopted by the Catholic church.  Only in the last two decade or so have they seen a resurgence in emerging and neo-orthodox churches.

I have found Sally Welch's Walking the Labyrinth:A Spiritual and Practical Guide to be a useful tool in explaining the history, function, and discipline of the prayer labyrinth.

There is only one way into the labyrinth, and only one way out.  It is not a maze, rather, it is a gentle path that doubles back on itself.  It is possible to relax while in the labyrinth.  There are many ways to engage this prayer practice, my favorite is very simple.  I pick an intention for my time in the labyrinth.  Whether that is a certain word, phrase or idea I am pondering, or something that I want to let go of, I only focus on that intention as I walk to the center of the labyrinth.  Once I reach the center, I pause and pray.  Sometimes I am in the center for awhile.  Then on my way back out of the labyrinth I feel the freedom of that intention or listening to what God is saying to me.  Just before leaving the labyrinth, I give thanks for my time there.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Encountering Judas Iscariot

A.Hanson 2012
During Lent here at my internship congregation, we have been having weekly monologues at our Wednesday evening services. My colleague Don wrote most of them, but I wrote last evening's monologue about Judas Iscariot. The idea of these monologues is to explore some of the people with whom Jesus had contact in the last week of his life.  

I first heard of Jesus of Nazareth one day around the well in town.  My neighbor Zebedee had heard him speaking in Galilee, quoting the old prophet Isaiah, saying “repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  Zebedee dismissed this Jesus as kind of a long-haired crackpot, stirring up people and developing a pack of followers.  Zebedee’s distrust of Jesus probably had something to do with the fact that two of his sons dropped their fishing nets right in the middle of work and left their father to follow Jesus.  But I wanted to see what Jesus was up to, so when I heard that he was preaching from the mountain, I went with the crowds to hear him.

There were so many people who were there that day.  I knew right away that Jesus was special.  He spoke words of love, yet followed them by words of judgment.  He went out of his way to separate us righteous people from the unrighteous ones. All we had to do was to live according to the law, and make sure that others lived according to the law as well.  I can do that.  And I can definitely help others to see where they fall short of the law.

After his teaching, I pushed to the front of the crowds to see Jesus.  I just had to tell him how much he inspired me to be a better person and to help others be better people too.  He was talking with an elderly woman who was bent over in pain.  Why he was wasting his time with that old woman, I have no idea.  He should be talking to bright young leaders in the faith.  People who could actually make a difference  in bringing about the kingdom of God.  I asked if I could follow Jesus, be one of his disciples.  He was still talking to that woman, but nodded slowly, his eyes meeting mine.  There was something there, a touch of sadness or exhaustion or something.   Jesus, I said, you won’t be disappointed in me!  I am with you all the way.  Just tell me what to do!

There were twelve of us. Jesus sent us out all over the countryside to do healings and to proclaim the good news that the kingdom of heaven has come near.  Jesus did some amazing stuff, like casting out demons and feeding five thousand people and healing the sick.  But the crowds never got to see what he was really capable of.  Like when we disciples saw him walk on water.

But what I never really understood was why Jesus spent so much time with sick people, and old people, and invited little children to come to him.  Jesus had real power, and I don’t understand why he wouldn’t use it to make his own life better, and our lives better.  We were always scrambling for a few coins to eat and always begging for hospitality from others. When we got into Jerusalem, I started hearing the rumors…”This Jesus is the king of the Jews”….”Jesus is the Son of Man”…and the talk from the soldiers and the chief priests that they wanted to bring Jesus to trial.  I knew that if Jesus just showed them what he was capable of, the power and might that he had, the truth would be revealed.  I had to do something.

I went to the High Priest’s house.  “What will you give me if I take you to Jesus?”  They gave me thirty pieces of silver.   I knew that we could use this money in our work as disciples, we wouldn’t be hungry again.  I just wanted to force Jesus to show the priests and elders that he was not a traitor to the faith, that he was truly the Son of God.  “Jesus and the other disciples are having a Passover meal right now.  I will take you to them.  The man that I kiss is Jesus.”

I took the priests and elders to the upper room.  Jesus eyes met mine, he said, “do quickly what you must do.”  I kissed him.  Then I turned and walked down the stairs.  I hid in the darkness.  I hope that Jesus would perform some sign, some miracle.  Some way to show them that he really is the Son of God.  Instead, the crowd started to beat Jesus and drag him away. They wanted him dead.  This is not how this was supposed to be.  I fled down the stairs and into the street. 

I ran to temple and threw down the thirty pieces of silver onto the stone floor.  I shouted, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.”  But they said, “What is that to us?  See to it yourself.” 

What have I done?!

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Prayer Series Part II: Centering Prayer

A. Hanson 2012
My first experience with centering prayer as a discipline was with HFASS at the Contemplative retreat in 2010 at St Malo's retreat center outside Lyons, CO.  It was an incredible, beautiful, life-giving time.  It was then that I fell in love with centering prayer.

I led an adult forum on centering prayer this past Sunday, so I decided to make this topic the next part of my series on prayer practices.

The Christian church has long had a contemplative tradition.  This has included the monastic practice of Lectio Divina, and the writings of such mystics as Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and Thomas Merton, among others.  The method of Centering Prayer, which is what we will be practicing today, has its roots in the Post Vatican II era, when three Trappist monks, Fathers William Meninger, Basil Pennington, and Thomas Keating, sought to develop a simple method of silent prayer for contemporary people.[1] 

Centering Prayer has its scriptural roots in the wisdom sayings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, from Matthew 6:6, “But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door and pray to your father in secret.  And your father, who sees in secret, will reward you.” 
The theological grounding for centering prayer is in the Pentecost:  We affirm that the spirit of God dwells within us and bears witness to the resurrection by empowering us to experience and manifest the fruits of the Spirit and the Beatitudes. Centering Prayer is a time of fostering a connection with the Living God, and a discipline to foster that relationship.

How to engage Centering Prayer:
1.     We select a sacred word or phrase.  This is the symbol of our intention to consent to God’s presence and action within us. 
a.     Some examples are: Lord, Jesus, Father, Love, Peace, Stillness, Trust
b.     Some phrases that I use are: Come Holy Spirit/Veni Sancti Spiritus, or my favorite, “Lord Jesus Christ…Have mercy on me”
c.     After choosing a word, do not change it for this particular time of prayer.  You can change it the next time you choose to pray
d.     It is also possible to do centering prayer without a sacred word, but in my opinion, it is better to have the word or phrase to return to if your mind wanders than attempting to keep your mind empty. 
2.     We sit comfortably
a.     Have your back straight and against the chair
b.     Keep your feet comfortably on the floor or whatever position is most comfortable for you
c.     Rest your hands in your lap
d.     The key is to be comfortable enough that you are not distracted by any sort of discomfort, but not so comfortable that you fall asleep.
e.     If you do fall asleep, which does happen, just begin praying your sacred word again.
3.     We pray
a.     Gently introduce the sacred word by coordinating it with your breath.  Perhaps you pray the word on the inhale or the exhale. 
b.     Thoughts are a normal part of centering prayer.  When they arise, simply thank yourself for noticing, and let them float away. Return to your sacred word.