Follow me

This is a sermon for the fourth Sunday of Easter, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is John 10:22-30.  

My sheep hear my voice…

It’s a bit of an ambiguous image, the idea of being sheep, isn’t it?  On the one hand, we rather suspect that sheep aren’t too bright, and are easily led where someone wants them to go, whether that’s a good idea or not.

On the other hand, the Biblical image of sheep and shepherds often conjures up – for me at least – the idea of lush green pastures, gently flowing little streams, and generally comfortable living in beautiful countryside.  (That owes much more to an English cultural background than the middle east, but it’s where my mind goes).  And there’s something quite comforting about the idea of being a well-fed, well-cared-for sheep living in peace.

The problem, I think, with both of these ideas about being sheep is that they’re rather passive.  On the one hand, you’re being led by others who make all the decisions; and on the other hand, you’re being fed and watered and cared for without having to actively seek any of these things out for yourself.  Comfortable, certainly; loved, maybe; but not exactly inspiring.

And not very much like real life; because in real life all of us have to think for ourselves, make decisions and take action.  So if we seek to follow Jesus, in some ways we might want other images beside the one of “sheep” to help us think about what that’s about.

The icon that I have handed out with the pew sheet this morning (blog readers can see it attached) captures something of how I tend to think about what it is to be a follower of Jesus.  It was painted by a French nun, and now belongs to a seminary in Jerusalem.  The writing at the top says “suis moi,” the French for “Follow me.”  Surrounding Jesus, with his hand raised in blessing, offering us the invitation to follow him, are a series of images representing different aspects of his life and work.  The message is clear – we are all invited to follow Jesus in our lives in the world, and to continue the work which he began during his earthly life – the work of the kingdom of God.

God has created each of us, gifted each of us differently, and made space for the opportunity to come and worship and work together for the sake of his kingdom.  For each of us, knowing who we are, what gifts we have been given and what desires God has stirred in the depths of our hearts, will help us to find the right way to express that in service; our own place, if you like, in the icon.

It also helps us to think about how to shape our common life together.  Next Saturday the parish council have a planning day; and I asked for that planning day because I think it’s imperative that we build a shared vision of who we believe Jesus is calling us to be, and what we believe Jesus is calling us to do, in being his faithful followers in this parish.

When we have that shared vision, it can be a guide for us in thinking strategically about what how we live out that vision; what we need to continue, what needs to end with grateful thanks for the past, and what new things might need to begin.  But without a vision of where we’re going, we have no shared basis for making those decisions, and that’s a recipe for conflict and trouble!

It might worry you that I mention the possibility that some things might come to an end.  But the fact of the matter is that we only have a finite amount of time, energy, and money between us to put into our corporate life together; so we need to be wise and strategic in how we use those resources.  Not because we want to end things which are valuable, but because we want to make sure that everything we do truly is valuable, and not something we do “just because;” and least of all “just because we’ve always done it.”

This should not surprise or alarm us.  We follow a living, dynamic God.  The green pastures and bubbling streams of my imagination are not an unchanging landscape; rather, being sheep who follow the good shepherd suggests that we’re on the move; that the scenery is always changing as we travel with him to new frontiers in the life of faith.  If our community is static, it is dead, and the gospel is not being effective in us.

Let me be very clear about this.  I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with this parish.  But I’m saying that the voice of the good shepherd always calls us to follow him to somewhere that is a little different to where we are now.  To explore new horizons.  To seek out new relationships.  To be bold pioneers in our own context, building bridges between what we find around us and the eternal truth, love and beauty which are so much a part of the life of heaven.  In that sense, what we do is, like the sheep, dependent on Jesus; not in a passive way, where everything is done for us, but in a way which means all the resources we need are available to us only as we trust him.

Ultimately, all of us are here together because, both as individuals and as a community, we love and trust Jesus enough to try doing things his way.  That’s being his sheep at its best.  We are committed to him in our inmost selves, allowing who he is to reshape us in the image of God.  And we are committed to him in our lives in the world, following him into all the places where we find our deepest joys in meeting the world’s deepest needs.  What we do here on a Sunday morning resources and supports what we do in all the rest of lives; the preferences we have, the choices we make, the things we seek.  Because love and friendship with God don’t obscure the reality that we’re also called to obedience.  Later on Jesus says that his friends are those who “do what I command you.”

As we follow Jesus in obedience, we become the image of the invisible God to the world.  As we hold together in Christ, we take up the work of reconciling ourselves, one another, and the world to God.   Provided that we continue to follow Jesus as he leads us into greater depth of relationship with God, greater depth of community, and greater involvement with his kingdom as it breaks into the world.  Provided that we truly listen to what he is telling us, and let that set the agenda for all that we do, and ultimately all that we are.

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Pondering autism

As I think I’ve posted before, my daughter has autism.

There are many things about this which are difficult, but one question which haunts me is, will there be autism in the resurrection?

This might seem, on the surface, like a stupid question.  There will be no illness or disability in the resurrection, will there?  We will be immortal, imperishable, perfect as we were originally intended to be.

But really, this question is about me wrestling with the nature of autism as a disability.  Some people claim that autism isn’t a disability, it’s just a difference; it means your brain works differently, and might just give you strengths as well as weaknesses, when compared with a “normal” person.

More than that, when something has been such a fundamental part of who you are since before you were born, when it is so deeply embedded in your identity that you can’t imagine it not being part of you, what does that suggest for you being somehow yourself, in the resurrection?  Would that be true in any meaningful way if the autism were somehow not there?

I don’t pretend to know more than in part.  But this is what I can see now, as a neurotypical mother of an autistic daughter, who tries to look at these things through the lens of faith.

Autism is a disability.  That the brain has developed with less interconnectivity than that of a non-autistic person, and that this results in impairments – typically sensory, language and social – is scientific fact.  That these impairments make things which other people take for granted, much more difficult to do or achieve, is fact.  I hope my daughter will finish school, go on to further study, find work that she loves and a happy family life in a structure that she chooses.  But if she does, it won’t be because she’s not disabled.  It will be because her many strengths have helped her to do her best despite that disability.

So that suggests to me that in the resurrection, autism might be – if not totally erased – like the rest of our bodies, transformed.  For an autistic person to be him- or herself in the resurrection, some of who they have been, developmentally, and in terms of personality, must remain in continuity with their mortal self.  But the limitations, the lack of ability, the impairment; I hope that will be erased like the lifting of a veil.  So that those who have been confused and overwhelmed and who have struggled, might find that in the new creation, they are able to relate to the world around them with confidence and understanding, while still holding on to whatever strengths that their life has formed in them.

April is autism awareness month.  Conversations about autism are everywhere; but I haven’t seen anyone else ask this particular question.  What do you think?

Mourning into dancing

This is a sermon for the third Sunday of Easter, given in the “church up the road.”  The Scripture it references is Psalm 30.  

You have turned my mourning into dancing…

I’ve been thinking a bit about dancing and its relationship with worship lately.  This week I was having an online discussion with a Hindu woman (as you do), about dance and yoga and meditation and how – in her religion – dance is something which allows you not just to know about God with your mind, but to know God in your body.  And that led me to reflect on how Christianity has for so long really been very uncomfortable about our bodies and their potential to know God; we’re much more likely to see our bodies as an obstacle or a nuisance which the mind needs to “manage” through discipline.  Perhaps we can thank St. Paul for some of that…

But anyway.  That meant that when I saw this verse in the Psalm it stood out to me as something worth exploring.  What was going on for the community who first used this Psalm in their worship, and what does it have to say to us today?

It turns out that this Psalm is one which is very intimately connected with the temple-based worship of the ancient Jews.  The introductory information tells us that it is a Psalm which was written for or used at the dedication of the temple, and later on it was included in (and continues to be used in) Hanukkah liturgies, which celebrate the rededication of the temple after its desecration.

This gives us some context for the expressions of joy and praise and thanks.  For the ancient Jews, the temple was a focus of their distinctive identity as the people of God, and for their unity as a people.  The temple was the place where God dwelt among God’s people, and so it was the place of most profound sacred encounter, and the place for the most solemn and most joyous acts of worship.

So this is the context in which the people’s mourning is turned into dancing; pilgrims would dance in procession on their way to the temple, and their dance celebrated everything that it meant to be one of God’s people, a grateful recipient of God’s shepherding care, and awed worshipper in the place which was the closest thing to heaven on earth.

And the reason I’m making a point of that is that I think that sometimes verses like this one about our mourning being turned to dancing become quite well known, perhaps because they’re used in worship songs or otherwise popularised, in a way which is removed from that original context; and sometimes that means their meaning gets distorted for us.

Here’s what I mean; if we take this line about God turning our mourning into dancing on its own – and I’ve seen Christians do this kind of thing – then you can think that maybe mourning isn’t a normal part of the Christian life.  You can think that maybe Christians are meant to be happy all of the time, full of the joy of the Lord, and that the full range of human emotion isn’t something that’s meant to be part of the healthy Christian experience.  It’s even sometimes pushed to the extreme where Christians who live with depression or anxiety or other similar mental health issues are told that they do so because of their sin, or – in one particularly memorable conversation I had when I was depressed – that it’s because of demonic activity in their life.  (Way to freak someone out!)

This is, I think, something like an emotional version of prosperity theology (the idea that God wants to bless us, and that therefore a lack of success somehow indicates a problem in your faith).  And it’s a mistake to get caught up in that kind of thinking, which is more about blame than about hope.

So it’s important for us to read verses like this and realise that while celebration is an important part of life, it’s not something which we need to expect from everyone all the time.  Grief is normal, the full range of our emotions is normal, and we need to be able to bring all of that with us to worship without being ashamed of what we feel, or thinking that it is in some way a barrier between us and God.

So if that’s what we don’t do with a Psalm like this, what can we take from it?

Think back to what I said about how this Psalm was (and is) used in Jewish worship.  That it was a celebration of their identity as the people of God, their unity as a people, and of their ability to encounter and worship the living God in their midst.

Well, we also have those things to celebrate, do we not?  We also know our own identity as a people of God – an Easter people – and songs of praise are an intrinsic part of that.  We know that – as the community of all the baptised – even though the church is administratively fragmented, we have a deeper unity; one based on the presence of the Holy Spirit which is at work in each of us, and through all of us.  We know that as we gather for worship, Christ is present with and to us, and we are able to encounter and worship the living God in our midst.

This is as much a part of the fabric of our religious lives as it was for the ancient Jews who wrote this Psalm and preserved it as part of their regular worship.  And these are things worth celebrating, worth expressing our joy over!

So yes, God turns our mourning into dancing; he overcomes our alienation from him and from one another and builds us back up into relationships in which we can truly experience joy.

Have a look at the pictures up on the screen (for readers of the blog, they are attached below); what you have been looking at so far is a detailed view of part the interior of the Episcopal church of St. Gregory of Nyssa, in San Francisco.  Here’s a bit more of a big-picture view.  All around the walls of that church, the saints of all ages and cultures are shown dancing together, led by Christ at the head, in a bright and bold visual statement of what it means to be the Church.  I wonder what it would be like, to gather for worship surrounded by all those dancing saints?  And did you notice that there are some animals in the picture, which suggest that all of creation and nature joins with us in our praise?

This is where statements of God turning our mourning into dancing take their proper place, for us; not in trying to narrow the range of acceptable Christian emotion, but in providing a deeper understanding of what it is that we have to celebrate as we come together.  We may not always feel like dancing, but we can know that we always have something worth holding on to and treasuring as being worth celebrating; something to turn back to even in our darkest times, which can give us comfort and hope that our struggles will pass.  So that, with the psalmist, we can say with confidence that we too will give thanks to God for ever.

 

Dancing saints

 

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Healing gardens

For a while now, I’ve been interested in gardens as spaces for meditation and prayer, and in how we can intentionally design gardens for those purposes (especially church gardens, which we can then keep open to the general public, and provide them with a gentle invitation to these disciplines).

As I was meandering around the web this afternoon, I came across the slides for a lecture on “Healing Gardens in Hospitals” as part of a course in hospital architecture.  This was not exactly the same thing as I’d been thinking about, but nor was it unrelated, so I was interested enough to go through the slides and see these principles put forward (the headings are my own way of organising the material):

Spiritual considerations:

  • A connection to nature has been shown to have positive influence on health outcomes (physiological and psychological).
  • Plants with distinct seasonal changes can invite a range of responses and reflections.  Trees can provide metaphors of solidity, strength and permanence.  Annuals can provide metaphors of growth, budding, blooming, seeding, decay, death and transformation.  Perennials can provide metaphors of persistence and renewal.
  • If there is potential for a good view beyond the premises, seek to construct the garden to incorporate it.  People often find a wider view helps them focus less on their troubles, and find a wider perspective.

Practical considerations:

  • Well-designed gardens can become not just an adjunct to the hospital, but a place which is used for various types of therapy (an integral part of the treatment model).
  • The garden could also become a “needed retreat” for staff, helping them to manage the stress of their work.

Physical considerations:

  • Accessibility is key!  People of all ages and abilities need to be able to enter and move around the garden.  Paths should be solid, smooth and wide enough for two wheelchairs to pass.
  • The garden space could be used in ways that ranged from relatively passive to quite active.  The well-designed garden needs to cater for viewing from inside, sitting outside, rest/meditation/prayer (I guess they mean sitting quietly here!), gentle exercise, walking, eating, reading and paperwork, playing (referring particularly to children), sport, and.. even gardening.
  • Quiet is important.  Thought should be given to noise levels and screening of intruding noise, and the creation of natural sounds (water, birdsong, rustling leaves etc).
  • Levels of greenery are also important.  More vegetation helps to awaken the senses, calm the mind and reduce stress.  Planting design should be intricate, detailed, and appeal to all the senses.
  • Furniture should be comfortable and not cause strain, including when shared.
  • Our connection with nature can also be cognitive.  Plant labels can engage our attention and stimulate conversation.
  • Water can be helpful.  Views of still, reflective water and the sounds and views of moving water are engaging and soothing.  Water also attracts wildlife, adding to the diversity of the garden and providing a sense of the breadth and continuity of life.
  • Give thought to shelter appropriate to the climate, to make it possible to use the garden for as much of the year as possible.

Emotional considerations:

  • The psychological process by which a person is helped by being in a garden includes the journey itself, sensory awakening, personal centreing, and spiritual attunement.
  • The positive outcomes of a garden were strengthened if they were accompanied by social support and a sense of autonomy in one’s situation.  A well-designed garden can enhance the sense of autonomy of visitors to it by giving them a choice of spaces, seating and activities (this can be as simple as making sure that furniture can be easily moved, and providing spaces which are more open and more enclosed, more secluded/private and more social, more sunny and more shaded, etc).  Providing a range of options in the garden can also ensure that it invites exploration and does not become boring.  Opportunities to personalise or contribute to the garden in some way (eg decorating a tile for a wall) can help to build a sense of ownership as well.
  • The garden should match the culture of the people who use it (garden design, plants, detailing, furnishing etc).
  • Ambiguous or abstract features may be perceived as fearful or threatening (even if the designer had no such intent) and should be avoided.  What might be appropriate in other contexts may not be so appropriate here.  Art should be unambiguously positive.  The inclusion of inspiring statements etc can be beneficial (but should be carefully selected for the context).

There seems to me that there is a great deal here that we could carry over into thinking about our church gardens.  What if we intentionally designed our garden spaces to help people connect with God through nature?  What if we invited people to use those spaces in ways which complement and extend what we do inside our church buildings?  What if we took seriously issues of accessibility, providing for a range of activities, and the sensory experience of people in our gardens?  What if we found ways to build social support into how people engaged with our gardens?

And there are other questions, not touched on in this lecture but to which we might also want to give thought.  How can gardens become teaching resources?  (I remember a quiet afternoon when I was in college, in which we were given a series of meditative exercises as we walked through the Fitzroy gardens and reflected on what we encountered there.  It would not be difficult to do similar things on a smaller scale).  What other needs in our community can a garden meet?  Can our garden become part of wider conservation efforts?  And so on.

Brother Roger, who founded the community at Taizé, is reputed to have said that when the church becomes a house of prayer, the people will come running.  He has been shown to be right in the experience at Taizé, to which thousands of young people now flock every year.  What if we asked how our gardens could further our mission, and designed them for that?  The resources to help us do this better are out there; surely we should take them seriously!

Easter Baptism

This is a sermon for Easter day, given in the “church next door.”  There was a baptism at this service, and the sermon is really an extended reflection on the baptismal liturgy.

It’s a very big thing to bring a child for baptism.  In a moment Zalen’s parents and godparents are going to be asked some serious questions, and we are all going to together reaffirm our common belief in the Christian faith.

You might be forgiven for wondering why we do that; after all, Zalen is just a baby, he doesn’t understand yet what we are doing, and he won’t remember it when he’s older.  Is it worth doing this in a way which makes it seem exclusive or difficult?  I’ve heard people make that kind of comment about baptism services before.  Perhaps similar thoughts have occurred to some of you.

But I think that kind of questioning comes from a place of not fully appreciating what’s at stake.  If all this were about was making Zalen a member of the Christian “club,” allowing him to be one of “us” instead of one of “them” – however you define us and them – then the only generous and hospitable thing to do would be to make baptism as easy as possible.  No promises, no affirmations, just a quick dunk and you’re in.  Let’s all go eat.

But on this day, perhaps more than any other day in the Christian year, we remember that there is so much more than that at stake.

Zalen is coming this morning to be made a member of the church, a part of the body of Christ.  Baptism is all about belonging, not just to a social club, but to a spiritual reality which has the power and the potential to totally transform each of us.  Christ rose from the dead, and his resurrection redefines the horizons of human potential forever.

When we say that we “turn to Christ,” there is so much wrapped up in that phrase.  We are saying that we want to live a life in which evil and hatred have no permanent hold on us; a life free of crippling guilt and shame; a life in which we can walk in joy and hope and peace; a life, in short, in which we can experience something of heaven on this earth, and we know the companionship of the creator of the universe.

We are saying that we acknowledge that there is more than one way to be, in this life; that good and evil, light and darkness, are real; and that we want to, as best we can, align ourselves with what is good.  And that we want to incorporate ourselves into a community which has made the same commitment; a community which can offer us support, encouragement, teaching and enrichment, and in which we can also make a contribution and play a part in supporting, encouraging, and enriching others in turn.

That’s what Zalen’s parents and godparents are seeking for him in bringing him to be baptised today.  They are seeking the active involvement of the Holy Spirit in Zalen’s life; that God might be at work in his heart from today, helping him to grow in love and generosity and kindness, and looking outward to how he might be of service to others.

These are not small things in the development of a child.  They don’t happen by default.  They need to be approached intentionally, carefully.  Of course, good parents of all faith positions and none will seek to raise good, moral children, but this is about more than that.  It’s about seeking for Zalen a life which will be profoundly shaped by the One who created everything that exists, and who so desires intimate, loving relationship with those He created that he was willing to become human, to suffer and die, to make that relationship a living reality.

And part of that relationship with God means knowing and being a part of God’s people, because the Holy Spirit isn’t given to us each individually just for our own benefit, but so that we can be integrated together into a community; a community which looks outward with passion and purpose towards the world which God loves.  In baptism, each of us brings something uniquely valuable to that community; each person is irreplaceable, and when one of us is not here, we are all diminished.

(And I don’t mean that just in the sense of “not attending services” as if the sum and point of being a Christian were being in a pew on Sunday morning, but a broader sense of active participation).

This is what it means to fight the good fight; to seek after truth and accept no imitations or substitutes; to have the courage to grasp the vision of what God’s reign can mean for human life, and to work towards that at every opportunity; to learn to embrace the value of human flourishing above self-gratification.  To come to the end of life knowing that you’ve lived it with integrity and kindness and finished the race well, open to the glory of God wherever it may be found.

These are big things.  Sometimes they are hard things.  Sometimes they are costly.  But this is the vision and the set of values to which the church is committed and constantly recommits itself, even though we understand that we can never live up to it perfectly.

And that’s why the serious questions and the affirmation of faith.  Because they spell out and help us all to understand what it is that we are seeking to be part of.  They help us to integrate God’s vision for us more firmly into our own identity.  And they help us all to know what is at stake when we come to the font; not just some empty words.  Not just a feel good moment of celebrating a new life (although there is something of that).  But our own inheritance in the kingdom of heaven; an inheritance which comes with both blessings and responsibilities, to God and to one another.

This morning, as we celebrate the resurrection, and as we celebrate a baptism, we know that the kingdom of heaven has come near.  It opens us up to new horizons of possibility and makes available to us profound reserves of love and hope.  And it is to this that we come, open and trusting, and ready for new beginnings with God.

Two truths

This is a sermon for Good Friday, given in the “church next door.”  The Scriptures it references is John 18:1 – 19:42.

What is truth?

Pilate’s question, as he interrogated Jesus.  What to make of the man in front of him?  What to make of the infuriating rabble outside?  What to make of being the Roman official in this sun-crazed backwater of the empire?  I’m sure he wished all of those questions would go away and leave him in peace, without having to try to grasp the truth.

We have our own wrestling matches with truth, too, don’t we?  We live in a society which tells us that truth is relative, that there is nothing which is objectively true, only subjective constructions which belong each to the individual mind.  That when we seek after something greater than ourselves as arbiter of truth, we are deluded.

Perhaps that’s the sort of thinking that allowed Pilate to wash his hands of the whole affair.

But when we look at the cross, with Jesus hanging on it bloody and beaten, we are confronted with two truths which, if we let them, can shape us profoundly.

The first is the truth of human sin.

We don’t like to talk about sin very much; it’s gone out of fashion, even in the pulpit.  But the fact of the matter is that we are each of us born into a world of broken relationships, of marred human dignity, of bound potential.  We each of us grow into that world, shaped by it, and by our own efforts we cannot entirely overcome it, although stories of human courage and strength abound.  In our struggle for survival we propagate that brokenness, that fallenness; and our best efforts fall short.

If we look that truth squarely in the face at no other time, surely we can look at it on this day.  See our potential for inhumanity summed up for us in this act of brutality in defence of power.  Ask ourselves the hard questions about where our own sin plays out.

But there’s another truth on display for us; the truth of divine love.

This is the length God will go to for us.  This is how much we are not alone; how much we are not abandoned; how much God has not given up on us.  God is able to absorb every bit of our capacity for evil and still have reserves left over to offer us a new beginning.

God is able not just to look our sin squarely in the face, but to bear it in the flesh; in the very human stuff of bones and muscles and nerve endings, and to still hold out the possibility that there might be more to us than this.  That we might be worth enduring all of this for.

Two truths; human sin, yes, but also divine love, demonstrated by the God who didn’t hold back from the extremity of death for our sake.

The God who created us, will go to absolutely any lengths to untangle us from the mess we’ve made of it all and create, with us, a new beginning.

John’s gospel uses the word “glory” for the crucifixion.  It wasn’t glorious at the time.  But in what it accomplished, in what it holds out for us today and until the end of time, there is great glory.

Two truths.  Human sin and divine love, both shown in the glory of the cross.

Come, let us worship him.

Vulnerable discipleship

This is a sermon for Maundy Thursday, given in the “church next door.”  The Scriptures it references are Psalm 116 and  John 13:1-35.  

Recently I was chatting to a friend who was unsure what to expect at a Maundy Thursday service.  She wanted to know, what was this about foot washing?  I explained it to her and encouraged her to keep an open mind about having her foot washed; to which she responded that she was inclined to keep an open mind and a closed shoe.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised if we find that people still squirm at this.  After all, in our reading this evening Simon Peter took some convincing.  It’s fair to say that he was probably coming from a different place; after all, foot washing was an everyday occurrence in his culture.  His context made him embarrassed, I imagine, and very uncomfortable to have someone so respected doing something so menial for him.  As if, perhaps, the archbishop dropped by my place unexpectedly and did the dishes while he was there.

But while Jesus, in doing this, set us a high example and one we do well to imitate, I wonder if sometimes loving others isn’t what we most need to be reminded of.  What about our need to allow others to love and serve us?  This can start to seem threatening.  Allowing others to genuinely make a difference often means making ourselves vulnerable to them; allowing them to see and touch parts of our lives that are painful or difficult, or of which we are ashamed.  Far easier, often, to keep one another at arm’s length; to allow the boundaries of our relationships to be set by our fear and distrust.

It seems to me also that we can fall into this same mistake with God.  That in our awareness of failings and shortcomings, we fear that God will reject or deal with us harshly, or that the change God might call us to will be impossibly difficult for an imperfect person.

But here is the question; kneeling at Peter’s feet, do you imagine that Jesus was rough?  That he was careless of the pain of blisters, from the miles walked following him?  That in removing sandals, he was heedless of tired and aching muscles?  Do you think that in washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus showed us a harsh God of tough love?

Or do you see in your mind’s eye, hands working with gentleness and consideration, which eased discomfort?

Because I’m convinced that the character of God is to be gentle and encouraging with us, as much with our hearts as with the disciples’ feet so long ago.  Isaiah describes God’s servant as one who will not break a bruised reed.  If we feel bruised in heart, he will not break us; it is instead by the bruises he chose to bear, that we are healed.

I’m reminded of an acquaintance of mine, a psychologist who happens to see a lot of Christians in her practice, who told me once that she sees more new clients in the week or two after Easter than at any other time of the year.  That surprised me, but it shouldn’t have; in commemorating the events of Easter, we can allow the gospel story to interact with our own story; to touch our vulnerabilities and our tender spots; even to open places which need healing.  What the psychologist told me is an enormous testimony to the fact that the gospel matters, and that what we do in our life together matters.  It’s worth taking seriously and engaging with at depth.

The Psalm this evening asked “How shall I repay the Lord for all his benefits to me?” and answered the question with images of Jewish temple worship.  For us, for whom there is no temple other than the community of believers, Jesus’ actions offer a different set of images to fire our imaginations.

In this now unusual ritual action of foot washing, we have an opportunity to prod the limits of our comfort zones; to try out, in a safe space, what it might be for us to be open to the service that both God, and our brothers and sisters, offer us in love and gentleness.  We are built not to be alone but to be in community with one another, members of the one body, with Christ at the head.  Discipleship, in the way that Jesus demonstrates for us, is not individualistic, with each person in his or her private relationship with God through Christ.  Rather, discipleship is lived to the full in the life of the community.  In this community and its dynamics of love, disciples are drawn into the life of heaven; into that realm of truth, love, and beauty which is the dwelling-place of Father, Son and Spirit (themselves a community with an inner dynamic of love).  If we choose not to engage in that relationship, not to allow ourselves to be sometimes vulnerable, I suspect that we choose to keep at least part of ourselves in the darkness of the grave, rather than letting the light of Easter shine into all parts of our lives.

Now, this isn’t something that comes to us instinctively.  It needs to be learned (indeed, to be a disciple is to be one who learns).  Discipleship is always a process of learning, a gradual process of conversion, of being lead from one vision of reality to another.  When God offers to teach us, to allow us to learn from him, we are invited into a relationship; and even when we struggle and misunderstand, that is met with kindness and openness.  It’s only when we assume we have no need to learn that we have abandoned the path of discipleship.

So let us, this Easter, remember to love and serve one another.  But let us also be open enough, trusting enough, to let others reach the tender places in our lives.  Let us learn to be vulnerable with God.  Let the experiences of Easter sink in past the surface layers of our lives and speak into the core of our beings.

Lord, are you going to wash my feet?