Rules and Open Windows
Being a pastor or a teacher or a financial advisor is a little bit about fitting in. Being an anything is a little bit about doing the stuff and a little bit about playing the part.
Things are getting a little wibbly-wobbly. Things are getting a little timey-wimey.
This is the second Sunday of Lent. This is the second Sunday of that season when we walk with the word who was in the beginning—the word through whom all things came into being and without whom not one thing came into being—through the valley of the shadow of death.
But our reading this morning is about a night that we won’t celebrate for weeks, when we will receive an ancient new mandatum—an ancient new commandment—to love one another just as that word loved us.
And it’s the day before festival when the people remember…
Once upon a time, the people lived in slavery in Egypt. Once upon a time, the people lived in misery in the house of bondage. And then God raised up a prophet and a savior, who led them out of Egypt… and through the wilderness… and into a land flowing with milk and honey… and into a new way of life.
The past and the present and the future are getting mixed together. Things are getting a little wibbly-wobbly. Things are getting a little timey-wimey. And things are about to get… weird.
A long time ago, I worked at a medical school. We took these… kids… who had just graduated from college. And we put them in ties and lab coats and started turning them into physicians.
And they spent a lot of time studying organs and systems and drugs and diseases.
And one evening every year, students gathered together and learned… how to have dinner: what to wear, how to manage the dangerous combination of appetizers and small talk, which fork to use when, and all of that.
Because, sometimes, physicians have to be very important people. And, sometimes, very important people have to go to very important dinners. And very important people… at very important dinners… have to follow very important rules. Those rules are part of the culture of being a physician. And part of being a physician is about knowing about organs and systems and drugs and diseases. And part of being a physician is about fitting in.
And it’s not just physicians; it’s all of us. Being a pastor or a teacher or a financial advisor is a little bit about fitting in. Being a student or a retiree or wandering soul is a little bit about fitting in. Being a member of a church is a little bit about fitting in.
Being an anything is a little bit about doing the stuff and a little bit about playing the part.
And Jesus is about to go off script.
The rule is that when someone arrives for dinner, a servant should wash their feet in an act as normal and unobtrusive as taking someone’s coat. Then they can get on with the evening.
But here we are in the middle of dinner… when the teacher, the rabbi, the word who was with God and who was God… gets up, and takes off his coat, and grabs the water basin… and makes everyone turn their seats around away from the table… and starts washing his disciples’ feet… because he loved them.
In this moment… when things are wibbly-wobbly… when things are timey-wimey… when holiness is breaking into the world… when stuff is about to go down… Jesus throws the rules out the window in favor of love.
A couple of weeks ago, I was listening to a podcast about why middle school is so terrible for so many people. And the host and the guest talked about how middle schoolers are really focused on fitting in… on not being too different… on not standing out too much.
And they talked about how there are evolutionary reasons for that. Humans are social animals. We feel safer, we feel happier, we feel more comfortable when we are part of a group. And we feel much better when we’re in the group than when we’re out of the group.
And there is real scientific research… that supports the idea… that our brains experience physical pain and social pain—the pain of being on the outs—in pretty much the same way. Being called a loser isn’t that different from getting hit.
So it is a very important thing that we wear the right clothes… and say the right things… and like the right music. Because it is a very important thing that we stay in the group. (Vox Media, 2022. Why Does Middle School Suck?. Podcast. Vox Conversations. https://www.vox.com/vox-conversations-podcast.)
And it’s been a while since I was in middle school; but that tracks.
And it’s not just middle school. Even after we grow up… even after we grow into our weird… even after we find our tribes… we still want to fit in. So we learn what to wear to very important dinners, and manage the dangerous combination of appetizers and small talk, and which fork to use, and all of that.
We learn how to not stand out too much… how to not make waves that are too big… how to not draw the wrong kind of attention. Because life is a little bit about doing the stuff and a little bit about playing our parts. We learn that the rules are more important than love.
And that’s wrong. There’s no other way to put it. That is wrong; absolutely wrong, totally wrong, straight up wrong, completely wrong, utterly wrong, fantastically and stupendously and breathtakingly wrong.
The rules are not more important than love. Nothing is more important than love.
And I know that because…
Sometimes, we imagine that God is an old man who sits on a throne somewhere among the clouds. We imagine that God is all-powerful and all-knowing and holy beyond measure. We imagine that God is unchanging and unchangeable. We imagine that God sits on his throne, day after day, judging the living and the dead… declaring, “You are good enough to be in. You are bad enough to be out.”
And we imagine that our job is to be good enough. We imagine that our job is to follow the rules. We imagine that our job is to wear the right clothes, and take small bites, and use the right fork. We imagine that our job is to not stand out too much and to not make waves that are too big and to not draw the wrong kind of attention.
We imagine that our job is to live in a way that makes people speak well of us. And that. is. wrong. Absolutely, totally, straight up, completely, utterly, fantastically, stupendously, breathtakingly wrong.
And I know that because God laid glory aside and became one of us; among dispossessed people in an occupied land. And I know that because one day, while God was having dinner with their disciples… they got up, and took off their coat, and grabbed the water basin… and made everyone turn their seats around away from the table… and washed their feet.
All of their feet. Peter’s feet; even though Peter never seems to understand anything. Thomas’s feet; even though Thomas is so skeptical about what is happening. Judas’s feet; even though Judas has already betrayed him.
And I know that because God is going to walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Because God is going to walk right up to the edge of the grave; and God is going to step off the edge and into the grave. And I know that because God is going to get up… and say, “I’m not done with you yet,”… and take our hand… and pull us out of the grave.
And God is going to do that for Peter. And for Thomas. And even, I believe, for Judas.
God is going to do that for you. And for me. And for everyone.
God is going to throw the rules out the window in favor of love. Again and again. Every time. It is the most fantastic, stupendous, breathtaking thing.
After Jesus breaks the rules—after Jesus embarrasses everyone by washing their feet in the middle of dinner—he sits back down. And he tells them,
Do you know what I have done for you? Do you know what I am doing for you? Do you know what I will do for you? It might have looked like I was washing your feet, but I was loving you. And I’m going to keep doing that. And I’m me. And you are not better than me. So do the same thing. Love. Even if it means throwing the rules out the window. Even if it means looking foolish. Even if it means not conforming to the ways of this world. Love.
And that is what this is all about. We are not called to follow the rules. We are not called to fit in. We are not called to conform to the world-as-it-is. We are called to love.
We are called to love recklessly. We are called to love foolishly. We are called to live wildly and dangerously and in ways that are full of grace. We are called to love fantastically and stupendously and breathtakingly. We are called to love even if it means throwing the rules out the window. We are called to love especially when it means throwing the rules out the window.
And I know that’s hard. I know that’s risky. I know that point and sneer and laugh. And I know that being called a loser isn’t that different from getting hit.
But I also know that love breeds love. I know that love leads to love. I know that love… multiplies.
And I know that the more love we put into the world, the more love there will be. And I have every ounce of faith that love will lead us out of the shadow of the valley of death and into a life that is more fantastic and stupendous and breathtaking than we can possibly imagine.