Sunday, March 13, 2022

Phil Kniss: A sustainable willing spirit

Lent 2 – “Master turns servant: Jesus washes feet”
John 13:1-17

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On this second Sunday of Lent, 5 weeks before Easter,
the Narrative Lectionary puts us in the final week of Jesus’ life.
This is unusual, but for me, a welcomed opportunity.

Holy Week is book-ended by Palm Sunday and Easter,
so in my binders of old sermons,
I have loads of sermons about the Triumphal Entry,
and the Resurrection,
but very few about 
all the other things that happened that week.
We always read through the Passion Story during Holy Week,
but rarely do we dive in deep.
Case in point, although I’ve often made comments 
on this John 13 text at Maundy Thursday services,
I have never preached a Sunday morning sermon on it.
So this is sermon #1,227 in my preaching career.
But about foot-washing, this is sermon #1.

And that is awfully strange, if not shameful.
since the very beginning of our Anabaptist movement in the 1500s,
this story from John 13 is in our Top Ten of all Gospel stories,
if not the top 3 or 4.

How many Mennonite church logos have you seen,
that include an image of a basin or towel? Lots.
How many Mennonite altar tables or foyer displays have you seen,
where a basin and towel had a prominent place? Lots.
One of the more prominent sculptures on EMU’s campus,
is that of Jesus washing Peter’s feet,
created by Esther Augsburger.
Of course, actually doing the physical ritual
is more rare these days.
Foot-washing has virtually disappeared from many churches.
We do it here at Park View only occasionally,
and often in smaller settings.

I’ll bet many of you,
especially among Millennials, and younger,
have never participated in a foot-washing ceremony.

Lucky for you, there will be a chance today,
during All-Age Faith Formation,
in case you want to “test the waters” so to speak—
to just get your feet wet in this ritual Jesus instituted.

But . . . back to my debut sermon on John 13.

Servanthood is central to Christian discipleship.
We know that, deep in our bones.
It’s part of the DNA not only of Anabaptists,
but many, many denominations and faith groups.

A willingness to humble ourselves,
and carry out acts of service that otherwise seem below us,
is how we demonstrate the love of God.
It’s how we show we are willing
to serve a cause greater than ourselves, 
and bigger than our agenda.
It is the essential posture of a disciple of Jesus.

It is why Mennonite Central Committee exists.
MCC started a little over 100 years ago,
in, of all places, the Ukraine,
where the combination of a Russian civil war
and widespread famine,
meant that our own Mennonite sisters and brothers there
were starving to death.
So we went to great lengths,
and great personal and financial sacrifice to serve them,
and to serve many other suffering people besides.
Some even laid down their lives for that noble cause.

Service still drives the mission 
of so many of our Mennonite institutions today—
Mennonite Disaster Service,
Mennonite hospitals, group homes, schools, camps,
mission agencies, financial aid organizations.
For the size of our denomination,
we have a huge, and I mean huge,
number of institutions whose mission is centered 
on servanthood.

Nevertheless, this is a challenging topic for us.

In John chapter 13,
we see Jesus, who (as John often reminds us)
is sent from God,
is one with God,
is God’s anointed one, the Messiah,
whose authority is supreme—
we see this God-figure stoop to our level,
take a basin of water and towel,
and make his rounds to his disciples.
This highly esteemed rabbi
washes the dirty and dusty feet of his disciples.
He does the duty usually relegated
to the lowest servants in the household.

And Jesus not only does this remarkable act,
and makes his disciples feel awkward and uncomfortable,
but he commands them—and us—to do the same.
Jesus intends for his followers to never forget
the primary place of humility and servanthood,
in the character of a disciple.

This idea is not easily embraced.
As we heard in the story,
Peter protested—vehemently—at the very notion
that Jesus would do this.

And why did Peter protest?
We tend to put this in the best possible light.
Well, Peter had such high esteem for his rabbi.
His own humility made him object.

Yeah? I don’t think so.
It was not humility, but pride,
that prompted Peter’s protest.

I say this partly because humility 
was not very apparent among Jesus’ disciples, most of the time.
Many of them—including Peter—
were rough, proud, and self-sufficient Galileans.
James and John angled for the top two positions
in the new government they thought Jesus would establish.

But I also say this partly from personal experience and observation.
We Mennonites who emphasize service and servanthood,
also suffer from a lot of pride
that masquerades as humility.

When we object to being served by others,
or protest when someone wishes to give us an undeserved gift,
or wants to perform some act of service or kindness for us,
we might imagine it’s our humility that gets in the way.
But no, let’s be honest.
It’s pride.

To be the recipient of a free gift, or an act of service,
makes us feel beholden to another.
And we don’t want to be beholden.
We can take care of ourselves, thank you very much.

When Jesus washed Peter’s feet,
Peter felt like he was losing control.
And he was.

Peter’s response actually reminded me
of a story in the Hebrew Scriptures, 2 Kings 5, 
when the powerful Aramean army commander Naaman,
came to the Israelite prophet Elisha,
to seek healing from his leprosy.
The cure Elisha offered, through a messenger
(to wash in the Jordan River seven times),
was so offensive to Naaman,
that he turned his chariot around in anger to head back home.
Elisha didn’t even do the favor of showing his face.
Naaman was too great and powerful,
to be told, by a messenger, to get in that dirty water.

Now, we don’t have trouble identifying this as pride.
But is it really much different than what Peter objected to?
Peter resisted the offer of Jesus,
because to accept it was to admit he wasn’t in control.

Jesus modeled the posture of authentic servanthood—
It was a self-giving and generous act 
that even at the moment he lowered himself,
he maintained a strong identity and selfhood.
Jesus was self-giving,
not self-destructing.
There is a big difference.

So why has foot-washing diminished among us in recent decades?
I’ve heard us blame it on our Western individualistic,
and self-oriented culture.
That’s probably fair.
But it’s also a little more complicated than that.
Maybe Mennonites have gradually come to see
there is a perverted form of yieldedness,
that shows up sometimes in the church.
It’s a form of self-yielding that veers into self-condemnation,
that keeps us from living our best self,
that makes it harder to see and affirm
that sacred and beautiful divine image in all of us
that must be celebrated and preserved.
And so . . .
seeing some people struggle to believe
they are worthwhile as they are, in the sight of God,
we have focused less on self-emptying servanthood.

So I understand this response.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
We have the authentic servanthood that Jesus modeled:
self-giving without self-abasement.

If we have a healthy sense of self,
or at least, a sense of self that is growing,
and being supported by our community of faith,
then we can safely be invited by our community
to a life of humility and servant-hood and even deep sacrifice,
because it is coming from a place of 
knowing God’s abundant and unconditional love.

Our inherent worth before God is not called into question,
when we say yes to radical servanthood and obedience,
even to the point of being willing to lay down our lives
for a cause greater than ourselves.

This is the paradox of Christian servant-hood:
In order to sacrifice ourselves,
we need to have a self to sacrifice.
We need a self that knows it is loved unconditionally by God.

In my study this week,
I came to a deeper appreciation of Psalm 51.
This is a beautiful penitential psalm I’ve read my whole life.
It is full of honest self-assessment
of our shortcomings and sin.
But the psalm really shines, 
when the psalmist gets in touch with his worth before God,
and of God’s love for him.
It’s summed up in verse 1:
“Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love.”

But I the real key is in verse 12.
“Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.”

There is the soul of Christian service:
A willing spirit, made sustainable by God’s own intervention.
That’s the prayer of the psalmist.
That God would sustain, in him, a willing spirit.

The word “willing” is so much richer in Hebrew.
We cheapen it,
when we think it simply means to be “agreeable.”
We can agree to do something, without being willing in spirit.

The original word in this Hebrew poem is nadib (נָדִיב)
It means to be inclined toward someone.
To be generous.
To be noble.
In fact, when used as a noun
it’s in the masculine form in Hebrew,
and translated elsewhere in the Bible as,
nobleman or prince.
Makes sense actually.
We think of a noble person or princely person
as someone who is generous, self-giving,
and inclined toward others.

So in the middle of confessing his deep sin,
the psalmist prays that God would enable him
to be noble, princely, generous,
that God would sustain in him a willing spirit.

I don’t know of a better prayer,
for those of us who choose a life of service.
Lord, would you make my generosity sustainable?
Help me give myself without losing myself.

I commit myself to praying this prayer more often.
I encourage you to do the same.

Lord, make me more generous, more open to others,
more inclined toward others,
including those I find difficult to understand or love.
And Lord, you sustain in me, that willing spirit.

Join me now in a prayer of confession
that begins to move us all in that direction.

one God of love and generosity.
We also want to be generous.
At the same time, we want to be respected,
to not be taken advantage of.
all Forgive us when we have closed the door too soon,
and kept ourselves from responding to your call.
one We acknowledge that we sometimes hold our willing spirit in check,
to protect ourselves from being used.
all Forgive us when we have closed our heart too soon,
and kept ourselves from giving and receiving your love.
one Do your work in our inner being,
sustain in us a willing spirit,
to go where you lead,
to give where our gifts are needed.
And restore to us the full joy of your salvation.

—Phil Kniss, March 13, 2022

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