A sermon preached June 5, 2016, based on John 13:2-13a.
Most everybody knows of my fondness for coffee. When I want to make the best coffee I know how, I pull out my french press. I first got this for the office where I worked years ago; it was a cheap and easy way to make good coffee atmy desk. I soon quit using it, though, because it's booger to clean, especially at a desk with no sink. The grounds get all compressed at the bottom, and it's a pain to try and scoop them out with a spoon, or whatever. So when I moved from that office, I kept the French press at home. But even there, and even though it makes the best coffee I know how to make, I usually just used a cheap autodrip coffee pot - it turns out I can appreciate the good stuff - but I appreciate the convenience of dropping a coffee filter in the trash even more. No fuss, no muss, and if the coffee tastes like swill... well, I'll cope.
But there was this one New Year's eve - we had some of our best friends at the house, and they'd brought a bag of nice coffee as a Christmas gift, and so I thought, this deserves a little extra time and attention, so I pulled the french press out of the cabinet, made a batch for us all to share, and it was the perfect ending to a perfect meal with good friends
Then of course, came the fly in the ointment of every perfect homecooked meal. The dishes. I and our friend Zach had contributed very little to the cooking of the meal, so we wandered to the kitchen, and set to work. Dishes were scraped and cups poured out, and most everything was humming along just fine, and Zach picked up the the coffee press with it's hockey puck of grounds at the bottom, and I said "oh, that thing's a pain I'll take care of it." But even as I was saying it, Zach had stuck his hand all the way down, and scooped out most of the gunk in a single motion. One quick rinse and the whole thing was ready for the dishwasher.
I felt so stupid, thinking of all the times I'd tried to empty this thing with a spoon or knife or whatever, when all I really needed to do was use my hands. Of course, Zach's hands were filthy. If he had touched anything, he would have gotten gunk all of it. but it took him about two seconds to run them under the faucet, and make them clean again. It turned out the biggest obstacle to getting this thing clean was that I was trying to keep myself clean along the way.
The disciples were not so concerned with their hands. They're concerns began a little closer to the ground. Years of wandering wherever Jesus went had made something abundantly clear. If you follow Jesus, you are going to get your feet dirty. They followed Jesus down dusty dirt tracks and foul city streets; the followed him when he rode a donkey. Presumably keeping a safe distance and watchful eye the whole way to the upper room. Now, it's time to eat, and the disciples are reclining in the ancient style around the table, their feet perilously close to one another and to the food. Jesus takes it upon himself to wash their feet, which is in and of itself a radical act of humility and servitude - the King of the Universe taking the time to wash feet. But when he comes to Peter, Jesus makes it clear that this footwashing is not simply about setting the example of a servant, and it's not just about the dirt and the feet either.
"Unless I wash you, you won't have a place in me"
Whoa, Jesus. Sorry, Jesus, I didn't realize what was at stake here. I didn't realize we were talking on *that* level. Please excuse me, I get it now. I'm in, let's get this right. Let'd do this thing; head shoulders, knees and toes, Jesus. Everybody, you might want to turn your heads 'cuz we're about to go full on bathhouse here. I'm ready Jesus, give me that sanctifying sponge bath. Wash me all the way down.
"No thanks, peter. You've been baptized already, we won't go through all that again. You've just gotten your feet dirty. It tends to happen, when you follow me. It's ok, I have the towel, I have the basin. Just sit still."
Jesus was able to walk among the powers, the sins, and the sickness of this world without it making his hands dirty. If anyone else touched a leper, they became tainted by uncleannness. When Jesus touches a leper, the leper becomes tainted by holiness and healing. Jesus would go party with Zacchaeus and all the tax collector's friends, but rather than being corrupted by that unholy place, the story ends by saying "salvation has come to this house." He seems utterly impervious to the dirt that surrounds him. "Listen, and understand!" he once said to the crowd. "It's not what goes into the mouth that contaminates a person in God's sight. Eating without washing your hands does not contaminate in God's sight. It is what comes out of the mouth that contaminates." Such is the power of Christ's holiness.
But it seems that is the end point of salvation for the rest of us, and not the beginning. When we try to sweep the filth from the world, some of it clings to us, and we need his towel and basin. We are called to be holy in the world, but we are not separate from it, and so we become complicit, and compromised, even when we are trying to be our best.
Everyone in the little church calls a certain woman "a saint," but 13 years after the car accident that stole her husband's mind and personality, she is ashamed of her own thoughts when she considers that she may be a caregiver for another 13 years or more. A foster parent finds that as his heart grows warmer to his children, it grows colder toward the parents who have failed them. The airman seated next to my wife as she flies back to Montgomery credits the Air Force with saving his life. It gave him discipline, and purpose, and taught him to live for something more than himself. But he just started going to the Baptist church, where he fell in love with Jesus, and every time he reads the sermon on the mount he has trouble reconciling it with the kinds of missions he flew, and the munitions he dropped. The psychologists have even coined a new phrase for experiences like his, they call it "moral injury." He's volunteered to fly a desk until he can reconcile duty he's most proud of with the memories he is not. The pastor's only ambition was to have a gritty, inner city mission like the woman who mentored him in the faith, but the rural town where he's pastor became a booming affluent suburb, and now he is a candidate for bishop. He tells himself - "someone has to save rich people from hell" - but the disquiet in his soul persists. Or, even worse, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes, he thinks, "Thank you God that I am not like everyone else: those sinners, those tax collectors, those ineffective pastors." Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea were the only ones to bury Christ's body, but only because they were secret followers of Jesus.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, great martyr of the twentieth century, believed entirely in non-violence, but after much prayer he agreed to participate in a plot to assassinate Hitler. "I thought I could acquire faith by trying to live a holy life," Bonhoeffer wrote. "I discovered later, and I am still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith..."
We are all compromised, and our hope is not in our righteousness or our own good deeds. It is not what we have done or left undone. Our hope is in God's mercy.
So this is a sermon for those with dirty hands, hand covered in grime that you have acquired precisely because you are trying attempt to be faithful, holy, moral, or good in a world made of dirt. This is a sermon for everyone who carries the image of God in a body that is positively made of out of dirt.
This a a sermon for faith in the real world. And so I'll end it with four pieces of real talk.
First. Our hands really are dirty. Sometimes we have no choice. Sometimes we are choosing the lesser of two evils. But let's not call it good. It's still on us; it still matters. And, strangely enough, this is good news. Because the alternative is saying "it doesn't matter.' The alternative is that you, your thoughts, and your actions are meaningless, and that is a lie. You know how folks say they're doing something "just for the hell of it." Yeah. That's what we say when we think something about us doesn't matter. You are made in the image of God. You were not made for the hell of it; you were not made to be meaningless. Everything thing about you, and everything you do matters. When you begin to realize your part in the sin of the world, don't accept the false comfort that whispers "it's nothing." If you make it meaningless, you do the same for yourself.
Second. You really cannot wash your own hands. There was a guy named Pontius who tried that once. Jesus stood before him, totally innocent, and ol' Ponty brought out his own basin and towel, and while dipping his hands in the bowl he said "I did the best I could, but you have to die. My hands are clean." He said it, but it didn't make it so. "unless I wash you, you can have no part in me." We are washed by forgiveness, and we can't give that to ourselves. Imagine how different things might have been for Pontius Pilate if he had handed the bowl to Jesus and said, "Forgive me." He might even have heard Jesus say, "you will be with me in Paradise." Pilate tried to wash himself, Peter tried to wash Jesus. But both of them were utterly dependent on a mercy that they could not control.
Third. That mercy is real. Christ is waiting, towel and basin in hand. You don't even have to ask for it. Christ has already taken the form of a servant, already humbled himself to wash us clean. Hear the good news, in the name of Jesus Christ you are forgiven - if you will be.
Fourth. There really is more than all of this. There is more than our deeply flawed efforts to be holy, moral or good. There is even more an endless cycle of trying and failing and being forgiven; more than an endless cycle of washing and dirtying where you get treated like God's own laundry. It turns out that all this washing is just a prelude to a feast, a feast where there is bread and wine, and the family of God, and Christ's very own presence. There is more than mercy; there is grace - there is power, and abundance, and there is transformation.
You know, it turns out coffee grounds make great compost, and God has quite a track record of making stuff out of dirt.
So we dare believe, that if we will get our hands dirty in this implicated, complicated, compromised world of compromised people, God might even make something of the dirt we surrender. It might be just enough dirt to nourish a mustard seed, a vine, even a whole kingdom. A little dirt, a little water - God can grow that into a quite feast.