Am I yours and are you mine?
Luke 14:1, 7-14
by Melissa Florer-Bixler
Sept 1, 2013
Ascension Parish is nestled into the side of Portland, Oregon’s Mount Tabor so it was a steep climb to the wooden front door. Making my there was especially difficult when negotiating the terrain with Joni, who finds walking on a flat sidewalk a challenge, let alone going up the side of a mountain. So we went slowly, along with several other of our disabled friends, up the hill to Ascension. It was Maundy Thursday.
Inside the lights were dimmed, and there was a glow on the crowd buzzing throughout the church. The service began, Joni providing her version of singing to each of the warm hymns while Marilyn shouted out the parts of the liturgy that were familiar to her. Then it was time to wash each other’s feet.
What happened next was definitive “organized chaos.” A few quick directions and everyone started to move. It was unclear to me, an outsider, if we were moving towards stations, or if our feet would be washed in a circle. But, herded by our fellow washers, we ended up in a row with others. Without seeing where they came from basins and pitchers of water appeared. The room was filled with the whirr of the organ, Joni’s humming, baby squeals, and the shuffling of chairs.
I stood behind a young Latina woman and her three children. Maybe they weren’t easily shaken, or it could have been the lighting, but none of them seemed surprised when out motley crew lumbered up next to them. Next to us a frail older couple waited their turn, grasping on to one another and the backs of the pews.
I helped one of the little girl’s wash Joni’s feet, while the mother helped to wash mine. We managed to situate the older couple, one by one, into the chair and washed their feet as Marilyn mumbled her blessing. Somehow, when it was over we ended up back in our seats for the closing hymn and benediction before the doors opened and once again we faced a steep journey downward, back into the cold night.
Many of us have had encounters like this, where we’ve thought, “now that was the kingdom of God.” And Maundy Thursday at Ascension parish felt like the kind of service Jesus would have planned. It took a while but I was finally able to put my finger on it. What made the service memorable was the tidy disorder of the foot washing. I never knew who was first in line, or if there was a line. If there was a circle I didn’t know it’s beginning or end. Instead, it just happened. Everyone got what they needed, when they needed it. We were all there together, no first or last, no rich or poor. Just there.
It is jarring to move from this description of a Maundy Thursday foot washing to the scene set in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus is witness to the jockeying for seats among those invited to a Sabbath meal with the Pharisees. In response, Jesus tells those eating with him a parable about the kingdom of God. He describes attending a wedding banquet. First, he addresses the actions of the “invited.” He warns his hearers that they shouldn’t sit in the most important seats in case they are embarrassed when the host brings in a more honored guest to unseat them. Instead, they should take the lowest seats, and be honored if the host happens to move them up.
After his parable about the kingdom of God the narrative shifts, marked by Jesus turning directly to the man hosting him. Now, instead of talking about a wedding banquet, Jesus provides practical information for “inviters.” He talks about shared meals, using the common words of his day for breakfast and dinner. Jesus tells the Pharisee hosting the Sabbath meal that instead of inviting his friends, family, or rich neighbors he should invite the poor, crippled, blind, and lame. To do so will garner a reward at the resurrection of the righteous.
In both narratives there is a lot to make me uneasy. Seats of honor and dishonor. Embarrassment. Exclusion. Rewards for welcoming the poor. We can also hear persistent divisions between “us” and “them.” We are here, on the inside, at church, in our homes, in our schools, trying to figure out how to invite “them,” the crippled, the poor, the blind, into what we do. Something is off about that. The power and priority is placed in the hands of those who invite, those who welcome, and in doing so we are still choosing the seats like the Pharisees, only, perhaps rearranging them a bit. There are other problems. Dualities like this assume a unifying experience of otherness, even when we know that the categories we use to divide the world are imposed. This dividing up can also fool us into thinking that “we” are more similar than we think. We forget that, even here, there are voices that are not heard, even though the voiceless sit among us each week.
But there’s another side to this. Refusing to talk about insiders and outsiders can exacerbate injustice and oppression. The Civil Rights struggle, the women’s equality movement, rallying people for the rights of gays and lesbians –these actions require some handle on who is being excluded and what is required to amend the exclusion. In the same way, naming a “we” is naming the group in control. Naming a “we” calls someone in power to account and repent.
It’s hard to know how to live in a world where both these things can be true. It’s hard to negotiate them. But I also know that things were no less difficult for Jesus and Luke, that they too recognized the complexity of their society. They knew the oppression the Pharisees experienced at the hands of the occupying Romans. And they also knew the in-grouping and exclusion the Pharisees exercised on their fellow Jews, primarily through purity laws. The oppressed also as oppressors. What seem like clearly delineated binaries are not as simple as we might first think. But unlike Jesus, we don’t get to stand outside of this narrative and declare judgment. Each of us is in the thick of it, wrapped up in this story, some of us in multiple ways.
That’s what’s difficult about asking what today’s Gospel means for this church, for those who gather here each week. There’s riskiness to talking about inclusion and exclusion for those of us in the thick of this story. It’s even harder when we start to ask questions about this concretely, because as soon as we talk about “inclusiveness” we’ve made a choice. Every time we even begin to name who’s here and who’s not, what makes this church this church, we’re going to get it right and get it wrong at the same time. Every time we talk about how to be more “welcoming to outsiders” someone will realize we forgot they were already here. One of us will feel objectified or essentialized. Someone will sense that we’re not getting it right, that we’ve misinterpreted.
I don’t know what to do about that. But maybe saying that out loud is where it begins. Maybe each of us is asked to take stock of how we have clung to the comfort of our sacred familiarity and kinship, and the ways we have been excluded. Maybe each of us lets in the discomfort of knowing that we have a “we”, that we suffer from the majority of us silencing the voices of those who do sit in discomfort, and yet we have not asked, “am I yours and are you mine?” Maybe we sit in the silence of skin-colors, theologies, and ethnicities that are not here. Maybe we begin with lament.
We will find that there are both corporate and individual ways that we express this lament. Mine often finds a place in a monthly clergy meeting. This is a bi-racial pastors group, made up of some black and some white pastors in the Raleigh area. After meeting for a year I wish I could tell you that the experience has been magical, that we’ve overcome difference, found a common core. But that isn’t how it is at all. I hate going. Every time I leave the group I crave the sameness of pastoral experiences that look and sound like mine. Instead, each meeting is hard work. It’s listening closely to the experiences of my others: womanists and black church clergy, historically black college chaplains, and retired army pastors. But I keep going. I keep going because I know that nothing is going to change about our perceptions of each other’s ministries, races, cultures, or churches unless we are willing to walk through this together, to listen, to allow ourselves to feel uncomfortable not getting the jokes, not understanding the cultural references, feeling embarrassed when our stereotypes emerge without us even knowing it.
And in the midst of that lament I return to the tension between today’s Gospel reading the foot washing I attended at Ascension parish. From where I stand, looking through my own complexity of gender, privilege, and whiteness, this is what I hear:
“When you give a dinner, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed because you’ll no longer be functioning inside the realm of transactions. At first it will feel strange. It will feel like you’re not being true to the complexity of yourself or what you see around you. You’ll also have to ask hard questions about yourself, about how you have constructed the world, about how the world has constructed you. But one day you’ll look around the table, only this time you will be able to say, ‘I see that I am also crippled and poor and blind.’ When that happens, you’ll know that the real gift has been exchanged, not the gift of comfort and sameness, the currency of your world, but the gift of being a part of a people finding new life, forever. You’ll be there, at the wedding feast, and you won’t have to be embarrassed because by then you’ll know that no one has a seat of honor and everyone does. You’ll see your brokenness reflected back in the brokenness of others, and you’ll know that your wholeness is bound up in their wholeness, too. And that, dear one, that will be the kingdom of God.”