In 1984, the gay community in London was seeing a lot of violence and oppression by not only the police, but also the community. In the midst of their own activism, one gay activist caught wind of the Coal Miners who were striking in Wales. Upon watching the violence of the police against the strikers, the activist realized their suffering was not unlike his own, and that of the gay community. And so, in an act of solidarity and love, he organized his gay community to raise funds to support the families of the striking miners.
But not everyone was on board. You see, the miners worked in small towns in which many members of the gay community had once lived. In those small communities, they had been bullied, taunted, and beaten. And now someone was asking them to come to their aid. Many in the gay community could not turn the other cheek. Why should they return hatred with love? And as the gay activists soon learned, their help would not be readily received. Why should the gay community risk further rejection, shame, and violence to support an oppressed people who could not see their commonality?
Jesus shares a meal with his disciples as he has done on so many occasions. Only on this night, he is among friend and foe. He knows Judas is about to betray him. He knows that Judas is about to put into motion a series of actions that cannot be stopped, that will lead to pain and suffering, and ultimately death. Looking into Judas’ eyes, Jesus must have felt a betrayal so deep that he had to resist hatred as a human response. “How could you?” would be an easy question for Jesus to ask in this intimate moment.
But Jesus does not do that. He does not challenge Judas or reprimand or even expose Judas in front of the others directly. No, he takes off his outer robe, takes a bowl and a pitcher of water, and he washes the feet of everyone in that room – not just the feet of those whom he loves – which would have been a poignantly intimate moment anyway. But as he makes his way down the table, he shifts his bowl under the dusty feet of Judas; feet as dirty as the rest of them. He takes the feet of this betrayer of his trust and confidence, and he manages to love Judas as deeply as everyone else. Tenderly, lovingly, he washes the feet of the enemy of the worst kind – an enemy who was once a friend. Love in the face of betrayal.
This year, Jesus’ tenderness with Judas has been haunting me. I do not know about you, but the last thing I want to do is tenderly, lovingly care for my enemy. Society teaches me to have a strong defense, to protect myself, to avoid conflict. The norm is not to kneel down before a betrayer of trust, to make oneself subservient, and lovingly treat someone who acts so hatefully. Only a fool makes himself vulnerable before the enemy. And yet, that is what Jesus does. That is how he shows the depths of his love. He does not use his power to thwart the enemy. He restrains his power to bring the enemy in – always with the offering of love that can transform any heart.
Tonight, we will engage in the tradition of washing others’ feet. Many of us get caught up the squeamishness of feet and the vulnerability such intimacy involves. But something much bigger happens in foot washing than letting go of self-consciousness. In foot washing we enter into the love of Christ: washing the feet of those we know well and love; washing the feet of those we know only superficially; washing the feet of those who seem to have their lives totally together and those who we know are suffering; washing the feet of someone who has indeed offended you, and washing the feet of someone with whom you wish to reconcile.
But what we do literally here, we take out figuratively into the world. Washing the feet of someone you know, or even someone you do not know well in church is one thing. Washing the feet of the people who are not here is another thing entirely. Though Jesus’ washed his disciples’ feet, the inclusion of Judas suggests that loving one another cannot be limited to the community of believers.[i] All we have to do is imagine an actual enemy, someone who has betrayed our trust or offended our values, someone who oppresses the oppressed, and then we know how hard what Jesus does is tonight. Tonight, some powerful feelings are set loose: sorrow, loss, regret, even fear; but also some powerful feelings are set loose by Jesus: commitment, conviction, and determination. God lays aside everything tonight.[ii] Enter into Christ’s love tonight through the example he sets for us. Know that God will use the power of this act to change your heart.
A year after that bold move by the gay community in London in the 1980s, much had happened. Horrible things were said, mean things were done, violence erupted, commitments were betrayed, and help was rejected. But a year later, even after ultimately losing their cause, the mineworkers did something out of character. Chapter after chapter of mineworkers loaded onto buses, came to London, and marched for gay rights with their new brothers and sisters. God’s love has tremendous power. Even if that love cannot transform the heart of a Judas, the witness of that love slowly breaks through and transforms communities. Join us tonight as we start locally. Know that God will use your small action here to do bigger work out in the world! Amen.
[i] Susan E. Hylen, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 275.
[ii] William F. Brosend, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 276.