These reflections were offered at the closing of a week of training for young adults headed across the nation for a year of service and living in community. This program, called XPLOR, is run by the National Benevolent Association, a ministry of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The NBA is one of our favorite organizations at QC Family Tree. They do amazing work in equipping and training ministries around the country.
What follows is organized around the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.
When we read stories for a second or third of hundredth time, we read them backwards. What I mean is, we read the details of the plot and the characters with the end already in mind. We know the ending, we know where the story is headed, but that does not stop us from relishing in the details, the drama, the suspense, the wonder of storytelling. Reading again does not take away from the meaning of pleasure of a story. It heightens it. A story that is great the first time will get better and better as it gets told again.
In the same way, the Gospel writers wrote the story backwards, which is to say, with the end in mind. So after you’ve read the story once, the details, the twists and turns and surprises, of the early chapters gain meaning that you cannot know on the first reading. It is deeply good that we are always telling variations on the same stories over and over. That is what humans do – we keep telling the same stories.
This evening we have read a story that I suspect you knew already. In it, Jesus washes the feet of his friends. You can preach a sermon about this story – and we should preach sermons about this story – but the action itself is so rich that a sermon won’t do much to add or subtract from it. The story is enough.
But when we tell it, as when it was written, we are telling it backwards. We are catching some old ideas, things we thought we knew, and examining them in light of this story that needs little interpretation. One idea we are bringing to this story is a small but crucial distinction between power and authority. The question of power is a political question, and the answer is relatively settled. Everybody has some power, but some people have more than others. Some people have A LOT more than others. Power is unevenly distributed, and contestations of justice flow from the uneven distribution of power. Persons with more power make decisions that result in consequences affecting large numbers of people. The more power you have, the more people your decisions affect.
Christians often claim that God is “all-powerful.” We also claim that Jesus is God, and so Jesus is all-powerful, able to do all things and to affect all people. Yet, this story of Jesus shows that the power of God working in him is a subversive sort of power. Jesus displays that in washing the feet of his friends. He takes a prone position in relation to them. And he also takes a prone position in relation to the Empire that one day later will execute him. He will be lynched upon a tree. The power of God will be made clear after that event, and because we know the end of the story, we will begin to see that power being played out while he acts as a servant to those he loves. We remember that counted among those he loves is at least one who will act as an enemy to him.
But power is not the only question at play in the Gospels. So is the question of authority. To have authority is not the same as having power. If you have power, then what you say goes. When you say it, people have to do it. But authority is different. If you have authority, the meaning of your words is derived from a different place, a place that you might call “hard-won” because it has been earned through experience, or through integrity, or by virtue of your wisdom and insight. A person of great authority is to be taken with the utmost seriousness, even if their words do not result in immediate changes of policies and systems, of life and death.
The easiest way to demonstrate the difference is to name it within our current partisan and political terms. Donald J. Trump has great power, but he has zero authority. He wields great control, but he is not a serious person. He is perhaps a bit too easy a target, and so it is important to mark him as the figurehead of a white supremacist, authoritarian, capitalist death cult. Ironically, the more he exercises his power, the more he erodes his authority.
In the Gospels, there is no contestation of Jesus’s power. When he speaks, things change. People get healed, demons get cast out.
What is at stake for those who challenge him is whether he also has authority. “By whose authority do you do these things?” he is asked, with some regularity. In other words, how are you connected to the sacred stories we are always telling, the ones that show us what our lives mean in the face of oppressive power?
One way the Gospels show his connection to that story is by telling us about his family. Where did Jesus come from? Who did he come from? In the case of the Gospel of Luke, the story starts by telling who his people are, stretching all the way back to Adam, the first human.
You remember that we began the story of this year of service in community with the story of Adam. There he was in the garden, and there was God. God was kneeling down in the dirt, playing. And as he played, he created many animals. And having created them, he asked Adam – whose name means something like “dirt man,” to play as well. God will build the animals, Adam will name them. The work will be messy. It can only be done together. Creation is incomplete without both of them.
There at the beginning, God gets dirty with his friend. And then near the end of the story, Jesus gets dirty with his friends.
Years later, folks started building institutions around these stories. We usually call them “churches.” When they did, certain ones of them started to hold the power of those institutions. The good ones held the authority, too, though not all of them were good ones. They all got dressed up during their gatherings, wearing robes and jewelry and adornments, and also stoles. A stole is a cloth draped around the neck, usually in a liturgical color. Preachers wear them. Some of them are confused about the meaning. They think that their stoles confer on them power in a hierarchical sense. Some of their congregants like to believe this, too. The like to ordain the preacher’s power, because it affirms their power in the capitalist hierarchy where money equals God’s blessing, a statement contrary to the Gospel of our Lord.
A stole does not confer power, not the sort that is wielded against other people anyway. It does hint at authority, though. The authority it suggests comes from the fact that it is essentially a towel. That is, it is used for its intended purpose only when it is getting dirty. Like Jesus, washing the feet of his friends. Stoles are meant to wipe the tear gas out of the eyes of protesters. They are meant for washing the hands of those who till the soil to grow the food we eat. They are rightly stained with the snot of children. And they are perfect for cleaning the sensitive skin of migrants and refugees who have crawled across deserts looking for respite. A stole confers authority when it is used in God’s business of getting dirty.
Tonight you are receiving a stole as a reminder that as you go to your places of service to live in community and to do the work of justice, you will be getting dirty. There will be dirty feet and smelly children and lots of painful wounds to be tended to. You do not need ordination, nor any particular power, to be worthy of this gift. Your willing spirit will be enough. It is always enough.
My friend Nancy tells the magnificent story of her time as a pastor in Memphis. As a Southern Baptist, her pastorate in the 1980’s (though the time scarcely matters) led quickly to her church beginning forcibly removed from the local Baptist association. During the association meeting to vote on that removal, she asked to speak for herself and was denied the opportunity. Only when the leading pastor in the association mockingly suggested she should, was she offered a microphone. “In Christian charity, we ought to let the little lady speak,” he scorned.
The meeting was being held in a sanctuary, with the business being conducted from a podium and a table on the floor. Nancy, seizing the authority of Jesus, moved past the podium and walked into the pulpit to preach, rather than just speak. “You say that I am not called to the ministry,” she proclaimed, “but you did not call me to it. Jesus Christ called me. I know this because I found a towel with my name on it.”
Here, kindred, is your towel. It has your name on it. We expect that you will find many ways to make it beautifully dirty.