The Revd Margaret Legg
This is one of the most beautiful nights of the year. It speaks to us in so many different ways:
Of friendship and sharing;
Of acceptance and giving;
Of liberation and loving.
But for me it’s also one of the most difficult. Jesus tells us we should love one another, and I find that difficult, because it’s about obedience (not my strong suit) and about love (such a slippery concept).
My parents tell me I tended to be stubborn, contrary as a child, reluctant to do as I was told. One early memory is of being sent to my bed in disgrace for refusing to share my tin of chocolate toffees at a family gathering – the toffees needless to say having been prised out of my grip before I was banished. Secondary school turned this awkward streak in me upside down. There were it seemed a million and one rules, enforced by an army of prefects. Disobedience was invariably detected and punished, fiercely and swiftly. I became so anxious to do as I was told that even now, about half a century later, I still sometimes find myself, when doing something not quite in keeping, looking over my shoulder to see if I am being watched, and wondering what might happen should I get caught!
Listening not obeying
So it was a particular relief to read recently the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks’ comment, that in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, there is no word for ‘to obey’. Instead there is ‘listening’. Indeed the Latin word audire, from which we derive ‘obedience’ means listening, listening intently: ‘ob audiens’ (ob: in the way of, open to and audiens from audire, to listen). From this perspective, loving one another is not about keeping on the right side of the God police, but about listening to each other, just as God listens to us. We have heard the gratitude of the Psalmist because ‘The Lord has inclined his ear to me’ and in our Old Testament reading of God’s response when he heard the cry of the Israelites groaning in slavery and sent Moses to lead them to freedom. We show our love by listening to God and to each other.
But what is the truth about love? It is such a slippery concept
It’s so much more than the emotional froth of for instance Valentine’s Day and so much less than the controlling, smothering affection that can make one want to run a mile. Jesus grounds loving one another, in foot washing – the servant’s job: menial, dirty, unpleasant; nothing fluffy or sentimental there. Foot washing in 1st century Palestine, where walking was the usual way of getting from a to b, bare feet the norm and the climate almost as hot as it is today, was a hygienic necessity. No molly coddling or over protection involved.
Foot Washing involves drawing close to each other. Bare feet can speak eloquently about the human condition: some are gnarled by age or hard work, toes are bent by fashion or crippling illness, the young foot is supple and smooth, ready to grow into adulthood. Our bare feet speak in a different way about who we are. In the same way, by listening intently, concentrating, paying attention, focussing, we can gain an understanding of people as they really are; sharing their hopes, realising their fears, recognising their temptations, seeing their gifts. This can widen our perceptions and enable us to respond in a deeper way.
There is a proverb that dates back to the Cherokees, the largest of the Native American tribes: “Don’t judge a person until you have walked a mile in their shoes”
This can be a joyful walk
Sharing the delight of an engaged couple planning their future; accompanying someone applying for a job and whether they succeed or fail valuing the new understanding of what makes them tick that comes from being part of an often long and in-depth process. This can also be scary – Wormwood Scrubs. As part of my ordination training I spent a while on placement in prison – Wormwood Scrubs. One of the chaplains regularly spent time with a young man in the drugs rehab centre as he dried out and tried to sort himself out. Any scepticism and prejudice I may have nursed disappeared when I was privileged to hear him tell some of his story. He was from Glasgow; his real dad had walked out before he was born; his mother would bring home a succession of different men who stayed for a while and treated him with varying degrees of indifference and callousness; but most of the time he was home alone, locked in the flat with 2 Alsatian dogs for company. It was these dogs, he commented, that brought him up. Needless to say, he left home as soon as he was old enough to fend for himself and soon got into trouble. The chaplain was walking in his shoes; loving him by drawing close and listening intently, non-judgementally.
Tonight each foot, after washing, is kissed. It’s a symbolic gesture, it speaks of veneration and love. It’s a sign that this ceremony is a place of meeting, a place of encounter with Jesus. Listening intently to one another can move us into the sphere of God’s love, surprising, unexpected and wide open. When we love one another in this way, then everyone will know that we are Jesus’ disciples. Amen.