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We will, in the meantime, keep washing one another’s dishes: Maundy Thursday

April 18, 2019:
Exodus 12:1-4, 11-14
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35

I came across a line from a sermon recently: “It might have been crowded and a little smelly inside Noah’s ark, but the folks inside knew it was better to be on board than not.” *

And we could probably say that about life in the church. Except it’s usually less crowded. But the idea holds: it can be challenging, frustrating… but for those who have experienced the blessings of life in community: “better on board than not.”

In the late 20th century as church leaders started to worry as they realized that our ark was becoming less crowded, various so-called experts came up with different strategies for church growth. One of them can be summed up pretty easily with the principle: “like attracts like.” Basically saying: ‘if we’re stuck together on this ark, best not to make waves.’ Keep things as smooth as possible. Keep things as pleasant and as easy as possible. So, if everyone’s the same, everything will, obviously, be easier for everyone (who’s the same).

And you can see the logic and the potential here: like attracts like. And like likes like. Put all the lawyers together. All the business people. The movers and shakers. And they’ll have a lovely time. And the church will grow. Put all the blue collar workers together. They can complain about their bosses (all congregating at the church down the road), and that church will grow, too. Put all the downtrodden together, where they can support and relate to one another, and experience some beauty in the midst of their difficult existence. And that church will grow, too. Put all the musical people together. Put all the social justice people together. Put all the young families together. Put the people who’ve been hurt by the church together. Gather the people who agree on that one issue that is the issue to end all issues (or at least the issue du jour), and put them together. Put together the people who love so much of what the church is about, but would really rather not mention God anymore. Find people who think it really important that they drink strychnine and handle poisonous snakes (‘cause the Bible says so), and get them that strychnine, and find them some snakes, and put them together, so that they can truly live into the unique essentials and priorities of their faith.

Like will attract like. The ark will glide along smoothly. The ark will be pleasant and engaging. And there’s no risk of being challenged or stretched or annoyed. And even though, thankfully, I’m not describing our reality, or the reality of most churches, we can probably relate in some way. How it’s nice to be able to go to church and have a nice conversation with someone who ‘gets’ Star Trek, or Blue Rodeo, or Renee Fleming, or growing up in England, or retirement living, or local news and events. It’s nice. Being with similar people is not a bad thing. And I bet that this church growth strategy probably works. Imagine someone who might not really be sure about what they think about Jesus, but they find that a church has someone they really like and respect. They’re maybe willing to go along for the ride, open to what might come.

But… even though ‘like attracts like’ works as a growth strategy, it doesn’t work as a deepening strategy. It doesn’t necessarily bring churches deeper into the mystery of Christ. In fact, I think it risks getting in the way of it. Because imagine the example that the Church can set for the world — a world of increasing polarization, challenged assumptions and foundations, and the building of ever higher walls between people (and peoples) — where we can demonstrate that yes, there can be diversity, and even disagreement, but there is the possibility of a shared higher loyalty and higher calling. Where Christians walk together following Jesus, who most often referred to himself as the Son of Man, or we might say, “the Human One.” The God who shares in our shared, our common humanity.

In Durham, North Carolina there’s a place called Rutba House. It’s a Christian community — a place of living and worship — where the founders were more interested in faithfulness than in growth. So this place just a few years ago was founded by a group of Baptists, Pentecostals, Methodists, Anglicans, and Roman Catholics. These diverse people from different traditions wanted to worship together, care for each other, and serve their neighbours. They adopted the American Book of Common Prayer (basically the American equivalent of our green service book), because it worked for all of them. Nothing too off the wall, nothing ‘exclusively’ Anglican about it.

And these folks, they didn’t wait for their respective church bodies to solve everything first, before they moved in together. Instead, they did the reverse thing; they decided to live, and eat, and work, and pray together. And hope and, I think, assume, that the requisite unity would come, out of that.

One of the founders writes: “We don’t all agree on how to read the Bible, the relationship between church and state, sexual ethics or eschatology [end of life, end of time stuff]. We argue about these things, and we don’t anticipate any easy resolutions.”

“We will, in the meantime, keep washing one another’s dishes.”*

Maybe we could photocopy a few copies of this article I’m quoting from about this Christian community, and send it to our elected officials. Suggest that the House of Commons be more like that community, Rutba House. An actual house. And they have to live together. (It sounds like I’m describing a reality TV show.)

But I’m actually kind of serious. Instead of sitting in teams across from one another, pull the chairs up, and fill in that whole green carpeted area with round dinner tables. Mix them all up and have them do their work in the context of a meal. Encourage them to look for the shared values, and the common vision around the table. And where they don’t agree, have them bring the best of their respective traditions. Not what’s going to play best to ‘the base,’ as a soundbite on the news.

“We will, in the meantime, keep washing one another’s dishes.” My heart would leap for joy if I heard more scraping, and washing, and rinsing, and less heckling and “hear hear”ing.

“We will, in the meantime, keep washing one another’s dishes.” That line from this article has stuck in my head ever since I first read it, about five years ago. I didn’t remember where the article was printed, or the rest of the details in it. But that line definitely captures the gist of it. And it captures the gist of what tonight is all about.

Francis Spufford, a contemporary writer, describes the Biblical supper scene this way: “[Jesus] is full of trembling intensity. Everything he says seems deliberate and effortful, as if this dinner-in-lieu-of-a-revolution were a part of something terrifying he was making himself do, step by step, word by word, action by action.”** Spufford describes the scene as “full of trembling intensity,” as a “dinner-in-lieu-of-a-revolution.” We probably don’t quite hit the trembling intensity when we hear those words, week after week, in our meal. But maybe we will tonight, as we specifically remember and give thanks for the institution of the Eucharist.

Jesus has rode in, in triumph, to Jerusalem. Leafy branches waved, crowds adoring him. And then Jesus goes into the Temple, the heart and soul of the people, and puts on a demonstration that, according to the first three gospels, seals his fate. He continues to teach. He makes predictions about future catastrophes. But then he withdraws. He pulls back. He has supper with his friends. And it’s not just any meal, but the Passover. (Or if you’re reading the Fourth Gospel, it’s around the time of the Passover.) It’s the time to remember that the God they believe in, the God they trust in, is a God of liberation. The God who freed the slaves.

And in the first three Gospels, and passed on to and by St. Paul, Jesus gives them a “dinner-in-lieu-of-a-revolution,” as he identifies himself with the broken bread and the poured wine. Presumably because this dinner is actually more effective, in the long run, than our traditional understanding of a revolution.

And in the Fourth Gospel’s presentation of this gathering of trembling intensity, Jesus performs another action of deliberate, effortful symbolism, when he gets down and washes the feet, and serves those who should be serving him. “Just as I have loved you,” he says, “you also should love one another.”

“I am with you only a little longer,” he’s said. “Where I am going, you cannot come.” But he can come to us, even in our day, in our world that still calls out for God’s freedom-making. And he can come to us, even in our day, when we love and serve our neighbour. Even, or maybe especially, our neighbour who is not ‘like’ us.

So tonight, with thankfulness, with sorrow, with trembling intensity, or maybe with the confusion of the disciples, we remember the “dinner-in-lieu-of-a-revolution.” The meal and the loving service. And we will, in the meantime, eat and drink at this table, love, and serve one another, and keep washing one another’s dishes. Amen.

© 2019 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

* Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, “Together on the ark: the witness of intentional community,” The Christian Century 11 Aug 2009, (accessed April 18, 2019).

** Francis Spufford, Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense,” (London: Faber and Faber, 2012), 140-141.