When we were looking for covers for this bulletin, we found many different pictures of communion ware and elements for celebrating the Lord’s Supper. We found arrangements bowls, pitchers, and towels for washing feet. And then there were these two pictures- the new commandment, the commandment to love one another- distinctly printed over two different families- one black, one white, same poses.
I felt a little surprised. First of all, Jesus is speaking to the assembled disciples. The commandment is, then, transferred from those who heard the words themselves to all who walk the same walk of trust and hope in Jesus. While it certainly applies within a small family context, the call to love one another is far more expansive than that. Rather than show the expansive nature of the call to love with an image of all kinds of people together, this images mask the challenge and subversive nature of what Jesus is commanding of all who follow him. Yes, commanding- not asking- commanding.
Subversive. I think we are so used to what we do, to this story, to the person of Jesus, to being church people that we have forgotten the subversive nature of our faith. It has slipped our mind that we just heard a story about a nearly naked Jesus washing feet- something a free man would never do for other free men. We no longer think about Holy Communion as bites of food that bring us into communion with God, with one another, and with all those who have gone before us. We have forgotten the enmity that existed between our denominations that kept us from worshipping together for generations.
We are called specifically to a subversive kind of life. We are commanded into a subversive kind of life- a life of radical service, of intense forgiveness, of praying with our hands, feet, dollars, and words. All of those things are what we hear in tonight’s gospel, a story that calls into a life of prayer. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a rabbi active in many of the freedom efforts of the 20th century, wote, “Prayer is meaningless, unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism and falsehood.”
Prayer is meaningless, unless it is subversive. What does this mean? To be subversive means to seek to undercut an established system, to overthrow rules and institutions, to ransack expectations. For ourselves, we are called to subversion for the sake of Jesus in the world. We are called to subvert systems that allow money and the monied to control resources. We are called to stand against structures that penalize the poor and those who are struggling. We are empowered to speak loudly against powers and principalities that declare power through war, oppression, and destruction of natural resources.
If we are not doing these things, we are not praying as deeply as we might. If we are not praying, we are not trusting. If we do not trust, then what makes up our faith?
We have reached a stage where anything beyond what we “usually do” feels like a big deal. This evening should not be a shock to us. It shouldn’t happen just once a year. Of all the congregations here, we could easily merge together and create, perhaps, three good-sized congregations across Anchorage. We could, by our actions, declare that praying together in word and deed is more important than our own buildings, our own denominations, and our own tightly held fundamentals about worship. (Says me!) That would be subversive!
We could organize a photo campaign, a letter and email write-in, and a Youtube video that says the commandment to love one another goes beyond our families, beyond people we who know, beyond people who look like us, beyond people we even like. We could tell our neighbors that we are not okay with slandering gays and lesbians. We could tell our friends that we don’t want to hear racist jokes. We could tell our adjudicatories and our national bodies that it is time, once again, to make a clear statement against Anti-Semitism. That would be subversive.
In the first Passover, the Hebrew people- enslaved though they were- knew that God was subverting the power of the Pharaoh. Hurrying through their lamb dinner, carrying their unleavened flour on their backs, they believed they were overturning the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism and falsehood that their years of slavery had built. What could have been a journey that killed them, destroyed their faith, or might have ended their covenant with God instead became a foundational story of their self-understanding- people who can withstand anything with God’s help! Talk about subversive.
On this night, of all nights, we cannot, we must not, we will not forget that our faith is a radical gift. It gives us an identity beyond our families, beyond Alaska, beyond our country. It associates us with the community of believers across the world and across time. Eating, washing, and praying together- we do these things because they have been commanded and because, with God’s help, they change the world. And in this subversion, in this life of active prayer together, God also changes us.