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  • Rev. Caroline Barnett

No Matter the Risk

John 13:1-17, 31b-35


Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.


Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, "Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, "You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand."

Peter said to him, "You will never wash my feet." Jesus answered, "Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, "Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!"


Jesus said to him, "One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, "Not all of you are clean."


After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, "Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord--and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.


When he had gone out, Jesus said, "Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, 'Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

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Like many of you, my daily routines have become a lot simpler than before.

I don’t really go anywhere— I take a walk once a day, plan my trips to the grocery store—but my radius of movement has tightened considerably, so checking my mail, in the mailbox at the end of my driveway, has become a much bigger moment in my day than it has ever before. Anything to find some semblance of a routine.


And last week, amidst the junk mail and the credit card offers, I found a small flyer from the CDC. Maybe you got the same one. On this half sheet of paper, it lists the ways I can keep myself and others safer during this time. It offered some good suggestions, I’m sure you’ve already heard them, and at the bottom there is a little blue box with white writing that says: “Even if you are young, or otherwise healthy, you are at risk and your activities can increase the risk for others”


At risk.


Things feel really risky right now. Every action I take comes with a mental assessment: Will I put myself or someone else at risk by doing this? Is the risk simply too great for the benefit? I think we’re all very aware of risk right now.

Of course the world has always had risk in it. Right now, our focus is on COVID-19 which is real and scary and we are desperately trying to lessen that risk, but we would be foolish to pretend that life in any circumstance is a life free of risk.

There are other illnesses and diseases. There are car accidents and broken bones. The moment we step off our porches to check the mail, and before that as well, there is a risk that we might be hurt.


And risk is not only a word to describe the possibility of physical pain. Our bodies can be bruised, but so can our hearts and our spirits. People can hurt us; we can hurt others. And those emotional wounds, unseen by human eyes, are sometimes the most painful.


We live in this world with some degree of risk always lurking around the corner.


This is the world where we find Jesus for Maundy Thursday.


It is no longer simply probable that Jesus will face pain and death and loss, it is almost a guarantee. The risk has never been greater.


The coming days will be painful for him. On Sunday, we will celebrate the Resurrection, but there’s a lot that happens between now and then. Crucifixion is not just a way to kill someone, it is slow torture, used to humiliate the punished and scare everyone else.


Jesus, sitting at this table with the disciples, days away from death, he could make a choice to lessen the risk of pain. Not the physical pain that’s about to happen, but some of the emotional hurt this week will bring.


If he wanted to, he could walk out the door of that room, hole himself up somewhere alone, cut off from everyone he loves, and lie to himself that they were never actually that important to him.


The cross will still be there, but maybe if he doesn’t have to think about his loved ones, how his family will sit at the foot of the cross and watch him suffer, maybe then the risk of pain will be lessened.


This is an unfortunate truth about love: The better we love one another, the more risk there is. Because when we love someone else— whether it is a partner or a family member, a friend or an entire community—when we love we are saying that our well-being is tied to theirs. If they are happy, we are happy. If they are hurt in some way, so are we. And the risk increases with every person we care for.


Humans are pain-averse creatures, and so it is tempting to believe that if we keep people at arm’s length, if we keep our distance and put up fences around ourselves and closest loved ones, then maybe the risk of emotional pain is minimized.


But Jesus does not run away from the risk of emotional pain, an unfortunate byproduct of love. Instead, he draws closer to the disciples.


Christ takes a risk by staying. It’s not a physical risk he takes, but in sharing a meal with his disciples, by washing their feet in act of humility, all the while knowing what he knows about the next three days, that takes more strength than I can imagine.


In our traditional Easter story, we talk a lot about God’s power through it all. We see the cruxifixction as feat of strength to endure so much pain and torture, and the resurrection as a statement of God’s power over death and other earthly powers. But today, before any of that happens, Christ looks into the eyes of the people he loves, and continues to love them, rather than insulate his heart, and that is a type of strength we often overlook. We discount vulnerability as something shameful or weak or a sign of fragility. We characterize love as a warm, fuzzy feeling. As something sappy or soft.


But to love the world knowing that there are no guarantees of safety requires a sort of strength that understands the risk, but still loves anyway.


For God so loved the world, scripture says, God gave God’s only son to it, and in the process allowed God’s heart to be broken.


From the beginning, Christ has always known risk. Jesus came into this world as a baby— vulnerable and dependent on others. He grew up knowing what pain feels like— a skinned knee, a bee sting, the grief over friend who has died. Through Christ, God knows what we all experience: This is messy, difficult world, and sometimes the most painful moments are when we cannot protect those we love from getting hurt.


Christ cannot protect the disciples from getting hurt. Because Jesus knows things are about to get difficult, not only for him, but for his loved ones. All he can do is love them. He gathers them at a table. They share a meal, perhaps trading stories, and Jesus, knowing how they will soon face moments in which they might choose to distance themselves out of fear of pain, gives them one final piece of wisdom: Love as I have loved you.


Maybe in the days after, when they are consumed by grief, they will hear Jesus’ voice and find strength and solace in his words to them. And they will care for each other, tend to each other’s pain. And they will reach out to new people, knowing that the love of Christ is not something they need to guard as if it was a fragile jar. Instead, they remember that evening, and know that the love of Christ is as life giving wine and bread, and is meant to be shared with others.


They will love as Christ loved them.


Friends, I wish we could gather together like Jesus and his disciples did, where we could share a meal and receive communion. But there are risks we should not take, and that’s okay.


Because God’s love, though risky, is not fragile. Nor is it bound by the four walls of our church building. When we gather around our individual tables, around phones and laptops when we call our friends, and we gather over Zoom tonight, we are gathering as the body of Christ.

We’ll take some risk, because we might hear of news that grieves us. We might call a friend and hear how hard life has been for them lately. We might be hurt by those we love and might cause pain ourselves. We hear how others suffer and we will share in their sorrow.


Now there are points where the risk is too much; it’s important to know those boundaries. But in a world where the cross and the despair it represents exist, there will always be some risk.


But that same world, where the cross looms ahead, there is also a table— filled with good food and friends who will love each other through their deepest grief and greatest joy, no matter the risk.

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