Harrowing Of Hell
April 17, 2014

Maundy Thursday 2014

Preacher: The Rev. Kate Wesch

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

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

How do you know a Christian when you see one?  When you meet someone at your child’s school, at a new job, or in your book group, how do they know you are a Christian before you even tell them?  Upon meeting someone new in Seattle, you probably don’t lead with a testimonial or invite them to church….that comes later, if at all.  It is likely that you don’t even reveal that you are a church goer until you know them quite well.  So, how do they know?

If we follow what Jesus says here in the 13th chapter of John’s gospel, then everyone will know we are followers of Jesus by the way we treat one another.  As a child at summer camp, we used to sing the refrain of a favorite song over and over, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love. Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”  Jesus says, “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” (John 13:34-35).

This sounds pretty easy, right; just like we teach our children: be nice, be polite, show respect to others.  I know I can do these things when the sun is shining, when I’ve had enough sleep, when everyone is healthy, and the dog is behaving.  BUT, when the weather is grim, and the baby is crying, and everyone has a cold, and the dog just tore up the rug….I don’t have much love for anyone.

We talk a lot about “spiritual practices” at Epiphany and this is another one.  To be good at anything, you have to practice.  This pertains to all aspects of our life; from sports to music, learning a new language, cooking, praying, and even our behavior.

How we choose to act and interact with others is a practice.  Do you pass judgment, bully, or shame others?  Are you passive aggressive in your response to conflict?  Or, do you treat people with kindness and respect?  Do you jump up to offer your seat on the bus, mow your neighbor’s lawn, and drop off dinner for a friend who is ill?

As Barbara Brown Taylor writes in her book, An Altar in the World, “At its most basic level, the everyday practice of being with other people is the practice of loving the neighbor as the self.  More intricately, it is the practice of coming face-to-face with another human being, preferably someone different enough to qualify as a capital “O” Other—and at least entertaining the possibility that this is one of the faces of God.”  Entertaining the possibility that this is one of the faces of God…in someone with whom you have nothing in common.

What if we take it one step further?   Can you entertain the possibility that the face of God is reflected even in your enemy and they are just as worthy of your forgiveness and kindness as the ones whom you love?  The following is an extreme example, but a powerful one that appeared in last week’s New York Times Magazine.  There was a photo essay entitled, “Portraits of Reconciliation.”  It exhibits the work of photographer, Pieter Hugo, who recently traveled to Rwanda twenty years after the genocide of nearly a million people to document the incredible work of reconciliation happening there.  His photos capture people, two in each image, a man and a woman.  “In one, a woman rests her hand on the shoulder of the man who killed her father and brothers.  In another, a woman poses with a casually reclining man who looted her property and whose father helped murder her husband and children. In many of these photos, there is little evident warmth between the pairs, and yet there they are, together.  In each, the perpetrator is a Hutu who was granted pardon by the Tutsi survivor of his crime.”  To quote the article regarding the details of the project, “The people who agreed to be photographed are part of a continuing national effort toward reconciliation and worked closely with AMI (Association Modeste et Innocent), a nonprofit organization.”

In AMI’s program, small groups of Hutus and Tutsis are counseled over many months, culminating in the perpetrator’s formal request for forgiveness.  If forgiveness is granted by the survivor, the perpetrator and his family and friends typically bring a basket of offerings, usually food and sorghum or banana beer.  The accord is sealed with song and dance.  At the photo shoots, Hugo said, “the relationships between the victims and the perpetrators varied widely. Some pairs showed up and sat easily together, chatting about village gossip. Others arrived willing to be photographed but unable to go much further. “There’s clearly different degrees of forgiveness,” Hugo said.  “In the photographs, the distance or closeness you see is pretty accurate.”

As I sat looking at these photographs, I was struck by their body language and facial expressions.  Although each pair had formally “reconciled” you could see how different that was in each instance.  Some of the women have truly let it go.  They have forgiven and moved on in life, even to the point of forming civil relationships with the perpetrator.  In these photos, they are standing close to one another, holding hands in one, and relaxed postures in others.  In other photos, you can tell there are still deep mistrust, anger, and hurt.  The women are scowling, arms crossed protectively across their chest, or turned away.  They have “forgiven” the perpetrator, but they continue to carry the pain in their hearts.  After so much suffering, I imagine each day is a practice of willfully moving forward and embracing life rather than dwelling in the painful past.

Maundy Thursday is a night when we remember.  We remember our past as Christians and the narrative of our people.  It is a night we remember Jesus sitting with friends and sharing a meal.  We remember Jesus being betrayed by his friend and disciple, Judas.  As I looked once more at the powerful images of Hutus and Tutsis, side by side, victim and perpetrator, I entertained the possibility that I could see the face of God in the women who have borne so much pain.  That was easy.

Then, I looked at the men who committed unspeakable acts of violence and I prayed to see the face of God reflected in their eyes.  This is the hard part.

As Jesus prepared to leave his disciples, his friends, and this kingdom on earth, he left us with the most powerful of teachings which remains one of the most difficult things to actually do.  Jesus commands us to love one another.  No matter what, even in the face of horror and atrocity, especially in the context of petty conflict and strife, Jesus commands us to love.  That is what we remember tonight.  Love.   Love one another and dare to entertain the possibility of seeing the face of God in everyone you meet.