Dirt in Heaven
Maundy Thursday 2019 | Exodus 12:1-13, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, Egyptian Book of the Dead spell 42
Last year I stayed at an Airbnb managed by an elderly woman who, when she found out I was a Christian, eagerly said that she was too. I quickly figured out that what she meant was that she believed quite ardently in the disproven theory that what Jesus actually had been was a Hindu yogi. She said, “He practiced foot washing. That wasn’t Jewish. It was Indian. He brought the practice from India as part of his mission to teach the Jews the Vedas.”
I had never heard anybody claim this before, so just kept repeating, “Jesus was a Jew. A Jew.” But it later occurred to me that if the ancient Jews did not have a practice of foot washing, that would be very odd, since they wore sandals and lived in the desert. Indeed, ritual foot washing is described in several places in Hebrew Scripture.
So this woman, while well-meaning, clearly had a protective mechanism against reality. And while it is easy to make fun of outlandish claims, I think we all partake in this same resistance to facts we don’t like. And sometimes when it’s hard and cold, reality feels worth protecting ourselves from.
I confess that I myself have a predilection to using religion as a spiritual bypass. Though there is little more ironic and miserable than trying to hide behind the cross of Jesus from the pain of reality. You may recall that Jesus was the one who said, “The truth will set you free.” Jesus likes to point out uncomfortable facts at awkward times. Like that He is God, or that Samaritans can be good, or that the rich can end up in hell. So if you choose to hide behind Jesus from the truth, be prepared for him to frequently step aside for you to smack into it.
It is human to want to protect ourselves. To protect our dignity. To protect our pet beliefs. And I hate to be the messenger of apparently bad news, but Jesus did not come to save us from reality. I now believe Jesus came so that we could look reality in the eye, however discomfiting, and yet thrive in this world. And not only that, but redeem it.
As New Testament scholar N.T. Wright wrote, “The church is not made so that there can be a safe ghetto into which people can run and escape from the world, but so that God can shine out his light into the world, exposing the ways in which the world has structured itself into darkness.”
In our reading from Exodus we see a classic, memorialized instance of protection: the Passover. But more is going on than meets the eye. The ancient Egyptians worshipped the constellation of Aries, and therefore did not kill sheep, and held shepherds in contempt. In fact, the Egyptians believed that killing any sacred sheep would invoke the wrath of the gods and invite destruction.
It was in this environment, that God instructed every family among the Israelites to not only publicly kill a sheep, but daub its blood on their front door as a taunt to their neighbors’ gods. And to go even further, God requires them to declare that this act is the one that saves from destruction. I can just see Moses putting his head in his hands.
Who do you believe, God was asking, me or the Egyptians? Who do you trust to tell you the truth about what it means to be safe? According to the midrash of Rabbi Rashi, only one in five Jews passed this test of faith.
There is a long-standing rabbinic debate about whether the blood was applied to the inside or the outside of the doorposts. If you’re like me, you always assumed it was the outside. I also always assumed that they did it to protect themselves from the Destroyer, which a surface reading of the text supports.
But Rabbi Rashi reasoned that God already knows who is loyal to Him and does not need to be notified, so the blood must have been applied to the inside of the door, as a sign of remembrance for the people themselves. Verse 13 says it is a “sign for you,” the people. However, the text also says it is “a sign for the Lord.” So debate began.
Perhaps it is for the best that this debate never fully resolved. There is a protection from without, and there is a protection from within. Sometimes God does protect us from without, preventing misfortune. Such stories are often retold in coffee table books as good reason to have faith. But if such protection is the evidence of our faith, we must not be Christians. Because God did not protect even his most beloved Son from a grisly, unjust death. I think most Christians have never truly come to terms with this disturbing fact. We theologize it—Jesus had to die, for this or that cosmic reason. But we aren’t like Jesus in that way. We don’t have to die. So God will protect us.
May be. It’s a universal hope. It may fill the bulk of most prayer. And Jesus did teach us to pray for deliverance from evil. But curiously this was in the context of internal temptation, not external injustice. Which is more serious to seek protection from? Evil without, or evil within?
True protection is not about self-preservation, but protecting something bigger than ourselves. As the man Winston says in the film version of Orwell’s classic dystopian novel 1984: “It’s not so much staying alive, but staying human that’s important. What counts is that we don’t betray each other.”
And so, while there is room for disagreement, I do not think that the blood on the doorpost was a protective amulet of the same ilk as an invocation from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. It was a matter of heart. Our God does not need a reminder to protect us. But we need a reminder to whom we belong, to a God that is different, who works salvation from what the world says can only bring ruin. We need protection from thinking in the world’s terms.
The protection offered by the God of the Bible is a strange protection indeed. As the narrative of God’s kingdom unfolds, this protection becomes less practical and more transcendent. The Destroyer who once passed over each door becomes the risen Christ through whom St. Paul claims we are more than conquerors—when destroyed. This is no prosperity gospel, that’s for sure.
Similarly, in our reading from 1 Corinthians we see Jesus did not institute the Eucharist as a protective ritual either. On the contrary, it is an act of identification with that beloved Son whom God did not protect. Nor is prayer a protective formula. As C.S. Lewis said in his essay “The Efficacy of Prayer,” “The worst is to think of those who get what they pray for as a sort of court favorites, people who have influence with the throne. The refused prayer of Christ in Gethsemane is answer enough to that. . . . Meanwhile, little people like you and me, if our prayers are sometimes granted, beyond all hope and probability, had better not draw hasty conclusions to our own advantage. It we were stronger, we might be less tenderly treated. If we were braver, we might be sent, with far less help, to defend far more desperate posts in the great battle.”
I know when I am not feeling brave, I seek protection from firsthand knowledge of others’ pain, vulnerability, or failure. It is a reminder that I have dirt on my feet as well, or could if just a handful of things went wrong—it is a reminder of life’s fragility. I think we all feel a resistance to the grime and absurdity of each other’s feet.
My Airbnb host rejected the fact that the ancient Jews had a custom of foot washing. But how much more serious is it to reject the fact of our neighbor’s dirty feet?
This reminds me of a time during the year in college that I volunteered teaching Sunday School to four-year-olds. One of the other teachers sat them down for a story and asked, “What is the one thing that isn’t in heaven?”. Hands shot up, and he pointed to a little girl. She confidently said, “Dirt.”
He smiled. “Well, maybe there is dirt, but there isn’t sin.”
The correlation, though, was already fixed in this child’s mind. I like to think that in the new heavens and new earth, there will be glorified dirt. And I like to think we will still be called to wash each other’s feet of it. For perfect world or no, what greater expression of love could there be? In that place, there will be no fear of humiliation.
One place I learned to face this fear was the karate school in San Francisco I attended my first four years in the Bay Area. The list of martial arts principles was hung up on the wall, and the last we always shouted together: “Indomitable spirit!” For as the sensei Master Evans said, “If someone has a gun, they will shoot you. If someone has a knife, they will stab you. Everything you’ve learned here will be useless. But they cannot break an indominable spirit.”
Master Evans was not for everyone. She was an ex-marine. Whatever she said had one sane response: “Yes, ma’am!” Yet I loved to watch her with the children, them tumbling over her like puppies. I don’t think Master Evans believes in God, but every time I was in her presence I felt I learned more about God than I had from a thousand sermons.
The last time I ever went to the karate studio was for a children’s belt test that included board breaking. The crowd watched, breath held, as a little girl about five slapped her foot against a particle board try after try. She rubbed her foot with a brave face, but success looked grim. Then Master Evans came alongside her and crouched on the floor. She grabbed the girl’s foot mid-kick, and aimed her heel directly into the center of the board, which cracked in two. Master Evans began to cheer—for the girl. So did we all.
Now, whenever I think of nature and grace, us and God, I think of that little girl’s foot breaking that board. Master Evans could have easily broken the board herself. She could have mocked the girl’s plight and told her she was a fool to try alone. She could have ignored her. But Master Evans did none of those things.
Just like God crouched down alongside us, and broke the bonds of sin and death and hell by His strong right arm, through our own human feet nailed to a cross. And now God asks all the angels of heaven to cheer for a man.
Could this have happened if Jesus’ request had been granted that the cup be spared? I think not.
I invite you to ask yourself, what are you seeking protection from that Jesus did not come here to save you from? Can you ask him to instead come alongside you so you can face it together? Are you willing for there to be dirt in your heaven?
Let us pray.
God, you call us to do things that look foolish to the world, and you do not always guarantee that we will be spared the world’s cruelty. What you do guarantee is that if we turn to you, you will create in us indomitable spirits. May we not so much seek to be protected from without, from misfortune, as from within, from our own self-centeredness and the lie of despair.
Let this same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus. You did not fear humiliation, either from washing feet like a servant, nor being crucified like a criminal. You could be neither disgusted nor dominated.
Make us this infuriating and this inspiring. Please remain with us, so that whatever befalls us cannot break us. Take our feet in your hands, and use them to break through the lies about dignity and power that envelope this world. In the name of Jesus, Amen.