Loving with Feet and Fungi
A Sermon for Maundy Thursday John 13:1-17, 31b-35
The Rev. Ragan Sutterfield

There was a story in the microbiology journal mSystems recently that revealed a surprising way to identify the people we love. No questionnaires, pictures, or words are necessary. To tell who you love all the scientists need is a swab of your feet. Once cultured, those wavy lines in a petri dish reveal a unique community of microbes–bacteria and fungi, mostly–that make their home on the skin and nails of your feet. These are not the problematic fungi that lead to the embarrassed placement of a tube of Lamasil on the drug store checkout counter. These small creatures are as innocent a part of your body as any of your native cells and some of them even contribute to the healthy functioning of your skin. It turns out that those with whom we share life tend to share the same microbial community–you pick up some of theirs and they yours and eventually you have the same microscopic zoo on the soles of your feet.

I was struck by this story as I reflected on our Gospel for this Maundy Thursday, not only by wondering if the foot washing represented the literal formation of a new community of life among the disciples, but also because I think it hints at something essential about the living out of this new commandment, this Maundy as the old english puts it, that Jesus gives his disciples: that we should love one another.

“Love, love, love, all we need is love.” Who would disagree with that? And yet the call to simply love can be dangerous if it is detached from the particulars of life; if it is disconnected from fungi and bacteria, water and feet. As the essayist Charles D’Ambrosio put it: “If you can love abstractly, you’re only a bad day away from hating abstractly.”

Ours is a world full of abstract love and abstract hate, both organized through the ethereal space of the internet, a place that is free of bacteria and fungi and symbiotic life. There have always been bullies, history is clear, but the scale of it is now new. Those of us who would never spew hate to a person sitting in front of us now feel the license to belittle and berate through the shield of a screen. As the MIT social psychologist Sherri Turkle writes, “On the Internet, we are disinhibited from taking into full account that we are in the presence of another human being.”

This disregard for the humanity of others is of course an old problem coursing through our scriptures; now we just have Facebook to enhance our indifference and disdain. Jesus had already seen so many instances in his ministry in which people ignored the suffering of others by setting up a wall of abstraction–Sabbath laws that prevented the lame from experiencing healing, cleanliness codes that kept people with skin diseases from the embrace of community, pious practices of religion that provided no grace for sinners. And this is why Jesus’ commandment to “love one another” came not in some scholarly discourse on the nature of love, but after he had bent down on the ground, immersed his hands in water, and washed his disciples’ feet. He wanted to show before telling–the love he was commanding them to exercise was a concrete practice that could only be made real in a world of three dimensions, a world of smell and touch, taste and sound and sight.

Those of us who sit here now, hearing again this commandment to love, must learn in our own ways how to inhabit our affection through the concrete stuff of life. To enact this love we should look not toward the ambiguous and abstract objects of so much organized charity. Instead we should look into the faces of our neighbors as Jesus defined them, those who are right in front of us. As Wendell Berry has written, “[Love] does not adhere to the universe or the planet or the nation or the institution or the profession, but to the singular sparrows of the street, the lilies of the field, ‘the least of these my brethren.’”

As we seek this practice, we should also avoid any mask or shield that keeps us from the faces of those with whom we are in relationship and upon whom we depend for our common life. The call to agape love is a call to shun the anonymous economics of our world and to turn again to the neighborly economy of faces and friendship.

Tonight, let us hear and respond to Jesus’ new commandment to love one another. And as we enact that love in the world, let us be cautious of the tendency toward abstraction. If your love doesn’t involve the exchange of fungi, then perhaps it isn’t love. Amen.


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