A Sermon for Maundy Thursday
Preached by Kevin Seitz-Paquette
April 18, 2019
Sometime in the spring of 2006, I was sitting in Fr. Brian Doerr’s office in Lafayette, IN. Fr. Doerr was, at that time, the vocational director for the Diocese of Layfette-in-Indiana. I had met with him many times before, but this meeting was different. In all of our previous meetings, he had the measured calmness of a seasoned therapist, and I had existed somewhere in the space between excitement, apprehension, joy, and melancholy–a cocktail that, I’m sure, was annoying each time. During this meeting, it was Fr. Doerr who was visibly excited, while my typical emotional seesaw had abated to allow all of my cognitive resources to move to their primary task: forcing my heart back down to its rightful place from its current location beating somewhere in the neighborhood of my Adam’s apple.
The meeting that morning had been the intake interview to become a seminarian of the diocese. The questions were exactly what you might expect from any job interview, if any job interview were assessing an 18-year-old boy’s ability to deny sex, wealth, and mischief for the rest of his life. They were so unsurprising, in fact, that even though that meeting remains one of the formative experiences of my life, I can only remember one. Fr. Doerr looked me in the eye and asked, “Are you gay?” I knew what my answer had to be, and for this question, I knew it couldn’t be the truth. “No,” I said, and that was that.
About a week later, I called Fr. Brian to let him know that I had officially enrolled at Indiana University to study linguistics, decided not to enter the seminary, and that, yes, I was certain. If it’s true that you have to do something 10,000 times to become an expert, by that point in my life, I was the world’s preeminent authority on obscuring one’s sexuality. I knew, though, that lying about anything to become a priest must be an especially egregious sin. I couldn’t take back the lie, and I wasn’t about to confess that it was a lie, and so my only recourse was to take back my intention to become a priest.
Three years later, just as my senior year at Indiana University was beginning, I found the courage to come out to my friends and family. In a strange way, the anxiety of coming out felt like penance for the lie I had told that spring day years earlier. My father–now Deacon Steve–took the news better than I could ever have imagined. To this day, I wonder if he really understood what I told him; if he didn’t he was certainly very confused at our wedding.
Even though I found an unexpected level of support in my family and friends, I found myself drawing away from the Church. I had been raised to believe that all good things come from God, that God has created all of us in His image, that all human beings are inherently good, that man and woman are drawn to one another in the way that the Church is drawn to Christ. That last one got to me–if we are all created in God’s image, and we are all inherently good, then how can anyone’s innate desire be to sin? Did God create me to sin? Was my life some sort of horrible, divine practical joke? If I rejected the feelings that I was created to have and married a woman, was the sin of denying her a loving spouse more acceptable than the sin of homosexuality? I did what anyone does when he can tell he isn’t welcome anymore–when the host says, “Well, it sure is late, but I can put some more coffee on for you”–I left.
Most LGBT people who leave the Church never come back. The ones who do find it difficult and make an effort to do so. For me, it was easy. When Matt and I decided to get married, I knew that I needed to find a community where our marriage could grow. Google led me to St. John’s, and here I stand today. This place is one that values and seeks to have me and others like me join the congregation. As a community, we know that the most beautiful aspect of creation is its diversity and bounty–not rigid uniformity.
Even still, the return to the Church required a process of reconciliation. I always used to believe that reconciliation was a process between a sinner and God, mediated by a priest. As I re-integrated myself into the Church, and the Church into my life, I found that it’s far more complex. Yes, reconciliation is of course a process of acknowledging and atoning for one’s sins before God. But for me to return to the Church, I had to reconcile myself with the Church itself, with my family, and with my past. Not only that, the Church had to reconcile itself to me. I could not have made a return if the Church hadn’t demonstrated that I really was welcome, and had been all along.
There is perhaps no better allegory for the reconciliation between the Church and its members than the recent fire at Notre Dame Cathedral. The images of the fire were heartbreaking. However, the next morning, we saw that all of the structural elements of the Cathedral were unharmed, and even the cross at the high altar remained without a single speck of soot to tarnish its shine. Reconciliation between the Church and its members may sometimes require change–even dramatic change–to the institution, but Christ and the foundation of the Church will always remain steadfast.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus washes his disciples’ feet, a practice that, at the time, would be reserved for low-level servants or slaves. It was a demeaning act. Knowing this, Simon Peter protested, telling Christ that he would “NEVER wash [HIS] feet.” There are a few moments in the Gospel that are plainly transactional, and what followed is one of my favorites. Christ quite calmly informed Simon Peter that either a) he would be washing his feet, or b) Simon Peter would have no share with him. Simon Peter, who missed the lesson as if it were the log in his own eye, exclaimed, “not only my feet, but my head and my hands!”
It was never about the act. If it were, Jesus very well may have washed Simon Peter’s head and hands, and he may still be alive today thanks to this gluttony of grace. The lesson, as we all know, was about the attitude. Jesus washed his disciples’ feet to teach them that authority without service was meaningless; that real power was the ability to humble oneself.
Ironically, Simon Peter would go on to fail Christ in three ways over the next 24 hours. He fell asleep while on watch in Gethsemane, he drew his sword on the Roman soldiers sent to make Jesus’ arrest, and he denied he had ever known Christ three times before dawn. Imagine the contrast: one moment asking for an abundance of grace from his friend and God, the very next denying Him. The Gospel doesn’t explicitly say that Jesus also washed Judas Iscariot’s feet, but we know that Judas was still at the meal, so we can only assume that Jesus even humbled himself before the man who would sell his life for 30 pieces of silver.
Each and every one of us denies Christ in one way or another through the course of our lives. Whether we are the rock, upon whom the Church is built, the man who turned Jesus over to be executed, or a completely ordinary man named Kevin, all of us deny Christ. What matters is not that we eliminate sin from our lives–although we should all strive so to do–but how we reflect Christ’s love, service, and humility to a sometimes hostile world.
One of the many ways I have denied Jesus in my life came that spring day in 2006. I lied about who God created me to be, and worse, I was ashamed of the life I had been given. I turned my back on Christ, thinking that it was the only option for me to live as He wanted me to live.
I wash the feet of others by doing what little I can to make sure no other LGBT person thinks that God won’t love her if she came out, or that God stopped loving her when she did. Sometimes this work is overt encouragement; other times it is simply letting my life be an example. I wash their feet not to atone for the sins of my past, but to show them the love and acceptance that they need, with the hope that they will never feel obligated to lie about the beautiful life God gave them.
Whose feet will you wash today? Today, we remember the institution of the great and ongoing gift given to us by God: the Eucharist. On this day, we would be remiss not to live Jesus’ final and greatest commandment: to love one another as he has loved us. That is, to serve and to humble ourselves before one other in the way that he did.