Sermon for Maundy Thursday, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church Madison, CT
Published by Ronald Steed,
Three companions sit at a table waiting for the news, quietly and lovingly regarding one another. After eons, the cusp of the moment has finally come. They think back to a time so distant that it is hard to remember… a time when there was nothing but themselves and their desire… a desire so strong… a desire to be with what they were about to make. A desire not to be if that meant that they could not be with.
Gabriel comes, "she said yes"… the friends smile at Gabriel and at one another. Jesus rises, takes off his outer garment… folds it neatly on the chair, and follows the Spirit, soon finding himself wrapped in a new garment... a human robe… a placenta in Mary’s womb.
When he is 8 years old, Jesus runs into the house just in time for supper. "Stop!" says Mary "sit!", and she brings a bowl of water and a towel, and stoops to wash the dust off his feet. The water feels cool and refreshing, and with the contact of her skin on his, he closes his eyes and enjoys the moment… a simple moment of being with her… of enjoying her presence, their mutual attention on one another. He sighs deeply, and she smiles. Being with is his whole purpose… there is nothing more important or delightful than that. As she dries his feet with the coarse towel, Joseph and a supper guest arrive. "Clean them up" she tells Jesus. And so he provides the same act of hospitality to these two.
In Nazareth, there are no wealthy people, and so there are no servants or slaves in the village. To clean the dust off one another’s feet is just a matter of course… something everyone does for one another. No one thinks much about it, or sees it as anything more than it is, a kindness of hospitality, and a useful daily necessity. And maybe, something more… a moment to enjoy one another’s company and attention.
Now, on the night of Jesus’ arrest, his disciples are more experienced and more worldly than they were in the villages they came from 3 years ago. In so many places where they have travelled, to have one’s feet washed is something more like a ritual-of-power than a simple act of hospitality. In the homes of the wealthy, it is a job only a servant would do. There is no intimacy in it and nothing to savor… no simple pleasure of skin on skin, but rather a sign of wealth and position. An act of hospitality has been exchanged for an affirmation of their own status as someone more than a slave and something less than their host. Most of the disciples pay no attention to the one doing the washing; the servant-washers go about their work unnoticed.
And so, when Jesus stands up from the table, takes off his outer garment, folding it neatly on the chair, and wraps a towel around his waist, it is with self-conscious embarrassment that they realize that he is about the wash the feet of Peter. Jesus knows what they do not yet fully grasp… that tonight he will be taken into custody, and not much longer after that, he will be hanging on a cross. They do not yet know that they will abandon him to this fate; that they will flee in fear and deny to others that they know him. They do not understand that when God comes to be with, as close as God desires to humans who bear God’s image, the cross will be the result.
Of all the things Jesus could do on the cusp of this tragic night, washing feet seems to be ridiculous, weak, and ineffectual. He has complete freedom to respond to the threat that is in front of him. He could run away… he could call on Gabriel’s legions of angels to come and fight for him. Instead, he commits an act of simple resistance. He chooses to be with his companions in this intimate way… the very ones who he knows will betray and abandon him.
As he picks up Peter’s foot and begins to wash, he relishes the moment of contact… he remembers the people in Nazareth, his village, whose feet he had also washed… he feels the coolness of the water… the sound of its cheerful sloshing in the bowl… the warmth of Peter’s foot… the way Peter’s ego struggles against relaxing into the moment…. He feels the deep peace of this moment. A peace that includes the differences and diversity of those who are gathered here. A peace that includes the conflict that those differences give rise to, in Judas and in others. Washing a foot is an act of resistance to the betrayal, violence and abandonment that is coming… it demonstrates a way and a path that is open to us in the face of difference and conflict. Rather than falling into violence, we could choose to let those differences and conflicts become the engine of creativity… we could let that creative ember spark into harmony and symphony. We could allow creativity to blossom into networks of mutual thriving and flourishing… into give and take instead of being right and being righteous… into possibilities we cannot imagine until they happen. And at the center of that thriving and flourishing is the simple desire to be with one another, the desire not to be if that means that we cannot be with.
Jesus knows that it won’t be long before he will take off his earthly robe and return to the table where his two companions wait. He knows that they will suffer as he suffers. And he knows that they are willing to endure the heartbreak that will come for the sake of being with their creation. He knows that for a while, their trinity of love will be broken as one of them ceases to exist for the first time ever. But they are so committed to being with their people… they have so much love for creation, that they are willing to endure that loss. And, they know that death will not have the last word… that something amazing will happen on Sunday morning.
The peace of God that passes our understanding includes the fabulous diversity of creation… the conflicts that arise as a result… the creativity that conflict inspires… the infinite flow and rich possibility that creativity can produce… the constant resurrection of something new that did not exist before. This peace is more powerful than loneliness, more powerful than violence, more powerful than death. And all it takes to enjoy that peace is a bowl of water, a towel, and the willingness to wash the dust off a neighbor’s feet. All it takes is the desire to be with. Amen.