Sermon: God Turned a Corner…
Published by Ronald Steed,
Maundy Thursday | Love | Being With
Sermon: God Turned a Corner…
St. Andrews Episcopal Church, Madison, CT ¹ Taken from Exodus 12 & John 13 ²
On Maundy Thursday, God turned a corner with us | Photo by Ron Steed In Pienza, Tuscany
Have you ever turned a corner in your life? Found yourself at a point where one long phase of your life was clearly at an end, and another was ready to begin?
In my home parish of St. James New London, we turned a corner in 2008. The previous year, we had allowed the newly formed Homeless Hosptiality Center to set up beds on the Parish Hall for people suffering from homelessness. This was shortly after the City Council had zeroed the social services budget, meaning there would be no city-funded winter shelter.
As we would cross the Parish Hall for coffee after services, we would pass through a valley of these beds. For a lot of us, this was what the gospel-in-action looked like, but for many, the very survival of the Parish was put at risk. It all came to a head at a parish-wide meeting about this ministry in the fall, and that meeting wasn’t pretty. There wasn’t a lot of love in that moment.
Cots in the Parish Hall at St. James Episcopal Church, New London | Photo by Ron Steed
One of the positive outcomes was that we asked a team discern what to do. We met all Spring and Summer of 2008, and we did it prayerfully. What really touched me, was that although there were members on every side of this contentious issue, by the end of the summer, all of us began to converge on a solution.
It’s not the solution that was so striking; it was the converging of hearts from animosity toward consensus that got my attention. We turned from a place of being task-oriented and mutually suspicious, toward a place where we genuinely enjoyed one another’s company. We liked being with each other; we loved each other.
This was a work of the Holy Spirit through all of us. God’s presence was WITH us and we FELT it. And God was there with us because we ASKED God to be with us.
100% voted to keep the shelter at St James as long as necessary, and to move the shelter to some better space in the building. We had turned a corner with God’s help. Now, we could not only be with our homeless neighbors in a new and more hopeful way, we could be with one another.
Turning Cosmic Corners
Tonight’s gospel is about Jesus turning a similar corner on a global scale at dinner on Maundy Thursday.
That story starts with the Trinity, whose deepest desire was to create something that was not themselves, and then to be with and love that creation, no matter what. They launched the universe, and in the fullness of time, nurtured a planet in a backwater galaxy, and chose a tiny tribe called the People of Israel as the ones they would be with.
They knew from before the beginning, that at some point, Jesus would be incarnated to live among them and love them, and for better or worse, would extend their presence to all the people on that planet through this chosen people.
The story of Israel as a chosen people, and God particularly with them started at Passover in Egypt, which going forward became the first month… the month from which all things were counted. As we just heard in Exodus 12, God helps them to turn a corner from slavery to liberation as God’s chosen people; "This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand…." Those sandaled feet would pick up a lot of road grime over the centuries… things did not always go well. But God never gave up on them, no matter what.
The People of Israel picked up a lot of road grime on their path | Photo by Ron Steed in Mystic, CT
And Israel discovered that it was never closer to God than when it was in deep, serious trouble, with muddy feet and stubbed toes, whether wandering in the wilderness for 40 years before entering the promised land, or suffering 70 years of humiliating exile in Babylon before returning to Jerusalem. Even back in Jerusalem there was a succession of conquering powers, the Romans being the most recent; it was a muddy road and it seemed like Israel was in still in exile.
And so, the time came to turn a new corner, and that corner arrived at dinner on Maundy Thursday, the day before Jesus was killed. "Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end."
Who exactly are "his own"? | Photo by Ron Steed in Radicofani, Tuscany
"Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him." This was Jesus washing the centuries of grime off Israel’s feet, proclaiming that the end of that road, the end of exile has been reached.
How Do We Know?
It was always the ambition of the Trinity to be with all the people of the world and to love them, and to do that through the people of Israel, and now, it was time to see that ambition underway. Jesus turned the corner with THIS: "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."
How do we know that this new commandment was the trailhead of new path? How do we know that this was a corner turned? There are four ways we know:
- Because it was love in the first place that enabled the Trinity to make and be with its creation.
- It was love that enabled God to be with the people of Israel, in spite of all their troubles and their wrestlings with God.
- It was love that brought Jesus into human form on the Earth to live with us.
- And it would HAVE to be love that would enable Jesus’ disciples to proclaim God’s presence with the whole world, and for the people of the world to embrace God with them.
We Can’t Do Liberation by Ourselves
Humanity turned a corner that night in our relationship with God. With the washing of road grime from the feet of Jesus’ disciples, the long muddy road that began at Passover centuries before had come to an end at last. A new being-with was now underway, one marked by the liberation of the whole world through Christ. And Christ’s disciples were called to show the world how that gets done, how God does it; through love and through the cross.
That doesn’t mean that turning the corner with the new project went well, it didn’t; it was cross-shaped at every point, particularly when the disciples tried to do things by themselves, without God’s help. Peter struggled right off the bat; "You will never wash my feet", Peter said, as if, he could do this thing by himself without Jesus.
Within 24 hours, Judas betrayed Jesus, Peter denied Jesus three times, all the rest of the men scattered to the hills every man for himself, the women gathered at the foot of the cross in mourning, and Jesus would be dead. So much for loving one another; the project was not off to a great start.
We are STILL struggling on this path. We have trouble loving our neighbors today as the news on any day will tell you, which is just another way of saying that our power to love one another is a gift that has to be given by God and received by us. Like washing someone’s feet, there has to be a giving and there has to be a receiving; both can be hard to do… sometimes the receiving part seems the hardest part of of all; it was for Peter, and it may be for some of you.
I wonder if we will learn as disciples of Jesus, that loving one another without asking for God’s help is just not possible. Love is a GIFT that we have to RECEIVE.
I run up against this all the time. I run headlong into a conflict and forget to ask for God’s help to make it a loving encounter instead of headstrong encounter. I forget, that instead of needing to be right and getting my own way, I need to let go of that need and let the Spirit guide me in love. Maybe that is your experience too.
This is why, each of our baptismal vows ends with "I will with God’s help". "Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? I will, with God’s help."
We still get muddy feet | Photo by Ron Steed in the Merrett Family Forest, Mystic, CT
God loves us in Christ no matter what. That is the lesson of the cross… God wants nothing more than to be with us, even if the cross is what happened when God tried to get face-to-face with humanity. Jesus broke the Trinity so that he could be with us; God allowed him to break that bond so that Jesus could be fully with us as far as life would take him. Sit with that between now and Easter. Easter shows us that not even death could stop the Trinity and their desire to be with us. And Pentecost has put God’s Spirit in every heart as a gift, to help us with that work.
God turned a corner with us on Maundy Thursday. It was not just the people of Israel that God would be with, but all of us in the whole world. God loves you to the end of forever… this is why he is with you and wants nothing more than to BE with you in Christ, no matter what. And, God loves your neighbors… all of them… the same way.
Can we ask Jesus to help us turn this corner with him? Can we ask the Spirit for the power to love and can we receive that gift from others with the Spirit’s help? Can we love one another in the power of the Spirit, to God’s glory and praise? We can… you can; with God’s help.
¹ This sermon was delivered at St. Andrews Episcopal Church, Madison, CT, on Maundy Thursday, April 6, 2023
Exodus 12:1–4(5–10)11–14 (NRSV)
The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it.
Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn.
This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.
John 13:1–17, 31b-35 (NRSV)
Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.
Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, "Lord, are you going to wash my feet?" Jesus answered, "You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand." Peter said to him, "You will never wash my feet." Jesus answered, "Unless I wash you, you have no share with me." Simon Peter said to him, "Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!" Jesus said to him, "One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you." For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, "Not all of you are clean."
After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, "Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord — and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.
Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 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."