Maundy Thursday, 2014
All Saints’ Church
May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen.
One of the things that liturgical churches like the Episcopal Church do really well is incorporate not just our minds but our whole bodies into worship. Think about it: we stand, sit, and kneel during the service, actions often fondly titled “pew aerobics.” Our ears and voices join in as we listen to, recite, chant, and sing hymns, psalms, and readings from the Bible. We shake hands with or hug one another during the peace. We cross ourselves to receive absolution and blessing. We taste bread and wine before a colorful altar lit by flickering candles. On certain occasions we hear the sloshing of water as it is poured into the baptismal font. Or we watch the curling smoke of incense as it lifts our prayers to God, the powerful aroma lingering in the church (and in our hair) long after the service has ended, a reminder of God’s continued presence with us.
On Maundy Thursday we remember especially two sensory experiences that Jesus participated in before he died: the Last Supper and foot washing. Food is a major part of most of our relationships. Dates usually happen over meals. Hanging out with friends typically involves eating. We celebrate holidays, birthdays, and other special occasions with various types of food. As we saw tonight, church relationships are no different, after all, our motto is “Ya Gotta Eat.” Every time we gather for the Eucharist we remember Jesus’ last meal. In the Holy Communion, we consume the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Now, I’m not going to go into whether or not it really becomes Jesus’ body and blood or if it’s just a practice we do in his memory. But if we stop to think about it, the image of Communion can be disturbing; there’s a reason why the first Christians were thought to be cannibals. Yet Communion is also a deeply powerful and moving image; when we eat the bread and drink the wine, Christ becomes a part of our bodies. His blood flows in our veins. His body gives us nourishment. We are intimately connected with God.
Foot washing is a common practice in Jesus’ time and the centuries before then. As a sign of hospitality, a very important value in most cultures, a host provides water for the guests to wash their feet and hands. Along with the water is a slave who does the washing. What makes Jesus’ act so incredible is that he does the washing himself. Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God, takes off his cloak, wraps a towel around his waist, and washes all of the disciples’ dusty and smelly feet. Even those of Judas, the man he knows will betray him just a short while later. In this action, the disciples are intimately connected with God.
Intimacy is not something Americans are really comfortable with. In fact, it tends to make people want to run screaming in the opposite direction. To be intimate is to be vulnerable, and vulnerability is equated with weakness in our society. When we get injured during a sporting event, we are often encouraged to play through the pain. When we dare to show emotion by crying, we become the object of pity and a source of embarrassment. If we are struggling with insecurity or depression or anxiety, we are told to “suck it up” or “just get over it already.” We hide our true selves from others because we convince ourselves (and society tells us) that no one cares.
Back in December my friend Becky wrote a blog post about what she called the “Facebook Christmas Trap.” For those of you on Facebook, you probably had friends posting pictures of their newly decorated Christmas trees. In the pictures, everything looked beautiful and put together, and so naturally it felt like their whole lives were also beautiful and put together. Like everyone else, Becky took a picture of her lovely Christmas tree. But then she took a picture of the rest of the room, which still had boxes everywhere because she had recently moved. What most of us share with the world is only a portion of ourselves, a carefully positioned photograph that only captures a limited perspective of who we truly are.
In John’s Gospel account, Simon Peter tells Jesus, “You will never wash my feet” (John 13:8a). He is probably embarrassed, mortified that the Son of God is offering to perform a servant’s job. He would rather do it himself than let Jesus see his dirty and smelly feet. But Jesus replies, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me” (v. 8b).
Jesus is essentially saying, ‘If you are not completely open with me, then you are not letting me in and you won’t be able to fully appreciate what I have to offer. Being in right relationship means receiving as well as giving.’
God, through Jesus, is calling us to share all of who we are, the messy and smelly parts as well as the beautiful and clean ones. God loves us and wants to be in relationship with us, and an intimate relationship with God requires us to be vulnerable.
Tonight is an opportunity for you to be vulnerable before God. I invite you to pay close attention to your senses for the remainder of the service and see what new things you experience. I invite you to take off your shoes, wash the feet of a fellow brother or sister in Christ, and let them wash yours. I invite you to come before the altar in all your brokenness and imperfection, receive the body and blood of Christ, and accept the forgiveness and love that comes with it.
Where is God calling you to open up and be vulnerable in your life? Where is God calling you to receive as well as give? As we go out into the night, remember the intimacy of this service. Carry with you the experiences of foot washing and Communion. Know that they are signs of immense love from a God who was willing to be vulnerable “to the point of death--even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8).
“As in that upper room you left your seat
and took a towel and chose a servant’s part,
so for today, Lord, wash again my feet,
who in your mercy died to cleanse my heart” (WLP 730).
sketch of foot washing by Rembrandt