Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
Maundy Thursday – April 17, 2014
In the Name of God who made and knows us; the Savior, who redeems and befriends us; and the Spirit, who enlightens and sustains us. Amen.
His garb was a towel. He knelt to wipe his friend’s dirty and tired feet, performing the task of a common servant. No brocade robes, no jeweled crowns, no high thrones. Their master, their Rabbi, kneeling before them, was washing their feet.
Rabbi Abraham Heschel, a leading Jewish theologian of the twentieth century, once said that what the Bible demands can be comprised in one word: Remember. The Old Testament and Epistle reading tonight relate the origins of Passover and Eucharist that are to be remembered and passed along to future generations.
Like our Jewish sisters and brothers who are celebrating Passover this week remembering their Hebrew ancestors’ liberation from slavery in Egypt in the Seder meal, tonight we remember the meal that Jesus shared with his friends on the night before he died for us.
It would have been a Passover like any others they had celebrated—the familiar prayers and songs and foods prescribed in the text of the Haggadah. It would have been like any others if Jesus had not done something so culturally and socially taboo. In a startling gesture, he got up from the table, took off his outer robe, tied a towel around himself, poured water into a basin, and to their amazement and the horror of Peter, began to wash their feet.
Jesus had touched lepers and hemorrhaging women. He had openly shared a table with those who were considered despicable and sinful people—all violations of Jewish purity codes. Yet his disciples never protested all of this contra convention. But here they do. His act of condescension is just too hard to take—the reversal of values too upsetting to remain quiet over. Jesus knew that there had been enough talk, enough explanation, enough teaching about servant love. He had to show them what it looked like rather than just tell them.
The only way to teach his followers what the gospel really meant was to get down on his knees and wash their feet—every one of them—the one who loved him deeply, the one who would deny him, the one who would sell him out for thirty pieces of silver. Before he broke bread with them, before he shared the cup, he had to show them that the human desire for power and privilege must be broken.
So tonight we remember. We remember by washing feet and by celebrating this Passover meal, this festival of freedom—a sign of the liberating journey to which God invites us.
And we do it all here in community, not in isolation nor in the privacy of our homes. And in our reenacting what Jesus did so long ago for his disciples, in remembering the Passover of our Hebrew ancestors, our lives are mystically, transcendentally linked to theirs.
In his work, Making All Things New, Henri Nouwen wrote: “The community of love stretches out not only beyond boundaries of countries and continents but also beyond the boundaries of decades and centuries. Not only the awareness of those who are far away but also those who lived long ago can lead us into a healing, sustaining, guiding community. The space of God in community transcends all limits of time and place.”
Some have suggested that the act of foot washing could be one of the church’s sacraments and, though we are wont to number how many sacraments there are, I’m not sure Jesus intended for us to set a limit. So much of what we do in life is sacramental—making holy what appears to be just ordinary. Indeed, the outward sign of this ritual points us to Jesus setting aside not only his robe but his entire self even to death—for us.
So much of our liturgy and rituals engages us on all sensory levels, among them the washing of feet. We have added something tonight—scented rose water whose fragrance might remind of us God’s gentle touch and anointing with essential oils, reminiscent of how the feet of Jesus were anointed when he visited the home of his friends Mary and Martha. Allow it all to transport you back to the upper room, so long ago, where Jesus did what we do this night.
Jesus returned to the table when he had washed the feet of all his friends, even Peter’s, and explained what he had just done, “I have set you an example, that you should do as I have done to you.” He turned the expected hierarchical structures upside down, creating a community of equals in which all are served—the faithful as well as the unfaithful.
The foot washing we will do is no difficult task because we are washing the feet of friends. What we are meant to do when we go back into the world is to look for Jesus in the poor, the marginalized and the simply difficult to love—and be as willing to get down on the floor and wash their feet—if not literally, at least metaphorically by our commitment to serve rather than be served.
Theologian Frederick Buechner said it so well: “The next time you walk down the street, take a good look at every face you pass and in your mind say Christ died for you. That girl. That good-for-nothing. That phony. That crank. That crook. That saint. That damned fool. Christ died for you.”
And remember this night. The space of God in community transcends all limits of time and place.