A New Commandment

I often get asked where the “Maundy” of Maundy Thursday comes from.  It’s taken from the Latin “Mandatum novum” or New Commandment.  We get our word mandate from that origin.  It’s the night Jesus instituted Holy Communion and on that day he got down and washed his disciples feet.

Foot washing is a really important part of this service, and so last night I (re-)introduced it to the St. Mark’s community with great success.  It was a wonderful and solemn service that led to the stripping of the altar.

My homily on John 13.

Nine months after the wake of Hurricane Katrina, I traveled with a group of adults from the church I was then serving to the Gulf Coast in Mississippi that had been ravaged by the storm.  Before we left, we received a list of things we would absolutely need.  Heavy gloves, bug spray, sleeping bags and pillows, ear plugs since we would be sleeping in a large gym area and, most important of all, sturdy work boots.  The good people at Camp Coast Care—the organization we’d be working with—reinforced this last one.  “Tennis shoes and flip flops will not work.”  Too many hazards were lying on the ground.  Too many things that could cut your feet.

So I went out and bought a new pair of work boots.  And I was glad that I did.  On the second or third day I was there working among the wreckage at a house, I stepped on a nail.  Thankfully, because of the boots, I could barely feel the prick of it.  So I took a moment, grabbed a pair of pliers and pulled out that nail, thankful I hadn’t worn sneakers and had avoided a trip to the doctors.

One of the houses we worked on that week was owned by a man named Gerard.  He and his wife had spent the past nine months living in a motor home in their backyard.  They lived a few miles in from the Gulf, yet much of their home had been filled with over 3 feet of water.  Gerard was in limbo; he hadn’t done much to his house as he waited for insurance monies to come in.  A group of us came that day to begin the demolition of much of the interior in order to get it down to the base structure.  But before we began, we needed to clean out their belongings.

So we did that, our group of volunteers from Camp Coast Care.  We carried out photo albums, and towels.  We took out books, and clothes.  We dug through everything in their house, exposing Gerard and his wife’s entire life and placed it on the front lawn.  Their life’s belongings were there for anyone to take a peek at.  Their lives were completely exposed.

Tonight we’re asked to do the same; we are asked to show our vulnerability.

I know that foot washing hasn’t been done much here in the past.  But Jesus gives us an example and then asks us as his disciples to do likewise.  We like walking around in our heavy boots, keeping our feet well covered and insolated from the world.  But Jesus says, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”  Unless we become vulnerable, and take off our heavy shoes, we cannot be his disciples.

Jesus shows what he means in his giving of himself.  What he does is take the role of the servant; he makes himself vulnerable, and lays down his life.  When we take off our shoes, we lay down the notion of our perfected image.  We look somewhat foolish.  We show our weaknesses.

And we acknowledge our imperfections and need of grace.  God’s grace comes to us in the way Jesus washes his disciples’ feet, in the way we wash each other’s feet.  He shows his love in giving of himself.  Trust is needed.  He shows how we are to serve one another, to let down our own guard and be the people he calls us to be.

The question is will we do this?  Will we acknowledge our own vulnerabilities or will we keep our heavy boots on?  Will we open ourselves up to the example that Christ gives us to show our love to one another?  “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.”  Amen.