Last night we gathered to remember Jesus’ last supper with his disciples. During that evening he gave them a new commandment and an object lesson. Love one another he said. And he got down and washed their feet.
As we reflect on these three holy days of the Christian year, I hope we can hear his new command. And I hope even more we can put it into practice.
My sermon for last night…..
Maundy Thursday 2012
I have strong memories of being in the bath when I was a child, of people helping me get cleaned up. I especially remember my sister Lisa washing my face and neck and then claiming to find potato sprouts in my ears because they were so dirty. One evening like magic she pulled a tuber out of my ear. I loved it when my mom said I could have a bubble bath, and I would play for what seemed like a long time in that tub by myself.
Nowadays I am half tempted to run down to the pantry to rummage through our root vegetables when I am helping Noah or Olivia with their baths, and I often try to give them the option of bubbles. We attend to the ritual of bath time in our house with religious devotion most nights, it’s part of the well trod bedtime routine that we’ve followed with our kids since their infancy, although now I am only called in to wash their hair. I suspect they both will have bath memories of their own in 35 years.
These days bathing is a quick endeavor for me, and given my hair situation, I can be out of the shower in just a few minutes. Anything foreign that accumulates on my body is my own to get rid of. I’m not fussy about working in dirt or anything on my off days, but I like to have clean hands being as I’m a priest and all. My feet rarely get exposed to the outside air unless I’m on vacation and wearing my favorite sandals. Those days while enjoying the outdoors late into the evening, I often find my way to the side of the tub to rinse off the grime of the day, watching it swirl around the drain before going away forever.
Jesus and his disciples were perpetual sandal wearers. Living in an arid land only compounded the amount of dust they would kick up. Dust that clung to sweaty feet. Dirt that would not be welcome in a house. So when Jesus and his disciples would find their way to someone’s home for a meal or to stay, the host would at the very least provide a basin for them to rinse their grungy feet, and often would have a servant wash their feet for them. Hospitality played an important role in their culture, and this small gesture literally dripped with care.
You may remember the story when Jesus came to Simon the Pharisee’s house, and a sinful woman came in weeping over Jesus, using her hair to wipe his feet that had been wetted with her tears, and anointing his feet with fine perfume. Jesus calls Simon out on this a little later after he and others at his table were shocked that Jesus would let such a woman even touch him. He said, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet.” Hospitality, care, regard for one another—that’s what Jesus expected.
But it wasn’t just that Jesus expected others to do it for him since he was their rabbi, their teacher. On the night before he died, while eating the evening meal with his disciples, he got up from the table and stripped off his outer clothing, wrapped a towel around his waist and began washing their feet. I’m sure they were shocked that he would even think of doing this. Their master getting down on his knees before them washing off the day’s accumulated gunk, that was a servant’s work. “No, Jesus!” Peter shouted when Jesus got to him. “No, you won’t wash my feet!” Jesus looked at him gently and told him that if he didn’t then Peter would have no part with him; he couldn’t be his disciple. I get Peter’s objection. I don’t want anyone cleaning my feet except me.
You may remember the book Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom, a sports writer I remember from my growing up in Detroit when he wrote columns for the Free Press. In a moment of coincidence, Mitch saw a Nightline introduction with Ted Koppel saying a few things about life and death, and then saying “Who is Morrie Schwartz? Stay tuned to find out.” Morrie was Mitch’s advisor and favorite professor from college. They hadn’t seen each other in 16 years. And Morrie was dying of Lou Gherig’s disease, ALS. He stayed tuned to be sure.
During that interview, “the two men spoke about the afterlife. They spoke about Morrie’s increasing dependency on other people. He already needed help eating and sitting and moving from place to place. What, Koppel asked, did Morrie dread the most about his slow, insidious decay?” He asked Ted if he can say a word on TV [that I won’t say in church], and Koppel said go ahead. Morrie looked Ted straight in the eyes and said, “Well, Ted, one day soon, someone’s gonna have to wipe my [butt].”
Mitch reaches out to reconnect with Morrie, and they begin a weekly ritual of meeting in Newton, Mass, where Morrie lives. After a few months of visits, Mitch writes, “Occasionally, he had to stop to use the bathroom, a process that took some time. Connie [his aid] would wheel him to the toilet, then lift him from the chair and support him as he urinated into the beaker. Each time he came back, he looked tired. ‘Do you remember when I told Ted Koppel that pretty soon someone was gonna have to wipe my [butt]?’ he said. I laughed, You don’t forget a moment like that. ‘Well, I think that day is coming. That one bothers me.’ Why? ‘Because it’s the ultimate sign of dependency. Someone wiping your bottom. But I’m working on it. I’m trying to enjoy the process.’ Enjoy it? ‘Yes. After all, I get to be a baby one more time.’ That’s a unique way of looking at it. ‘Well, I have to look at life uniquely now. Let’s face it. I can’t go shopping, I can’t take care of the bank accounts. I can’t take out the garbage. But I can sit here with my dwindling days and look at what I think is important in life. I have both the time— and the reason — to do that.’”
I can’t imagine trying to enjoy what Morrie wants to enjoy. I’m with Peter on saying no to Jesus on my feet; the ultimate sign of dependency, no way. And yet.
“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.” That’s the new commandment, the mandatum novum, that we are to take part in. We are called to both show love by caring for each other, and, infinitely more difficult, receive love offered to us.
That’s what we do on this night when we untie our shoes and slip off our socks and pad down that aisle. By both grabbing a towel and washing someone else’s feet and then placing our own feet in the basin, we mark our allegiance to Christ. We acknowledge our utter dependence on God and one another. By this will the world know that we are Jesus’ followers, if we love another.
Tonight it’s just the symbol: foot washing. But I hope that even more we are able to take off the outer layers of the masks we live behind most of the time, and expose our very selves to the outside air and one another. We cannot love or be loved if we do not become vulnerable. We cannot be part of Jesus if we do not open ourselves up and share both the difficult and joyous parts of our lives in community. If we do not love one another. Can we take our side along the disciples? Or will we stay back, afraid of acknowledging our need and dependence of one another and of Jesus?