Maundy Thursday — Washing the Ugliness

My sermon from Maundy Thursday (Maundy from maundatum — Latin for commandment because Jesus gives us a new commandment to love one another).

May this Holy Season fill you with both love and joy.


They were all there; all of the disciples of Jesus had joined with him for this meal.  They’d come from all walks of life—the fishermen and the tax collector, the twin and the zealot—and they had followed Jesus for nearly three years.  So when he told them he wanted to share a meal with them before the Passover, they came and sat around the table with their rabbi.


I wonder if they had a clue about what was to come.  They must have noticed the rumblings from the religious officials looking for a way to put Jesus to death.  The tide had been turning.  Of course, the way Jesus had caused a stir at the temple just a few days before, turning over the money changers’ tables, certainly fueled the bloodthirst of those who wanted Jesus gone.


Probably none of them knew that this would be the last night that Jesus would be with them.  Not even Judas, who was likely trying to force Jesus to rise up as a revolutionary against the powers that be.


But Jesus knew.  Our gospeler tells us outright.  “Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father,” and so he wants to leave his disciples with one last object lesson.  He got up from the table during supper, and stripped off his outer cloak and took a basin filled with water and began to wash their feet.  Jesus washed those closest to him, including Judas who would betray him, and Peter who would deny him, and James and John who would fall asleep and the others who would scatter at his arrest.  He knows all this is coming, and yet he still reaches down to take their dust-coated feet and washes them.


How can he do this?  How can Jesus take the feet of those he knows will fail him and wash them?  How can he leave them with this message of love, when he knows they will disappoint him that very night?


John Donne, poet and priest in the Church of England who became the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1621, wrote a magnificent poem simply titled “A Hymn to God the Father.”  He writes in the first stanza, “Wilt Thou forgive that sin where I begun, Which was my sin, though it were done before? Wilt Thou forgive that sin through which I run, and do run still, though still I do deplore?  When thou has done, Thou hast not done, for I have more.”


I have no idea what Donne’s sin was that enticed him again and again to turn from the love of God.  But I can say I’ve seen this sort of thing in others—and if I’m honest, in myself.  A sin that so easily besets us, that even when it seems to no longer has power over us, it appears once again to haunt us all the more.  Anger or greed or the self-righteous attitude or the hurtful looks or the wandering eye.  And we wonder if God will forgive that sin again even though we’ve done it before.  Will God forgive that very thing that we despise and hate in ourselves and wish we could somehow shake fully from our lives?


Robert Redford directed the superb film “Quiz Show” based on a true story.  It depicts an intelligent and charming man, Charlie Van Doren, who became a contestant on to the popular game show Twenty-one in the late 1950s.  Charlie came from a renowned literary family and taught English at Columbia University.  He was a natural on the show, a quiz that asked questions of two contestants, each who sat in a sound proof room trying to get 21 correct responses.  Neither had any idea how their opponent was doing, if he was close to getting to 21 or not.  But as a contestant, Charlie learned the game was rigged.  Before one of the live shows, he had been shown a question beforehand even though the questions had supposedly been locked in a vault.  Charlie said he wanted no part in a rigged game, but then that same question was asked of him, and he did a double-take.  And rather than calling them out right then and there, he answered the question correctly, even though he hadn’t originally known the answer.


After this, Charlie got enticed by the large amounts of money he could make answering trivia questions, and his integrity flew out the door.  He soon began receiving all of the questions ahead of time and beat a great number of contestants.  Millions tuned in to see him display his amazing intellect and charming disposition, although it’s all a sham.  Before too long, former contestants begin to talk, and a congressional lawyer investigates. Finally the whole thing unravels.  Charlie is ultimately  ashamed of what he’s done, the disgrace he has brought on his family, and in being called out for his lack of integrity.  He is chastised before Congress, loses his job and becomes known not for his charismatic personality but as a greedy man without any scruples.


Sin is not pretty.  When we fail to do the things we know we should do or when we do not stop ourselves from doing the things we know we should  not do, we push ourselves further from God.  Jesus knew his disciples would desert him that very evening as he washed their feet; that they would deny and betray and flee.  But he still got up and took off his outer cloak and grabbed a towel and a basin.


Yale Divinity professor Lenora Tubbs Tisdale writes, “We will watch in wonder as Jesus’ response to this inner circle that has disappointed him over and over and over again is not to chastise or scold or punish, but to take a towel and a basin of water and gently wash the ugliness of each one in turn.  We will remember that the Communion table is a place where we can come—time and time again—to have our own ugliness lovingly touched and washed clean by Jesus.”  That’s the beauty of this tender night.  That Jesus wants to wash us, to show us deep love even when we do things that hurt him.  He wants to clean us, and bring us back to his presence.  He does not chastise but offers us a chance to return to that place that we have desired, to be in his presence, to come home.


Will we let him?  Will we let others show us his unbelievable love in spite of our ugliness?  Can we allow our feet to be washed recognizing that Jesus knows us more intimately than anyone else, even more intimately than we know ourselves, and still he shows us love and forgiveness and mercy?  The water and the basin are here, and Jesus is too.  Will we trust him with our very selves in order that we may be cleansed from all that stands between us and God?

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