You will never wash my feet

A sermon at Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Maundy Thursday, April 2, 2015

Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.”

What’s going on with this foot washing?

Slavery was prevalent in the Roman Empire. The economy depended on it. Its existence was hardly ever questioned, since people are not inclined to question things that look necessary for the economy to function. Wealthy households had slaves, and a characteristic duty of a slave was to wash the feet of guests whose feet were dirty from walking dusty roads in sandals. It didn’t require intentional humiliation for it to be a demeaning job. In more humble households where there were no servants, the task was given to the women.

Washing of the feet was associated with the people who were held in the least esteem. Men were used to simply dismissing those who washed the feet. Nicer men would nicely dismiss the slaves or the women, nastier men would be more rude, but all in all those who washed feet were meant to get out of the way and be dismissed from further thought.

Peter always shows up in the Gospels as a normal guy. He’s like the rest of us. When we’re being really pious, we pretend like we’re different, but mostly we know that we are faking it when we do that. Peter was not a nasty guy, but he was also not particularly refined, neither was he someone who covered up his thoughts and feelings. He was not excessively pious about Jesus. Jesus was his friend. This friend was the person he esteemed more than anyone in the world. This friend was his teacher and leader, and the person that Peter believed the world should take more seriously than anyone else. And that Friend stood up and got ready to wash feet—how could he? To give up all that esteem and take the role of someone to be dismissed: a woman or a slave? And in this season of Passover when we remember our people’s liberation from slavery? Ridiculous. In such bad taste. Giving up a serious role to become a nothing–You will never wash my feet!

You see, nowadays you would have a hard time finding people who would actually say that, though you might often encounter people who readily dismiss others and count them as nothing, as not worthy of respect or attention. But in the scripture, Peter is always there to say it out loud and then to learn from Jesus’ teaching. It was powerful, because right there, Jesus was becoming one of those who was dismissed—how can we be of any account if we are those who are dismissed? Don’t we have to act like we’re important?

Foot WashingJesus kept on washing the feet. James, John, Andrew, Peter … Judas. Jesus was the least, and in that he was their teacher and Lord. The servants, and even the women were of equal importance and dignity as those who sat at the table. Jesus was not a teacher who brought his students knowledge or skill that would give them power or wealth. He said to them: “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.” No one should be dismissed, ignored, disregarded. All are important, and our self-importance is the one thing that won’t make it into the Kingdom.

The term “Maundy” in Maundy Thursday, come from the Latin word that we get the word “mandate” from, it means commandment. In this Gospel lesson, Jesus gives us one commandment, a “New Commandment”, but really the only commandment: “That you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Love. Love. Love. It can be so simplistic and meaningless, can’t it? But in his washing the feet of the disciples Jesus is very specific: who do they dismiss? Who do we dismiss? Most of us have, at one time or another been dismissed by others. Like Peter, the temptation is to try to get into a position where we can do the dismissing, where we are in control or in power. But Jesus shows us God’s grace, God’s costly grace, where the power of God lifts us up in our humility and gives us the greatest dignity in the privilege of washing one another’s feet, knowing every person is important.

Almighty Father, whose blessed Son before his passion prayed for his disciples that they might be one, as you and he are one: Grant that your Church, being bound together in love and obedience to you, may be united in one body by the one Spirit, that the world may believe in him whom you have sent, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Good Friday, April 3, 2015

Three Hour Service from Noon until 3 pm

The service combined the Good Friday Liturgy with an extended expository reflection on Isaiah 52-53, Stations of the Cross, 10 hymns and the reading of the Passion. The following homily was preached after the Passion. It is one that was preached at Holy Apostles in New York City in 2013 and at Trinity Ossining in 2014.

 

“It is finished.” What is finished? We might be tempted to pass over these last words–Jesus has been through a lot. So have we–all through the journey of Lent there are references to Jesus’ cross or his crucifixion, and then this week the story is told at least two different ways. It is draining to go through this execution–and there are so many ways, in the mass of the detail of Jesus’ suffering, that we can miss the point—

One way is to abstract from Jesus’ real life and reduce the crucifixion to a theological principle. One way this has been done is to assert that Jesus had to die in order to satisfy the debt owed to God for all the sins and crimes of humanity, other times I run into preachers and theologians who are at great pains to demonstrate that Jesus’ suffering was the most or the worst possible—but in both cases, Jesus suffering and death becomes symbolic and detached from his actual life and in fact, from ours.

At the other pole, it is common to focus on our own emotional response, and all the details of Jesus’ suffering to the point where we are overwhelmed. There is a great danger in this—when faced with such enormity of suffering, human beings lose their perspective, and either fall into despair or disavow their own place in this—“Who is responsible for doing this injustice to this good man?” How often in Christian history have people asked that question and then answered it with… “The Jews”? And it’s not any better to ask the same question and answer it with “the Romans”, or “the military industrial complex” or “the Tea Party.”

The life of Jesus that we see in the Gospels is, above all, a real life of a real person. The authenticity of his humanity shows us who God is. The way in which he lived his life reveals to us what we can be. If we say that he is sinless or perfect, it is not a perfection that makes Jesus distant or unapproachable…it is not in trivialities that Jesus is perfect, but in his life of love. We see it in the joyful teacher, the host who gives bread to the crowds on the mountainside, the obedient Son who supplies gallons upon gallons of wine for the wedding guests. We see his love in the courage to heal people when he wasn’t supposed to, for loving people who everyone knew were sinners.

And he led his disciples, inexorably, and against their better judgment, to Jerusalem. In that sacred city, all that was significant of humanity was gathered: pilgrims and people celebrating the feast, imperial bureaucrats and soldiers to enforce empire, religious officials trying and hoping to keep everything from falling apart, and religious zealots and nationalist insurrectionists trying to blow everything up. Jesus came to them in Jerusalem, as he comes to us in the Bronx, to love them. And what we see, in a concentrated way, is what people usually do: they are fearful, greedy, some scheme and find ways to assert power over others, others avoid doing what they know is right because it will be difficult. They are all concerned for themselves, afraid to give, because they might lose something. Each person plays a part, whether priest, or soldier or disciple or bureaucrat—and Jesus, the real, living, loving Jesus—is put on the cross.

Looking down, he sees there a disciple whom he loved, and his mother. And he says “there is your mother” and “there is your son.” Look, and love. Attend not to your own hardship, but love and care for one another. Jesus had no power to stop all the ugliness and violence of the turn that human reality had taken on that day, but he looked with love on those people and reminded those who could hear to get outside of their own concerns and to take care of one another.

After this, … Jesus knew that all was now finished. When Jesus had received the wine, he said. “It is finished.”

It was completed, this life of abundance and love. All aspects of humanity had been faced, and loved and blessed. Even this ugly death he blessed and embraced. For three days it could not be known that that the ugliness and fear and cowardice and hate of Jesus friends and enemies alike had been redeemed and transformed by this Life.

His life was really complete, facing and incorporating that universal human reality that we avoid: his death. Three days in the tomb. Yet we are here, the church is here, because God in Jesus did not let death be the final word or the defeat of that life—the generous, hospitable, and all loving life of Jesus encompassed and incorporated all that human confusion and evil could muster, and brought forth a new creation. But the resurrection … that’s the story for Sunday morning.

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