Maundy Thursday 2016
Rev. Anna Woofenden
The Garden Church, San Pedro, CA
Listen to the Audio
In 2008 I came down with a debilitating illness, one that put me on disability for months, and for many weeks of that had me lying on my friends’ couch, only able to walk tentatively to the bathroom and back, the rest of the time only able to lie on the couch. I had always prided myself in being a self-sufficient person, living on my own, taking care of my home, traveling solo, unplugging clogged disposals and changing car tires, taking meals to those who needed them, and being the one who was always available to help others. I didn’t need help, I didn’t need other people, I could do it all myself.
Until… I couldn’t do any of it myself. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t cook for myself. Or do laundry. Or drive. I couldn’t work. Or be productive. Or useful. Or accomplish things. And all I could do was be there. And receive. And be taken care of. And receive the love and care from others.
I will never forget the Maundy Thursday service that year. Even in my weak state, I didn’t want to miss the service. So a friend picked me up and drove me to church. She helped me walk slowly inside, where I was able to direct the final decorating and setting up of this service that every other year I had been intimately involved in preparing for and leading, and giving to others. It was a joy to be around the table with these people I loved, and to participate in worship with them. I soaked up the candles and the taste of the lamb in my mouth, and preciousness of being together in community.
And then it came time for foot washing. We drew names out of a bowl, and one by one, people came and took the hand of another and brought them up to the front of the sanctuary and washed their feet. I sat there in the candlelight, waiting and wondering. And then, a familiar hand came towards me. It was the pastor, but not just our pastor; this was my colleague, and dear friend. The person who, along with his wife and family (who already had a house filled with small children at the time) had been taking care of me during the months of my illness.
This was the person who had been cooking food that I could eat, and making sure I ate it. This was also the person who had been without a co-worker for all these weeks and months, and had been doing both his job and mine at church. The person who, probably more than anyone else, had been affected by my illness, and by the fact that I was not able to be doing things for others, let alone take care of myself. This was the person who was reaching out to follow Jesus’ example, love one another as I have loved you, wash each other’s feet. And I was the person who was to receive it.
We gather around tables tonight, to celebrate Maundy Thursday, Maundy, the mandatum, the mandate, the command to love one another, picturing and creatively wondering what it would have been like to be with Jesus that last night before his crucifixion as they gathered in that upper room in Jerusalem to share the Passover meal together.
This Passover meal had been being celebrated over the decades and centuries, since the Children of Israel, held as slaves in Egypt had first celebrated this meal on the eve of their liberation. Remembering how on God’s command, they had marked the doorposts of their homes with the blood from a lamb, as a sign that the angel of death should pass over them. They had eaten the bitter herbs and baked the unleavened bread, all eaten in preparation, as they were ready to make their move to freedom the next day. And this feast, remembered and celebrated every year since, in the years as they wandered through the desert, through the decades, to the Passover meal Jesus celebrated with his disciples, through the centuries to this day. The Passover is celebrated, and the God of liberation, the God who calls us to free those in bondage and free each other, is always moving in the way of liberation for captives, and freedom from the things that hold each of us in bondage.
As we share in our Passover meal together, we’re invited to continue to reflect on these questions as we share this meal of invitation, of liberation, of freedom. As we eat the lamb, we’re reminded of the innocence that God places within each one of us, the innocence that believes that joy is possible, the innocence that despite all the painful and hard things we’ve experienced, can still reach out for freedom and hope. We share the bitter herbs, reminding us of the temptations, the struggles along the way. That there are struggles, and they are part of the meal as well. We share the bread, the bread of life, God’s love incarnate in the world, and we remember the Love that is present here and present in our world, available to all.
It’s during this feast of Passover, as Jesus and his disciples celebrated it in Jerusalem that year, around that table in the upper room that what we now refer to as “the Last Supper” was celebrated. It was during that meal that Jesus took the bread and blessed it and broke it and said, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”
And so, for the years and decades and centuries since, people have been gathering together around tables, throughout the world, in different languages and places and cultures, and doing this in remembrance of Jesus. In remembrance of these acts of love. Sometimes humans have gotten hung up on the who and the how and what of this sacred act. But the Spirit persists, and keeps calling us back to the table—God’s table—where all are welcome to feed and be fed. Expressing and experiencing the expansive love of God and the reciprocal love of other people.
And then, on that Last Supper Passover evening, Jesus takes the embodiment of love a step further, showing us how to love one another, as vulnerable as it can be. That last evening with his disciples, he took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself, poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. After he had washed their feet, put on his robe, and returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So 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.”
Jesus gives us this command, to love one another, and then shows us an example of what that looks like. By humbling ourselves to each other, being willing to wash each other’s feet, yes, but maybe even more difficult for many of us, by being willing to have our feet washed by others.
Receiving the expansive love of God and the reciprocal love of others, means being vulnerable, admitting that we can’t do it all ourselves, to need each other, to care for each other. And that isn’t always easy, and it’s usually messy, and we may feel a little uncomfortable, vulnerable, shy. Because really seeing each other, following Christ’s example to love one another, it’s the real deal. It’s not something that can be kept clean and pristine, something we just talk about or think about. Following Jesus’ command to love one another means engaging with the messiness of life, helping others and letting them help us.
This vulnerability, this realness, is embedded in this very act of washing feet, because friends, Jesus washed His disciples’ feet because they were dirty. They hadn’t gone out to get their Maundy Thursday pedicures in preparation for this service. These men and women had been walking in the hot, dusty, Palestinian streets, wearing sandals; no doubt their feet were probably filthy, and dry, and in need of some attention. Jesus washed His disciples’ feet because they needed washing. And He told them, “as I have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet, for I have set you an example…do as I have done to you.”
Friends we all have feet. We all have feet. And we all have the parts of our lives that have been walking through the dust. That are messy, that are dirty, and that we don’t want to share with anyone. And being willing to take off our shoes, even our socks, and say to another person, “Yup, I’ve got feet just like you, I’ve got parts of my life that aren’t as pristine and put together as I would like to be.” I’ve got parts of myself that I have to say, “I can’t do it all by myself.” I have to receive. “These are the feet that Jesus washed, these are the feet that we’re commanded to love and wash for each other.
Just as the disciples let their teacher, their guide, their friend, bend down and wash their feet, as he saw them for who they are—messy, vulnerable, hurting, beautiful, and beloved people. Not loved because of how they got it right, because certainly the disciples rarely did. Not because of following the rules perfectly; Jesus was often breaking the cultural norms himself. Not because of what they had accomplished, or how they looked, or any other thing that we believe makes us worthy to be loved. No, Jesus bent down and washed his disciple’s feet just because he loved them. As they were. Dirty toe nails and all. Whole and messy, vulnerable and beautiful, loved, loved, loved. And then Jesus tells us to love each other, and do likewise.
On that Maundy Thursday in 2008, I felt this love. As my friend and colleague came and took my hand and asked, “May I wash your feet?” and then bent down and carefully poured the warm water over my weak feet and dried them with a towel.
In a place of deep vulnerability, where I could not do it all myself or be “just be fine on my own,” I was shown love. Shown the love that is always available from God, no matter whether we feel we deserve it or not, and shown the love that the Lord invites us to show each other.
The love that we have we have an opportunity to share with each other, to be in community together, as we follow this command of Christ, love one another as I have loved you. Go now and do likewise…