St. Simon’s on the Sound
Maundy Thursday - 2018
John 13:1-17; 31b-35
A few weeks ago, on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, I preached to you about the Light of Christ and the challenges we all face in letting that light shine into the darkness of our lives. Darkness based in our self-centeredness, our need to “be right” about everything, and our inclination to deny the humanity and needs of “the other” – the needy, the poor - those who are considered outcasts from our shiny, fast-moving, technological world.
Darkness that creates a comfortable space for a system of denial that obscures painful truths about ourselves and about the world around us. Darkness that creates a barrier between ourselves and God and eclipses the love that he has for us, and the love that he demands that we show “the other.”
In that sermon I also spoke of the challenges that we all face once the Light of Christ has finally broken through our darkened world. Challenges based in having the will and the courage to stay in the light – to stick with the demands of the light – to not scurry back into the comfortable darkness of denial, self-centeredness and self-aggrandizement.
Since that time, many things have occurred -of course. Life moves so very quickly these days. But, one event – or ongoing series of events, I might say, has brought me to a place that sheds light – a new light – on both my comments of several weeks ago and on tonight’s gospel reading from John.
Certainly, your ears are burning. You are waiting with baited breath to hear what this series of events that brought me to my “aha moment” are. You are just yearning to ask –“Clelia – what has happened to bring you to this new awareness?”
Well, here it is. As many of you know since the end of January my husband has been in a skilled nursing facility. This means, among other things, that I visit him regularly, and that while visiting I cannot help but be among and observe other residents, the staff and the many types of interactions that occur between residents and staff.
I can assure you that visiting skilled nursing facilities is nothing new for me. I have visited many people in numerous skilled nursing facilities over the years in both my role as a social worker and as clergy. But until now I have never really looked at what was going on around me. I would just rush in with tunnel vision, my focus targeted on finding the room and resident that I was visiting, and after my visit rush out, most usually with my nose pointed downward as I read messages on my cell phone.
You might say, I visited these facilities in darkness.
This new way of visiting the facility – forced, as it were to be among the residents and the staff - not rushing through the halls with blinders on, has been a truly eye opening and unbelievably humbling experience.
You might say, the Light of Christ has broken through my darkness.
Let’s not kid ourselves, caring for people with advanced dementia, end stage Alzheimer’s Disease and a host of other disabling medical conditions is an exceptionally difficult job. A job comprised of many demanding and sometimes unpleasant and demeaning tasks. It is a job, quite frankly, that I could never do.
So, when I say that I have observed the love and the Light of Christ at this facility – I mean it. I really mean it.
Each resident is lovingly known and cared for. Each resident is respected and assisted no matter what their medical or physical need. Each staff member, many clearly exhausted, makes every effort to be present when a resident expresses a need, a concern, a fear.
Being among these residents and their caretakers these past few weeks and observing their actions and interactions has made Jesus’ statement, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand” stand out for me in a very new way.
It has also brought new meaning – new and powerful meaning to tonight’s gospel reading and foot washing.
John begins tonight’s passage saying, “…Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”
Jesus knows that this is his final hour with his disciples. He knows that a humiliating and painful death is just hours away. Yet he does not focus on himself, he continues to focus, in love and with love – agape - on the other – on his disciples.
Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”
When Jesus says, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand” he is referring to what happens next – the foot washing. In washing the disciple’s feet Jesus is establishing for the them an example of sacrificial love – of service, of humility, of an upside-down kind of understanding of God’s love – God’s grace, and salvation. A love that is based in humility and salvation.
“You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand”
Jesus in his love for his disciples is not frustrated by their continued lack of understanding of who he is and what his message is. Despite the many signs that he has given them - No matter what he says or does, they just don’t seem to get it – not even Peter, who seems completely mystified by what is happening. The disciples continue in darkness.
No, Jesus is not frustrated, but he is determined. Determined to continue through love, sacrificial love, agape, to demonstrate what he means when he says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another.”
And, Jesus is determined to show the disciples how his love is manifested in the world. He washes their dirty, ugly feet. He performs the work of a common servant – not by commandment, but out of love.
The foot washing is also symbolic. In the foot washing the disciples are cleansed, perhaps we might even use the term baptized, by Jesus so that they may also cleanse, heal, love others. Jesus demonstrates so powerfully that after his death and resurrection the disciples’ authority will come not through displays of power, but through acts of sacrificial love, servitude – the servitude modeled by Jesus in the washing of feet.
This poignant last supper scene, Jesus’ last moments with his disciples, Jesus’ acts of humility and sacrificial love immediately precedes the moment of absolute darkness that occurs at the end of tonight’s service – the stripping of the altar, the chanting of Psalm 22 with its haunting refrain,
“My God, my God why have you forsaken me? And are so far from my cry and from the words of my distress...They stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them; they cast lots for my clothing. Be not far away, O Lord; you are my strength; hasten to help. My God, my God why have you forsaken me?”
The gradual darkening of the church – darkening that continues until there is no light. The Light of Christ eliminated.
Yet despite the grief that we will experience as the light dims, leaving us in total darkness, Christ gone, this night needs also to be a night of thankfulness.
Unlike the disciples in the upper room who are left in complete darkness at the close of this evening, we are a people who have experienced the resurrection. We know the rest of the story, Christ crucified on the cross in humiliation; Christ risen in glory, our sins washed away through his sacrificial death.
Understanding the full meaning of the foot washing is central to our journey from darkness into light – to our journey as servants of Christ. Jesus’ command to love, love sacrificially, translates to love dirty, deformed feet, love the outcast, love all those who suffer. The command to love one another just as Jesus loves us means to love as a servant washing each other’s feet, not as a king sitting apart and aloof. Jesus’ command mandates that our love is directed to the least of these, the lost, the needy, the poor – those in darkness.
Servant love – agape – is not easy. No matter how deep we believe our faith to be – no matter how frequently we proclaim our intent to serve according to God’s will – this agape servanthood role is not an easy one to carry out. That was my “aha” moment this Lent. Watching the skilled nursing facility residents and staff interact I continually thought of the foot washing – of Jesus washing away the pain and the suffering of those in darkness.
Perhaps most importantly, it became so very clear to me that being a servant – God’s servant – following the servant model given to us in love by Jesus, is very, very hard. It is something that requires continued humility, and a deep commitment to the other.
It requires us to love the other as Christ loved us – all of us, all of us who are a very broken people – you, me and everyone else.
As you come forward to participate in tonight’s foot washing, I pray that you will meditate on John’s haunting phrase, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” I pray that as your feet are washed you will imagine Jesus kneeling in front of you, washing your feet in tenderness, in love. And, I pray that as you wash the feet of the other, you will see Christ in that person, and you will experience yourself washing the feet of Christ who loves you to the end.