A Simple Act, With Love

A Sermon for Maundy Thursday

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.” Psalm 19:14

As I read John’s Gospel message I began to imagine what it must have been like for Jesus that evening as he shared a meal with his band of faithful (and not so faithful) disciples. What was he feeling? He knew what lay ahead of him. Yet those around him were oblivious to what would happen in the coming days. He must have been churning up inside. Whatever he did feel, he didn’t focus on it. Instead, he looked upon his friends with love and compassion and left them with something that he knew would carry them through the dark times that lay ahead.

Unlike the Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Luke, and Mark that describe the Last Supper as the Seder Meal, in the Gospel of John it is believed their meal together wasn’t a ritual meal, but a leisurely meal among friends. So after the meal Jesus gets up surprising them all and prepares to wash their feet. During the times of Jesus no one wore shoes and everyone’s feet were calloused, dirty and smelly - there were no Oder Eaters inserts or pedicures in their day. Part of a servant’s duty was to wash the feet of the guests who entered their master’s home. But at this gathering there were no servants waiting on them, so there wasn’t an expectation that they would have their feet washed. And the fact that only Jesus washed their feet, they didn’t join in, wasn’t lost on them. It was a loving gesture by one whom they would never have expected to do this.

And why was this so? I can’t pretend to know what it was like for the disciples to have Jesus wash their feet. But I do know when there are moments between two individuals that are more caring and sacred than just “normal” moments with one another – they are memories that can last a lifetime. “Thin moments” is what my spiritual director calls them. Moments that you know deep in your heart are more sacred than most – where the presence of the holy is palpable. Moments that warm you, perhaps bring tears to your eyes that are so precious you almost think they didn’t happen. I hope you have had those moments – I have and when I have shared them with my spiritual director she has advised me to hold onto them – place them deep in your heart Nancy because there will be dark times that you will need to draw on those “thin moments” to keep yourself buoyed when you feel as if you are drowning.

And that is the gift that Jesus was giving his beloved friends. Even though Jesus knew Judas would turn against him –he still washed his feet. Jesus also knew, his beloved Peter would deny him three times before dawn – something that Peter said never would happen, but Jesus knew otherwise. Jesus also knew the anguish and grief they would feel when he took his last breath. He gave them a gift – a thin moment – that would hopefully sustain them through the darkest of times.

And then he left them with a commandment – to love one another, just as he has loved them. He gave them a tangible experience by physically showing his love for them through the act of foot washing. He put feet and hands to his words to love one another. They also gave something back to him – perhaps a smile – or even Peter’s initial protest – were thin moments that he could tuck inside himself as he approached his final hours.

Just recently my friend and chaplain at Hood College, Beth O’Malley, shared a story about her friend. This story reflects how this message can speak to us here today. We live in a world that has more opportunities to connect electronically and instantaneously than ever before. But many of us walk around feeling empty and disconnected.

Several years ago there was a nurse’s strike at a CT hospital and Beth’s friend was the Administrator of its Nursing Program. As the nurses walked the picket line, she had to break the line in order to fill the void that they left. Everyone was frustrated and tensions were high. She was fuming as she crossed the picket line – feeling the anger from her coworkers and then she had to tend to the demands of the patients. Tensions were running high in and outside that hospital.

As she spent the day caring for patients, answering questions, changing bed pans, talking to concerned family members – she got more frustrated. Finally she found a moment of peace while tension swirled around her. Then her moment was interrupted by a phone call. She was needed by a patient who had called everyone else and his request had gone unanswered. So before she knew it, she was in the shower stall on her knees washing the feet and cutting the toenails of an elderly man – his nails were long and unruly and it wasn’t a job for the faint hearted. As she did her “duty” she told Beth she got angrier and angrier – angry at the administration, angry at the nurses, angry at the patients and specifically angry at this old man. And then she felt the light touch of a hand on her head and she looked up only to see the face of this man who quietly said thank you. It was then she realized that she wasn’t offering the care to this man, but he was offering the care to her. She later wrote Beth and said – I saw the face of Jesus in that moment.

Jesus gave his disciples a gift, but it is something that He continues to give each of us if we take the time to connect with one another. Not through digital media, skyping or YouTube, but by getting up close and personal. You may not want to – Beth’s friend didn’t want to. But Jesus’ touch - your touch - can break down barriers and cut through broken hearts. It can slice through anything. Loving one another isn’t always easy; in fact it can be downright hard. But when we love someone – we often get more in return. We feel and see the hand of God.

Tonight we will not say the Creed – in fact the foot washing replaces the Creed. Again – putting hands and feet to the words we traditionally recite. So if you are like me – you may not be anxious to come forward and have your feet washed by someone and in turn wash another’s. In fact, every Maundy Thursday I say, nope, not this year – after all it is voluntary. But something happens to me and once again I am pulled to walk forward and participate in this ritual. Remember, God loved us so much that he sacrificed his only son for us to have eternal life. Perhaps, as we walk these last days of Holy Week we can connect with the disciples who didn’t know the ending and would need to hold onto their “thin moment” so that they could move forward and spread the Gospel message.

Come, come forward. Amen

—Nancy Hennessey
April 5, 2012