Maundy Thursday – John 13 – Year B – 2015
“Clean Hearts, Full of Grace, Must Love.”
God, you have a word for us, send your Holy Spirit to soften our hearts and open our ears to hear that word. Amen.
I have to admit that it’s been a difficult week to be a human being. And I don’t just say that because Holy Week is a hard week to be a clergy-type, but because the presence of fear and evil in our world has been palpable this week. Just this night, more than a hundred of our brothers and sisters in Christ have been martyred in a school shooting in Kenya.
Late last week, Andreas Lubitz, a copilot for Germanwings, appeared to have intentionally crashed an airplane filled with people into the side of a mountain in the French Alps. Maybe what was most chilling was the cockpit voice recorder which recorded his normal breathing pattern and complete silence in the face of what he was doing. It’s aftermath has been filled with explanations, and rumors, and all the many ways that we try to create some distance between the evil that we perceive to threaten us.
The stark and true reality is that there is very little way to prevent such a tragedy, and we all feel threatened by it, many of us use air travel on a regular basis. We need to chalk it up to airline failures, to find someone to blame, to remind ourselves that it couldn’t happen to us or the ones that we love.
Some people say humans have a fight or flight complex, I say humans tend to just run away. Making as much space as possible between the darkness and their own lives.
That’s a bit harder for me, because it was a story that struck home, just like September 11th did when I was in middle school, because my Dad was an airline pilot for thirty years. And I remembered the fear of that day when he was in the air, but I also remember the time that he had to take off after my mom died. And the conversation around how difficult it is for pilots to take an anti-depressant and maintain their job in this country.
I don’t know about you, but it runs through my head: it couldn’t be us or the ones we love. We could never be like Andreas Lubitz, it’s just not in us to be that kind of evil. Right? We move ourselves away from the evil, make some distance between it and us, make it as far away from possible. We say to ourselves: Never us, Lord!
If you need more confirmation of this fact, we watched in Indiana and Arkansas this week as our brothers and sisters in Christ have worked to protect their right move away from what they perceive as evil, to protect themselves from the things they perceive to be sin, and to maintain their “righteousness,” believing that this is the best witness that they can muster up to the Gospel.
I’m not one to talk badly about other Christians, since the log in my own eye is pretty large, but all I want to say is this: That inclination to move away from the evil, which I find myself doing all the time, moving away from the misunderstood, the painful, the things that make us uncomfortable and we perceive as dirty and below us: it’s an inclination that simply isn’t holy.
It’s actually rotten at the core.
And of course, instead of moving away from the evil, and the pain, and the betrayal like us, this night we find Jesus moving closer and closer and closer to it. In finite and tangible ways, the grace of God keeps coming closer and closer to that which is pretty unholy. And it’s in the midst of this confusion and pain in the world, and those same realities in Jesus’ life this night, bringing up questions over what it means to show the world what it means to follow Jesus, that we enter into this day, this Maundy Thursday, in which the Gospel says directly: PAY ATTENTION. THIS IS WHAT GRACE LOOKS LIKE. THIS IS WHAT THE LOVE OF GOD LOOKS LIKE. THIS IS WHERE YOU FIND IT.
Our first stories of brokenness and evil in the Scriptures, the story of Adam and Eve and of Cain and Abel, both feature the same defining feature that we find in us and others: an attempt to distance from evil. After Eve ate of the fruit, Adam tried to absolve himself of all responsibility. You can almost hear him, like a little kid: “I didn’t do it, it’s all her fault!” And after Cain kills Abel in the field, God asks: ““Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”
There’s that distancing, that moving away, that attempting to maintain our holiness and our righteousness. It’s this distancing that is rotten to the core, and the mark of what it means to be a fallen human: that our natural inclination is to move away.
To run away.
And that might be our temptation this evening and throughout this Holy Week, as we hear about Judas and his betrayal, and Peter and his denial and Thomas and his doubts, about the abandonment of Jesus by his disciples. To move away from them, to believe that we aren’t like them, that by just following the rituals and going to the worship services this week that we can’t be like them. That we wouldn’t deny Jesus, or betray Jesus, or doubt Jesus. We say to ourselves: Never us, Lord!
And yet, the reality of it is, that despite all of the Law, all of the rituals, with fasting and prayer and worship, that we still end up much closer to being like Judas then we’d like to admit. They screwed it all up, and how often do we do the same?
And maybe that’s the problem: that we see a bit too much of ourselves, and our own propensity for darkness in Judas and Peter and the rest of the disciples. That we are struck by these events and realities in our own lives, on our TV’s and our newspapers that the line is very thin between them and us, that maybe it’s a line that actually might not exist at all, that it’s within all of us to fall victim to the darkness lurking in our souls.
One of my favorite songs is by Sufjan Stevens, who is a Christian and fantastic musician, called John Wayne Gacy Jr., named after the famous serial killer. And there is this line that just haunts me every time:
And in my best behavior
I am really just like him
Look beneath the floorboards
For the secrets I have hid
And so we move away. We run away. We put miles and miles and miles in-between whatever and whoever the “them” is and us.
And then, much to our chagrin, this night, we find God doing the complete opposite. What we will find this week, and throughout these three days is not a God who can’t stand sin and has to get away from it, but quite the opposite: a God who is moving closer and closer and closer to the very darkness that plagues and kills us, in order to show us grace and love.
On Palm Sunday, we traditionally hear about Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, and the disciples who cannot stay awake, despite his multiple admonitions to them. Does he leave them? Does he move farther away from them? No, he rebukes them and moves closer and closer to them and their brokenness. And just to remember, that’s what has just happened, the disciples have once again proved their unreliability, and now we have the stark reality that one of them is to betray Jesus, and another is to deny him three times, the rest? They just abandon him.
So in our setting tonight, just to recap, our likely dinner guests? betrayers, deniers, doubters, abandoners, the unclean and the unrepentant.
And so what does Jesus do? The scandalous troublemaker that he is, he does two of the most intimate acts that can be found in Judaism: he washes their feet and eats a meal with them.
For Jesus, this act of footwashing would have been remarkably scandalous, especially considering that it violated all the customs of the day, and, well, considering what was on the feet of the people’s whom he was washing. And to be washing the feet of people he knew were going to betray and deny him? Unthinkable. And then, to eat a meal with them! Unheard of! To partake in a banquet with this maligned bunch of disciples, all of whom are bound to mess it all up real soon, would have been crazy.
And then, Jesus, in a remarkable turn of hand, shows us what it truly means to be the bearer of God’s grace and love in this world, and invites these disciples into a new covenant, regardless of how they are about to mess up.
As Fr. Ron Rolheiser says: “It’s one thing to love when you feel it all around you, another when you are surrounded by betrayal, coldness, and hatred.” And yet, this is exactly what Jesus does this night that we remember tonight. He doesn’t move away, he doesn’t fear the disciples’ darkness, or that they are not going to deserve it, and he most certainly isn’t concerned about being righteous and holy in the way that we often act. He just keeps coming closer.
Because those people who don’t deserve it? They are we. We, the deniers, betrayers, abandoners. We, who are so convinced of ourselves, that we’ve been running away our whole lives, too often miss the grace to be found in these simple places.
And this footwashing and this meal are not just from a time of old, but are for us too. Because for all the times we are so convinced we can make it to the end with Jesus, and end up just like the rest of the disciples, we find Jesus, ready to wash our feet, cleanse our hearts, and give himself for us and for our salvation.
That’s the good news tonight, and every night, that despite our desire to move away from the darkness, this God comes so close as to bring a scandal of grace and love into our midst. To love us betrayers, and deniers, and abandoners all the way to the end. In this night, Jesus shows us precisely what love looks like. It doesn’t look like “love the sinner, hate the sin,” it doesn’t look like denying the truth about our own darkness, but looks like a God who despite all that we mess up, takes on the form of a servant, to wash our feet, to be broken and poured out for us in the bread and wine, and finally, to love us all the way to the end, to death, death on a cross.
And that’s exactly what Jesus says to the disciples, that this is precisely what love looks like, finite acts that bear the infinite grace and love of God. And that’s why Jesus says: A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” We now must go and love this world, drawing closer to all its brokenness, with the same grace and love. This is how the world knows who Jesus is.
And that’s what this night in about: Maundy, an old Latin word that means mandate. The mandate is not to shelter ourselves from this world, or to move away from the darkness or those who we think are “sinners,” but to love as God has loved us, even in our darkest hours, like the disciples who are about to abandon Jesus. To witness to this world with by washing dirty feet, and having a dinner table that’s made up of all the people you just don’t expect.
Maybe you are hesitant to have your feet washed, or not sure about this meal of bread and wine. I want to re-invite you to see and participate in these things tonight. To hear that these acts that we remember tonight are not merely rituals or reenactments, but the real, tangible presence of the infinite and unbounded grace of God in the midst of these finite thing.
Sometimes, to love the world, you have to be loved yourself.
I went to an evangelical seminary whose denomination treated footwashing as a sacrament, what they called an ordinance, and their explanation of it remains central to this night for me: “The Christian life is a pilgrimage. As we move toward the heavenly city, we need each other and have the privilege and responsibility to serve one another. We also need to allow others to bear our burdens. It is sometimes more difficult in the Church to allow ourselves to be ministered to than to minister. In life we hurt and get hurt. Sometimes we fail, and other times we are victims of others’ wrongdoing. We need to be forgiven and we need to forgive, to minister, and to be ministered to. We are called to be like Christ to each other. This ordinance reminds us of our continuing ministry as Christians, a ministry both given and received.”
This isn’t a meal and a foot washing for the disciples of old, but for the disciples of now, even when we can’t manage to put one foot in front of the other, because in these washing waters, and this bread and wine, we come to find God’s grace and love more abundantly than even before.
Through these next four days and nights, starting tonight in the footwashing and meal, we will hear such hard stories and such beautifully good news about how despite our inevitable tendency to screw it all up and run away, God does precisely the opposite, drawing closer and closer in Jesus to the people, powers, and places that are filled with darkness and betrayal and sin, and showing them precisely through these finite acts and people just how infinite the grace and love of God is.
And we will find out, once again, that the grace and love of God has drawn near precisely to the places we least expect it: to betrayers, deniers, and abandoners, to airline pilots and fundamentalists, and to death itself.
Isn’t that good news? Amen.