March 28, 2013


Foot washing

Sermon for Year C, Maundy Thursday
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
March 28, 2013
St. Thomas Episcopal Church
John 13:1-17,31b-35

“Maundy” Thursday. What in the world is a Maundy, anyway?
We first see that word appear in the year 1440.
The word “maundy” creeps out of the language we call Old French:
  Maunde, derived from the Latin:
    Mandatum, as in “mandate,” as in “commandment.”
As in, something that must be done.

“Do this.”
It’s something we have already heard and will continue to hear quite a lot tonight.
After washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus says, by way of commandment,
  “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.”

Or in the institution of what we call the Holy Eucharist,
  We hear it again, in this same night in the upper room:
    This, my body … This, my blood … Take them …
      Do this and remember me.
Then, if we still haven’t gotten the point, we hear it again in the garden
  In the challenges that Jesus issues to his followers:
  Stay with me, remain here, watch and pray, put away the sword.

Mandates. There’s an old joke in The Episcopal Church:
  “We follow four commandments and six suggestions.”
But the footwashing, and the meal: these are clear commandments, not suggestions.
“Do this.”

If you are here tonight, you are fortunate,
  Because Maundy Thursday is all about instructions –
  Getting clear, direct instructions and following them.
Being told, in a very plain way, to Do This,
  And then doing it.

But. The way of Jesus-followers has been frustrated at times
  By an impulse to emphasize the opposite of “Do This,”
  And Christians have become world famous for what they would rather others not do,
  Or, you may say, what you shouldn’t do.
Do Not Do This. Do Not Do That.

Fairly or unfairly, Christians are painted as the scolds of the world –
  Those who shake their heads and warn: ah-ah-AAh.
I wouldn’t do that if I were you.

In our political and sexual ethics,
  In matters of taste and art,
  In how we train each other up to see and engage the world,
  Even in how we read our own holy scriptures:
    Christians have come to be defined
      So much more by what they Do Not Do than by What They Actually Accomplish.
In the minds of many, we seem have come to expect the name Christian
  To be equated with prudish finger-wagging.

Certainly Jesus places prohibitions on things
  In the course of his life and ministry and teaching,
  And we are meant to heed those prohibitions:
    … Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth
    … Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them
    … Do not look upon others with lust in your hearts
    … Do not resist an evildoer.
But all this, you see, is really just splitting hairs.
Jesus’ life and his work and his ministry are all crescendoing into this moment –
  These three days into which we have already entered –
  And those three days,
    Together with what is already and what is still to come,
    Are all saying the same thing:
    In whatever you do … in whatever you choose not to do,
      Make life and share your stuff and tell the truth and love God and love each other,
        And do the things that make for lasting peace.
May I suggest that the list of things to do
  Strongly outweighs the list of things not to do.

What is this desire we have to phrase things in the negative?
If we could somehow pray and work our way into a vision of what we need to do,
  To do better and to do more of,
    And spent less time focusing on what has been prohibited,
  Wouldn’t we get further along?

So we have these new commandments tonight placed upon us as joyful burden:
  That is, things we must do.
Things that Jesus-followers do, to be redundant, because they are the followers of Jesus.
Otherwise, … ?

He said do them; so we do them.

We do them without a perfect comprehension of what they are or what they mean,
  Even though we must strive to understand,
  Because simply to strive is a form of praise to God.
We do them even though they are difficult or make us uncomfortable.

Is staying up half the night in prayer my idea of a good time?
Even though you know me as your priest?
Not really, no.
I’d rather get my rest and feel like a more effective person of prayer.
Yet there’s Jesus, asking me to perform one more inconvenient act on his behalf.

Is our coming here night after night, Thursday-Friday-Saturday,
  And then Sunday morning when it seems to be all over with, a form of hilarious fun?
For most of us, no.
But it’s the commandment. To keep the community intact and worshipping.
If we can, at all, we should.

Is walking the dangerous path of the cross of Christ on a Friday afternoon
  More fun than going to a movie or a long lunch with my friends?
No. But if I don’t give God a chance to show me something in that cross
  About how God wants to love me
  Or about how I’m supposed to live my life,
    Then something essential will have been lost on me.

Is my constantly taking in the Body and Blood of Jesus
  Or committing myself to prayer and solitude
  Or contemplating the depths of human depravity and bloodlust on the cross –
    Is any of this convenient, or fun?
No. Frankly it’s a little terrifying.
It’s also what it takes to get it through my thick skull.
So we follow the commandments, the mandates.

In the same way, then:
  Is taking off my shoes and socks and letting someone wash my feet
  And then turning around and doing the same for someone else my idea of a good time?
No, not really. Not on the surface.
It’s an idea that quite honestly makes me pretty squeamish.
But I do it anyway; because, well, it’s “maundy.” It’s a commandment.
I’ve been told to do it, so I do it.

And here is what I have found in the times I have done this in my life.
At first, in all truth, I really am a little put off by it.
But God clears out a space where transformation is possible.
And then something happens.

I guess what happens is … the world I live in gets bigger.
I am reminded in footwashing that I am not the center of the universe.
Taking another person’s foot in my hands,
  It may as well be someone’s very heart.
There is something in it
  That makes me feel responsible somehow for the other person’s welfare.
There’s a lifeline that runs between me and the other person:
  Silent, unspoken, but it’s there.
A holiness.
I can only just try to be present to it.

And then when it is my turn to receive this gift,
  I have felt God speaking through it,
    Saying: See? Maybe the world isn’t such a terrible place after all.
      Maybe there are still ways we can care for each other
        And not have to feel defensive, or perfect, or jaded, or cynical,
        Or never feel that we really have time to spare for each other.
      Maybe the world is safer, and saner than I go around thinking
        Because someone really could carry out this commandment of Christ.
      And not really even on my behalf, but on behalf of Jesus,
        Because he was the first one who said to Do This.
It’s a teaching I can’t get to in my head;
  I have to engage my whole body and stoop down for the sake of another human being
    And then receive the same gift, on my crummy old feet,
      And then I get it. I know it in my heart.

Somehow … That’s goodness. That’s beauty.
Shining out of this little church tonight.
To our tired-out, busted-up old world.

See, most of the time we keep our guard up,
  And we find ourselves wondering if there are any other people in this world
  Who really do care and who really can show love.
We know that in our family lives and with people we’re really close to,
  We can do that. It’s easy.
But there is such hunger in people
  To know that they really are loved.
A mandate.
And I guess that’s really all Jesus is showing us:
  How to feed that hunger in this simple way.
To show them that they are capable of receiving love and care,
  And to give them love.
To place an image of Jesus right before them,
  And then receive the very same thing from someone else.

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