April 16, 2014

Maundy Thursday: Stripped-Down

Sermon for Year A, Maundy Thursday
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
April 17, 2014
St. Thomas Episcopal Church

“After Jesus had washed their feet, ... 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.
 Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master,
   Nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.
 If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.’”

Fear not.
I think maybe part of the reason people stay away from Maundy Thursday
 Is because they don’t like the idea of having their feet exposed and handled by others,
   No matter how gently,
   In the lovely ritual of self-sacrifice known as the Footwashing.
Feet are pretty personal, especially this time of year.
The middle of April in northwest Iowa
 Is not the season for espadrilles, flip-flops, or sandals.
To suddenly be so exposed ...
 Some people can’t do it.
That’s why we’ve always been careful to say that this is optional for you,
 Yet it shouldn’t keep you away from the service as a whole.
So fear not. There is no judgment, no condemnation. We love and respect each other.
And just because you refrain doesn’t mean you don’t get a lot of meaning out of it.
Now: see, I do understand.
I just want you to balance all of that out with Jesus’ words we’ve heard tonight,
 That we should do as he has done,
   And I want you to make a spiritually mature decision
   About how to go forward with integrity.
Perhaps you would even consider coming up with your shoes on
 And asking someone to simply bless your feet? (I know mine need a lot of help.)

To me, it all comes down to this question: is it essential? Is it absolutely essential?
To me: yes, I need to see it that way,
 Because it takes me out of my own ego-place
   To wash someone else’s feet in the name of Christ.
It takes me down a peg. It helps me remember we are all one and the same in God’s family.
To me: yes, it’s absolutely essential. Part of the bare minimum.

See, as of May 1st, I will have been at St. Thomas for five years.
All that time, and for three or four years before that,
 Going all the way back to our family’s time in Texas,
 I have been engaged in one long conversation with myself and anyone else who would listen.
It’s been an interesting conversation that has taken me lots of places,
 And it’s all based on one question:
If you took away every little thing from Christianity that truly did not matter,
   What would you have left over?
If you stripped the faith down to its most essential parts, what would remain?
What are the irreducible minimums of our faith in Christ,
 Without which it is no longer faith?

To say it a different way:
 For the last few years, my son Gabriel has kept an emergency kit in his room.
I’m not sure why, except that as a first child, he seems to enjoy the idea
 Of being responsible for some things. As a Scout, of course, he wants to be prepared.
In his emergency kit are bandages, clean socks and underwear, a compass, a flashlight.
From time to time there’s a stuffed animal in there. Some money. That sort of thing.
It’s his “Go Bag.”
It contains what he judges to be the essentials of his life
 Without which he would be incapable of living.
He has already done the exercise against his whole life,
 While I have been packing a mental Go Bag for the church for the better part of a decade.

To put it yet another way:
 Let’s say your boat was sinking and you had a lifeboat with only limited room.
What would you see as being the absolutely essential elements of following Jesus
   That had to go in the lifeboat with you?
What physical objects might you take with you
 As reminders of the most basic expression of your faith?

I do not mean to infer that our faith is a sinking ship or that emergency lights are flashing.
In fact, on that score I’m feeling much encouraged and want you to, too;
 Yet if we do not adapt to new circumstances, as we have only just begun to learn --
   If we fail to be nimble-minded, then we may have failed at being faithful
   To the call to seek and serve Christ in all persons -- in effect, to wash their feet.
I also mean that institutions come and go,
 And by now it should be pretty obvious that things are changing and shifting,
 And for me at least, there is some urgency to have given all this so much thought, prayer.
When I ask people this question -- What are the essential elements of Christianity? --
 They seem to pretty easily grasp the idea.
Lots of people of faith are sensing the almost seismic shifts in the culture
 That have made us wake up and see
   That we are in fact living in the World After Christendom.
“Christendom” not to be confused with Christ.
It doesn’t require a lot of imagination to perceive these things.
The world is different now than it was even a few decades ago,
 Much less five or six decades or even a century ago.
Christianity is no longer assumed to be the norm.
Being “Spiritual But Not Religious” is rapidly becoming the norm,
 And those who no part in any of it are also on the rise.

The truth about my one provocative question
 Is that there isn’t any one single answer that won’t cause some discomfort.
There is no perfect answer that satisfies
 Because it’s painful to think of what you’d have to let go of.

But, as long as we’re on the subject, ...

Well, let’s start with the obvious.
Bills, invoices, annual parochial reports, and insurance forms don’t fit in the boat,
 And once they get wet, they get heavy.
So gone is almost all the paper.
No salaries, no computers, no QuickBooks, no -- no overhead at all.
We don’t even need an offering plate:
 We can carry forward all the principles of sound stewardship and administration and sharing
   In the community of Christ, and just pass the hat;
 And those principles -- we sure hope -- we carry already in our heads and in our hearts,
 So we would just have to hope and pray that we understood them well enough
   Before we had to get on the lifeboat in the first place.

Remember: the mantra is to travel light. So.
Something as ponderously heavy as denominational differences
 Will have to be left to fend for themselves,
   Though perhaps it would be nice to have something indicating bishops.
I would rather have a rainbow coalition of Christians and seekers in the boat
 Than to leave them standing on the decks of the sinking ship
   Just because we didn’t happen to believe what they believed, or how they believed it.
People before programs. People before ideology. People, before brick and mortar.

Speaking of buildings:
 Wouldn’t it be a huge waste of time
 Trying to put all our buildings and all our property ownership onto a little lifeboat?
How about all these pews?
I can’t think why we would want to do that.
Also, there isn’t a lot of room for vestments -- maybe just a stole.
How about the contents of the history closet in the parish house?
Or the stripes in the parking lot?
The sound system, or the altar rail? The organizational charts? Binders of policies?
I’m sorry, but my suspicion is that an awful lot of what we hold dear may be lost.

You haven’t gotten up and left yet, so I’ll just run straight on to the point.
After all the people and all the provisions, there’s so little room on the boat
 That we are now informed that everything we want to bring on board
   Must fit in a rather small cardboard box.
Everything else must be the sort of thing that can be carried inside of us.
In effect, we ourselves must do the heavy lifting.

So let’s see. What is that we really and truly need?
This is how I’d make the list:
 A Bible, a copy of the Hymnal, and since we are Episcopalians,
 Our unique contribution to the box might be a Prayer Book, perhaps a bishop’s ring.
A stole, as I mentioned already --
 Perhaps a stole of many colors, for all the seasons to be remembered in one strip of cloth;
   And really, if we didn’t have one of those, of course we could use anything as a stand-in.
A cup and a plate and bread and wine, and fresh drinking water to go into the wine.
Some oil in an oil stock. A cross and some candles, those could go in too.

And water!
“Water, water, everywhere.”
All underneath and around us would be endless stretches of seawater --
 We would be floating every minute of every day
   On an all-encompassing reminder of our baptisms! --
     On a constant reminder of our call to wash one another’s feet!
Floating every minute of every day on the thing over which the Holy Spirit brooded
 In the first minutes of the creation --
   The thing through which the people of Israel were led out of bondage into the land of promise --
     The thing by which “Jesus received the baptism of John and was anointed ... as the Messiah” --
       That sign of life in which Jesus washed the feet of his disciples.
No shortage of that symbol. It would just be there.

You know, I guess the truth is, you really don’t need much to be faithful to Christ.
Would we miss those things we’d left behind?
I imagine we would, at various times, think back and remember a lot of it quite fondly.
Perhaps some pain of recollection over something lost,
 Like the Israelites coming away from Egypt, going into the wilderness,
 Remembering how good life had seemed to them.

But when you dive deeper, you really do find
 That a few carefully chosen symbolic objects really could carry the load,
 And then the majority of story-telling would be up to us.
The question there is,
 Would we remember? Would we be faithful? Would we know it well enough?

And what if the situation were more dire?
What if there were no time, no room, and we just had to get off the boat without taking anything?
I’m certain that even if that were the case, we would do just fine.
Remember the Swiss Family Robinson? Remember Tom Hanks in Cast Away?
People are naturally inventive.
They create objects out of a given environment that mirror the story going on inside themselves.

I’m sure that even if we had nothing at all, the force and the purpose of the story of Jesus
 As the ultimate instrument of God’s love for us
   Would come to the surface --
     In stories and songs and in the way we would behave towards each other.

Meanwhile, it is the great anxiety and sickness of our age and our society
 That we want for nothing yet desire so much.
So many objects, so lovingly attended, nevertheless can become like tethers, and weights.
So many icons can become idols.

If we stripped our faith in Jesus down to its core, we would discover a grand and lovely secret:
 That it requires nothing whatsoever other than our selves and one another --
   The holy family, the beloved community --
   To learn and live the story of Jesus.

So when Jesus strips down to the waist and grabs the towel and the basin,
 And engages in this act of selflessness,
 Washing the feet of his followers and friends,
 He seems to be pointing to an essential and equally stripped-down truth:
   That if we would only love and serve one another as he loves and serves us,
   If we would only forgive one another as he forgives us,
   Then everything will work out the way it should,
     And we -- the people of God -- will have fulfilled every letter of the law.
This is what Paul, in writing to the Corinthians, called
 “Having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”
It is the highest and best form of wealth.

No matter how we say it, then, brothers and sisters, let us say it well,
 As loudly and as much with your whole lives as we do with our mouths.
That we love Christ and embrace him completely, and we love each other;
 We love this crazy world we live in,
   And we want everyone to see and know
   That in serving each other,
     We serve Christ himself, and his kingdom, and somehow keep stumbling up the right path.

For this we were made.

In the name of Christ. Amen.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Fabulous. Simply perfect. I needed that this morning.