Speak to our hearts and strengthen our wills, O God, that we may love and serve you today and always. Amen
So, here we are — at Maundy Thursday. It’s the day before the pain of Good Friday followed, by the emptiness of Holy Saturday. It’s the day that begins what constitutes the days of the Triduum – the most solemn time in our church year – days leading to Easter Sunday.
You may recall that during our worship these three days of the Triduum we have no dismissals. That’s because from the beginning of this service, through the Great Vigil on Saturday evening, our worship is one continuous service – three days of prayer.
But what is this day, what does it mean…..this day called Maundy Thursday? Last year I also preached the sermon for Maundy Thursday and I talked about the various definitions of the name for this service. I noted that the word Maundy in Old English meant ‘to give a commandment’ and that it came from the Latin word mandatum, to mandate. That is why this service, sandwiched between Wednesday of Holy Week and Good Friday, is called Maundy……
It was the evening when Jesus instituted what became our celebration of Holy Eucharist, the evening he gave the commandment, for this sacrament to be done for his remembrance. But in tonight’s Gospel, we didn’t hear about that mandatum, did we? Tonight, it is the other commandment Jesus gave that night that we hear about in John. It is the night he gave us the weighty mandatum, one that can be so easy not to follow: the mandatum, the commandment, to serve. …… And then he showed us how to serve — through love for each other when he washed his disciples’ feet.
Feet got dirty in Jesus’ day. Whether through the desert or through towns and cities, walking was the main mode of transportation. Although foot-washing was a rite of purity and a sign of hospitality shown to guests when they arrived, you may recall that only a slave, or servant, possibly a woman, would wash feet – in other words someone with little or no status or power. But before the beginning of the meal we call the Last Supper, Jesus got up from the table, wrapped a towel around his waist and did the washing of feet, not a servant.
That particular foot-washing was far more than cleansing another’s feet, of course. …… It was about Love in Action. Jesus, a man of action, a man who healed – feed — raised the dead — transformed lives and performed great acts of miracles, also performed this lowly act of washing feet that night. And that night, those 2000 plus years ago, when he washed his disciples’ feet in love – an act with deep meaning, we see that none of us is too “great” to love and serve another.
But that makes it sound as if Jesus humbled himself intentionally but that isn’t the case — no Jesus didn’t put humility on and take it off as he did his robe when he got up from the table to wash his disciples’ feet. No, Jesus embodies humility.
Too often we serve others in an effort to appear good to those who see us. We often want to be seen as doing good, or we do good to enjoy the praise we can garner. We care what people think of us.
C.S. Lewis, the author and theologian, said: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.” And William Temple, one of our former Archbishops of Canterbury said something similar. He said: “Humility does not mean thinking less of yourself than of other people, nor does it mean having a low opinion of your own gifts. It means freedom from thinking about yourself at all.” And then there is what Frederick Buehner, the theologian wrote: “Humility is often confused with saying you’re not much of a bridge player when you know perfectly well you are. Conscious or otherwise, this kind of humility is a form of gamesmanship. And if you really aren’t much of a bridge player, you’re apt to be rather proud of yourself for admitting it so humbly. This kind of humility is a form of low comedy. True humility”, (Buehner goes on to say) “doesn’t consist of thinking ill of yourself but of not thinking of yourself much differently from the way you’d be apt to think of anybody else. It is the capacity for being no more and no less pleased when you play your own hand well than when your opponents do.” …….. Frederick Buehner challenges us to question the way we think about what’s in our hearts.
Jesus’ entire ministry was steeped in humility. He performed miracles out of the love that was in his heart, not out of a desire to show himself as powerful or to draw attention to himself through low comedy. From the beginning, the story of Jesus was one of “downward mobility” – the newborn king in a manger, right through to his entrance into Jerusalem, as the Son of God riding not in majesty on a high horse as Pontius Pilot did on his entrance to Jerusalem, but on a borrowed donkey, as an itinerant preacher without a home of his own. Jesus Christ is the ultimate definition of humility. He breathed real life into service when he washed the disciples’ feet…… he did it with genuine love.
When I was in the Holy Land I saw a beautiful carving of a man obviously meant to be Jesus and he was washing the feet of a man dressed in many robes. I remembered that I had said last year when I preached on Maundy Thursday, we should maybe have a statue of a bowl and pitcher or of a basin and towel somewhere in our churches to remind us of this commandment….this mandatum to love and serve –so I thought I’d buy the carving for the church. It was gorgeous, hand carved from local olive wood, about this big. And it turned out to be about this expensive. It was outrageously expensive –– I didn’t buy it. But the day before I left, while I was in a little shop near our Pilgrim’s Hotel, I saw this little, inexpensive, machine carved statue. You probably can’t see it from where you are so let me tell you that it is not gorgeous, it is rather crude, the man’s feet Jesus is attempting to wash don’t even come close to reaching the basin, in fact, in this carving the man only has one leg – but you can tell that the statue is meant to have two. I fell in love with this visual reminder of Jesus’ humility – of Jesus washing the feet of this strange little man – this guy who, to me, represents the marginalized, the outcast, the other. I’m going to put it in the narthex and leave it there for a bit. I hope you’ll take a look at it…. and maybe you’ll like it a little bit too. And maybe it will remind us all that there is more to this ritual than just washing each other’s feet.
We don’t, of course, have to have our feet washed or to wash the feet of another tonight. Washing someone’s feet you know can make some feel a tad uncomfortable — although I submit to you that it is a ritual that helps us appreciate and experience humbleness — and that’s not such a bad thing to intentionally experience once in a while.
More importantly, this ritual reminds us to open our eyes to the suffering of others who are maybe sick or poor or lonely or hungry or homeless or running from their own personal sadness or crisis. It is more than a ritual to remind us to serve others by being nice to them – even if the niceness is genuine. It urges us, in that tactile awareness that comes through while touching another, to open our ears and hear the voices of hungry children, open our mouths and speak out against injustice and hate – and to move our feet to right those wrongs. This too is what Jesus asked us to do in remembrance of him that evening he had his last supper.
So, here we are …. at Maundy Thursday. The beginning of the Tridium — three powerful days when we Christians stare into the abyss.
But we are Easter people and we come out of and through the abyss with the help of prayer arriving at the joy of Easter Sunday. And in thanksgiving and with gratitude we remember the mandatum that we were given to love and serve. So…., in the name of Jesus Christ, let us each take off our robe, tie our towel around our waist and in humble service let us love one another.