It happened so fast and was so bizarre; none of us had a chance to react before it was already underway.
He got this look in his eye – a wild and gentle spark glinted from them. And the next thing we knew, he was up, shedding his clothes. I looked around. Did anyone else find this strange? Has he lost his mind, disrobing right here in front of us? I saw the looks of silent shock on everyone’s face. No one moved but him.
He reaches for a towel and ties it around his waist. He takes the empty basin sitting by the door and picks up a clay pitcher, fills it with water, and carefully pours it into the basin. I still hear the sound of it, like a stream, and I can see the droplets splashing up out of it as he pours.
And then, he kneels down at James’s feet. James – he is part of the duo with his brother that we call “Sons of Thunder.” There’s a reason for that. There was that one time when Jesus was talking on the road about coming here to Jerusalem and being killed. And James and his brother John – whose feet Jesus is now washing – they asked him if they could sit, one at his right and one at his left, when he entered the kingdom. I know them well, those two. All bluster, always scrambling for power, trying to one-up everyone else.
And yet, he washes them. They will flee when he dies. Run like scared children. And yet…he gently takes each grimy foot in his hands, and with great tenderness rubs them clean. He washes them…even them.
Now he’s moved on to Thomas. Thomas, always questioning Jesus at every turn, refusing to trust. Thomas was one of the ones on the road one day when several of the followers got into a big argument. It was right after he had told us again about coming here, to Jerusalem, and how he was going to be beaten and spat upon and die. No sooner was he finished than several started arguing about who among the followers was the greatest. Can you believe that? It’s me that Jesus loves the most. No, clearly I am the most indispensible. You’re crazy, I’m the one. He always lets me sit right next to him at the table. And Thomas was right in the middle of it all.
And yet, he washes him. Thomas will not be around when Jesus breathes his last. He will not hear the horrific cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!” He will refuse to believe. And yet, there are those feet in Jesus’ hands, clean. He washes him…even him.
It’s when he moves toward Peter that the spell is finally broken. Peter of course is a “ready, fire, aim” kind of guy, always spouting off when he would best be silent. And he asks kind of a ridiculous question, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Well, apparently so. That’s kind of what’s going on here.
But that’s Peter. It was Peter that time, after the Lord had said he was going to be coming here, and the Messiah would die, who took him aside and scolded him like a child. Jesus really gave it to him, too. “Get behind me Satan! You are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things!” This time, he’s a little gentler. “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
Peter, as usual, is undeterred. “You will never wash my feet.”
When Jesus says the only way to share with him is to be washed, Peter, true to form, wants a whole shower – hands and head, as well as feet. Such an oaf.
Peter will deny him. Even while Jesus is being mocked and beaten, Peter will stand out in the courtyard and deny not just once, not twice, but three times. He will curse and say he does not know the man, the man who just now takes up his feet and tenderly washes…even him.
And then he got to mine.
The other day a man came into the office, asking for the pastor. The receptionist took one look at him and knew he was coming by asking for money. So she discreetly dialed me and said, “Someone’s here asking for you.” That’s code for, “They need money.
I walked out of my office, because I didn’t want the person to make it back there. I was tired and busy, working on a sermon. I was frustrated with the uptick of these requests. It seems they all have a network, I thought, and when you help one, they put the word out, and next thing you know there are twelve in a week. I got to the receptionist area
He looked and smelled like he hadn’t bathed in a while. I asked him to step with me out into the hallway. He was taller than me, but stick-thin. His eyes were sunken. “Pastor,” he said, “Would you pray with me?”
This is always the way it goes, I thought. First it’s the prayer and then the ask. I’m too busy for the formalities.
“How can I help you, really?” I said.
“Pastor, I’m really in need of prayer. I’ve got this surgery coming up.”
“I can give you $20” I said.
“I appreciate that,” he answered, and I said, “Stay right here and I’ll get you a check.” I wrote the check, went out and handed it to him, and said, “That’s all we’ll be able to do for you” as I was walking him to the door. “Next time you’ll need to go to Graceworks.” And I turned and left him standing in the half-open doorway, standing in need of a prayer, a blessing, a word of hope that was not to be on this day.
I drove the nail a little deeper into the tender hands and feet of my Lord. I denied him, with his sunken gaze and smelly clothes; I sent him packing with twenty bucks and zero compassion. Love one another as I have loved you, he said on that night. I failed
And yet, there are my feet in his hands, I feel the water go over them and his soft hands, not yet bloody from the nails. He washes me…even me.
And then he’s moving on, around the table. He kneels at the feet of a woman who is wearing a yellow jacket. Blood runs from a gash on her forehead and down her face. Her black hair looks grey with ashes. On one foot is a black shoe that looks like it has been shredded. The other is bare and bloody. She sits with one leg over the metal arm of the airport chair in Brussels, her face a picture of shock, with a vacant stare. He takes her feet and begins to wash, the blood mingling with the water in the basin. He washes her…and says, “love one another as I have loved you.”
And on he goes. He is kneeling at the feet of a man who is wrapped in a garbage bag that he’s turned into a makeshift tent. All you can see is his face. He’s shivering with in the cold. When Jesus takes his feet, they are caked in mud. He hasn’t eaten in several days. His wife and children, wrapped as well in trash bags, are nearby. In his quaking hands he holds a notice from the authorities that he will be forced back to Turkey, and he fears there he and his family will either die or be shipped back to Syria, where they will surely die.
Jesus takes his feet and washes. It takes some time. Jesus lingers there, washing him…saying, “Love one another as I have loved you.”
And then he gets here. To this room, this part of his table.
He kneels at your feet. You may believe you are not worthy. If he only knew, surely he would not wash me, you may think. If he knew the denials, the failures of courage. If he knew the sins. If he really peered into my heart, deeply into those places I keep hidden behind the carefully manicured façade, the good looking put-together mask I wear. If he knew the truth about me, the real truth, the one I run from with a busy calendar and a thousand daily distractions, the silence I avoid so I can avoid looking within, so I can avoid him. If he knew, he would not wash me.
Yes, it is true, all of it true…what we have done to him, what we have done to one another, what we have done to ourselves. Yes, all of it, all of it, true.
And yet. Feel your feet in his hands, washing, washing you clean, making you part of him. And hear his words as he washes, hear them well, for in them is the hope of the world he loves and for which he died.
“Love one another as I have loved you.”
He is healing you, forgiving you, calling you, washing you…even you. Amen.
Preached Maundy Thursday, March 24, 2016