homily preached at Church of the Ascension, Silver Spring, MD
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Deacon, Seminarian
Maundy Thursday, April 17, 2014
On the day I was ordained as a deacon, my bishop gave me a dishtowel. He gave one to each of the five of us being ordained that day, and they all came straight from a drawer in his kitchen. I wondered whether my bishop’s family gets a little annoyed at having to replace so many dishtowels every time he ordains new deacons.
So why is a dishtowel a fitting gift for a deacon? The role of a deacon is to serve the church. The first deacons were ordained right at the beginning, when the Christian church had swelled to hundreds or maybe thousands of people, and there weren’t enough apostles to go around. The Greek Christians complained that the Jewish Christians were getting more daily food than they were. Whether or not this was true, the perception was that resources were not being distributed equitably.
So the apostles said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables.” [Yes, it really says that! Go read the sixth chapter of Acts.] “Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” So those who serve the piping hot word came to be known as bishops, and many years later, they appointed priests to assist them. Meanwhile, those who waited tables—that is, those who made sure that widows and orphans did not starve—came to be called deacons. And so I drape a dishtowel over my arm, because as a deacon, I am here to serve you.
But is it only deacons who serve the church? If so, we’d be a pretty overworked bunch. No, we all serve the church and the world, and we have Jesus as our example. John’s gospel doesn’t contain the story of Jesus breaking bread in the upper room—perhaps in John’s little community of early Christians, that just went without saying. Instead of the Last Supper, John tells us that Jesus took off his outer garment, presumably so it wouldn’t get wet. He tied a towel around himself. And then he shocked the disciples by washing their feet. Jesus came among us “not to be served, but to serve” (Mark 10:45)—and he instructed us to do the same.
And so, tonight, we will wash one another’s feet and dry them with towels. We’re not just waiting tables here; we’re doing something far more intimate than that. I remember last year having a Facebook conversation with various friends about foot washing. We wondered together, “What is a parallel to foot washing in our present day?” After all, we no longer live in a world where when you go to someone’s house, that person has servants whose job is to wash your dusty, tired feet. So we tried to imagine some contemporary possibilities.
For instance, who shines your shoes? Well, probably you—if anybody at all. Personally, I don’t have any experience shining shoes or even having them shined! Who washes your car? Probably either you—in your driveway with an environmentally friendly soap, of course—or a machine. And the same goes for dishes and laundry. Not much luck there.
Who cleans your bathroom? You probably do, or at least, I hope you clean your bathroom at least as often as I get around to cleaning mine. However, we could probably observe a lot about class structure in America by asking, “Do you only clean your own bathroom, or do you also clean someone else’s, either at your workplace or in another person’s home? Or, perhaps, do you never even clean your own bathroom because one of these other people does it for you?” So we are getting closer here to touching on the assumptions about social class that Jesus was so intentionally subverting.
Who picks up your garbage and recycling? OK, it’s a little smelly, but it’s not personal like foot washing. Consider yourself lucky if you ever see the people who take your garbage away, let alone get to know them. And if you are one of those people who take my garbage away, thank you. Thank you so much.
Who gives you a mani-pedi? We’re getting still closer, because at least this one is somewhat intimate. But I, for one, have never had one. And we certainly don’t expect to have servants doing this for free.
In the end, my group of friends concluded that there is no modern parallel for the foot washing done in Jesus’ time. And that is why we still wash one another’s feet. Some people won’t feel ready to be that intimate, so they won’t come up and do it. And that’s OK—you’re in good company with Peter, who refused such a shocking turnabout of events until Jesus threatened to take the intimacy of their friendship away entirely. So keep working towards it, and spend some time wondering: “Where are the moments of real intimacy in my life? And how widely do I make my caring known to those around me, in my family, in my circle of friends, in my community, and in the world?”
Today is Maundy Thursday, and “Maundy” comes from the Latin word “mandatum”—command. Tonight Jesus commands us to love one another, and as his primary example of that kind of loving intimacy, he washes the feet of his friends in place of the servants. “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”
There’s a great old camp song you might know. If you do know it, please sing along:
We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord/
We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord/
And we pray that all unity may one day be restored/
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love/
Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.
Can we make this song true? Can we serve the people around us with such reckless abandon that the people will begin to wonder about the One who inspires us to such love? Can we get to know those we serve so intimately that we might as well be washing their feet?
As we move through this sacred three days, from the dinner to the garden to the arrest to the cross to the tomb, let’s ponder our role as servants, not just to each other, but to the world. How will Church of the Ascension serve the community, not just financially, but intimately? And how will you intimately serve the world? Amen.