sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Associate Priest for Adult Formation
Maundy Thursday, April 13, 2017
Forty days ago, the season of Lent began with an episode of vulnerability: we had ashes imposed on our foreheads. On Ash Wednesday, we confessed our humanity and mortality to everybody present. Not everyone who attended the service was ready to do it … so they didn’t.
Tonight, Lent ends with an episode of vulnerability: we are going to wash each other’s feet. In our culture, it’s OK to be barefoot in public, but not in every place. It’s as much nakedness as we can reasonably deal with among strangers, and some people even have a hard time with that much. To remove our shoes is to be vulnerable, and to be vulnerable is to confess our humanity. Not everybody here will be ready to do it … so they won’t.
I remember once 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, when we visit a friend’s house, there are no servants to wash our dusty, tired feet. So we tried to imagine some contemporary possibilities. Who shines your shoes? No, I’ve never even shined my own shoes. Who washes your car? No, I just wait for the rain.
Who picks up your garbage and recycling? This is smelly but not at all intimate. Consider yourself lucky if you ever see the people who take your garbage away, let alone get to know them. Or perhaps you worship with them. Do you know? Who cleans your bathroom? For that matter, how many bathrooms do you clean, and is one of them your own, or not? Now we are touching on assumptions about social class that Jesus was so intentionally subverting.
But 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 Jesus still calls us to wash one another’s feet. Immediately after intimately serving his friends, Jesus announces that “the Son of Man has been glorified.” In the act of washing their feet, Jesus shows us what the Almighty God, creator of the universe, is actually like. Jesus loves us in the same ways that God loves us.
How does Jesus love us? Sometimes he is like a friend and confidant, someone to share wine with at a wedding. Sometimes he embarrasses us, stepping over boundaries of order, separation, and safety that we have worked so hard to maintain. Sometimes Jesus praises us one moment for really understanding, and then in the next breath he calls us Satan. When we are afflicted, he comforts us. When we are comfortable, he afflicts us. It’s never just “me and Jesus,” because it seems there is always a crowd around him. With Jesus, there are no taboo topics, but to go there with him, we have to be willing to be wrong, to change and to grow. With Jesus, all the walls are torn down, all the borders transcended, and all the distinctions between holy and profane done away with.
And yet—and this so crucial—somehow all of this becomes possible without ever losing ourselves. As we move into greater vulnerability with Jesus, we don’t abdicate our privacy, swear off our individuality, or hand ourselves over to be abused by others. We don’t cede the right to protect ourselves from harmful situations. There’s a paradox here. The closer we draw to Jesus, the more dignity and integrity we find in our own being and in our own decisions about how we will live our lives. Our free will grows instead of diminishing. The more we come to be like Jesus, we may even come to discover the power to lay down our lives and take them up again, never losing sight of our status as God’s children. This is Christian maturity. With Jesus, we always begin and end as God’s beloved. But to stay in that relationship, we must also keep reminding ourselves that everybody else in the entire world is God’s beloved, too—even our enemies.
This kind of love isn’t socially acceptable. And yet this is what Jesus has mandated—Maundy Thursday, Mandatum, Mandate, Command. Our new command is not just to love, but to love as Jesus loves.
Like Peter, we resist Jesus. We would rather control the relationship than let it happen to us. But once it is made clear to us how important it is, we’re all in. “Not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Peter doesn’t get it, doesn’t get it, doesn’t get it … and then he gets it, much too late not to be publicly embarrassed by it. I’ve been Peter. I can relate to him. Jesus just happened to Peter—over and over again, from the shores of Galilee to the courtyard of Caiaphas and beyond.
Jesus just happens to us. If we were baptized as babies, Jesus just happened to us then, and we had no control over that relationship. Late on Saturday night we will baptize Shandi and Randy Kyllingmark, and Jamie, Alex and Libby Scott, because Jesus is happening to them. But tonight, in just a few minutes, some of those who are already baptized will stand up in front of us, confess their sins, and have their feet washed in preparation for the renewal of their own baptismal vows. And then they will turn around and wash your feet.
We are following Jesus’ instructions here: in the same way that Peter submitted to having his feet washed, so must we. Why? Because to truly understand Jesus, we need always to be moving a higher level of vulnerability. We don’t all need to be in the same place, but we do all need to be moving in the same direction.
I want to stress that point. Far too often we compare ourselves to other people of faith. We wish we had more faith, or we wish that we accomplished more good works. We wish we had someone else’s gifts, and we undervalue our own. Lately I’ve been trying hard not to do this. Instead of telling myself what’s lacking in my relationship with Jesus, I’ve been asking myself, “What is the actual, honest nature of my relationship with Jesus these days?” And then I have thanked Jesus for being in my life. This in itself is a step toward greater vulnerability.
But for as long as we resist, for as long as we keep telling Jesus his behavior is inappropriate, we can have no share with him. We need to keep reminding ourselves: we do not know what Jesus is doing, but later we will understand.
Jesus points the way along this path, but he also goes ahead of us, like a shepherd leading us to the good grass. “Eat and drink with me,” Jesus coaxes. “Allow me to wash your feet, and then wash one another’s feet. Stay awake and watch with me. Pray with me. Put away your sword. You may deny ever knowing me, but you can still decide what to do after that. Whatever happens tonight, keep on living. Love one another as I have loved you.” See, God the Father has given all things into Jesus’ hands. And when Jesus goes to the Father, we are in his hands with him. It really will be OK. And that is what makes it possible for us to risk vulnerability.
I don’t know if you saw any news headlines today. There was no good news at all that I saw, and most of it was frankly horrific. At times like these, I can’t find it in me to be optimistic. But here’s the thing about the vulnerability Jesus is calling us into: optimism is not required. Instead of optimism, Jesus is calling us into hope. Hope means that it’s not all up to us … but some of it is, and that’s where Jesus is pointing us. There is loving work to do, and we’re the ones to do it. That is hopeful—not blithely optimistic, but constructively hopeful. And it starts with our willingness to be vulnerable to each other.
So here we all are. And if you’re not ready to allow your feet to be washed, try again next year, and bring this to prayer: “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, in my nation, and in the world? How can I grow in this direction?”
Lent ends tonight, and the Great Three Days have begun. This is only the first step. We will take the next step tomorrow, Good Friday, with the same liturgy at noon or at 7:00 p.m. And then we will return again Saturday evening at 8:00 for the Great Vigil of Easter to light a new fire, to hear by candlelight the ancient stories of God working to redeem the world, and to baptize new Christians. We are Christians. This is our story. Allow Jesus to happen to you … so that you, too, can step into your part in the story.