This time of year, people often ask me where the name for this evening comes from.
The “Maundy” in Maundy Thursday takes its name from the Latin word Maundatum,
from which get our word “Mandate.”
We sometimes use that word, “mandate” is a political sense these days:
If a candidate wins a vote by a large margin,
we say that they have a mandate to pursue their agenda.
And when we draw the word out of this story before us tonight ,
from the Gospel according to John,
we’re talking about the mandate—or agenda—
that Jesus gave to us the night he was betrayed.
Jesus gave a new commandment or mandate that night, and here it is:
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.
Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.
By THIS everyone will know that you are my disciples,
if you have Love for one another.
And, if you were listening closely, you might have heard that
our passage begins and ends with love.
It’s surrounded by it:
At the beginning we’re told that Jesus,
“having loved his own who were in the world, loved them to the end.”
John begins and ends this self-contained little story with love,
so there’s NO doubt at all that this is what the passage is all about—LOVE.
It’s so easy to say, and so hard to do…
Will Willimon is a Methodist Bishop,[i]
and for many years he was the Dean of the Chapel at Duke University.
He was part of a committee that examined
Methodist students for entrance into seminary,
and he made it a practice to ask them why they wanted to go study for ministry.
Invariably they would answer, “Because I love people.”
And he would invariably ask,
“Yes, but have you actually MET any of these people?”
Willimon’s point is that, as loveable as WE are,
we are, nonetheless, real people,
and real people are complex creatures,
with all the foibles, failures, and sins that come with being human beings.
So, love each other, and the world will know that we REALLY are Jesus’ followers…
BUT, it will ALWAYS be kind of HARD.
It will be like washing someone’s feet.
Perhaps that’s why, the night before his death, Jesus takes a towel,
wraps it around his waist,
and then performs the LOWEST job in that society…
he washed the disciples’ feet—all his disciples.
The Disciple whom Jesus Loved.
He even washed the feet of Judas.
The story of Jesus’ last meal is recounted in all four gospels,
but only in John is the actual meal not the focus.
John favors telling us about Jesus washing the feet of the disciples.
WE don’t wash people’s feet in today’s world.
Not often. Maybe if we’re caring for a loved one,
or in some religious services this time of year.
But it’s a rarety, certainly when we’re talking about
washing the feet of friends, acquaintances, strangers….
We’re uncomfortable with it, really.
Is it more awkward, I wonder, washing someone’s feet,
or having ours washed ourselves?
Pedicurist, maybe. Church neighbor….I dunno.
Nadia Bolz-Weber, who leads the community
called the House for all Sinners and Saints in Denver,
once tweeted something that resonated with many of her followers:
Jesus, You’re not getting anywhere near my nasty feet.
Then remembering his words…
“Unless I wash them you have no part with me”
Nadia unleashed a guttural “ugh. ok then”
It’s just not a part of life any more, but in Jesus’ day, it happened all the time.
It was customary in every home for a servant
to wash the feet of anyone who would enter.
People wore sandals, walking over roads that were rarely if ever paved.
And streets were home to all sorts of disgusting stuff: garbage, sewage.
So it was important to have your feet cleaned
after you’d been walking around outside.
But pity that poor servant –
and it was usually the lowest servant on the servant totem-pole—
who had the task of washing the feet of visitors.
Fitz didn’t really understand this, until he saw it done one time.[ii]
Fitz was on a high school retreat a few years ago in Oklahoma.
There were some 60 kids along, along with Scott,
who, as a high school student, was kinda the consensus leader of the group.
On Saturday night, right before they were planning to go receive the Lord’s Supper,
every student went through a time of meditation in the small chapel,
in groups of about 6 or 7.
And in that chapel, Scott washed their feet.
Fitz’ job as an adult sponsor
(and I’m not sure he knew this when he signed up to go along)
was to procure clean, warm water whenever the washbasin became dirty.
Now, we’re talking teenage feet here…
none of the students had been warned beforehand, either.
They didn’t know to put on clean socks or shoes.
We don’t need to get into the details; use your imagination.
Lets just say that Fitz and the other adult sponsor were BUSY
emptying out very dirty foot-water and filling up a large basin
with warm, soapy water as Scott washed 120 dirty, teenage feet.
This is how Fitz recalls the story:
“Scott got on his knees and bent over each of his fellow students
like a medieval saint agonizing in prayer.
He took each person’s foot and washed carefully,
rinsed their foot off in another basin, and dried their foot with a towel.
Did I say we were prepared with about 50 clean towels?
Scott stayed there, bent over on his knees for almost two hours, washing.
He washed the feet of his friends.
He washed the feet of his girlfriend.
He washed the feet of his younger brother.
He was a senior that year; he washed the feet of the freshmen.
The loud obnoxious kid who got on everybody’s nerves?
Scott washed his feet.
The lonely girl who came not knowing a single friend?
He washed her feet too.
The kids on the fringes of the “cool” group got their feet washed
with the same care as the core group.
The adult leaders had their feet washed.
Scott got tired. He kept going—Washing and drying, washing and drying,
kneeling on the hard floor,
working while these kids—
well… grew silent and somber
in the presence of Jesus’ love working through Scott.”
“I never understood what Jesus was getting at in washing the disciple’s feet
until that night in the Oklahoma Canyons.
Then I saw it.
THIS is how we’re to love each other—
not by literally washing each other’s feet—
but by seeking out the most common way possible
to express our love for each other
and then work at it with the humility that James—Jesus’ brother,
would call “the humility that comes from wisdom.”
Seek out the low job, the task that nobody else will do—
or the job that everybody else has ignored
because its seems too unimportant and DO it—
seek out the unimportant, and serve THEM.
Wash their feet or listen to their story or learn their name or…
well, you know what to do.
Serve the young, who don’t know that worship
is supposed to be straight-laced and dignified.
Serve the lonely, who sit by themselves.
Serve the frail, who are moving more slowly than they used to.
Serve each other, and so demonstrate that we follow this Jesus,
who came, not to be served, but to serve,
to give his life for people like you and me…”
This night, in this place, we come together
to remember how the Table is Set for Jesus’s final days
and how the Table is set for us.
From here, Jesus goes out to the garden, off to the cross.
From here, Jesus faces his darkest hour
and faces it with the heart of a servant, the heart of a friend.
Washing the feet of his disciples,
ready to pray on our behalf….
“Father, forgive them, they know not…”
Jesus knows that His Table is Set.
He tells Judas to go do what he has in his heart to do.
The Table has been set for Jesus. Soon, it will be finished.
But, in a different way, we see that the Table is Set for us as well:
We have been given a striking example of what it means to love as Jesus loved.
Jesus calls this a mandate for his disciples, for us,
to take up humility and love as a way of life…
And we have been given this holy meal to share,
where at this table we meet the Lord,
and where we celebrate what joy we have to share,
being Christ’s people…
Brothers and Sisters, we have a mandatum, a mandate,
an agenda to love one another.
Tonight THIS table is set for you to be nourished, to be fed, to be RENEWED for THIS.
You are invited into THIS story tonight,
to taste and see that God is GOOD
and to share that goodness with the world.
All is prepared. You are invited to come….
[i] I’ve lost the source for this illustration.
[ii] This illustration from Rev. Fitz Neal, “On the Washing of Feet” Maunday Thursday, March 20, 2008.
First Image: Jesus Washing the Disciples’ Feet by Leszek Forczek
Second Image: Picture of the John Knox Kirk sanctuary, Holy Week 2014