Sermon, Maundy Thursday
St. Andrew’s Glenwood
April 17, 2014
Rev. Ed Scott
Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14
Psalm 116:1, 10-17
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
+ In times of crisis, it’s hard to focus one’s attention on anything other than the immediate crisis itself. Somewhat like to that old adage about how it’s hard to remember that the objective is to drain the swamp when you’re up to your neck in alligators.
But God has a way of giving us ways to cut through some of the peripheral issues and concentrate on weightier matters, the long-term goal. To some degree, that’s what’s happening in all of the Maundy Thursday readings.
In the reading from Exodus, God’s actions to liberate his chosen people from slavery in Egypt are about to reach a starkly dramatic climax. After that, the Israelites will not only be allowed to leave, they will be kicked out, with no time for preparation or packing or even a clear idea of where they are headed. In due time, God leads them to Sinai where a new covenant is established between them and God. In anticipation of the trouble that the Israelites are going to have living up to the terms of that covenant, way back before they even leave Egypt, God gives them the ritual of the Passover meal. He commands them to faithfully observe this ritual forever on each anniversary of their departure from Egypt. So, this will be an annual reminder of who they are and whose they are in this special relationship with God. It will strengthen their understanding of their role as the people of God, no matter what hardships confront them on their exodus and forever thereafter.
The people of Corinth whom Paul addresses in his letter are also facing a crisis. Just prior to the verses that we read, Paul says that opposing factions have developed within the church. Apparently, some members have even been abusing the sacred character of the Eucharist. Rather than the communal Eucharistic celebration instituted by Jesus, their worship services have become more like unruly dinner parties. Although Paul was not present at the last supper, he asserts that what he has previously taught the Corinthians about the Eucharist was revealed to him directly by the Lord. He then repeats the basic words of institution used by Jesus. By restating and reemphasizing these words Paul admonishes the Corinthians to refocus their worship on the sacrifice of Jesus. He is calling them back to a proper observance of Jesus’ command to us all: “Do this in remembrance of me.”
Our reading from John’s Gospel gives us another commandment from Jesus. Unlike the other three Gospels, in John’s Gospel, the last supper of Jesus with his disciples takes place before Passover and does not contain the words that Paul quoted to the Corinthians. It has been said that in John’s gospel Jesus does not eat the Passover, Jesus is the Passover. He knows that the time of his death has come. You would think that he would be totally absorbed in anticipation of that ordeal. Instead he knows that his followers face severe challenges to their faith. They will suffer persecution and death for their belief in him. Then, in the washing of their feet, Jesus gives them a perfect example of what his life and his teachings are all about: serving God through serving one another in great humility. He commands them to love one another and he says they should follow his example and wash each other’s feet.
When I was a kid growing up in Alabama, I occasionally went to the church where my grandparents belonged. It was a Baptist church, but not Southern Baptist. It was a somewhat unusual Baptist denomination. Most people called it “hard-shell Baptist”, but I think the appropriate name is Primitive Baptist. There are no frills in Primitive Baptist Churches; no stained glass, no candles, no musical instruments. All the music is a capella and the singing is in a unique style called Sacred Harp, which I won’t even try to describe. The colloquial term for it was “fa-so-la singing”. If you saw the movie, Cold Mountain, several years ago you might have noticed it.
One thing they did have was frequent foot washing; maybe not every Sunday, but certainly a lot more often than once a year. At the time, I just thought it was odd, but now I think that it very possibly could be considered a sacrament, a means of grace, to the members of that church. I thought of all that foot washing many years later when I first read a sermon entitled Hands and Feet by Barbara Brown Taylor, one of the most famous Episcopal preachers. She spoke of how after several years as rector of a church, she had become so familiar with the hands of parishioners as they received communion that she could recognize many of them just by looking at their hands; hands that often told something about the people’s lives. I wondered if those Primitive Baptists washed each other’s feet often enough to be able to recognize one another by their feet. As the church, we are the hands and feet of Jesus in the world, so maybe a better question for us is, can we see Jesus in the hands and feet of other people.
We seem to face an abundance of crises; everything from brutal international terrorism to global financial collapse to what some have called toxic political ranting. To maintain some semblance of order in our lives, we draw on all available means of strengthening our faith and how that faith shapes our daily lives. We celebrate the Holy Eucharist; we recall our rich Judeo-Christian heritage; we expand our understanding of our faith through prayer and study. Some churches follow Jesus’ direction regarding foot washing several times each year. Ours does not; we observe it once a year
Whatever else we may do, we need always to remember that Jesus came among us as both savior and servant. On the night before his death, after he had washed the disciples’ feet, he said, “I have set you an example that you also should do as I have done to you.” Jesus was speaking to the church, to us, and he seems to mean those words literally. In Matthew’s gospel he tells us that in as much as we minister to the neediest among us, we minister to him. Maybe he meant those words metaphorically. There are certainly countless ways of ministering to people in need. But however we interpret his intent, we are called to respond. So in remembrance of the one who died for us all, we take up his command as we bend the knee of our heart and, both metaphorically and literally, wash the feet of a hungry, homeless, hurting world.