Maundy Thursday 2017
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
I have been thinking a lot about membership lately. Maybe it is because we have a new member evening coming up next week, maybe it’s because I restarted our family membership to the YMCA, or maybe it is because of this night, these scripture readings and this Savior that I have been musing about membership, inclusivity, what it takes to be a church.
When the bureaucratic higher ups of the church want to know about our membership what they expect in return are numbers. They want to know how many people are here on Sundays, how many folks remain on our roster and who many households are giving regularly to support the ministry here. Now, you are all savvy enough to know that those numbers describe certain elements of a congregation, but in no way do they define the church or exhaust the multifaceted ways in which we come together as a spiritual community.
I fear our human inclinations to organize ourselves are typically marked with such formalities, clear lines we can draw around ourselves and then around others. We like to know who are “members” are, who are family is so that we know exactly where our allegiances should lay. When families do not fit the mold, when church attendees are different than the mainline, when neighbors look, act, or think differently -- we begin the human inclination of line drawing, label making.
At a church I used to work at there was a group of older woman that always sat on the same side of the large sanctuary, about three from the front. They labeled that pew “widow’s row”. I was working as a musician at the time and spent many a service up in the balcony overlooking the sanctuary filled with people, but always found myself wondering about widow’s row. They looked so neat and orderly with their differing shades of silver hair filling the pew. One day I asked Lolly about when she began sitting in widow’s row. She said she never really had a choice, the first time she showed up to church after her husband’s death, the women surrounded her and brought her right up to her new home pew in the sanctuary. Lolly said it was not until her husband’s death that she realized coming to church was probably really difficult for those who did not fit the mold of a “normal” church family. Lolly said something I will never forget during that conversation, she said I think I’ve always been friendly as someone who came here with my spouse and family, but I don’t think I was always welcoming, not like those widows were to me on my first Sunday back. Friendly, yes...welcoming, maybe not.
I thought of my conversation with Lolly when I read the scene of Jesus washing the disciples feet. It seems, at first glance, like a really “nice” story, just a friendly teacher doing a friendly thing for others. Yet when Peter gets embarrassed by this act of humility and intimacy, Jesus’ response signals to us that this is so much more than a friendly gesture. Jesus says, “Unless I wash your feet, you will have no share with me.”
Jesus is showing Peter, who will soon lead the community of Jesus’ followers and build the church, how a community that is united by Jesus will be defined. Jesus wasn’t counting their feet, he wasn’t checking out the quality of their sandals to see how much money they may have, he didn’t even check to see who was in a proper family or not...no Jesus wanted this community to be unified by the grace and generosity of God.
That is what tonight is all about. We began with confession, remembering our sin, remembering our part in exclusion, and then there is the intimate gesture of hand washing (do not be surprised when we take the courageous step to feet washing). Jesus took the posture of what a nameless slave would sometimes do, but often, with the dusty, dirty nature of feet at this time even a gracious host would simply make clean water available to their guests and they would be washing their own feet. Jesus steps over the social boundaries, he moves away from the place of honor at the table and aligns himself with the lowliest of people. He takes off the robe, wears and towel and insists that the unifying act of his people will be that they are washed, touched, and loved through the humble servanthood of God.
The word “Maundy” comes from the Latin word for “command”. Tonight is “Command Thursday” and Jesus’ command to us is clear “Love one another as I have loved you.” Please notice this is not the golden rule “treat others like you would like to be treated” -- our human nature does not define the church of Christ, thank God!
Jesus says we are to love one another with a posture of humility, awareness, nurture and love as he did on that night when even though he stared death in the face, even though he knew God had placed all things into his hands, he still picked up the basin and towel and loved first. Like those women in widow’s row who had looked death in the face, then waited for their new sister in grief and ushered her into a row of support and belonging, could we, the church in the valley, take a posture of such welcoming?
Amidst bombings, international tensions, hostility in our own land, tragic deaths in our church, let us pray with our whole hearts...God, help us to love one another has you have so loved us. Amen.