Maundy Thursday April 5, 2007


While I was in seminary, I had the privilege of traveling in Africa and taking a class at the Maryknoll Institute for African Studies in Nairobi.  Each international student was paired with a Kenyan field assistant, and part of the learning experience was to spend a weekend with that student in their rural home.  So one weekend Lucy and I left Nairobi via public transportation, then walked for what seemed like miles over red, dusty ground to her parents’ home.  I was welcomed and shown great hospitality by her family.  That evening, before retiring for the night, she brought me a bowl of water and a towel – “to wash your feet,” she said.  I realized then just how hot and dusty and uncomfortable my feet had been all afternoon and evening.  It was such a great feeling to take off my shoes and put my feet into the cool water, and scrub away the red circle of grime which had collected around my ankles above my socks.  The following day I wore my sandals, and we again walked for miles, to the village church to visit with the priest and back to her home.  That night it was even more obvious that I needed to wash my feet before putting them between the bedsheets, as they had become an impressive shade of brick red, with white stripes where my sandal straps had been. Those evenings gave me a new understanding of this story about Jesus’ washing the feet of his disciples.  I washed my own feet, but I was touched by the hospitality of Lucy bringing that bowl and towel each evening to my bedroom door.  Jesus and his disciples lived in a similarly dry, dusty land, and they also depended upon their feet for transportation.  Washing a guests’ feet was a common act of hospitality – but foot-washing was normally done by a serving person. As they gathered that last evening for a meal, Jesus was about to do an amazing thing – giving himself to die in an extraordinary act of love for all humankind. But first, he offered ordinary, everyday things, to help his disciples understand what was about to happen. He washed their feet – taking on to himself an ordinary act of hospitality, but making it extraordinary because he, their teacher and lord, performed a task reserved for servants. During the meal, Jesus took bread— ordinary bread from the meal they were sharing— and again made it an extraordinary expression of his love. This is my body, given for you, he said.  He took the cup of wine—the ordinary wine they were drinking with dinner— and said, “this cup is the new promise of forgiveness, which comes to you by the shedding of my blood.” What an amazing foretelling of the events about to happen, when he will indeed give over his body and his very life for the sake of his disciples in every time and place. Jesus willingly shed his blood in order to free us from our sins. His death opened to us a new means of reconciliation and relationship with God.  “This is my body” “This is my blood” The words are so commonplace to us now that it’s hard to separate then from the weekly sacramental meal we share.

But think what it must have been like to have been sitting there with Jesus, eating a meal, and suddenly, with these ordinary elements of the meal,

Jesus starts something extraordinary. Each time you eat this bread and drink this cup, he says, remember me. Remember what I am about to do for you – the giving of my life for your sake. Remember that your sins are forgiven. Remember that I love you, and I am with you always. Jesus chose to use ordinary things – a bowl of water and a towel, a loaf of bread and a cup of wine, to reveal his extra-ordinary love. Because that’s the kind of God we have.  We have a God who took on human likeness, lived a human life, to connect with us. We have a God who connects with us in the ordinary events of everyday life. We have a God who connects with us through one another.  It is no accident that Paul describes the church as the Body of Christ, because that’s who we are, to one another and to the world.  “I have set you an example,” Jesus told his disciples when he had washed their feet. “You also should do as I have done to you.   . . . I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”  We are called to be the Body of Christ in the world, and that means that sometimes we have to be Christ for one another. Years ago, my Mom went to visit a friend who was dying of cancer.  Jen was one of those people who makes you think of Job, because she had experienced loss upon loss in her life.  Her husband died of cancer.  She couldn’t pay her bills on the salary she made as a teacher in Albuquerque, and so she moved away from a solid base of supportive friends, to take a higher paying job outside of Boston and be near her daughter.  Within the year, her daughter died of AIDS. Then, Jen herself was diagnosed with cancer.  It’s not hard to understand why Jen would become bitter at God through all of this. My mom talked to me about Jen’s struggles, and said, “I just don’t know what to tell her.” When Mom went to visit Jen, she was impressed with the loving friends Jen had made. Friends who cared for her on a daily basis: shopping and cleaning for her, checking in on her every day, spending time with her to be supportive and caring and just have fun.  Mom told me about evenings they spent, during that last visit, talking and laughing and enjoying one another’s company— Jen and her old friends from Albuquerque and her new friends in Boston.  Mom said to me when she came home, “I just wish Jen could become reconciled with God before the end.  She says, ‘Where is God in all this?’ and I want to say, ‘Jan, look at these beautiful, caring friends in your life.’”  To my mom, the caring people surrounding Jen were a gift of God’s love. Recently, Mom and I spoke of Jen again, and Mom told me that at the end, when she was in hospice, Jen came to terms with her life, and renewed her faith. “That was the miracle,” Mom said. “Before she died, Jan recognized the blessings God had given her, all the good she’d had in her life.” For Jen, good friends and the caring hospice workers embodied the love of Christ, so that she could end her life in peace. “I have set you an example,” Jesus said. “You also should do as I have done to you.   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.” May it be so for us. Amen

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