Homily for Maundy Thursday
Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church
April 18, 2019
Last year during lent, I met my colleague and friend Saba for coffee over at Panera on West Grace Street. Saba was one of the first people who took me under her wing as a new, junior faculty member at VCU. Over the years, she became my colleague, collaborator and friend. A physician trained in Ethiopia, she faced countless structural barriers moving her medical credentials to the United States when she immigrated. Rather than despairing, she earned a PhD in Public Health and joined the Family Medicine faculty at VCU. Saba was one of the hardest working and most conscientious research academics I have ever known. She was also a devoted mother, so we often shared snippets of our lives and chatted about our kids while planning our latest research projects together. But on this particular day last year, she had no interest in the collaborative research updates; she just wanted to talk with me: about her faith, and her fears, and especially about her children. Her eldest, a senior in high school, was struggling with a decision around college. The younger, a sophomore, was having a crisis of faith. “I don’t really care about anything else right now” my friend told me. “I love them, and they are all that matters to me with the time I have left. They are everything.”
You see, my friend Saba was dying. She and I both knew that. Stoic and hard-working as she was, she rarely even acknowledged the severity of her illness in our professional realm. But in that moment, she knew and conveyed to me without hesitation the essence of what was important to her. Of course, she had always loved her children and her family. But it was clear to both of us, in that very poignant moment, that her whole life was now being lived in service to that love. It was everything.
Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own that were in the world, he loved them to the end.
The grief and the love that I feel even now when I remember that conversation with my friend breaks my heart open to hear the poignancy of the Maundy Thursday Gospel lesson in a whole new way. The narrative of John’s Gospel draws us close to heart of Jesus. So close, in fact, that we have no choice but to confront the overwhelming power of love. Those who had followed Jesus had seen the miracles, heard the teaching, kept busy with the details of the living and the travelling and the doing of ministry. But now, seated together, Jesus and his disciples were looking at each other across the table with new eyes. Jesus, fully aware of his limited time left with them, could only see them through the eyes of love. It was everything.
Through the eyes of love, the story of footwashing that we’ve taken on as a holy week custom becomes a visceral illustration of lavish love that knows no hierarchy. It is the action of Jesus whose vision has shortened and intensified; who is compelled to show the depth of his love to those who are everything to him in this world, whether they are struggling with their futures or their faith. Jesus who for so long and in so many ways had demonstrated to them how to love the “others” of this world now looked through eyes of love at them: his very own own beloved community. He saw what was needed. He knew where they are struggling. He endearingly called them his children. And he was unabashedly and unhesitantly willing to be their servant.
That voluntary and counter-cultural offering of the service of footwashing…in a role normally relegated to an involuntary slave…was a plot twist too stunning for the disciples in the moment; they were still focused on the work, the ministry, the needs of the others who were “out there.” Being in the presence of love compels us to open our hearts to receive what is right here; but that requires trust. I hear this when Peter refuses to have his feet washed: the vulnerable fear of being loved. To love, and to be loved, is to risk the pain of loss. When the days of one’s life are a scarce quantity, the abundant and generative power of love is palpable. It is everything.
And Jesus loves them through it all. Bearing the towel and choosing the role of a servant, Jesus defies hierarchy and blurs every line of assumed superiority for one and only one reason: that reason is love. And like the scent of the lavish perfume that they had breathed in when Mary poured her life over Jesus’ feet, the power of this act of love truly sinks in. It washes over Simon Peter and melts away his vulnerability. Once he gets it, he becomes part of this beautiful, overwhelming lavishness: not my feet only but also my hands and my head!
Jesus isn’t just speaking to their sentimentality, though. And thus, Maundy Thursday for all its dramatic and poignant moments shouldn’t be solely sentimental for us, either. Jesus took on the role of servant not for the dramatic effect, but because it was the only way to convey to those he loved the last and most important lesson of his lifetime:
Little children, I am with you only a little longer…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.
At that moment, in that community, it was to say: open your hearts and experience this overwhelming love I have for you. Let it transform you. Embody it. Then see it in the eyes of every single person in this place. Not only will it change you: it will change the world.
This love is everything.
Last year, when I asked my friend Saba what I could do for her, she asked only one thing: pray for me. Not “submit my grants” or “finish my manuscripts.” She said, pray for me. At the end, it becomes all about love. And so I prayed, and I pray, and I strive to show others the love she showed to me as my sister in Christ. It’s part of the long-term nature of grief, to find a way to give back and pay tribute for the way people we love have touched our lives. Grief theorist Therese Rando calls it, “emotional re-investment.” We are changed by those we love, so we want to take action and change the world for the better in their honor. It isn’t superficial or sentimental. It’s a reflection of how we are fundamentally transformed by love.
So, I have to ask myself: why would I do any less for Jesus?
Death is never the end of love. It wasn’t for my friend, and it isn’t for those whom we all have loved and lost, and it certainly isn’t that way for Jesus. In these days of Holy Week, we face the harshness of life head-on: longing, betrayal, agony, loss, despair, grief. And yet, as seen through the eyes of Jesus, it is all about love.
So, tonight, I invite you to draw near to the heart of Jesus, and focus on the love. Take the role of a servant. Commit to an action of service not because it feels good, or because it alleviates a sense of guilt, or even because you enjoy it. Voluntarily put on a servant’s towel as an act of love, in remembrance of Jesus who loves and serves us. Wash a foot or scrub someone’s shoes. Come to Good Friday liturgy tomorrow and stay to sit at the table and talk with our Red Door congregants, or come back another Friday to sweep the floor, or wash and dry the dishes. When someone in your community is in need and you have the money, don’t ask a litany of controlling questions; just pay the bill. Buy the groceries for someone in your neighborhood store. Tell someone that frustrates you that not only do you love them, but you actually want to learn how to love and understand them better. Make a point to talk to the person in the room that you are least inclined to have a conversation with and when you do, open your heart to see God in their eyes. Recognize your own broken pieces, and allow someone in this community to see you in your vulnerability by asking them for help, or to pray for you. Tell someone thank you for the unseen work they do that goes unnoticed. Speak out for someone that others are putting down to show the world the belovedness of Christ that you see in them. This is what we are called to do. This is how we practice the everyday art of footwashing in the age in which we live. It is how we will learn to be the kind of beloved community that Jesus wants us to be. It is how the world will know Christ.
When we realize that life is short, the precious gift of love is everything.
Let all the rest be stripped away on this holy night.
Jesus’ gift of love is everything we need.