Homily for Maundy Thursday
April 1, 2021
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church — Virtual Worship in the Time of Pandemic
As I began writing this sermon earlier this week, I had just finished posting some words of love on the CaringBridge site for a friend of mine who has begun her Hospice journey after a decade long struggle with chronic health issues. I met Arlene 20 years ago when she was a later-in-life seminary student at Eden Theological Seminary and I was a social work grad student at Washington University in St. Louis. We serendipitously met as part of a group of other so called “Succulent Wild Women” who had come together after reading the work of writer/poet Susan Ariel Rainbow Kennedy, better known by her pen name “Sark” whose inspirational books creatively drawn in bold colors with handwritten words and illustrations were popular among some free-spirited women like us at that time. While I had other work friends, and school friends…this group of succulent wild women friends didn’t share any tangible career goals or contrived common interests. We just celebrated the spirit of each other and were there to mutually support, encourage, and lift each other up.
It was kind of like Church.
Many of my friends in that group, like me, were at life junctures. I was always fascinated by Arlene’s seminary journey…mind you, never giving a thought that I might embark on one of those myself in the future. And so it was that after I met my husband Michael and when we decided to elope, we asked my friend Arlene if she would perform our wedding ceremony. Ironically perfect for two nerdy graduate students living and loving on a budget, our wedding vows in Forest Park also became one of Arlene’s final seminary projects. We worked it all out together at our favorite restaurant. We broke bread together and celebrated love, in the name of God who creates, redeems and sustains us all.
Again, kind of like Church.
Now, many miles separate us and Arlene lives in a residential setting with limited visitation due to COVID-19. So, her Caring Bridge journal is the best way for us to communicate with our friend who is living out her brave and beautiful decision to discontinue treatments that are no longer working for her. Her choice to live boldly into the days that remain feels both courageous and heartbreaking. She said to her friends the other day that she has always lived her life out loud, and now she is living her death out loud, too. Time feels precious. I want to learn all that I can from her through her beautiful writing, and she wants to connect with all the people that she loves in all the ways that she is able to. I love reading what she is writing, and I laugh and cry and remember. I am reminded through this loving, caring exchange with my friend: this is the way that it is. The centrality of love and relationships is all that really matters when life as we know it is drawing to a close.
This is the way it is with Jesus, too. We can hear it in the first refrains of this Gospel lesson that we read on Maundy Thursday:
Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.
Maundy Thursday is a Love Story: it is filled with love between Jesus and his friends, between God and the world. The narrative of John’s Gospel draws us close into the heart of Jesus. So close, in fact, that we have no choice but to confront the overwhelming power of his 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. Now, those days were drawing to a close.
Jesus knew this. His friends, the disciples, weren’t quite ready to believe it.
Through the eyes of love, the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples becomes a visceral illustration of lavish love that knows no hierarchy. That kind of messy, intentional, lavish to the point of ridiculous love is reflected in the actions of Jesus whose vision had shortened and intensified; who was compelled to show the depth of his love to those who were everything to him in this world, whether they were struggling with their futures or their faith. We are drawn to the very heart of Jesus so that we can see and feel Jesus manifesting human and divine love toward his very own own beloved community. He knew where they were struggling. He knew what he needed to do. He endearingly called them his children. And he was unabashedly and unhesitantly willing to be their servant. All because of Love.
The 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. On that night when they broke bread together for the last time, Jesus’ Love broke into that space in a powerful and lavish way. Being in the presence of such an outpouring of Love compels response and also requires profound trust: we instantly are in touch with the part of us that asks, “am I worthy of this?” That’s what I hear when Peter refuses to have his feet washed: the vulnerable fear of being truly loved. To love, and to be loved, is to see one’s value in the eyes of the other and 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’s all that really matters.
And Love is all that matters to Jesus, too. 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: and that reason is Love. Like the scent of the lavish perfume that Mary had poured over Jesus’ feet a few days before, the power of this loving act truly sinks in. It washes over Simon Peter and melts away his vulnerability. Once he gets it, his trust melts into belovedness. And at that moment, he becomes exuberantly part of this beautiful, overwhelming lavish love story, telling Jesus: not my feet only but also my hands and my head!
Jesus is a quintessential teacher, and he knows how to seize a teachable moment. So, he steps fully into the exuberance to offer a lesson, to explain that which he has done by radically reversing the roles of this world and redefining love as radical service. Not only does he help his friends understand what they are personally experiencing in this outpouring of love; he gives the knowledge to them as a new commandment: 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.
I hear Jesus saying to his friends: you finally opened your hearts, and now you are experiencing the overwhelming love I have for you. Let it transform you. Embody it. Then look at each other: see that same belovedness in the eyes of every single person in this place. Let my love transform all of you. Now look out into the world and see my love in the eyes of every single person that you meet. Let that transform you, too. Embrace it and embody it. Not only will it change you: it will change the world.
So here we are, two thousand years later, looking at each other on this holy night of Holy Week with Love connecting our Zoom boxes. We ache…I know we do…for the way in which Christ is made known to us in the breaking of the bread. As we get closer to regathering, we may begin to feel that longing even more. Jesus knows our longing and meets us in it. In that very longing of our souls and in our community is the Presence of Christ who has always been here with us, and is still here with us now, persistently loving us through distance and Zoom boxes so that we can show that love to the world in the actions of mercy and justice that flow from the heart of this parish to the world. So don’t turn away from the longing that the images and readings for Maundy Thursday stir up in us. Allow the longing of love to transform you. Spend some quiet time tonight as we move deeply into Holy Week truly taking in and embodying the great Love that Jesus offers to his disciples, to the world, to all of us. Then, as we close our time together in that silence, take up the new commandment to show that love to the world and each other in lavish and counter-cultural ways through your loving, your giving, your caring.
May your response to Jesus’ invitation be: Not just my feet, but my hands and my head, too.
These days of Holy Week are reminders to us of Jesus’ last days and his greatest gift: Love. Jesus is living his life and his death out loud in this story of Love he speaks to his disciples, and to us. Cling to his words. Cherish them. Learn them so you can live this new commandment out loud in succulent wild and beautiful ways, too:
Love one another, as I have loved you.