Emmaus Fellow Elizabeth Marshall preached this sermon on Maundy Thursday, March 24, 2016 to St. Chrysostom's Parish in Quincy.
Jesus said, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
I was 16 when later came for the first time. It was a hot summer evening and I was sitting in a circle of forty other teenagers and mentors in the dining hall of a camp in rural Virginia. We had spent the week together gleaning local fields for potatoes and it was our last night together. After listening to the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, we were instructed to wash the feet of the person sitting next to us and then anyone else who had impacted us during the week.
Two hours later, the foot-washing was still going on. Tears were streaming from our eyes and the washing basin was full of particles of the earth that we had encountered that day. My feet had been washed over fifteen times by that many different individuals. As a sixteen-year-old who had previously been slightly confused at Maundy Thursday services, it finally clicked. Love. We were showing the love that we could not yet put into words. We had been removed from many of the social pressures of High School and were given the freedom to be our silly, full selves, while serving the local community. Deep bonds and respect for one another had been formed because of that.
Love. I counted- John uses the word “love” six times in this evening’s Gospel reading. Jesus is calling his disciples to love as he has loved them. (pause) When I hear this story, even more than love, I think of vulnerability. Jesus is calling his disciples to go to places with themselves, others, and God that are uncomfortable, yet revealing. Going to places that will allow the raw and beautiful self to show up.
In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, we are reminded of the story of the last supper that comes on the same night as the foot washing. While we don’t often think this way, the simple act of eating is immensely vulnerable. As soon as we’re born, we are weak until the moment we are fed by our mother or another caretaker. And feeding, especially between a newborn child and mother, creates a bond of trust, of security, of love, and of nourishment.
And then when thinking about the meals that we eat and share with others, there is deep tradition and vulnerability steeped in the food. Growing up, every time I was at my Grandmother’s house and ate something delicious, I would make sure to tell her so. And then a few weeks later, I would always receive a recipe card in the mail to add to my collection and carry on her tradition of making that dish. There are even more layers of vulnerability in the food we eat from the hands that grow and gather it from the earth, to the hands who package it, to the hands that ship it, to the hands that put it on the shelf at the store, to the hands that prepare it, and lastly the hands that put it into bodies for nourishment. These are all hands of people for whom this work or these tasks create a sense of well being, hence making it vulnerable.
In The Art of Eating, Fisher writes, “It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it… and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied… and it is all one.”
When we eat in community, we as vulnerable people are brought together to be nourished, not only in caring for our bodies, but in belonging- in being in fellowship with others and with God.
At the last supper when Jesus becomes the bread and the wine, there is deeper level of rawness as Jesus says, “My body and blood are for you. Eat and drink in remembrance of me.” He’s telling us to feed ourselves as a way of remembering him. To nourish our vulnerable and weak bodies with the food and drink of his life.
The vulnerability of the last supper continues as Jesus washes his disciples feet. The exposure that plays out here is different from any current day discomfort of washing feet. During this time, foot washing was a simple act of hospitality and respect, of welcoming someone into a space. The discomfort here, especially from Peter, comes from the power dynamics at play. Given Jesus’ role as his lord and teacher, Peter challenges being served by a superior. Yet, Jesus is trying to break down this societal norm of pride and power and teach his disciples that they (and we) are called to be God’s humble servants.
Jesus says, “So if I your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” Notice that Jesus doesn’t call us to wash our own feet, but wash the feet of those around us. We all have layers of dirt and difficulty caked on our feet. And no matter how many times they are washed, pieces of the road will continue to cling to the bottom of our feet and we will carry them with us. In serving each other, in leaving our comfort zones and sitting with a friend, neighbor, or stranger in their joy or pain, we are able to sit in the rawness of clean feet even if just for a moment. To love fully, as Jesus calls us to do.
It is in community that we can grow as we continually feed and wash each other. We may not know now what Jesus is doing. It might not yet hit us. But perhaps as we experience foot-washing and the last Eucharist before Easter this evening, as we enter Good Friday and sit with Jesus’ pain and the earth on his feet, later will come. Amen.