Transcribed from the audio.
Having loved his own who were in the world, He loved them to the end. Amen.
When I was growing up in the little Episcopal Church in my hometown I always looked forward to Maundy Thursday. It was one of my favorite services in the entire church year which should have been an early indicator that I was destined to be a serious church nerd! There was something about that service that was so magical, so moving, that it was like no other service. And in those days, the service ended with the lights dimming in the church and the women of the altar guild—and they were all women then—making a single file up to the altar and slowly, deliberately, reverently stripping the altar: removing the candlesticks, removing the missal, removing the Eucharistic communion vessels, removing the altar linens, removing the altar hangings, and then removing the cross. And when they had filed single file back out, the lights went back down and we quietly and reverently and silently left the church in the dark with the image of the dark stark altar foremost in our minds. And for me, it seemed the appropriate preparation for the next day when we would journey with Jesus ultimately to the cross and Calvary on that day that we ironically call “good.”
Over the centuries, the ways in which the church has remembered Holy Thursday, Maundy Thursday, have changed. The liturgical remembrance and act of foot washing, which we will do after the sermon, actually began in about the sixth or seventh century. In those days an abbot would wash the monks’ feet in the monastery. kings would wash peasants’ feet, and if you can get your mind around it and imagine this, even Queen Elizabeth I washed 20 poor women’s feet in the Great Hall of Westminster Abbey. It has been a central part of our trying to understand and enact part of what Jesus was teaching his disciples.
But to understand it, we really have to put it in context. We hear in that thirteenth chapter of John, part of which you heard just a few moments ago, Jesus knows that he’s going to die. He knows that Judas Iscariot is going to betray him. He knows that he is going to die the next day. And so he has these precious few moments left with his disciples to tell them the most important things, to act and model the most important things that he wants to leave with them. Imagine if you knew you were going to die tomorrow, how would you spend your last 24 hours? Whom would you choose to be with? What would you say? What would you do? It’s that frame of mind that Jesus is in and gathers us all together this evening to understand and to deal with.
In the first century, it was the practice that when guests would go to a host’s home, the lowliest of the servants would wash their feet. It was an act of hospitality but also probably a necessity; the roads were dirty and dusty and as you entered the host’s home the lowliest of the lowly had the job of washing feet. And so when Jesus gets up in the middle of supper and in a very liturgical way, takes off his outer robe, gets the towel, wraps it around his waist, gets on his hands and knees to wash his disciples’ feet, Simon Peter pushes back. And Jesus says, you don’t understand it now but you will. And Jesus systematically washes all the disciples feet, including Judas Iscariot’s, modeling for them what love looks like. One manifestation of that is being a servant, one to the other.
Maundy Thursday takes its name from the Latin word for mandate, which is the commandment that Jesus gives the disciples at the end of the thirteenth chapter: “A new commandment that you love one another as I have loved you.” So he takes that meal to show them what that looks like, to impress upon them servant leadership, laying down one’s life for another. He washes Judas Iscariot’s feet, he breaks bread with Judas Iscariot. In writing about this scripture passage, Barbara Brown Taylor makes the point that Jesus continues to give himself away to the one who will give him away, that Jesus’ faithfulness is not dependent upon theirs or ours, for that matter.
And I was thinking about the practice of foot washing—which has become more common in the Episcopal Church in the last 20 or 30 years—over the past two weeks as I was reflecting on this evening, I continued to have this thought that I couldn’t shake. And to my shame, I’ve never really thought much about it. We’re going to offer the opportunity for us to wash one another’s feet. But what kept coming back to me was, what about people who have lost their limbs through violence or an accident? How do they experience this liturgical act? How do they enter into Maundy Thursday? And I knew I had to pursue that and I prayed about whom I could ask because obviously, that’s a different lens than the one I bring to this evening. And as I prayed about it, a faithful and wonderful member of our Cathedral Congregation and community came to mind: Dr. Judy Mayotte. Many of you probably know Judy. She’s an extraordinary person. She is globally known as a humanitarian for her work in refugee issues, a former Catholic nun, a former professor in the Religion Department at Marquette University and many others. She was a TV producer with Ted Turner. She is a close friend of Desmond Tutu and continues to serve on his board in peace and reconciliation efforts. Judy has many distinctions; one of them is that she lost her lower leg in a tragic accident on September 8, 1993, at 10 am, to be precise.
Judy was in what is now known as South Sudan. She was there with Refugees International and as Judy explained to me, people often will use starvation as a weapon of war and so it’s critically important to get food and medical supplies to war torn areas, particularly to the refugees because they don’t have any other access. On this particular day she was there for a food drop. The airplanes come in low and they have a spot where they’re supposed to drop. Each food drop is 15 tons of food. Something went awry that day and the pilot started to fly toward the people and they all started to run. And, unfortunately, Judy was caught with some food that came down and it crushed her right leg. And she told me the story of how the soldiers laid down their rifles and ran toward her, picked her up, put her on an army cot, carried her high over their heads, and ran, ran, to the nearest plane to try and get her some medical assistance and, by God’s grace and mercy, there was a UNESCO doctor there who saved Judy’s life, because she was literally bleeding to death. That was 20 years ago.
So when I talked to Judy about foot washing and Maundy Thursday, I felt I knew her well enough to enter that tender territory. And she said, “You know, when you lose a limb like that it’s an ending in one way but it can also be a beginning. And I think of feet as those precious beautiful things that help to carry us forward: just as the soldiers carried me forward, just as the pilots ran and carried me forward to the medical crew. And, Jan, think about that horrendous bombing a year ago at the Boston Marathon or 9/11. It is the first responders who run toward the most dangerous places, giving no concern for their own life, only that of those who are the most wounded. And they run and they lift people up and carry them, hopefully, to safety and healing and new life.” She then went on to talk about Jesus and how she always thinks of Jesus and the disciples as having beautiful precious feet that walked around the dirty, dusty roads of the Holy Land offering hope and healing and love and salvation. It was their beautiful precious feet that carried them forward and enabled them to help carry others forward. As Judy expressed it, “Beautiful on the mountaintop are the feet of those who bring the Good News.” Judy loves Maundy Thursday. That’s her story.
Sometimes God gives us feet to carry forward God’s love that surpasses all understanding and sometimes those feet come equipped with some wheels. The message tonight for us is the same message that Jesus gave the disciples: to love one another as Jesus loved us. Tomorrow those precious beautiful feet of Jesus will carry him forward to Calvary and the cross and he does that for you and for me. “He loved his own who were in the world and he loved them to the end.” Amen.