The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope
Transcribed from the audio.
Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
On this night, Jesus gathered with his dearest friends and disciples in the heart of Jerusalem. He knew that it would be his last meal with them so he is very careful about the lessons that he imparts—lessons that would last not just the lifetime of his disciples, but lessons that would be left for all time. All of the glorious hosannas of last Sunday as he triumphantly entered the city are yesterday’s news. Tonight Jesus turns his attention to his disciples to say the most important and lasting things and he does that knowing what lies ahead of him for the next few days. He knows that one of the disciples gathered around the table with him will betray him. He knows that the other disciples will, in essence, desert him.
In looking at this scene, Barbara Brown Taylor characterizes it this way. She says that Jesus washes the feet of his friends knowing that one of them would betray him. Jesus shares a meal with his friends knowing that one of them would betray him. Jesus continued to give himself away even to the one who would give him away. Our Lord’s faithfulness was not dependent on theirs. That’s the scene that we inhabit this night, the scene that we remember, the scene that we seek to embody as followers of Christ.
In the middle of the meal Jesus gets up and does something totally unexpected and radical. He gets up, gets down on his knees, and washes the feet of his disciples, something that would have been considered the lowest, most menial task of the lowest level servant. Jesus is not only teaching, he is modeling the commandment that he gave to the disciples and that he continues to give to you and to me: a new commandment I have for you that you love one another as I have loved you. What Jesus modeled for his friends and for us is a self–sacrificial love of pouring out of one’s self in an expression of love for one another. No exceptions.
As I was reflecting on the radical nature and message of that love, that transformative life–affirming life–giving love, I was reminded of two ministers who have embodied that for me and for so many. They’re pretty different ministers, but they have a few common threads.
The first was an experience I had some 20 years ago. My husband John and I took our son to San Francisco on a spring break and, at that point in time, let’s just say that having grown up in the Episcopal Church, a little mission church and then larger churches, my experience of the church to that day had been fairly traditional and fairly mainstream. To say that I was lost without a prayer book or hymnal might be a slight exaggeration, but my experiences weren’t very broad. John said to us, ”I want us to go to this amazing church that I’ve heard so much about and that has done so much for the poor and marginalized.” So we went to Glide Memorial Church. Some of you may have worshiped there or know of it. It’s located in the tenderloin area of San Francisco, one of the edgiest—we’ll put it that way—neighborhoods in the city, particularly so 50 years ago when a young African–American minister who was newly ordained from San Angelo, Texas, set foot in the tenderloin area of San Francisco only to discover a very dying church with maybe 35 members at that point in time. He looked at what was around him in the tenderloin area. What he saw were people who could only be characterized as seriously on the margins: the poor, pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers, homeless, and, over the years, a growing population of people infected and dying of HIV–AIDS.
Cecil Williams did something radical. He threw the doors of the church wide open and said, come, come. You are welcome here. You are community here. God loves you and I do, too. The church exploded in numbers, in mission, and purpose. All of a sudden the people on the margins were in the mainstream in Glide Memorial, making a difference to the poorest of the poor, the people that no one saw. They might have seen them, but they didn’t really see them. Over the course of his ministry, the church grew to over 11,000. Why? Because God was experienced in that place and lives were formed and changed and transformed. The radical love of God in Christ that Jesus spoke of and lived his life to give to you and to me.
On the day we went to worship, it was not a worship service like I’d ever experienced. There was jazz, there was blues, there was gospel, there was God, there was love, and the place was hopping and alive. As I looked out in the congregation I could see poor people, pimps, prostitutes, homeless people, and an awful lot of people who were ragamuffins, like you and me, all of whom have our own stories and struggles that just may not be as readily apparent on the surface. When I left that church, I left with an image of Cecil Williams that will never leave me. Without exception, he hugged every single person on the way out of that church, embodying God loves you and I do, too. Let me assure you, there were plenty of people who looked pretty un–huggable to me; I say that to my shame. And he even hugged me. Lives changed, transformed, radically opening wide what is God’s church.
Fast–forward. In the last few years I have marveled at the sometimes radical and transformative modeling of Pope Francis. Three years ago on his first Maundy Thursday celebration he broke tradition. I think he actually delights in breaking tradition. On that particular night, instead of going to St. Peter’s Basilica or St. John Lateran to wash people’s feet, he went to a juvenile detention center—not just any juvenile detention center, but one considered the detention center of last resort. When the Italian justice system and social system didn’t know what else to do with these troubled youth they sent them there. Pope Francis went on to wash the feet of the youth, including women and practitioners of Islam, breaking every tradition and rule before that point in time. He modeled how transformative that all–embracing, all–encompassing love of Christ can mean. It was crystallized for me when one youth, learning that the Holy Father was going there said, “At last, I’m going to meet someone who says he is my father.” Can you imagine?
Christ told his disciples to love one another as I have loved you. No exceptions. Tonight we have the opportunity to answer that question in our own lives. Jesus taught and modeled what that looked like to be a follower of Christ. Jesus continues to teach and model what it means to be a follower of Christ. You don’t have to be Cecil Williams. You don’t have to be Pope Francis. Thanks be to God.
Jesus asks us tonight, will you follow me? Will you love one another as I have loved you? No exceptions.
Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. Amen.