A Sermon for Maundy Thursday

St. Catherine’s Episcopal Church
Chelsea, Alabama
Thursday, April 13, 2017

Maundy Thursday + Year A
First Lesson: Exodus 12:1-14
Psalm 116:1, 10-17
Second Lesson: I Corinthians 11:23-26
Gospel: John 13:1-7, 31b-35 

+ Now, O Lord, take my lips and speak through them; take our minds and think through them; take our hearts and set them on fire for your Gospel; in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

15727295_1197925136951213_2270845118382347316_nI am not one to come up with titles to my sermons.

I know some preachers who do, and that’s great- especially if it helps them focus on the message that they’re trying to convey.

If I were to come up with a title for my sermon this evening, I suppose it would be, “The Gift of Unexpected Grace.” That’s pretty “catchy,” right? “The Gift of Unexpected Grace.”

To me, that’s really what Maundy Thursday and the entire journey through Holy Week is all about – a gift of love – one that is given freely and willingly, one that exceeds our expectations and goes beyond what we could possibly ask for or imagine.

It was true of Jesus’ disciples and the first Christians, and it remains true for us and for all who follow Jesus.

On the night before Jesus died for us, he was seated around the dinner table with his friends, and after supper, he got up from the table, took off his outer garment, and tied a towel around himself. I would imagine that, as he was doing this, his disciples were looking at each other with confusion on their faces. “What is he doing?” they might have asked each other. “Why is he tying a towel around his waist as if he is going to wash our feet?”

In Jesus’ time, it was considered common hospitality to greet people and to offer for them to have their feet washed, especially if they were wearing sandals and traveling by foot along a dusty road. It’s very likely that Jesus had his own feet washed at times during his earthly ministry as he was welcomed into the homes of people he visited. Foot washing was a common practice, something that travelers expected when they arrived at their destination after a long journey. What was not expected, however, is that this act of hospitality would be carried out by anyone other than a slave or a disciple to his master.

This is why I imagine Jesus gathered with his disciples in the upper room and a certain amount of confusion in the air as to what Jesus is doing when he gets up from the dinner table and prepares to wash their feet. It also seems to explain why Simon Peter is shocked by what is happening and why he reacts the way that he does when he tells Jesus, “You will never wash my feet.” Foot washing is the responsibility of the slave, not the guest. It’s something that a disciple does for his master, not the other way around.

But, Jesus is clear in his instruction. He responds to Peter, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Jesus is trying to convey to Peter and to all of his disciples that the only way to truly follow him is by serving others, but in order to do so, they must first allow themselves to be served.

So, he gives them an example to live by. He washes their feet, and he does so out of love, despite the threat of his impending arrest and suffering.

He washes their feet in order to teach them that, in God’s Kingdom, there is no room for pride – only humility. There is no room for hatred – only love. There is no room for selfishness – only service.

This past December, as we were in the midst of getting moved in and settled into our new home here in Chelsea, we had the opportunity to spend Christmas with our families in Alabama and Georgia. So, we headed south to Andalusia to spend a few nights with Chelsea’s family, and then on Christmas Day, we headed northeast to Newnan, Georgia, to spend a couple of nights with my family.

Our time together during the holidays included the usual exchange of Christmas presents. As expected, the adults mostly exchanged gift cards with one another, and between both sets of grandparents, Sophie and Jude got way too many gifts.

But, this Christmas was different. This was a Christmas that I will never forget because it’s the time that my father gave me a gift that caught me completely by surprise – a gift that I will treasure for many years to come. You see, my father is a painter. It’s a hobby that he’s had for most of his life – a talent that he surely inherited from his mother. Well, a few days before Christmas, he came up with the idea to surprise me with a new painting, which is something that he has never done before at Christmas. But, this wasn’t an ordinary painting – especially for him; most of his paintings are of landscapes or pictures of old buildings that he’s come across. This one was different, though. This one was a depiction of Jesus, the suffering servant with a crown of thorns upon his head – an image that my father knew would be meaningful to me. When he handed it to me to unwrap, I was totally confused by what was happening. I had no idea what to expect. After all, this was beyond the ordinary Christmas gift card. As I unwrapped it, I began to understand what it was. This was a gift unlike anything I had ever been given – an unexpected gift, given out of love.

In my experience, I’ve found that preachers often struggle to come up with modern day examples of the love that Jesus exhibits toward his disciples when he washes their feet – a love that is born out of humility and selflessness, but from my perspective, all you really have to do is look for those moments of grace that we experience in our lives when we receive a gift that far exceeds our expectations. Chances are that, if you receive a gift like that, it has been given out of the same kind of love that Jesus has shown toward us, the same kind of love that we are called to share with all people.

In just a moment, we’re going to do something new at St. Catherine’s – something that may cause some of us to be a bit anxious. We are going to participate in the ritual washing of feet, a custom that has been associated with the liturgy for Maundy Thursday for centuries. In the washing of feet, we are called to remember who we are as followers of Jesus and to participate in the servant ministry of Christ. Of course, no one is required to participate, but I want to encourage you to try it, even if you are a bit anxious. What we come to learn by doing it is that we are all connected in our journey with Christ and that together, we are called to make the love of Christ known to this broken and sinful world. Amen.

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