SERMONS THAT WORK
MAUNDY THURSDAY, YEAR A
Sermon for that Day
Exodus 12:1-14a; Psalm 78:14-20, 23-25; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 (27-32); John 13:1-15 or Luke 22:14-30
by the Rev. Susanna Metz
Imagine a scene in an old black-and-white movie. At first, all you see on the screen are feet -- old feet, middle-aged feet, children's feet -- caked with mud and marked by oozing sores from a long forced march, from slipping and staggering in the ankle-deep muck because these feet seem to be carrying more than just the weight of a human body. There are other feet in the scene. These are the feet of people who seem to be standing on the sidelines, also barefoot, but not stumbling, not oozing blood, standing as if they are watching the spectacle of this pitiful parade passing before them. For several minutes the viewer doesn't see the rest of any of the people -- just their feet. Pounding rain adds to the misery of this scene, and the whole image is as stark and emotionally charged as only a moody black-and-white movie can be.
In a few minutes, the scene changes and the viewers sees who these people are: five Franciscan friars and 20 other men, women, and children are the people whose feet we are watching as they struggle through the mud and rain. They're carrying crossbeams-much too heavy for an adult to carry for several miles, let alone a child. They're being force-marched as an example to the people who see them as they pass through the villages of the Japanese countryside. They are on their way to a field where they will all be crucified. It is 1597 and they will be crucified because they will not renounce their Christian faith. They will be among the first people martyred in the Japanese persecution of Christians. The church celebrates their memory each year on January 5, and this movie was made to give us a glimpse of the price these people paid for their faithfulness.
January fifth is a long way in the church calendar from Maundy Thursday, but the story -- the image of feet and faithfulness and crucifixion -- is the same. Whether or not a congregation includes foot washing in its Maundy Thursday liturgy, the image of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples is a very vivid one. John writes: Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.
When we get this much detail in a Gospel passage, we can really picture the scene in our minds. Imagine a black-and-white movie recording this scene. Picture only Jesus' hands taking the feet of his followers one by one -- each of them simple, uneducated folk, taking their dusty callused feet in his hands, pouring water over them, and then wiping them dry. How he must have loved each of the people those feet belonged to. How he must have agonized for them, because he knew that his time had come and they still didn't understand. And he knew that one of these disciples, one of those whose feet he had washed, one who would later share the bread and wine of the meal, that one would betray him.
This is an incredibly poignant scene, but John didn't write this account just to tell his readers a nice story about Jesus. He included it in his Gospel because he understood what Jesus was doing. John understood that Jesus was teaching his followers, and ultimately each one of us, a very important lesson about ministry -- about living the way God wants us to live. Jesus, the consummate teacher, was showing his disciples that hospitality is basic to leading a godly life; that hospitality is a basic ingredient of true leadership.
In one way, Jesus' disciples would have understood what Jesus was doing when he washed their feet. In the culture of that time, any good host would make sure his guests' feet were washed by a servant when they entered the house. What would have surprised the disciples is that Jesus, the host, their rabbi, was washing their feet. That was part of Peter's objection to Jesus' washing of his feet. But Jesus was showing his disciples that true hospitality goes much deeper than basic good manners. In washing even Judas' feet, Jesus was extending hospitality, his acceptance, even to the one who would betray him. Even though Jesus knew that Judas' act of betrayal would set into motion the events leading to his death, Jesus didn't push him out of the community. To the end, Jesus offered Judas a chance to change.
Jesus told his disciples: I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Jesus says the same thing to each one of us, and if he could include Judas, shouldn't we think very seriously about those we find it all to easy to exclude?
Many feet walk into our lives and into our church every day -- old feet, young feet, feet of different races, poor feet, children's feet, feet of the needy, feet of the arrogant, feet of the annoying, feet of those we love and feet of those we fear, feet of those who are like us and feet of those who aren't just like us. Whose feet would we be willing to wash? Whose feet would we rather not touch at all?
Jesus showed by his example that we really don't have a choice in the matter. If we have, through our baptism, promised to live a godly life, to live by Jesus' teachings, to respect the dignity of all God's creatures, then we must be willing, literally or figuratively, to wash everyone's feet, no matter what. We have to be willing to show that same hospitality, that same acceptance, to everyone, no matter what. Washing each other's feet can be an intimately loving act, but we must also remember that there are other consequences of that unconditional love. Judas didn't change his mind -- and tonight Jesus begins his final way to the cross.
The Rev. Susanna Metz is Executive Director of the Center for Ministry in Small Churches at the school of Theology, Sewanee, TN, and is Assistant Professor of Contextual Education. She is also publisher of Tuesday Morning, a quarterly journal of ministry and liturgical preaching.
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