FOOTWASHING STORIES

MAUNDY THURSDAY, YEAR A
JOHN 13:1-17, 31b-35
APRIL 13, 2017
ST. AUGUSTINE’S EPISCOPAL CHURCH
MORROW, GEORGIA
THE REVEREND BARRY GRIFFIN

We call tonight Maundy Thursday.  In some Christian traditions, tonight is known as Holy Thursday.  Others know it as Covenant Thursday.  The Germans call is Gruen Donnerstag: Green Thursday.  But for us it’s Maundy Thursday, and here’s why.

Tonight’s gospel ends with Jesus’ words, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Having washed the feet of his disciples, Jesus put on his robe and returned to the table.  He then explained what he had done.  And he told his disciples that they should do the same for each other.  Then he gave them a new commandment.  Just as Jesus loved them, they should love one another.  They should humble themselves and serve one another.  They should wash each other’s feet as servants do for those they serve.

That’s the new commandment, in Latin the “Mandatum novum”.  And that’s where we get our Maundy Thursday: from the Latin Mandatum.  We say “Maundy”.

It’s only in John’s gospel that we find the account of the footwashing.  You won’t find it in Matthew, Mark or Luke.  We hear this story once a year, and only on this night.  That’s one reason that tonight is so special.  But there are other reasons.

Tonight I will share with you three footwashing stories by three women.  These women explain why footwashing means so much to them.

The first story is from The Rev. Elizabeth Marie Melchionna.  She once served a seminary in Thailand.  She writes: “I was surprised by how dirty feet could get in Thailand.  Yet the students at the seminary where I taught had never celebrated a foot-washing liturgy for Maundy Thursday.

“The foot washings held in my previous parishes were highly sanitized affairs with only a few brave parishioners offering already-clean and well-groomed feet to be washed.  These foot washings were tender and beautiful but also manicured.

In Thailand, the sign of our love for one another was a soapy, wet, outdoor experience.  We set up in a circle outside the home of a student in a yard of scrubby grass, surrounded by a few buckets of soapy water and a garden hose.  We took turns gently washing each other’s feet, frequently changing the water as layers of road grime washed off our feet and ankles.  Everyone participated wholeheartedly and with vulnerability, rejoicing in the ways in which we served each other and lived into Jesus’ commandment to love one another.”

The second story is told from a verger’s standpoint. Our vergers are Phil Kyle and Chuck Dale. Robin Dake is a verger at St. Matthias Church, Toccoa.  She writes: “As we continue our journey through Lent, I already know there will be a moment when I will find myself standing, literally, in front of God and everyone, with tears streaming down my face.

“It is a moment that is far and near, painful and beautiful, humiliating and humbling.

“Serving as a verger in my church is one of my favorite ways of giving back. I love quietly observing, checking the nuances in the room, assessing what needs to be done to make sure everything goes smoothly, subtly flowing with the service.  I love that my instinctive, sometimes annoying, often useful habit of always carrying a mental checklist in my head gives me a way to serve, to use what comes naturally to be helpful in a community that means so much.

“And I take seriously the training we have had, to do this service with stoicism and invisibility.  Most Sundays, I pull this off pretty well, staying focused and getting things done as a quiet figure in black.

“Maundy Thursday is different.

“For me, Maundy Thursday is the hardest, most beautiful, most searing evening we have.  Over the years, I have gradually allowed myself to reach deeper and deeper into the darkness that is Holy Week.  I attend the services, say the prayers and really feel the pain of walking with Jesus as he goes from joy to betrayal to death.  I find that Easter is that much more joyful and shimmering after plumbing the depths of Holy Week.

“For the last several years, I have volunteered to verge Maundy Thursday, even though I know I will end up in tears.  It is not the story of Jesus having a final meal with his best friends that rips through me. It is not that he knows he has already been betrayed once and will be betrayed a second time by Peter that starts the waterworks, though those stories rend my heart.

“Nope, it is the foot washing.

“I get to this portion of the service already fragile. Those familiar stories never fail to make me think of my own family of friends and the love we share, the times we have broken bread together and the losses and heartaches we have walked together.

“As the verger, it is my job to help keep things flowing, to refill the water in the basins, to collect the damp towels and replace them with fresh ones.  It is my job to be stoic and unemotional during this soft time.

“But the sheer beauty of my church family washing each other’s feet moves me deeply. Two by two they come forward, a little awkward, a little unsure, but determined to this thing we do as a church.  And the pairings themselves are part of the loveliness.

“There is the older couple, married for decades, helping one another to the chairs, and then delicately washing wrinkled feet.  There are the youngsters, who just find this fun and want to do it again and again, with barely suppressed giggles and innocence.  There’s the teenager who rises above her awkward adolescence to gently wash the feet of a near-stranger.

“Each moment, each pairing, is exquisite.  And so, the tears come.

“While I am not a fan of showing too much emotion in public, I suspect this is a needed part of my Lenten journey as much as the prayers and the quiet.  It makes me vulnerable.  It makes me broken and open, able to receive the gifts I didn’t even know I needed.  And I think it makes me a better person.

“So, come Maundy Thursday, I will don the black cassock and walk with the wooden verge.  I will check to make sure the candles are lit and the readers are ready.  I will fill the basins and collect the towels.  And I will cry, in front of God and everyone.”

The final footwashing story is by a Roman Catholic woman, Meghan Murphy-Gill.  She’s the managing editor for U.S. Catholic magazine.  Meghan writes: “I took my son to church for Holy Thursday for the first time last year when he was just more than 18 months old.  I worried that we’d have to leave early or stand in the back of the church, resigned to tracing the stained glass windows with our fingers while the rest of our community prayed, listened to scripture, shared the eucharistic meal, and washed each other’s feet.  My worries quickly abated, however, when upon our arrival our priest took my son by the hand and walked him through the church, explaining in hushed tones the holy practices we would all participate in that evening, him included.

“My son was uncharacteristically quiet.  How much of this is he getting?  I wondered to myself.

“Apparently enough, and more than I could have expected.  When it came time to wash our feet, my son didn’t hesitate and was the first to climb into a chair.  As the rest of the congregation chanted ‘Veni, Sancte Spiritus,’ beckoning the presence of the Holy Spirit, our priest knelt at my son’s feet, helped him remove his shoes, and poured water over his chubby toes.  I knelt down next to him and helped dry his feet with the soft towel. It was a holy moment.

“’It’s your mama’s turn now,’ the priest said, when we’d finished washing and drying his feet together.  I helped my son out of the chair and sat down.  This part felt more uncomfortable to me.  Between all my work, errands, cleaning, and general caretaking as a mom, I hadn’t had any time for even a DIY pedicure.  I was embarrassed by the state of my feet, but this mattered not at all to my son.  The priest helped him pour water from a stone pitcher over my feet.  They then held them in a towel.  Fat tears filled my eyes and tumbled down my cheeks, surprising me.  Why was I crying? I wondered.

“’I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another,’ Jesus tells his friends in John’s gospel.  Holy Thursday, I thought, looking at this scripture passage, is all about loving and humbly serving one another.  And yet the moment that had moved me to tears was when I was loved and served by my own son.  In the days that followed, I prayed and reflected on the cause for my tears.

“When Jesus prepares to wash his friends’ feet his last night on earth, Peter protests, aghast that the one he calls teacher should sit at his own feet and wash them.  He only agrees to the whole scenario once Jesus tells him, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me’ [John 13:8].  I imagine Peter covering his eyes in embarrassment and wincing as his savior removes his sandals for him.

“As I reflected more deeply on this new commandment from Good Friday to Easter and then through the rest of the year, it occurred to me that I’d only been taking part of Jesus’ instruction seriously.  Since my son’s birth, I’d been living out the ‘love one another’ part of the ‘new commandment’ in a way that consumed all the minutes of my life.  I’d cleaned his face after every meal, bathed him every night, and wiped his bottom countless times a day.  But suddenly, here he was, at my feet, washing and drying me. Loving and serving me.

“One of my biggest spiritual challenges, and one that I revisit every Lent, is to not let my ego get in the way of my reliance on God.  I don’t like to be vulnerable. And I’m wary of relying on others.  As a smart, competent American woman, I’m afflicted by a particular zeal for self-reliance in the way many parents, caretakers, aid workers, and nurses are.

“That pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps mentality can go too far and is a way to make the self the center of life instead of God.  Sometimes, when we focus so much on serving others, and do so in the name of God’s love, it’s so easy to forget that we are just as beloved.  In truth, we are reliant on our brothers and sisters, regardless of whether we recognize it.  So there is a constant pastoral need to liturgically practice Jesus’ new commandment that we love one another as we are loved by God.  It’s a wonder we don’t wash each other’s feet more than once a year.

“When I watched my son easily climb into the chair and remove his shoes, I was offered a glimpse into what the new commandment looks like in honest, vulnerable, faithful practice.  It’s not merely God’s dream that we love and serve each other, but that we also accept our own belovedness.  Footwashing, then, is sacramental, revealing God’s desire for creation to care and be cared for.

“Recently I was remembering last year’s Holy Thursday service with a friend of mine.  He recounted how one of the women in our congregation, whose health had started to decline, sat down to have her feet washed by her husband.  ‘They are approaching the end of their life together, and here was the sacrament of their 50-odd years of marriage: him washing her feet, her allowing him to do it, both in absolute trust,’ my friend said. ‘I was expecting the sky to rip open any moment.’”

So we’ve heard three footwashing stories: one from a priest who served in Thailand, one from a verger at St. Matthias’ Church, Toccoa, and one from a Roman Catholic mother.  These stories reveal the impact of footwashing on these women.  All three accounts are heartfelt.

So, what about you?  Does the rite of footwashing have an impact on you?  Do you have a footwashing story?  Is there some particular Maundy Thursday footwashing that you recall?  Or do you have a more general response to what we will do here tonight?  How does it make you feel?  What is it about footwashing, anyway?

Some people love it.  Some people hate it.  How do you feel about it?  What’s your story?

[Several parishioners and a guest responded.]

Amen.

If you would like to respond to this sermon or receive future sermons by email, contact me at barryqgriffin@earthlink.net

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