Sermon from Maundy Thursday, April 17, 2014
Text: John 13:1-17, 31-35
Preached by the Rev. Matt Gaventa
So, last week in the news I read that Jesus has taken up residence in Davidson, North Carolina. Now, you may know Davidson — home of the college of the same name, just north of Charlotte — and you may not. I’ve never been. I know the college only by reputation — for years it has been one of the preeminent colleges with deep connections to the Presbyterian Church. In fact that whole part of the country teems with Presbyterians. We’re all over Charlotte. We like those Smoky Mountains. We put a fabulous retreat center up near Black Mountain. It’s Presbyterians wall to wall out there, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at all that Jesus has come there to hang out.
Except of course that he doesn’t show up exactly in the way we might expect. In this case, he’s on a park bench. An Episcopal congregation in Davidson — yes, they have those, too — an Episcopal congregation has installed a statue of Jesus on a park bench right in front of the church. He’s lying on his side, shrouded in a thin blanket, hands and face hidden – in fact in every respect he looks intentionally indistinguishable from the masses of homeless who find their best shelter on park benches not unlike that one. The look is convincing enough that one of the neighbors called the cops: she drove by, thought she saw an actual homeless person sleeping on the bench, and called the police.
As you might expect, Davidson’s a fairly well-off community, at least affluent enough that just seeing a homeless person sleeping on a bench would be sufficient cause to call the authorities. On a quick drive-by, she couldn’t possibly have even seen the only distinguishing feature, there, set in the stone of his exposed feet, the marks of crucifixion. Which is to say that it may be controversial enough to depict the base reality of homelessness without even adding Jesus into the mix: once you do that, it gets even more so. The rector has this to say: “This is a relatively affluent church, to be honest, and we need to be reminded that our faith expresses itself in active concern for the marginalized of society.” And I would want to add that our faith not only expresses itself in such concern, but in fact has its roots precisely on those societal margins, and if that sounds controversial, I hope it at least also sounds Biblical: You may remember from the Gospel of Matthew: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head;” or, perhaps, the more familiar insistence from Jesus’s lips that “Just as you did it to one of the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.”
Yes, at the very center of the story we tell is a man who dares to occupy the very margins of society and then dares us to welcome him in. And so goes our first pass at tonight’s reading from the Gospel of John, the traditional reading for Maundy Thursday, the story of course of the Last Supper and Jesus’s commandment to the disciples to love one another and also this memorable scene where he strips of the clothing of his journey and puts on the towel of a servant and begins to wash his disciples’ feet. And Peter won’t have any part of it – “Lord, are you going to wash my feet? You will never wash my feet” – because of course we have servants for that sort of thing and that’s the right order of things and apparently he just hadn’t taken seriously Jesus’s insistence on identifying himself, over and over, with those on the lowest rung of the ladder. Apparently all of those healings and all of that preaching about social justice and all of that identification with those most quickly forgotten and every minute of Peter’s part in Jesus’s radical acts of hospitality and all of it just vanishes. You know if this had been on a quiz – True or False: Jesus cares more about the middle-class than he does about those on the margins – you know Peter would have aced that thing. Heck, even an essay question would’ve been no problem. But it’s one thing to have the answer, and another one to live it out.
How well we know, that it’s one thing to have the answer, and another to live it out. How well we know the answer, and how easy it is to offer ourselves in half measure.A drop in the offering plate; a drop in the bucket compared to what we could do and what the world needs. I remember walking up the streets of Madison Avenue early one Sunday morning – and this is in the last few years, this is Michael Bloomberg’s New York – and of course every block of the city was full to the brim of high-end retail, glass-fronted skyscrapers and boutique sandwich joints, all scrubbed as clean as they could be, and then I’d pass a church, and there, underneath some old gothic arch, there would be huddled together as many homeless as could possibly fit, sleeping on the steps of the sanctuary, wrapped in whatever meager coats and blankets they could find. And on one hand it’s powerful to realize that those churches have agreed not to call the cops and not to push away those who have no other place to go but then of course I’m pretty sure that if Jesus was there he would have opened the door. Or, rather, more to the point, I’m fairly sure that Jesus was there, sleeping on the steps, and the door wasn’t open. Naked, and we did not clothe him. A stranger, and we did not welcome. We just let them have the doorway. Half measures. Easy enough for me to critique while I walk past.
“Lord, are you going to wash my feet? You will never wash my feet!” Peter is incredulous that even here, even at the very end, that even here Jesus could insist on radical acts hospitality as the very cornerstone of the Gospel. He becomes the servant so that we all become the servant so that we all might know what it is to give our clothes to the naked and open our doors to the stranger so that we might all know what it is to do that Maundy Thursday commandment of loving one another. And yet. This simple act – leaving behind the clothes of the journey, taking on the towel of the servant, washing the feet of the disciples — Jesus isn’t just showing the disciples what it means to serve. Even more fundamentally he’s showing them what it means to be served. He’s not just teaching us about opening our doors and welcoming strangers; he’s welcoming us; he’s opening himself to us. This Last Supper table isn’t just Jesus’s last chance with a captive audience to ram his point home before the big exam. It’s more than that. It’s the first glimpse of a table feast where Jesus isn’t just the servant; he’s the host, and we are all welcome. All of us: You, me, the guys sleeping on the church steps, the woman calling the cops, all of us, served; all of us, at home; all of us, welcomed to that everlasting banquet where nobody goes hungry and the doors never close. In that sense we should hardly call tonight the Last Supper. In that sense it is really only the first of many.
In just a few moments we will gather around this table to break bread and pour the cup together and serve one another as we have been taught. It is an ambitious thing we do, to believe ourselves worthy of these gifts, to believe that in this bread and in this cup that Jesus might ever serve us, to believe that at this sacred table Jesus might ever welcome us, to believe that even in a dark and cruel and violent world Jesus might ever be gracious unto us. And yet this is the Gospel of Maundy Thursday: that he was hungry, and we did not feed him, and yet his body is broken for us. He was thirsty, and we gave him nothing to drink, and yet he pours out his blood as the cup of eternal life. He was naked, and we did not clothe him. He was a stranger, and we closed our doors. But do not miss the marks of crucifixion in his feet. They are nothing short of the power of God working for the redemption of all things. And by that power. By the power grace of this day. By the power grace of these three days. By the grace that welcomes us at the table and to the garden and beneath the cross and beyond the grave, by that grace we are known; by that grace we are served.
“Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
“Child, I have already made you clean.”