Dear Creator: May these words be delivered not only under your guidance, but as a living conversation from one heart to another. Amen
Maundy Thursday, April 2, 2015
by Christine Hemp
A sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA
I’ve never been too fond of Lent. And Holy Week is a kind of double-whammy when it comes to gloom and doom. When I was growing up, my mother would say, “Sometimes it’s hard to belong to a religion whose main character ends up bleeding on a cross….so gloomy!” (My family was light on gloom, heavy on cheer.) I had to agree with her. And yet, and yet…we all knew that the glory cannot come without the gloom. And gloom is the window to bloom.
I cannot claim to fully comprehend this week. And how we choose to approach the crucifixion is up to each of us, but this Holy Week story is filled with miraculous moments—even before the astonishing empty tomb.
Tonight’s service, for example. The obscurely named Maundy Thursday. Most likely it comes from Middle English from the Latin for Mandaytum, meaning command, taken from Jesus’ admonishment to his disciples (“A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you”) There are other speculations about where the name came from, but as a child I just could not figure out how Monday could also be a Thursday!
Throughout my adult life I have come and gone from various Episcopal churches — and Anglican when I lived in England. I was mostly moved by the emotion of Holy Week, but it wasn’t until I joined this little parish right here in Port Townsend that I first experienced the crescendo of Holy Week in a truly profound way. Not only intellectually but viscerally.
The poet Stanley Kunitz, now dead, has had a great influence on me as a poet. In a tiny essay called “The Wisdom of the Body” he tells us that poetry is more akin to music and dance than it is to what we now call writing (a relatively new invention, roughly three thousand years old). But poetry has been around for as long as humans have danced and sung our stories which were told — not from a book but from the body. “The words of a poem,” Kunitz says, are charged with the wisdom of the body and if they are trapped into print they jump from the page, because they are so vibrant with gesture.”
Gesture. It predates verbal language and some gestures “link us with the animal kingdom as we avert our eyes and neck in an attitude of submission, stamp our feet or nod our head in the act of greeting.” Kunitz says we must beware of speaking of mind as though it were somehow opposed to body or of spirit as though it were somehow superior to mind. All three, he says are merely stages of incandescence or awareness in the same living organism.
“Our most sublime thoughts have their feet planted in clay,” he writes. “Our best songs are body songs.”
I’d never participated in the gestures practiced at Maundy Thursday until I came to St. Paul’s. I was mildly horrified when I found out we were going to have to engage in actual foot washing. Someone washing my feet? Yikes. (My mother would have blanched at that one, too. “Too intimate!” she’d say.)
My first thought, of course, was not about Jesus or God or even about the people whose feet I might touch. My first thought (not unlike Peter) was about myself. “But what will they think of my my feet? What if my toe nails look strange? What if I miss shaving some hair on my legs? And what about those calluses from my riding boots?” Beset by apprehension, I realized that this service would require a stripping. Of my ego.
But before we go there, let’s return for a moment to the miraculous. So Jesus has gathered with his closest friends–those with whom he has shared tears and hilarity, arguments, and joy, dissent and solidarity. This will be the last time they will have a meal together– to drink wine, eat, and tell stories just as we have done tonight.
But what amazes me as that evening unfolds is that Jesus knows full well what the next twenty-four hours will bring: Betrayal, a splintering of his best friends and followers, and his own death hovering on the lip of the horizon. That is one big load to carry. But instead of focusing on his own feet, he turns to the dusty, weary feet of his beloved friends.
Foot washing for them, of course, was as common as wiping one’s muddy feet on our doormats. In most households, a guest would be given a bowl and towel, but in more privileged homes a servant or a slave would perform the washing. The disciples must have been a little weirded out when Jesus — the Man!–slips off his robe, suits up with a towel, and begins filling bowls with water. They were, shall we say, bowled over. Peter, aghast and forthright as ever, promptly asks if this is what he is actually going to do. When Jesus says yes, that it’s part of the plan, Peter holds up his hands , “No no no no no you will never do that for me!” implying that such a task was way below his Master.
When Jesus gently explains that the balance of Creation depends on this, and that he’d better stick out those toes or Peter can no longer be Jesus’ intimate — Peter’s familiar awkward enthusiasm rises to the surface (remember him at the Transfiguration “Let’s build us some cabins for these three visions!!)
“Okay Okay!! I’ll do it. “ he says, “Bring it on! Not only my feet, please, but a full body shampoo!” I can so relate to Peter — talking out of turn, misplaced enthusiasms, and an all-or-nothing sensibility. I am grateful for Peter for he — like Judas and every other one of those in the story– feels like me.
What I do not know but can only imagine is how Jesus felt that night. He held two things inside him that must have been terribly at odds — not only tender love but immense dread. Who of us has not felt that deep sense of foreboding (real or imagined) that makes our hearts race, our mouths go dry, our stomachs tighten, our eyes sting with almost-spilled tears? Who has not felt the slathering darkness circle, whispering doom? A husband’s blood test turns up funky, a daughter’s job is in jeopardy, your own health takes an unexpected turn, your wife says she is thinking of leaving you. Your child has disappeared. You have been betrayed by a lover or a friend. Or you have been told–by your Father–that you only have hours to live?
Dread is never about now, of course. It’s always about the unknown. What hasn’t happened. Or may never happen. But Jesus could see the future, yet he carried ALL of this and more: He still he drank a glass of wine, he told his friends that they must never stop loving, and that they couldn’t come with him, but that he loved them oh so much. Jesus carried both dread AND love in the same heart.
Who among us could do such a thing? And if so, how?
For me, the miraculous part of this story comes when Jesus gets up from the table, probably his wine glass half full, a plate left at his place. He doesn’t go on philosophizing about how to love. He doesn’t post a clever, shared quotation on Facebook about love, nor does he tell them to “just FEEL it!” He does not say: “After I’m gone, guys, go build yourselves a CHURCH! Maybe even a Megachurch! Nor does he say, Write sermons and theological treatises and spend a lot of time arguing about religion! No.
Actually, he stopped talking. He fell to his knees, and got busy with the business of love.
In the face of so many farewells, he dips his hands in the water, and smooths them over the toes and heels and cracked calluses of those he called family, even the one who would betray him in a matter of hours. He stripped right down to the basics, the feet planted on our Mother Earth.
So. During that first Maundy Thursday service I attended here, something in me shifted. Right in front of me, my St. Paul’s family taught me how to love. It wasn’t theater, nor was it any woo-woo rite filled with self approbation. It was simply people — many of you right here in this room right now. With feet like mine. And instead of worrying about my own feet, I began to celebrate the other’s: old feet, tiny feet, hairy feet, pale feet. Crooked feet, glamorous feet, pink-toenailed feet, and creased feet. Feet that had seen some miles. Young, tender feet. Feet of my fellow pilgrims — laid bare. When it was my turn I gladly washed my partner’s. And when it came time, I surrendered to the care and blessing of my own. All my inhibitions seemed to slip off into that bowl of warm water.
“Love one another, Jesus said. “Just as I have loved you…” Not only did he love, he showed us how.
This business of love is an awful lot like the business of poetry. Mind, spirit, AND body. So tonight, dear family of St. Paul’s, as we strip off our shoes and socks, let us also strip our egos, our attachment to convention, our tired expectations of “church,” and our own vanity. Let us embrace one another at the most elemental level without a word. For “our most sublime thoughts have their feet planted in clay. Our best songs are body songs.”