Thursday, April 13, 2017

We Do It For Love's Sake

April 13, 2015 – Maundy Thursday
© 2017 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Before listening, you may want to know that I cried throughout the sermon, which may make the recording difficult to hear.

One night, as a young adolescent, I tried to slip into bed without performing the nightly routine prescribed by my parents. My mother caught me and asked whether I had brushed my teeth. Not wanting to get out from under the covers, I asked in that whiny voice that teenage boys often use when trying to get something from their mothers, “Will you brush them for me?” I didn’t think that she would say yes, but, when she said no, her answer was so firm, so unequivocal, that it startled me. “Why not?” I asked, halfway continuing my whiny request and halfway wanting to know why she had answered so quickly. “Because that reminds me of when I had to brush my mother’s teeth before she died,” she said, walking out of the room. Without another word, I got out of the bed, walked quickly and quietly to the bathroom, certain I would never ask for that again.

There are some jobs, some chores, that only a parent or spouse or child who has cared for a dying or disabled loved-one can appreciate. When feeding our youngest child or changing her dirty diapers, I joke with my older children about how they will have to do that for me one day. It’s a joke, but behind it is more truth than either they or I can comprehend. What happens when our mother is unable to feed herself? What happens when our father cannot make it to the commode? Now that he or she cannot stand up, who bathes the one who bathed us when we were infants? Like you, I find it uncomfortable to wash another person’s feet or let someone wash my feet, but what words can express the discomfort of looking into the eyes of a parent as you change her soiled undergarments or looking at a son or daughter as that child helps you with the most private of human functions?

Sometimes we accept that responsibility willingly. Other times we have no choice because there is no long-term care insurance or because there isn’t enough money to pay someone else to do it. Whether by choice or by necessity, the care that we offer our incapacitated loved-one is an act of duty, love, and devotion. It is certainly difficult. It is often overwhelming. Sometimes we literally, physically and emotionally, cannot do it anymore. But when we can, we accept that role because of the love that we have for that other person. That love might be tested as fully as any love ever has, but it is only love that makes such devotion possible. If it were not for love, who would do those things for another person—for an acquaintance or a stranger?

On the night before he died, Jesus was at table with his disciples. Knowing that his time on earth was nearing its end, he got up from the table and tied a towel around his waist and went around the room, washing each of his disciples’ feet. We know that act principally through this gospel lesson and through our reenactment of it each year on Maundy Thursday, but, because of that, I find it difficult to understand what it really meant for Jesus to wash his disciples’ feet. I think that the image and the lesson that Jesus was trying to teach us are partially locked in the past—in an era when washing someone’s feet was not a ceremonial act but a commonplace chore reserved for the most menial household servant. Only the lowliest slave would have been given that responsibility.

Who are the foot-washers of today? What are the least desired jobs in twenty-first century America? When I was growing up, being a garbage man or a janitor seemed to be the epitome of a dirty, thankless job. Since then, Mike Rowe’s series on the Discovery Channel Dirty Jobs has shown us that there are plenty of occupations much worse than those. Nowadays, as I spend a lot more time in hospitals and nursing homes and at the bedsides of dying parishioners, I have a different understanding of what it means to do the job that no one else wants to do. What is the first job that we would rather pass off to someone else? Whatever it is, that is the foot-washing of our day. Of all the chores one might ever have to complete, the one that is reserved for the lowliest of the low is the very thing that Jesus tells us to do.

When Jesus came to wash Peter’s feet, the brash disciple rejected Jesus’ offer not because, like us, Peter didn’t want someone else touching his feet but because he couldn’t stand for his teacher and master and Lord to stoop down and perform such a lowly task. “You will never wash my feet,” Peter declared, certain that he would have no part in this role-reversal. The teacher cannot kneel before the disciple. The master cannot serve the servant. But Jesus said to him, “Unless I wash you, you have no share in me.” Peter heard those words as if Jesus had been speaking of some sort of ritual cleansing, which is why he replied, “Lord, not only my feet but also my hands and my head!” But Jesus wasn’t talking about getting clean. He was talking about getting dirty.

“Do you know what I have done?” Jesus asked his disciples when he had finished. “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” Jesus wasn’t only talking about the act of washing one another’s feet. You might be relieved to know that we haven’t decided to do this foot-washing more than once a year, but don’t think that you’re out of the woods just yet. Jesus isn’t telling us to wash one another’s feet. It’s more than that—much more. Jesus is commanding us to love one another just as he has loved us—with the same kind of love that strips away all position and status and ego, the kind of love that stoops down to do the unthinkable.

As followers of Jesus, we must do the very thing that we would never want to do, and we must do it out of love. But, unlike the duty we perform for a parent, spouse, or child, we accept this task not for love of family or friend but for love of Jesus. We wash one another’s feet because Jesus first loved us and because we love him back. If we love him, we will love one another with the same indiscriminate, overwhelming love that he has shown the world. We love them and care for them not because they are our family or close friends, not because they go to church with us, not because they think like us, not because they vote the way we vote, not because they can pay us back, but simply because we were loved like that by Jesus.

We belong to God because we have been loved by him, and we are followers of Jesus to the extent that we participate in that love. We come to the altar rail to receive his body and blood, which were given to us in love, but, unless we commit ourselves to the love that that sacrifice represents, unless we allow him to be our servant and follow his example by giving ourselves completely to others in his name, we can have no share with him. We must take the love that he has for us—the kind of love we first feel toward those closest to us—and make it our love for everyone else. We must love the whole world just as he has loved us. We must wash one another’s feet. If we will follow Jesus, we must humble ourselves and give ourselves to one another as perfect gift. And we must do it purely for love’s sake.

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