Maundy Thursday, 5 April
The Rev. Margaret Anne Trezevant, Parish Deacon
I Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
I thought about how to tell this story delicately, in a sermon, on Maundy Thursday no less. But it is an image about love that struck me at the time, and continues to inform what I think about it. Many years ago, when I was very young and wide-eyed, and bushy-tailed a person who was very close to me was about to get married. She was quite a bit older than I, and had surfed in on the outer edge of the sexual revolution. Which means that, in her own way, she had missed it entirely. She was wildly in love, or something. We’ve all seen that starry-eyed enrapturement either in ourselves or in others. Persons in this state can be difficult to be around, impossible to have a conversation with, and certainly have no room in their calendar for you. I hope you are getting a picture of this, because I’d be a little embarrassed to think that I’m the only one who has had this experience with a person “in love”.
She was, and I believe her, celibate. She was, in her words “saving herself” for marriage because, she told me at the time, that “giving yourself in that way is the highest gift that you can give to another person.” That’s a whole other sermon, but moving on, she did marry, had children, struggled with money, life and relationships. And then, in the prime of her days, she became very ill with a progressive and debilitating disease. She struggled on bravely, not wanting to draw attention to the fact that her body was failing her. It was painful to watch her try and navigate stairs, open a jar, pick up a small item from a table, hold her children.
There came a time when I was visiting her and was walking past her room. She was sitting on the edge of her bed and her husband was kneeling in front of her gently helping her put on her stockings, something her twisted and painful hands were unable to do.
It reminded me of the tenderness and compassion with which Jesus knelt before his disciples and washed their feet. And I remember thinking “what is the highest form of love you can give?” I have never asked her if she has changed her mind about that, I don’t know if she even thinks about it anymore. But I know this: love doesn’t always look the way we think it should, the way our culture tells us it should.
As this week progresses we will have the opportunity to look even more deeply into the love of Jesus and what he was willing to do. Paul starts us off with the description of that first Eucharistic meal. But what we didn’t read was Paul’s rebuke of the Corinthians who had lost sight of what the Eucharistic meal was, an agape meal. Already they were dividing themselves up into “haves” and “have nots”, worthy believers and not-so-worthy believers. Or, as in a comic this week with a man standing before Peter at the Pearly Gates making his case for entry, is told: “You were a believer, yes. But you forgot about the ‘don’t be a jerk about it’ part.” The Corinthians were saving the best part of the meal for those of higher status. The poor were going away hungry while the rich were eating their fill and getting drunk.
Paul is telling us that the “love one another” piece goes beyond the boundary of those whom we generally think of as our neighbor. Even the disciples struggled with this in the early days of the church. Was Jesus talking about Jews? Or did he mean to include everyone else too? Even the uncircumcised? Paul took this love of Jesus throughout the Mediterranean, to other nations, peoples. All were invited in. Today our boundaries have grown much farther than even Paul could have imagined. I’ve been to Africa, for heaven’s sake, I’ve sat in a village with no electricity or running water, and sat in prayer with the people there and called them “sister” and “brother”. Do I understand them and their culture? I was often aware that I was in a foreign land, that the language spoken was different in ways that transcended simple grammar. Was my love for them of the starry-eyed version of the person I described in the beginning? No. And loving the neighbors in the far-flung reaches of the world may have nothing to do with what I generally describe as “friendship” or “compatibility”.
We have just concluded our Lenten series this year, with the theme of “Healing the World”. We approached it in kind of a roundabout way. We didn’t necessarily talk about all the things in the world that need healing. We hear about those things all the time. Rather, we were looking at issues around WHY we need to heal the world, what in our Christian tradition compels us to do that, and what in our past, our outlook, and even our relationship with our Church, keeps us from living fully into that healing work that Jesus is beckoning us toward.
In our Lenten series we were really trying to take a hard look at ourselves, what we bring to the table, how do our ingrained perceptions form us and cause us to act or not act. In thinking about the story tonight, I think we could also say we were trying to look at how we are clean, and maybe not so clean. When it’s all over, who do you identify with the most? The disciples? Or Judas Iscariot?
There was an opinion piece in the Chicago Tribune this week about the Catholic House of Bishops. The writer noted that the Bishops had been vociferous in their condemnation about the provisions in the Affordable Care Act which provided contraception services to women, even if that condemnation jeopardized the provision of health care to millions of people who would otherwise not be able to get it. But even more telling was the silence from them this week about the proposed Ryan budget which would severely cut funding for services for the poor and the mentally ill. They had the chance to stand up for the poor and the suffering, and they didn’t do it.
This is not what Jesus was talking about when he said to love one another as I have loved you. This was a failure of love, but lest you think I’m holding the poor Bishops up for condemnation, I know that there is plenty of failure to go around. Our own church is riddled with a less than stellar history in standing up for issues of social justice. We were a little late to the party over the issue of slavery during the Civil War, feeling that it was more important to stay “in communion” with the churches of the Confederate South than to take a stand, as an institution, on the most important issue of the day. Today we struggle with the rights of women in our church and in the rights of LGBT persons, and while some still struggle I think we are moving toward getting it right. Time will tell. As Martin Luther King Jr. says “the arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice”.
I had my own little epiphany this week, about the meaning of life, in thinking about what drives me to do what I do in life. One part of my brain insisted that I believe that my actions matter, that I believe how I act should leave the world in a better place than I found it. And I really try to do that. But I realized that I also have to look at my own complicity in systems and behaviors that do not mirror the love that Jesus was showing us in this ritual act that we memorialize tonight. I had to look at the many acts, both conscious and unconscious, that do the exact opposite. The many unkindnesses and thoughtlessness. My consumption habits. My taking more than my fair share habits. The not standing for justice when I get the chance. The times when I, like the Bishops, have not been a voice for the voiceless. The many things that are out of my control yet that I benefit from that has been bought or produced at the expense of the well-being of another. Jesus is calling us to “love one another as I have loved you”, but until we get our heads straight about what love really is, we’re going to have a hard time doing that, and we, like the poor Bishops, are going to screw it up.
I’m not sure what I can do about all these things. But tonight our feet will be washed. And I will wash yours. And I will try to follow Jesus and love one another as he has loved me. Because here’s the thing: we don’t get loved because we deserve it. There’s a betrayer in all of us, that should come as no surprise. Loving as Jesus loved us is hard to do. But back to my earlier story. Love isn’t necessarily filled with songbirds and passion. More often than not it’s not particularly pleasant at all. It’s staying up with a sick baby. It’s recycling. It’s not cheating on your taxes. It’s buying a mosquito net. It’s holding people that you may never see or personally know in one’s circle of love, doing your best to insure their well-being. It’s patiently helping your wife put on her stockings so she can feel pretty and put together.
We wash each other’s feet in so many ways. Tonight we can think about this legacy that Jesus left us as a command. Or, we can think of it as a parting gift. Love. Love one another. Love one another as I have loved you, and live into the fullness of your being. This is your salvation.