Sermon: Servants in the Service of Others

01 April 2010


The Rev. Jennifer Whipple
Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)

Maundy Thursday
April 1, 2010

“Servants in the Service of Others”

John 13:1-5, 12-15

Prayer: May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our minds and hearts gathered here this night, be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer.  Amen.

            Where do you stand on feet?  No, this isn’t some crazy “take it literally” or April Fool’s “pun” type question to keep you on your toes.  (Okay, so perhaps that part was.)  But very honestly what are your feelings about feet?  I have a dear friend who is so foot-a-phobic, that she can’t fathom looking at her own feet, let alone anyone else’s.  On the other hand, we hear about people who won’t pick a life partner unless they have had a chance to check out his/her feet. 

I once wrote for a student literary magazine in Divinity School a reflection that was all about feet.  I talked about my own feet that still had calluses from years of dancing and what that meant to me.  I talked about the feet of the mothers and grandmothers with whom I had a chance to work, worship, and serve in the bateys of the Dominican Republic – who often went shoeless on the clay and rock, in the sugarcane fields, and as they swayed back and forth in their simple churches praising God.  I talked about the feet of little ones who are just learning to walk – what those feet would say if they could talk themselves.  So I suppose that someone, hearing that, might think I am a foot fan.  But the thought of washing anyone’s feet aside from mine or my son Brayden’s actually does not make me think happy thoughts at all. 

And I would imagine that if Bryn and I were to say that next year at our Maundy Thursday service we were going to have a foot-washing, at least some of you might hesitate to come.  Because that’s not normally something that we allow others to do for us.  If we do need someone else to wash our feet it generally means that we are having some kind of health issue or are dealing with a very unhappy part of aging.  And aside from that it’s a pretty intimate thing to let someone else touch your feet – whether they be your pastor, your spouse, or some other relation. 

However, in Jesus’ time, it was one of the things that people regularly did.  The equivalent of foot washing for us perhaps then is when you are coming inside from gardening or playing or fiddling with the lawnmower just in time for dinner – and before you’re allowed to touch the salad bowl or the chips you are required to wash your hands.  But Jesus and his disciples had their feet washed by servants as soon as they arrived at someone’s home.  After walking miles in sandals on dusty land and roads, it was a common courtesy to have your feet washed, especially if you were planning to stay a while.  That is surely one of the differences between the society and time in which Jesus lived, and ours now.  Now, we pay hundreds, and even sometimes thousands, of dollars to keep our feet covered – out of the elements and away from others’ sight.  But Jesus and the disciples…They readily offered their feet up for washing…in most cases.

Perhaps because foot washing was a normal part of their lives, and one they associated with servants, God chose that very act in those moments gathered around the table with Jesus so long ago, to teach the disciples a lesson about how people of faith are supposed to treat others – to show the disciples what it meant to be servants in the service of others.  You see, God is smart!  God took that everyday act and infused it with learning, with faith, with God’s very self.  God called the disciples to watch, listen, act, and reflect in order to learn one of the most important lessons that Jesus would teach them before he went to the cross – a lesson about serving and loving others, about doing God’s work and God’s will in the midst of their everyday lives – a lesson that God still tries to hammer home to each of us today.

            God is smart!  That is why I believe God speaks to us more in the regular actions of everyday life or our life in community than perhaps in the large miraculous ways we might hope for in our deepest thoughts and prayers.  And that’s why in these last days of Holy Week God invites us into the story.  We are challenged to move not only our mouths in our singing or hands in praying, but our bodies in receiving Communion, in leaving the table, in departing into this dark night.  Only in that way can we understand more deeply even an inkling of what it felt like to be Jesus or his disciples on those last days of his life so long ago.  Only then can we be moved in our hearts, as well as our minds and bodies.  Only then can we truly understand the message that he was trying to share with them – I am setting an example that I hope you will follow in serving you.  It doesn’t matter who you are.  Humility and service are ways that you are able to bless others and spread my message.  Serve others as I have served you.  Love one another as I have loved you.

            On the back of our bulletins tonight it says the following, “Holy Communion on the evening of Maundy Thursday is one of the most ancient of church customs.  The word “Maundy” is derived from the Latin ‘mandatum’, for the ‘new commandment’ that Jesus gave his disciples at the Last Supper: “Love one another, as I have loved you.” 

As we recall that sacred meal in the upper room, the office of Tenebrae calls us to remember what follows during the night at Gethsemane, and leads us toward the suffering and death of Christ that is to come.  The office of Tenebrae, the Latin word for ‘shadows,’ reminds us of the coming darkness of Good Friday – as the story of Jesus’ last night is re-told around the communion table.  As candles are extinguished and the lights of the church are gradually put out – and as the readers depart from the table one by one – we are reminded of the fearful flight of the disciples, the dark hate of Jesus’ enemies, and the approaching passion of our Lord.” 

            By placing ourselves in the story tonight, by moving our mouths, our bodies, our minds, and our hearts to share Christ’s experience and that of those who loved him but just couldn’t quite understand all that he was trying to communicate, we will hopefully come to know a bit deeper the desire of Christ that we all be servants in the service of others, loving our neighbor as ourselves, accepting the costs and joys of discipleship.  And then, from this night on, as we walk through town tomorrow carrying a cross, as we wash our hands before our meals, as we meet again at the Communion table, go to work, or labor with one another side by side doing God’s work in this place or beyond these walls – may we be ever mindful that God continues to try to speak to us, to teach us, and to keep our minds focused on an ever better way.  Amen. 



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