Thursday, March 20, 2008

A Matter of Life and Death

Here's my Maundy Thursday homily. I've wanted to preach this one for a long time. And yes -- because Gary asked, and some of you might too -- all those things at the hospital have really happened.

Here's the Gospel.


Every Maundy Thursday, we gather to remember the Last Supper, Jesus’ final meal before the crucifixion. Knowing he is about to die, he gives his friends one last commandment: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” He has already shown them what he means by washing their feet. Clad in sandals and caked in dust from a long day of walking, the disciples’ feet were probably pretty unappetizing. Washing them was a servant’s job, and the fact that Jesus did it himself vividly illustrated how serious he was about his own servanthood.

“Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another.” We usually interpret this to mean that we, too, must be servants, must do whatever we can to heal, clean and refresh God’s dusty, footsore children. But there’s another side to the task Jesus has given his followers, the one we see when Peter tells Jesus, “You will never wash my feet.”

We don’t know why Peter tried to refuse. He might have been shocked at seeing the Messiah performing such a lowly task. Or he might have been embarrassed, afraid to offend Jesus with his own corns and bunions, the blisters where his sandal straps had rubbed too tightly, the dirt underneath his toenails. Perhaps he was afraid that his feet smelled after a long hot day. “My feet are disgusting,” he might have thought. “I can’t let Jesus wash them! An anonymous servant is one thing, but I can’t show this ugly part of myself to my Lord!”

Jesus isn’t having any of this. “Unless I wash you,” he tells Peter bluntly, “you have no share with me.” A little later, he tells the disciples, “if I . . . have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” He doesn’t say, “You ought to wash the feet of strangers.” He intends them to serve each other. That means that they have to let their friends, and their God, wash their feet, do their laundry, help them in need. This isn’t optional. It’s required.

Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. For his followers, there is no life apart from him. If he insists on washing our feet, that means that letting him serve us -- letting him see our corns and blisters and funky toenails -- is quite literally a matter of life and death.

Does that sound like an exaggeration? Let me tell you a modern-day story. Sometime last year, during one of my shifts as a volunteer hospital chaplain, I met a patient who’d been brought to the ER because he was suicidal. I talked to him for a long time. He was intelligent, thoughtful, and well-spoken. He’d spent a lifetime helping other people as a physical therapist, and he’d cared for his parents and his wife when they were dying. He’d emptied bedpans, changed sheets, bathed and fed those he loved. He’d been a faithful, tender servant. And now that he had become physically disabled by age and illness, he was emphatic about wanting to die. “I don’t want my kids to have to take care of me,” he said. “I don’t want to be a burden.”

“Did you feel burdened when you were taking care of your parents or your wife?” I asked him. “Or your patients?”

“No,” he said. “Of course not! I was happy to take care of them.”

“Then don’t you think other people would be happy to take care of you?”

He couldn’t, or wouldn’t, answer that question. Maybe he had felt burdened by being a caretaker, and couldn’t admit it. Maybe he didn’t have a good relationship with his children. Maybe he was embarrassed by the thought of them having to empty his bedpan. Whatever the reason, he wasn’t about to change his mind. He was determined to die so he wouldn’t have to accept help, so no one would have to serve him.

This isn’t an isolated case. I’ve met other patients, both male and female, with the same profile. They’ve spent their lives caring for other people, but they’d literally rather die than allow anyone else to take care of them. They see the contradiction, but it doesn’t change their minds.

We live in a culture that values competence, independence and autonomy. Most of us find it far easier to give help than to accept it. We fall too easily into the trap of believing that if we need help ourselves, we must be weak or contemptible. That’s especially true when we need help involving physical or emotional vulnerability. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met at the hospital who’ve apologized for being frightened, for being in pain, for crying. Patients who are sobbing, terrified that they’ve had a stroke or heart attack, will say, “I’m sorry; I’m being weak.” Patients apologize for being smelly. I’ve met patients who apologized for bleeding.

Too many of us have been taught to consider our bodies, these awe-inspiring and miraculous gifts from God, shameful and unseemly. When our bodies refuse to obey us, we’re embarrassed. But almost all of us, as we age, will have to deal with reduced abilities.

Jesus came that we might have life, and have it more abundantly. Our lives will fall short of their full potential if we refuse to let other people help us. Accepting loving service isn’t a sign of our own weakness. It’s a sign of God’s grace.

Holy Week is about facing death, about accepting the fact that before the joyous rebirth of Easter, all of us must endure pain and incapacity. We will all, like Jesus on the cross, be vulnerable. We will all be broken. When Jesus insisted on washing Peter’s feet, he was offering a rehearsal, a training exercise. “Let me wash your feet,” he might have said. “Let me show you that your corns and blisters don’t bother me. I’m offering you the gift of learning how to accept love even when you don’t think you need it or deserve it, even when you feel ugly and unseemly and embarrassed. If you let me wash your feet now, it will be easier for you to let someone else wash other parts of your body someday, when you’re old and ill and can’t wash yourself.”

In a few minutes, we’ll have our own foot-washing, as so many other churches do tonight. Over the years I’ve been attending St. Stephen’s, I’ve noticed that only a few people participate in this part of the liturgy, even though in our case, it’s mainly symbolic. Most of us have very clean feet. I don’t know about you, but I tend to trim my toenails before Maundy Thursday, and give my feet an extra scrubbing, so I won’t be embarrassed up at the altar.

But I know that some of us simply aren’t comfortable having our feet washed. If that’s too personal for you, please come up and let someone wash your hands instead. If you can’t bring yourself to do that, then please, when you go home tonight, wash your own hands or feet. As you do so, close your eyes and imagine that Jesus is washing them for you. Instead of rushing through the task, take your time. Touch yourself tenderly, the way you believe that Jesus would. Feel God’s love in the texture of your skin, even or especially in your scars and blisters and callouses. Know that God, who sees and hears everything, knows and loves every inch of you. You are God’s beloved child, cherished beyond measure. And believe that other people can, and will, be that loving to you when you need their care.

This next year, I ask all of us to think about how we can let Christ touch us through service from other people. We might want to consider getting a monthly massage, or, once a week, asking a spouse or child to help brush our hair or smooth lotion on our skin. We might let people hug us during the Peace on Sundays. Even as we work faithfully to follow our Lord in serving the world, we might allow Christ, or another person -- or Christ in another person -- to see our pain or loneliness, and comfort us. If we can do even some of that, then just maybe, some Maundy Thursday, all of us will come forward for the foot-washing.



  1. This is wonderful. Thank you for sharing it.

    I was struck, a few months ago, by the idea that "washing away sins" could be understood as exactly that kind of loving touch; for some reason I'd always associated that expression with more impersonal or even sudden/violent imagery. I was moved by exactly the kind of image you describe - loving touch from God. Your images from your hospital ministry, though, add a dimension my thoughts didn't have.

  2. Thanks, Susan. It's been a rough week at the hospital, and your homily helped remind me of why i do what i do, as well as why it's important to be taken care of from time to time.

  3. Anonymous7:11 AM

    So moving. Thank you for posting.

  4. Wonderful homily, Susan. Thanks for sharing it. That difficulty in changing your feelings about who's supposed to be serving can happen in other areas too I think. My dad seems to have a lot of difficulty in this area. Some of it may be habit and some may be personal ideals. Maybe both.

    Hope you have a blessed Easter.


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