Just as I Have Loved You Maundy Thursday
Psalm 116: 1-4, 12-19 John 13: 1-7, 31b-35
Every now and then, a preacher finds a story that beautifully illustrates the Scripture passages she or he is working on. I’ve used this one before, and I’m going to use it again, because it is SO PERFECT!
Rodney Roberson was working in a homeless shelter while he was going to seminary. One night, he learned a truly valuable lesson. Here’s what happened, in his own words: “It was turning out to be a bad night at the Marin County shelter for the homeless in San Rafael, CA. With rain pouring down and a temperature in the 40’s, our gym-sized armory was nearing its capacity of 125. All the cots and sleep mats had been assigned, but people were still coming in, and in no time there were complaints about the shortage. Soon some of the blacks and Latinos started accusing my fellow workers and me of racial favoritism. (We were all white.)
I was working at the shelter as a full-time counselor. Actually my duties were more like those of a handyman, but the money I earned was helping me pay my way through seminary.
When the arguments started, I knew we were in trouble. The armory echoed with shouts and profanity. Some of the street people were trying to take sleeping mats away from others. When Bobbie, a black woman who worked late, found that we hadn’t saved her a mat as usual, she began to object loudly and accuse me of prejudice.
In the midst of all this, a Latino man named José, who had received one of the last sleeping mats, made his bed in the middle of the armory. He threw down his mat, fell on it, removed his tattered boots and collapsed in a drunken stupor. The stench of José’s feet filled the air. The street people, ordinarily not picky about odors, now began to raise a great protest!
I had been passing out towels when a group of men—blacks and whites—came to me, insisting I had to do something about José. The obvious solution was to persuade him to take a shower, but when two other workers and I tried to wake him, it was no use. He was breathing, but nothing would rouse him. We discussed carrying him to the shower, but he weighed more than 200 pounds, deadweight, and we could hardly move him. When someone suggest we drag him back out to the sidewalk, a howl of protest swept through the other Latinos.
God, how am I supposed to handle this situation? I prayed in desperation. I don’t know what to do! Only a few nights earlier one of my fellow workers had been attacked and choked during one of the frequent melees at the armory.
Then a thought occurred to me: If I can’t get José into the shower, maybe I can bring the shower to him. We didn’t have a washbasin, but in the kitchen I found a large bowl and a container of lemon-scented dishwashing liquid. Armed with a washcloth, a towel, and the bowl full of warm soapy water, I headed back towards José. From all over the armory, stares of anger and suspicion followed me.
Back at José’s mat, I knelt, rolled up his pant legs, and began to remove his filthy athletic-type socks, which were soggy on the bottom but dried to cardboard stiffness on top. I finally managed to tug them off, leaving the weave of the fabric imprinted on his skin. The stench would have been overwhelming if it had not been for the scent of the lemon bubbles in the bowl.
It took some persuasion, but one of the men who was helping with the mats finally agreed to throw the socks away and take José’s boots outside to air. Then I went to work with the lemon soap and washcloth. For several minutes I carefully cleaned José’s calves and ankles, feet and toes. (In no time, the water was black!)
I took the towel and dried the area, then, still on my knees, turned to pick up the bowl. As I did, I saw a forest of legs and knees surrounding me. Have they come to throw us both out? I wondered.
Slowly, warily, I stood up. My eyes came to rest on the face of one of the black men who had been protesting the loudest. And he was grinning! I had never seen him smile before! I looked from face to face. I was stunned. They were smiling—men and women of all races. And Bobbie, with tears in her eyes, stepped forward, took my soapy hands in hers, and kissed them.
Nothing could have prepared me for what I experienced at that moment. No sermon, no seminary class. It was as if Jesus’ words had come to life in me: “Whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant.” (Matthew 20: 27) It had not been intentional; I was simply doing my job. But by carrying out this unpleasant task, I had won over an entire auditorium of street people, and gained their respect.
A quiet hush fell on the National Guard armory in San Rafael that night. The shouting and the threats were gone. Someone who had both a mat and a cot gave his mat to Bobbie. After some looking around, we even came up with a fresh pair of socks for José.”
I wanted to share this story with you this evening because it beautifully illustrates exactly what Jesus was trying to communicate: Servant Leadership. As I said last Sunday, this is one example of an enacted parable, one where words are less important than actions.
We’ve all read the account in John dozens of times, where Jesus washes the feet of the disciples. It all seems so antiseptic, more of a ceremony than anything else. But scholars tell us that washing feet was a pretty big deal back then. You can only imagine how grimy people’s feet got, walking the dusty roads in their sandals. But did you know that footwashing was considered to be such an odious task that any wealthy host would have a Gentile slave do the job—it was too much to ask a Jewish slave to perform it! So, when Jesus took up the bowl and towel to wash their feet, he was doing something completely unheard-of!
No wonder Peter refused (at first) to allow Jesus to do it! It seemed wrong for their Lord and teacher to perform this demeaning chore.
When he was done with this enacted parable, Jesus drove home his point. “If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you too must wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example: Just as I have done, you also must do.”
Now, of course, Jesus is not suggesting that you accost people on the street and force them to take off their footwear so you can scrub their tootsies! “Washing Feet” is a paradigm for how you and I can interact with others. The way we show the love of Christ is to actively watch for opportunities to serve.
As we gradually adopt the mind of Christ, as we adopt Christ’s attitude, we will be liberated from fear and worry, as well as emboldened and empowered to be God’s instruments of healing and reconciliation!
Maundy Thursday is so-named because of the mandate Jesus gave his disciples on that night long ago. He said, “As I have loved you, so you also must love one another. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.” And, as Rodney Roberson learned when he washed José’s feet, LOVING SERVICE is a great way to show the world that Jesus lives in us!