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Humility or Humiliation?

Maundy Thursday

6 Apr 2023



Jesus knew it was time to leave this world. And go back to the father. His love for the ones who walked the road with him had always been great, and now, at the end, his love for them remained strong. And with that love he turns and washes the feet of his beloved disciples. And he says that as he, the keeper of wisdom and their chief, washed their feet so must they wash the feet of others. The Gospel of John does not dwell on the meal, but on the act of service, on the way the powerful are to be in the world.

Humility. Jesus showed humility. We love it when people are humble, don’t we? If someone is, as my mother would say, too big for their britches, I find them distasteful. When the person with the oversized ego has an oversized position of power, the results are never good. Ironically, as we laud those we consider humble, the Mother Teresa’s of the world, we still applaud the vain, bombastic, and overbearing. Lip service?

Jesus showed humiliation. Same root word. He took the position of the servant, most likely a female servant, the lowest of the low, when he washed his disciple’s feet. Ever wondered what Peter met by asking to have his hands and head washed? He could have been trying to save Jesus from further humiliation, since that would not be the role of a servant.

This is mind blowing for the disciples. Jesus has to remind them again: the one who serves is not greater than the one who is served. Those who lead are not greater than those who are led. This is servant leadership.

For a moment, picture yourself at that table with Jesus. As he comes around the table how are you feeling? Are you able to remove your sandals? If not, why not? As Jesus washes your feet, what changes? Is the realm of God somehow different than you imagined it? As you leave the room that night, will you go looking for others who have not had their feet washed? Last Sunday I was with another clergy; we had a table with information on the Episcopal Church at a Pride event. I didn’t think of it at the time, but what if we had been there with a basin of water? We spoke to people who were afraid and outcasts. What if we had literally washed their feet? Paul points out that the Corinthians had failed to live into that servant leadership. The rich were feasting, while the poor who worked late and arrived late were left with little. The poor can be those we talked with on Sunday, they can be people who feel pressured, who have no hope, who are lonely. We can share our meal, we can wash their feet.

As I thought about Maundy Thursday, the Shakers entered my head, or rather my thoughts. The group practiced a radically egalitarian lifestyle; men and women participated equally in the governance of the community and religious life. While members were celibate, children were part of the community, either from families who joined or orphans who became part of the community. The children were well educated, respected, and healthy. They were pacifists and the men were excused from military service in the American Civil War. They believed God was male and female. In perhaps a convoluted way, they were an example of how God’s realm could be played out here on earth. Shakers showed that servant leadership, that honoring the work of everyone, that treating each person with dignity regardless of gender or age, could produce a beautiful and thriving community. Tis the gift to be simple, tis the gift to be free.

Don’t complicate the Christian faith. You can worship in many ways; you can hold a variety of beliefs. You can pray in silence or sing as great pipe organ plays. Just don’t call that practicing your faith.

You practice your faith when you strip down to your work clothes. When you bring food to someone who has lost a loved one, when you volunteer, when you work for legislation that will help others, when you visit someone who is lonely, when you help clean up litter or work on a house for Habitat for Humanity you are fulfilling the mandate (maundy) that Jesus gave to us. When you have power, and all of you do have power, and you use it not for the benefit of yourself or your friends, but for those who do not have power, then you are washing feet.

We have a master, a lord and savior. No matter how we see ourselves, we are not greater than our master. Jesus poured himself out as a slave. This is the sobering mandate, and yet the heart of the Gospel message, the Good News, that Jesus brings to us.

When true simplicity is gain'd, To bow and to bend we will not be asham'd, To turn, turn will be our delight, Till by turning, turning we come round right.

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