Maundy Thursday occupies a pivotal place in Holy Week. A place of remembrance and resistance. We sit tonight between stories of two public spectacles. Between Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem acclaimed with all those palms – wishful symbol of Israelite nationalism – and his shameful execution back outside the city walls on that cross – brutal imposition of Roman imperial power. On Palm Sunday, we found ourselves in that crowd, surging with energy but quick to change direction. Good Friday, tomorrow: we’ll see, from a distance, individuals isolated by betrayal and abandonment; or choice. But tonight, we move from the public square to an intimate domestic place. A dining room, maybe, or a parlor, even a washroom. Because Maundy Thursday is all about community circling around to reclaim identity. And because tonight is most about community, it is also much about place. For place shapes community as surely as by gathering together communities make of houses their homes.
Tonight, if not for COVID-19 restrictions, we would have occupied more places within our St. Paul’s house of worship than on any other liturgical occasion. We would have shared our Agape Meal downstairs in the kitchen and fellowship hall; the same rooms where the Sunday and Wednesday evening masses used to take place. We would have moved upstairs to the church for a second meal, our Eucharistic feast on this night of all nights when we recall Jesus’ institution of the sacrament of his body and blood. These two meals would have been interrupted and interpreted by the invitation to wash one another’s feet. We would have set up little footwashing circles in out of the way places – back by the entryway doors and over in the side aisles, places we usually just walk on through. Later, up front and center, we would have reverently removed the sacrament, stripped the altar, washed it and anointed it as if it were Christ’s body. And this second washing would have become an all-night watching over a loved one in the chapel transformed into a garden.
To be sure, we manage to keep some of these traditions tonight remotely and safely. But we have been displaced. For over a year now. Exiled from our communal house. Isolated in our individual homes; with kitchens and dining rooms turned into offices and meeting rooms and schools, even stand-in chapels or churches. Displaced!
Jesus, too, was displaced that first Maundy Thursday. Not in exile. Rather, on pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover. The point is, Jesus was not at home. We find him far from Galilee. Far from Capernaum, where so many people once gathered around his house, that no one else could squeeze through the door. Which is why four of them, carrying a paralyzed man on a mat, went up on Jesus’ roof, dug a hole through it, and lowered the man down to Jesus for healing (Mark 2:1-12). The scene repeats a little later, with the whole city again crowded in front of Jesus’ house. This time, it’s Jesus’ own family who can’t get in. They’ve come to try and restrain Jesus because of the rumor that he’d gone out of his mind. When told his family is outside, Jesus points instead to the strangers circled around him says: “Here are my mother and brothers and sisters” (3:19b-21, 31-35).
No, in our gospel reading tonight we find Jesus in someone else’s house to share the Passover meal. A rented place. A borrowed place. For a displaced Jesus.
What did our displaced Jesus do with his displacement?
Several remarkable things. By coming to Jerusalem from Galilee, Jesus got even clearer about his identity. Our reading begins, “Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to God” (John 13:1). During supper with his disciples, we’re told, further:“Jesus [knew] that God had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God” (13:3).
Then what did Jesus do with his clearer sense of identity? He loved. “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end,” the gospel says (1). And Jesus taught others to love; taught his followers that their identity and mission further Jesus’ identity and mission. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (34-35). Displaced to love!
And how, exactly, did our displaced Jesus love and teach others to love? With footwork. What did Jesus do with his hands, knowing that God had given all things into his hands? Something most unexpected. Scandalous. Resisting the basic social/political/economic norms of his day. Jesus “got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him” (4-5). Still today, as they did two thousand years ago, power and prestige, acquisition and self assertion play out in public; human relationship and care, love and service in domestic places. Our washrooms and kitchens are still lopsidedly populated by women, people of color, and immigrants. In Jesus’ day as in ours, society fails to recognize the meeting of fundamental human need through the daily work of food preparation and service, the care, yes, even the washing of the human body, as worthy of public honor. Such footwork is poorly paid, largely invisible and not counted as economically productive. “Lowly,” it’s said. Menial. Just like human feet! Ignored. Unappreciated. Until something goes painfully wrong with our feet and we realize they’d been supporting and carrying the rest of our bodies all along, even our “lofty” heads – with eyes and ears, lips and tongues that receive so much honor.
Simon Peter’s response, “You will never wash my feet,” demonstrates how out of place he found Jesus’ intimate, bodily work of love (8). And when Jesus answers: “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me,” Peter seems ready way too quickly to leave lowly footwork behind and return to the comfortable status quo of privilege. “Lord, not my feet only but my hands and my head!” (8-9) Jesus remains committed to footwork, however. “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean” (10).
Displaced to love with footwork! Something Jesus learned while away from home. Something Jesus learned by watching a woman’s footwork. For remember, six days before the Passover and his washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus was in another house, a house in Bethany, the home of Lazarus whom Jesus had raised from the dead. A meal in Jesus’ honor. And Mary, Lazarus’ sister, interrupted and interpreted that meal by anointing Jesus’ feet with a pound of costly perfume and wiping them with her hair, until fragrance filled the whole house (John 12:1-8)
So I wonder, tonight – on Maundy Thursday – what we the St. Paul’s community will do with our COVID-19 displacement and all the other ways we have been displaced this past year? Might we learn to love with footwork?
When it’s safe to reopen our building, I wonder, like Jesus, what outer robe we’ll need to take off, what towel we’ll need to tie around ourself, what basin we’ll need to pour water into – to make our communal house more accessible, more welcoming as a home; accessible and welcoming to more people who have been displaced from home?
I wonder what things we’ve done without this past year, we just need to let go of; and what things we’ve been missing desperately we need to re-invest ourselves in more fully than ever?
As we reclaim our rightful place at the corner of Roy Street and First Avenue North, I just wonder if we need to remain forever a bit displaced and ready to use all that God has given into our privileged hands and heads for footwork? To listen to and learn from people of color in this society, as well as immigrants and vulnerable women? To speak out and act out against all that threatens them?
Here’s a thought that came to me during my composition process but didn’t really fit explicitly in the sermon itself. What if we took a next Maundy Thursday step of linking Eucharist and footwashing this way: Human feet are a quasi-sacramental sign of all the work by all the working people that supports and carries our society, but never gets honored.
“Footwork” also refers to a dance style that originated in Chicago in the late 1990s, blending elements of electronic, “ghetto house,” and hip hop music. Heavily syncopated, incredibly fast movement of the feet (160 beats per minute!) with accompanying twists and turns, often staged as a “battle” between two street dancers. Check out YouTube clips of DJ Rashad (rest in peace and power) and RP Boo. Many thanks to my preaching class at school who workshopped a first draft of this sermon with me earlier in the day on April 1, 2021.