Sermon for Maundy Thursday, Thursday, April 13 2017, 7:00 pm
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Ex 2:1-14; Ps 116:1,10-17; 1 Cor 11:23-26; Jn 13:1-17,31-35
It is night and blood, bodies and betrayal. The strange dark folk tale of the Exodus, blood smeared on the doorway as protection against sudden and terrible death, God’s people fleeing in the night. It is Judas, taking the bread and the wine as we will ourselves, and going out into the darkness to sell his friend to the powers of the world. It is a tiny handful of people in a room, who do not understand, not really, but who have some sense now that what is coming will not look like victory, that it will be night and blood again, that God’s people will be refugees again, as they always have been, as they always will be. This terrible night begins in confusion, and will end in political murder. It is the mystery of betrayal, and surrender, and violence, and love.
And in that room, in the gathering darkness, things happen. There is a meal, and Jesus takes bread and calls it his body, broken for the world, the wine his blood. They share this food and drink, a private meal, the foreshadowing of a death, the pledge of a presence. They are fed together.
And on that night, too, this one who has never shunned the world of women and slaves, the people most despised by his society, does something a free man in his time would never do. He ties a towel around his waist, and kneels, and washes the feet of his friends. Does it freely, joyfully, without reserve. In an act of terrifying intimacy, he bends before them, touches them, offers the tender personal care normally hedged around with status and power, made safe by hierarchy.
You do not offer your sore, dusty feet to an equal. That is too dangerous. You make yourself this vulnerable only to someone lesser, to a slave, a woman, someone unable to judge you or hurt you. But they must do this, the disciples. They must let this final barrier fall, let their teacher touch their battered skin, their blisters and calluses, let him see and tend to their real frail helpless humanity, without disguise.
They must let themselves be loved. We must let ourselves to be loved, infinitely and intimately loved, not for anything we have done that is splendid or great, but for our mere scarred sinful selves. We are mortal, needy bodies, and we are loved. We are fed and washed and held and cherished, as all children should be, as too many children are not in this world. The voice which spoke the cosmos into being speaks to us by name. The hands which shaped the earth and sky hold our tired feet, our tired souls. To begin to accept this love, to begin to be changed by it, is this night’s demand.
For if we do not do this, if we do not allow ourselves to be served, then our service to others becomes arrogance, even perhaps a form of violence. To serve the outcast from a place of certainty, to reach down a condescending hand from our greater wisdom, our greater strength—this is not the kind of service which is asked of us. Like Christ himself, we are called to be among the lost as the lost. Or, to put it otherwise, “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another.”
Your heart will be broken, if you do. Broken by public atrocity and private betrayal, by war and famine and human evil, by small cruelties and losses, by the waste of lives and the withering of hope. It is hard to love in the face of atrocity, of war and terror and greed, of bleeding children and hunger and meaningless death. It is hard to love when love is rejected every day. Your heart must break.
And God’s heart is broken for each one of us, and by each one of us, every day, in all our own rejections, in all our failures to care, in all our refusals to turn. The Word Incarnate walks alone into the valley of the powers, without safety or rescue, without reserve, loving us still and always, as God’s children are sold for a handful of coins. And we are asked, impossibly asked, to accept this love, and to love this way in return. To risk everything for the indifferent world.
And the one who knows now that he is going to his death speaks with gentle sadness to the man who will be the instrument, and tells him to do what he believes he must do, and do it quickly. And Judas goes out, and it is night.
At the end of this service, we will move deep into the darkness, where power and violence conspire, where we must know ourselves stricken with grief and exhaustion, inadequate to the demands made upon us. The altar and the sanctuary will be stripped, images veiled or hidden, the lights that show forth the eternal light extinguished. Christ in the garden of Gethesemane, offering his own desire in surrender to the world’s needs, Christ handed over to soldiers by a man who had loved him, led away to a series of clandestine interrogations, stripped and scourged by the imperial guard, all of these things are happening at once on this night. We wait in darkness for a dawn which will be even more terrible.
But we take into that darkness these tokens of love. Bread and wine, given into our outstretched hands. The touch of hands on human skin, the intimate love of God for each individual one of us. Offered even to Judas. Even to us. In this bitter night, we are not abandoned.