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March 24, 2005 (Maundy Thursday)

Pastor David Barber

John 13:1-17,31b-35

Sisters and brothers, grace be unto you and peace from God our loving Creator and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
 

In a recent Sunday paper, I was attracted to an article about those who fail. The focus of the article was centered on a historian who had written a book about America's born losers.

In his research the author of this book came across a very fascinating story. Apparently in the 19th century the Mercantile Agency employed informants to file reports on the creditworthiness of their neighbors. "It was like a 'national bureau of standards for judging winners and losers.'"

One such report was filed on William Henry Brisbane who was running a business in Cincinnati in the 1840s. An agency informant reported that Brisbane had failed in every occupation he had tried, including farmer, publisher, and physician, and the report also predicted that he would likely fail for the rest of his life.

The biggest evidence for this conclusion was the fact that this "loser" had inherited $100,000, which was a huge fortune in those days, and apparently he had spent most of it in a very short time--perhaps, like many lottery winners today.

But after the author poked around a bit, a different story emerged. Actually Brisbane had been a successful South Carolina plantation owner, and he had decided that slavery was wrong. As a result he sold out and moved north.

But then he felt guilty about leaving his slaves behind. The $100,000 was used to buy them back and set them free.

The story that we have before us this evening is the story of another loser who wouldn't have fared too well in any report written about him. However, this loser loved his friends to the very end, and because he wanted to set them free, he took the towel of a servant and began to wash their feet.

It happens every year on Maundy Thursday--this foot washing thing--and perhaps we're glad that it happens only once a year. I could envision all sorts of problems if we observed it more frequently than this.

At one particular point there was some conversation within the church about whether or not foot washing should be a sacrament. After all, the same ingredients, which are present in Baptism and Holy Communion, are also present in the washing of the feet.

There is an earthly sign. Water is poured not on the head, but over the feet. We have a command from Jesus to do this just as it has been done to us. The Latin word for commandment is mandatum, which becomes maundy--or Maundy Thursday in latter day English.

And there is a promise. The washing of feet points forward to the outpoured life of Jesus the servant and the loser. He rescues us from our loneliness and gathers us together for life--commanding us to become servants and losers for others.

But even though these ingredients are present, maybe it's just as well that it never became a sacrament. As one commentator observed: "Church property committees would not take kindly to pans of dirty water on the new carpet in the chancel. If theologians had gone to work on the question, we would still be embroiled in endless debate as to whether the feet should be immersed or sprinkled.

Liturgists would argue whether the right foot or the left foot should be immersed first. Others would speculate on the symbolism of baptizing heads or feet. It's always easier," he says, "to follow Jesus in our heads than to follow him with our feet on the Via Dolorosa."

Even if the washing of the feet did not become a sacrament, it still connects you and me with the forgiveness and life Jesus gives us through the cross. It creates in us a way of following, which is shaped by Christ's humility.

It points us to a path of service, compassion, and love. It's a model for living the way that Jesus wants us and encourages us to live. We are washers and caregivers. This is God's way of loving and caring for flesh and blood people like us.

I'm not telling you anything new this evening. You know this, and it's like preaching to the choir. And even though we need to hear it again and again and we need to be reminded, sometimes we may get tired of these constant reminders.

Where do we get the energy to hang in there when the battle is long and wearisome? Where do we get the joy, the courage, and even a sense of humor to persevere when what we hear often sounds like another law and another burden rather than an avenue of grace and new life?

Maybe there's a key in our Gospel for this evening. "Jesus, knowing...that he had come from God and was going to God got up from the table...tied a towel around himself...and began to wash the disciples' feet."

Isn't this interesting? This act of servanthood was framed by his origin and his destiny. These are the compass points that shaped him and molded him and propelled him forward.

As one person had written in The Christian Century magazine, "The knowledge of where he came from and where he was going formed the boundaries of Jesus' life, much like the banks of a river. A river without banks becomes a flood [or a swamp] while a river with firm banks becomes a source of power."

Without a beginning or an end, the middle becomes muddled and meaningless. It's difficult to sustain a task, particularly a seemingly hopeless one" like poverty, or war, or anything else that overwhelms us without knowing our identity and where we're going.

Otherwise we become like the folks Jim Wallis describes in his recent book, God's Politics. In speaking to a thousand low-income people--mostly single mothers who had been on welfare--on the Mall in Washington D.C. he told this story.

"I urged the moms," he said, "on the Mall not to waste any valuable time while they were in Washington. I wanted them to be able to quickly recognize the members of Congress whom they had come to see. They're the ones, I told them, who walk around town with fingers held high in the air, having just licked them and put them up to see which way the wind is blowing.

It's quite a sight--men and women walking all around the Capital grounds with their index fingers pointed at the sky. The political leaders are really very good at figuring out the direction of the wind, and are quite used to quickly moving in that direction."

Rather than being wind chasers he urges us to become wind changers. Those of us motivated by spiritual values and the things for which Jesus lived and died give us a vision for change and keep us from becoming like those with their fingers up in the air. We "already know the direction to head in and they [we] lead by example."

This is what gives us joy and the courage and the persistence to hang in there sometimes against impossible odds. This is what feeds us--filling us with grace and new life--when the road seems long and weary with little results.

This is what gives us the power to be servants and losers for the world--involving ourselves in the task of foot washing and care-giving for others.

"We live fully today because God is in the present as well as in the tomorrow, and we work for the impossible because with God all things are finally possible."

Loving us to the end--the bitter end--Jesus takes a towel and washes our feet. Go and do likewise.

Amen.


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