"As I have done to you"-Sermon for Maundy Thursday, John 13:1-17, 31b-35
So, just in case you are not entirely familiar with the nuances of leadership at St. Julian’s, our church has a chief leadership team that is called the Bishop’s Committee, and it is made up of nine lay leaders who each serve a 3-year term. Dozens of your fellow St. Julian-ites have served faithfully on the Bishop’s committee over the almost 13 years we have existed, likely, including some in the room or the Zoom with us today. And, these lay leaders work in partnership with me to oversee and further the mission and ministry of our church. In particular, the Bishop’s Committee, or BC in short, is charged with responsibility for our finances and facilities, but, in fact, they work in partnership with me and our small but strong staff to oversee and further all aspects of life at St. Julian’s both temporal and spiritual…generously sharing from their time, talent, wisdom and resources to be sure, as our Vision Statement reads, that, as a family of faith, St. Julian’s continue to more and more, “Grow in Relationship, Love all Well, and Seek Intimacy with Christ.”
And, as I noted in a sermon I preached earlier this year before Lent began, we have begun a tradition of giving thanks for those completing their 3-year term on the BC, at their last meeting, which always takes place in January, by placing them in what we call the Honoring Chair. Now, essentially the Honoring Chair just means that they have to sit and listen, as all the other members of the BC each have a chance to tell them what they love and appreciate about them…what they have brought to our team…what their leadership has meant for the growth and vitality of St. Julian’s…what they have meant to us personally. In that sermon, I noted that the 3 folk who completed terms on the BC this past January were Nancy Dolan, Priscilla Cary, and Matt Abrahamson. And, as each sat in the Honoring Chair, words of love and gratitude, indeed, flowed. Words that described what each of them meant to our team, to our church, to each of us…words like: kindness and courage and outside the box thinking and tenderness and graciousness and steadfast love. There were tears that accompanied these words and the many more that were shared about each of these three wonderful people…tears of gratitude and love…shed by both those receiving the blessing and those giving it.
And, this tradition sounds sweet, and it is. It is always a heartfelt moment and those who have served this church and God’s loving and life-giving work in the world…in, through, and beyond St. Julian’s…deserve to hear, and have confirmed through us, what their life and good work and friendship has meant to us and to so many. For, our words of affection and our deeds of affection which also say something…for our actions also speak…are among the most powerful means we have of imparting a blessing…to lift up, care well for, express gratitude and love for…another person. And, when we receive forms of affection and words of blessing, they rightfully fill our sails, buoy us up, provide us spiritual power to more and more be and become the lovers and life-givers that God made us from before time and forever to be. CS Lewis writes, “Affection is responsible for nine-tenths of whatever solid and durable happiness there is in our lives.” Thus, we do well to often place others in the metaphorical Honoring Chair…to be quick to express gratitude for the gifts that others have sown into our lives…to not take for granted that people know how much we love and appreciate them by often letting them hear from us…hear our words of blessing and experience our deeds of affection for them. There simply are no words more powerful, when uttered aloud or shown through our actions, than…I and Love and You.
And, this is a deeply theological idea. For, we say that Jesus is the living and active Word of God. Thus, the life he lived, his gracious deeds, the words of healing and blessing he shared, his willingness to sacrifice his own life…to give it all up…that sin, evil and death might once and for all be utterly defeated…Jesus…alive and active in flesh and blood…his birth, death and resurrection…his hope-fueled, love filled words and deeds, are God’s own Word saying to us…to you and to me…to all who have come before us and all who will come after us, “I love you…I have always loved you…I will always, always love you.” And, of course, this is exactly what Jesus is expressing, is saying, to his loved ones and to us who get to hear the story that sits at the center of our Maundy Thursday service today, as he vulnerably and lovingly washes his friends’ feet.
For, Jesus is not really overly concerned with the muck and mud his friends might have picked up on their sandal clad feet as they traversed Jerusalem’s dirt roads on their way to dinner. Instead, he is washing their feet as another way to say…as all of his words and deeds leading up to this moment have said…as his death on the cross and glorious resurrection that follow will say…his loving choice to wash his friends’ feet…an act of great care and intimacy…says to them, “I love you…I have always loved you…I will always, always love you.”
And, once done, Jesus shares a few more words with his friends, including, “[Y]ou also should do as I have done to you…Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Thus, following the example of God’s living and active Word, Jesus our Lord, we do well, when with our own words and deeds, which, again, also say something…we do well when we place others in the Honoring Chair…are quick to express gratitude for the gifts that others have sown into our lives…not take for granted that people know how much we love and appreciate them by often letting them hear from us…hear our words of blessing and experience our deeds of affection for them. There simply are no words more powerful, whether offered aloud or through our actions, than…I and Love and You. For these words and deeds are God’s own Word, speaking through us, which provide those we bless power…the power that brought life into the world…the power that even overcame death…the power for those we bless with our words and deed to more and more become…become the lovers and life-givers they were created to be…full of life and creativity and meaning and purpose. God’s Word, speaking through us, has the power to transform lives, heal broken hearts, lift spirits, bring people to life, make them whole, and give them the strength they need to, in return, become themselves blessings for us and others…and the circle of giving and receiving love and affection remains unbroken.
And, I want to conclude with a final thought. I mentioned that our Honoring Chair tradition for those retiring from the BC is a sweet moment, and it is. But, it was also mentioned by those actually sitting in the Honoring Chair, that it is not as easy as it sounds. And, I noted out loud in response that it is always easier to wash someone else’s feet than to have our own feet washed by another. And, as I made that comment back in January as we were actually doing the Honoring Chair exercise, I had our Maundy Thursday service specifically in mind. For, I will admit that I would happily wash everyone’s feet in this room…and do so as a way of saying to each of you with all of my heart that I love you…and mean it…but having my own feet washed…it is harder. And the “why” is complicated. But, I think it is about more than just any sort of self-consciousness about placing a rarely touched part of my own body, my feet, in someone else’s hands. I think instead it is just hard sometimes to allow ourselves to be vulnerable enough to be cared for…to receive affection from another.
But friends we need it. I need it. We all need it. For, if we really want others to be open to our own expressions of affection…open to our own desire to lovingly care well for them, we must be willing to model what it authentically looks like to receive a blessing from them and from others. And, if we want our own words and deeds of affection to be full of authenticity and power to bring life and love to others…to really be a blessing to others, we must be full ourselves…so that we might genuinely have something to then give. Jesus’ call to love one another, demonstrated in his vulnerable act that sits before us today, is always about giving and receiving affection. To love one another as Jesus loves us…requires us to both love and be loved. So, we do well, from time to time, to sit in the Honoring Chair when it is presented to us…be quick to receive the gratitude and love that we are generously given for the gifts we have sown into others’ lives…to not take for granted, but really marinate in, the love and appreciation that others shower upon us…for their powerful words and deeds that say to us “I love you” are God’s own Word…uttered into our own lives. Such gracious affection, words and deeds, make us the lovers and life-givers who we, ourselves, are created from before time and forever to be…and the circle of giving and receiving…of receiving and giving…the unending circle of God’s own love…remains unbroken. Amen.