Sermon for Maundy Thursday April 14 2022

Our Diocese, as you know, is in the middle of a search for the tenth Bishop of Albany. And that means we’re spending a lot of time thinking about what we’re looking for in a Bishop, a lot of time thinking about what leadership qualities we would hope to find in the man or woman who ends up being our Shepherd. But there’s one main thing we need to remember in our search criteria. And that is the very thing Jesus taught, not just on this night, the night of his Last Supper with his disciples, but over and over again. Which is this: that leadership is not about shining brighter than everybody else and being smarter than everybody else and having more power than everybody else and everybody doing what you tell them to do because you’re the boss. Leadership, according to Jesus, is about being everybody’s servant. Leadership is about sacrificing your rights, and your comfort, and your possessions, and your very self, for the good of the other person.

And the disciples were just as slow to catch on to that idea as we are. Over and over again we read in the gospels how Jesus’s little team of leaders in training fell to wrangling with each other like middle school boys about who was greater than who. “Do you really want to be first?” Jesus would ask them. “Then you have to be the last of all, and the servant of all.” And after three years of hammering that teaching home, the Twelve still didn’t get it. So when they came together to eat the Passover Seder, for what Jesus knew would be their very last meal together, he decided to act out what he had been trying to tell them, in a way that would stick in the their minds for the rest of their lives. The feast was prepared. They were reclining on cushions around the table, a little more solemn than usual, probably, in preparation for this holy commemoration of God’s Passover.

And then, all unexpectedly, Jesus got up from the table. He took off his outer garment, and he fetched a towel and wrapped it around his waist. He filled a basin with water. And he knelt down by the feet of one of the disciples and began to wash them – something only a servant would do. And suddenly that solemn room was filled with protests and confusion and indignation. What in the world was Jesus doing? This didn’t fit in at all with what they expected from this man they respected and looked up to, as their Teacher, as their Master. It was embarrassing, to be honest. They had seen Jesus put his hands on the eyes of a blind man and the blind man received his sight. They had seen Jesus break a few loaves of bread and feed thousands of hungry people. And now those holy, powerful hands were washing the mud and dust from their dirty feet, as if he were a common slave. They blustered and they objected, but Jesus kept right on washing feet until he had washed the feet of every one of his disciples. And then he put his robe back on, and he sat down. And I imagine the room grew very quiet.

“You see what I just did?” Jesus said, rhetorically. “You call me Master, and Lord, and you’re not wrong, that’s what I am. But if I, your Master and Teacher and Lord, if I stoop down and wash your feet, then hear this: you also should stoop down and wash each other’s feet. Because if the Master is a servant, then the followers of the Master need to be servants as well.”

And this strange idea of Jesus’s, that the first should be last, that the one who is strong should be the servant of the one who is weak, that greatness in the kingdom of God looks like meekness and mercy and sacrifice – and even suffering – that’s still a hard concept for people to grasp. My long experience with the way churches search for leaders, is that churches, by and large, are looking for pretty much the same qualities they’re looking for at IBM or WalMart or any other corporate entity. We’re looking for somebody young, smart, attractive, dynamic, talented – we’re looking for somebody strong, not weak. We’re looking for somebody confident, not meek. We’re looking for somebody ambitious, eager to succeed – not somebody who’s looking to give everybody else a hand up first.

But on the night before he died, Jesus gave us this example: of a leader stripped of his finery, a Master with a towel wrapped around his waist, a Teacher kneeling at the dirty feet of fishermen and tax collectors and political radicals and even traitors – a Lord, doing the work of a household slave. We should be considering, carefully and seriously, as we go about our search for the tenth Bishop of the Diocese of Albany: what are we going to do with this strange, unsettling picture Jesus gave us on the night before he died?

And, of course, Jesus wasn’t just setting an example for Bishops. He made it disturbingly clear that he was setting an example for all of his disciples to follow. “Servants aren’t greater than their masters. Messengers aren’t greater than the one who sends them. You know what I’ve been teaching you all this time. Now, if you put it into practice, you will be blessed. I washed your feet, now you, too, wash one another’s feet.”

So, tonight, we put that into practice. Taking our Lord at his word, we take up towels and basins, and we kneel at the feet of our brothers and sisters to wash their feet as Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. It’s symbolic, a sign of our willingness to humble ourselves before one another, a sign of our duty to serve each other. But in the way of sacraments, it’s more than a mere symbol. As you take your brother’s or your sisters feet, as you pour water over them, as you dry them gently with the towel, you are ministering the love and grace of God. When I wash your feet I am proclaiming your worthiness as a child of God Most High. When you wash my feet you are reminding me of the tender loving-kindness God has for me. We make these spiritual realities present by serving each other, just as Jesus made his love present to his good friends when he knelt to wash their feet. And we are blessed as we do this. +

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