John 13:1-17, 31b-35
The Rev. Melanie McCarley
Garrison Keillor tells the story of his uncle who, at annual family gatherings during Holy Week, would read the story of the passion and death of Jesus. And each year, when he came to the verses describing Jesus’ betrayal, he would burst into tears. The family would sit awkwardly until the man was able to pull himself together and continue the reading. Keillor commented that his uncle took the death of his Lord “so personally”. He’d pause in his story, then add: “The rest of the church had gotten over that years ago.”
I believe there is some truth in Keillor’s observation—however dismally humorous it might be. In many ways, society has embraced the concept of depersonalization. How often have we heard the phrase: “It’s just business.” Employed as a justification for corporate decisions that will adversely affect employees or used in politics to promulgate untruths and savage reputations. Likewise, on both the personal and professional level we can suppose that we are not intended to take some criticisms to heart when we hear the phrase: “Don’t take it personally”, which is usually followed by the conjunction “but”. “Don’t take it personally, but that outfit makes you look fat”; or “Don’t take it personally, but that you gave last week really missed the mark.”
We see death played out violently on computer games, the nightly news and some of the most popular shows on television. We watch it all from the safety of our couches and are blandly disenfranchised from the horrors playing out in our communities and across the globe in technicolor and stereo sound. None of this, are we supposed to “take personally.” So, is it any wonder that so many people in our society have gone on to depersonalize their faith as well?
It’s into this landscape that we arrive at Holy Week—and many of us are caught off-guard. This is a profoundly uncomfortable time in the life of the church. It’s no wonder to me that services such as Maundy Thursday and Good Friday aren’t as full as on Easter Morning. Folks get a hint of what’s in store on Palm Sunday and run for cover until the morning of the resurrection, when they figure they can safely come out of hiding.
In truth, they’re right—this is a profoundly uncomfortable, disturbing week. And it doesn’t mesh with any modern concept of a depersonalized Messiah that we’ve been sold; a faith which might be concerned with the “message” of Jesus, but not really the person of Jesus. In contrast to this, the Jesus we encounter this week is profoundly, and disturbingly personal—perhaps most clearly on this day, Maundy Thursday.
Of all the days of the church year, I consider Maundy Thursday to be the most uncomfortable day in the midst of a discomforting week. Let’s face it, any service which encourages parishioners to take off their shoes in order to have their feet washed is bound to be uncomfortable.
Really, how many of us want to sit there in front of the congregation and have our feet washed? It raises profoundly personal questions: What type of footwear should I put on? Should I get a pedicure? Do my feet smell? Will the priest notice my bunions? My feet are ugly, I’m ashamed.
Foot washing is one of those actions that takes place within the “personal bubble” we’ve been trained to maintain. There’s something that smacks of personal invasion and awkwardness when someone offers to bend down and wash our feet. There’s intimacy in foot washing, as well as in the Last Supper. If any service stands outside our comfort zone, this is it. So, aren’t you glad that this evening there will be no unshod feet in St. Paul’s. We’re safely online—our bodies, that is—but not our spirits. Even in the wifi world in which we currently worship, there is an invitation this evening to open ourselves to the possibility and grace of a personalized experience of worshiping our Savior.
Throughout these last three days of Holy Week we are confronted with the reality that ours is not a faith based upon principles and propositions for the best ways in which to lead a good and worthy life. Not at all. Put that concept on a shelf where it belongs. Ours is a faith based upon the life and death of a man named Jesus, who lived, died, and most remarkably, lives again through the power, hope and glory of the resurrection. This night, filled with the discomforting recollection of foot washing, betrayal, arrest and a shared meal in the midst of a city filled with strife and deceit, is one which encourages us—not simply to think on a conceptual level of the Holy Eucharist and our need to serve others; but for us to see Jesus here among us (no matter where we might be on this night)—to hear his words, sense his love and encounter his grief on a deeply personal level. You may wonder why this is important? The answer is simple—because it’s on this level that real transformation occurs. If you want to follow Christ—it has to be for a reason more profound than Jesus was a good teacher and I want to help others and be a good person—fine though those ideas are—they are no reason for anyone to pick up a cross and follow this man to death. They are no reason to worship him. The only reason to bow at the foot of the cross, to shed a tear at the reading of the Passion or to look at the grave and see—not defeat and the end of all that was--but hope and promise, is because on a very real level we have made our relationship with Jesus personal.
The reason for all of this discomfort is to bring us to Easter morning, not with a sense of relief—that we can finally renew our indulgence in whatever we gave up for Lent; but much more than this, so that we can approach the gift of the resurrection as a deeply personal event—not only for Jesus, but also for ourselves. For, in the end, not only is it Jesus’ life, death and resurrection that you are to contemplate this Holy Week, in the end, it is also your life, your death and your resurrection as well. And that, is about as personal as it gets. In Jesus’ name. Amen.