April 13, 2022, Maundy Thursday: Sermon Preached by The Rev. Mary Lee Wile

Maundy Thursday 2022

Back in the 1930’s, theologian Karl Barth wrote: “God may speak to us through Russian Communism, a flute concerto, a blossoming shrub, or a dead dog.” Hold that thought. I’ll come back to it later. What I want to start with is how God speaks to us through Scripture, and what that means for us. But don’t forget Barth.

A week and a half ago, we heard how Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus’ feet, and just now we heard the extraordinary story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. Always before when I’ve preached on Maundy Thursday, I’ve focused on feet. I love the image of Jesus tenderly washing the feet of his friends.

But tonight I find myself wanting to spend time with Jesus’ hands, the hands he uses to touch and wash his disciples dusty feet.

I recently learned that there is such a thing as “touch starvation,” also known as “skin hunger.” When we are deprived of touch, we can become anxious, stressed, depressed. Touch starvation affects our blood pressure, our digestive system, our immune system.  A dear friend, who is a nurse, says that we should count as “Covid deaths” those in nursing homes and assisted living facilities who, when the quarantine rules set in and they were isolated from the touch of loved ones, died within eight months.

No wonder Jesus goes around touching everyone! No touch starvation among his followers! He reaches out his hand to grasp Peter and keep him from drowning, and when he touches Peter’s feverish mother-in-law, she is well. He touches the eyes of the blind; he touches the ears and the tongue of a deaf mute; he even stretches out his hands and touches lepers. After word comes that Jairus’s daughter has died, he comes to her bedside anyway, takes her hand in his hand, and returns her to life. When crowds of people bring him the sick and the suffering, he lays his hands on each of them, one at a time. Jesus uses his hands to help and to heal.

When Jesus gives us his commandment to love one another as he loves us, he’s asking us, among other things, to use our hands for good. But these past two years of Covid have forced us to acknowledge that the very hands that heal through touch can also be unwitting transmitters of disease, and so, as parents and teachers urged us when we were squabbling little kids, we’ve kept our hands to ourselves.

We’ve done other things with them, of course, other good things: written letters, punched in phone numbers, typed emails to family, friends, and politicians, clicked computer keys to connect us to Zoom and to Facebook Live for meetings and church services and play time with distant grandchildren. When we couldn’t go in person to volunteer, we used our hands to write checks or enter credit card numbers. The Holy Stitchers kept on stitching. More people learned to make bread, continued to prepare meals. We found alternate ways to be the heart and the hands of Jesus in the lonely world of Covid.

And now, in this moment while restrictions are eased, we can once again reach out our hands at the Peace (and yes, there is still hand sanitizer in each pew); we can go back to volunteering; we can embrace our grandchildren; we can visit and hug our loved ones in hospital or nursing care; we can hold the hand of the dying; we can lay a hand on the shoulder of a friend. We can touch and be touched.

And this is where I want to come back to Karl Barth and his naming of the unexpected ways God might speak to us – or, I might add, touch us: Russian communism, a flute concerto, a blossoming shrub, or a dead dog. Politics, art, nature, or death.

So, I don’t know how many of you watched the Academy Awards this year. I didn’t. Reading about them the next day, I was glad to have missed the violence that occurred. But when I came across a brief note about the tender moment between Lady Gaga and Liza Minnelli, I was curious enough to seek out a YouTube video of that encounter. Liza Minnelli is only a year older than I am, but an array of medical problems impedes both her mobility and her speech. She is in a wheelchair now, and as she prepared to open the envelope to announce the Best Picture award, Lada Gaga stood beside her. Most of the time they held tightly clasped hands, and when Liza Minnelli needed both hands to open the envelope, Lada Gaga moved her hand to Minnelli’s shoulder. No touch starvation there. And when Minnelli struggled with words, Lada Gaga leaned down and was caught on the hot mic whispering, “I got you,” to which Liza Minnelli responded, “I know.”

I sat there stunned. I might have been less surprised to find God speaking through the squirrels in my yard than through Lada Gaga’s hands and words. But there it was. That interchange was Karl Barth’s flute concerto: the younger woman reaching down to grasp the hand of the older one, and those words — as though God were saying them to me — “I got you.” My response was immediate: “I know.”

God has indeed “got us” – and this sacred season reminds us just how far God will go to do so. Jesus not only uses his healing hands to wash the disciples’ feet, but tomorrow we will hear of how these very hands will be pierced as he is nailed to the hard wood of the cross. It is these pierced hands Jesus will invite Thomas to touch on the other side of Resurrection. These are the hands that will prepare breakfast on the beach for the disciples. And it seemed to me that it was these hands, through Lady Gaga’s hands, that touched and held Liza Minnelli’s.

As Julian of Norwich wrote: “Christ has no body now on earth but yours…. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world.” And so tonight as we wash and bless one another’s hands, pray that they might be the hands of Jesus, be, perhaps, the way God will speak to someone, touch someone, and be an unexpected blessing to the world.