Year A; Maundy Thursday.FB 2023
St. Paul’s, Brunswick, Maine
4.6.2023, Written by the Rev. Mary Lee Wile and delivered by the Rev. Carolyn H. Eklund
From the Rector: We send greetings and prayers for healing as Mary Lee is home sick with COVID. She wrote this homily for tonight and asked me to preach it. What a privilege it is to give voice to her words. Thank you, Mary Lee! And so I begin Mary Lee’s Maundy Thursday homily:
I don’t know how many of you have read either the book Rough Sleepers or the recent New York Times article, both written by Tracy Kidder, about Dr. Jim O’Connell, a Boston doctor whose life calling became tending the most destitute of Boston’s unhoused population. Kidder tells of how, when Dr. O’Connell first began his time on the streets, fresh out of residency at Harvard Medical School, he was put to work simply soaking the feet of his destitute patients as a way to earn their trust. Encountering his story immediately made me think of Maundy Thursday, the image of Jesus kneeling to wash the feet of his friends.
Kidder acknowledges that foot-soaking in a homeless shelter carries some pretty obvious biblical connotations, not only the act of tending the weary, often filthy feet of men and women who have spent all day walking the streets of Boston or waiting in lines for food or shelter, but because it literally puts the doctor at the foot of the people he’s trying to serve.
So here we are tonight, remembering when our Lord and Savior, God incarnate, knelt down to tend and wash the undoubtedly gnarled and filthy feet of his friends. We probably come to tonight’s footwashing with clean feet tucked into clean socks and shoes, but Jesus and the disciples wore sandals, walked everywhere through streets filled with dust and dung. Their feet were a lot more like Dr. O’Connell’s patients’ feet than like our feet. But Jesus, “Having loved his own who were in the world, loved them to the end…. During supper he rose…laid aside his garments, and girded himself with a towel… Then he poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel.”
He washed the feet of Peter, who was going to use his freshly-washed feet to take him not only to Gethsemane, but to the courtyard where he would deny knowing Jesus. He washed the feet of Judas, whose feet were about to take him to the religious authorities to betray Jesus. He washed the feet of the disciples who were going to abandon him to the cross. And he loved them. He loved them anyway.
Dr. O’Connell regularly encounters felons, addicts, the mentally ill, the damaged and deranged, and he kneels down at their feet to tend them. He says that in this position, his patients are much more likely to talk with him, to share their stories. When he had been a doctor in training at Harvard Medical School, O’Connell got used to telling patients what he thought as the expert, but once he began working with the unhoused population, he realized that he needed to listen to them. And they were more willing to talk to him as he knelt at their feet, rather than when he stood over them expounding his expertise.
So here tonight we encounter Jesus kneeling at our feet. This isn’t the image of Christ in glory enthroned in heaven. It’s not the image of Christ holding a winnowing fork. Nor is it the icon of Christ Pantocrator, Jesus holding an open book and sharing his wisdom. This isn’t the image of our Lord in glory or in judgment or even in teaching. This is Jesus simply loving us, Jesus who told the disciples that he came among us not to be served, but to serve, wanting to hear our stories, wanting to listen to us, wanting to hold and wash not only our feet, but our weary souls. And O’Connell is right – Jesus is right – it can be easier to unburden our souls to the One who kneels at our feet.
Feet, according to evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman, are what make us human. Being able to stand upright on our feet is what led to all the creative adaptations of mind and body that identify us as human. And this is the part of us that Jesus holds and tends. He holds our very humanity in his hands.
And he loves us, to the end. No matter what we have done or left undone. As pastor and poet Steve Garnaas-Holmes writes:
Oh, Jesus, sometimes I will act as if I do not know you.
I’ll act as if I am in need, alone, unaccompanied.
I will fail to share, to forgive, to bless, to risk, to speak out.
I’ll choose not to trust God, but be selfish.
In an argument I will be sure to win and forget to love.
You will be carted off, and I will slip away.
You will be shot in the street and I will turn the page.
And still you will claim me… forgive me…
Still you love, and will always love.
Still you hold me close
with the faithfulness I writhe against.
Give me the weakness to allow myself
to be so outrageously loved,
so taken, that it’s at least a little harder to desert you.
Even in my unfaithfulness
give me your faithfulness.
When I can’t hold on, hold me.
As we bare our feet tonight – and for those of us watching from home, I hope we are able to offer this to one another there as well, or simply to hold our own feet for awhile – my prayer is that as we feel the towel wrapped around our feet, we will have a sense of Jesus holding on, holding each one of us, in his enduring, faithful love.
And, although most of us are unlikely to take up a street medical ministry, I hope that we also find ways to hold and tend one another’s humanity, in the name of our Lord Jesus.
From the Rector: And give gratitude for Mary Lee’s words of witness.