Sermon for Maundy Thursday in St. James, Florence
I give you a new commandment, to love one another. How shall we love the people in and around l’Aquila who have suffered injury, lost friends and family, and been displaced by this earthquake? Would we wash their feet? Invite them in to use our showers and bathtubs? If we were there, in the midst of the crisis, I think most of us would do that and more. I’ve heard similar stories about the people who served their neighbors in New York after September 11th, and after earthquakes in California and floods in New Orleans.
What makes it so easy to love one another in crisis, and so challenging to do it the rest of the time?
Jesus’ footwashing is the work of a deacon, caring for the weary. Ministry with people who live on the street often includes caring for their feet – through very pedestrian things like providing clean socks, foot massage, or care from a podiatrist. The work at St. Paul’s Chapel in NY after 9/11 included that kind of ministry to all the searchers and the workers who were cleaning up the pile of debris. I’ve heard reports from Abruzzi about people being dug out of the rubble with little in the way of clothing, and many who left their homes in their nightclothes and sometimes barefoot. Loving one another in that context looks like finding clothes and shoes for those without, and helping them to find shelter.
Jesus’ footwashing was also an act of tender, reassuring care for his frightened followers: “little children, I am with you only a little longer.” It’s something like a mother who bathes her kids and then sends them off to bed. She knows they’re likely to get up to some mischief before morning, and she reminds them to be kind to each other.
There’s an old story about a child who keeps getting up after being put to bed – first asking for a drink of water, then one kind of reassurance after another, but obviously not interested in going back to bed alone. Finally the father says, “now, now. You know you don’t need anything else. God is with you.” And the child replies, “but I want God with skin on.”
Jesus ultimately shows us what God with skin on looks like and acts like. John’s account frames that as the humble service of footwashing. The other gospels, and the piece we heard from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, offer another perspective about the central act of God’s presence among us: the feeding that Jesus institutes in the last supper – “this is my body that is for you, do this in remembrance of me; this cup is the new covenant in my blood, do this in remembrance of me; as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” Feeding the hungry from God’s body becomes the icon for Jesus’ continuing presence, and the work that we’re challenged to continue.
I heard a piece of your history last night, of a time when the Arno flooded this city, when many buildings here were under water, and people displaced like they’ve been in Abruzzi. This city got its feet washed – unwillingly, like Peter. What was that like? Some of you remember the destruction and the evacuations in boats in the middle of the flood. Some of you undoubtedly remember how the healing came. Those who died had to be buried and mourned, and the displaced housed and comforted. The physical side of the city healed bit by bit as the mud was swept away, the ruined books and furniture removed, the oil scraped away, and buildings slowly put back into service. Books and works of art had to be removed, stored, and slowly restored to some portion of their former stature. Those who showed their love for one another in the latter stages were called “angeli del fango,” or “mud angels.” Those who helped let their own feet be washed in the remains of the flood.
This place was washed as well, the undercroft badly damaged and the organ nearly destroyed. Yet even though the old was good, the new is feeding our hunger for beauty and music in unexpectedly beautiful ways. That organ is becoming more than what was here before. The flooded parish hall is once again feeding people – both their physical hunger and their hunger to grow in understanding.
Paul says about the holy meal that every time we eat the bread and drink the cup we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. Every time we gather here to be washed or fed, we remember that God has transformed death – the death of those in Abruzzi, the death of people, history, and dreams in this flooded city, and the deaths we know in our daily rounds.
The washing of feet is a sign of that transformation, but it isn’t a sign we use very often. There are a few strands of the Christian tradition that make it more central and practice it more often than once a year. It’s a hint of the greater washing we mark as entrance to this life of humble service – it’s like just getting your feet wet, and the early Christian community may have understood it in that way. It’s an introduction to the Christian life. Episcopalians get to reaffirm our baptism pretty regularly – we say the promises several times a year – but we don’t get to jump back in the pool and be drowned again. We are invited into this work of Jesus all the time, whether it’s feeding those who are hungry for food, or tending the feet of those who live in the street all day, every day – or drying the tears of those who grieve in Abruzzi.
We’re going to wash feet tonight – tired feet, aching feet, feet with blisters, and feet whose broken veins show us the long and painful roads someone has trod. We’re going to wash feet as a reminder that our work is like that of the mud angels – we’re meant to be messengers of healing and restoration, willing servants of the God with skin on, foot washers of the tired and hungry, the grieving and lonely, the imprisoned and ill. We’re invited to be angelic messengers of the good news that this earthy mud, of which we’re all made, can show us God. Wash a foot and see God’s presence. Let your foot be washed and see God’s presence.