Sermons That Work

Somewhere out in the Wilds…, Maundy Thursday – 1999

April 01, 1999

Somewhere out in the wilds of Cyberspace there is a website called “Ask the Oracle.” Those who stumble upon it as they surf the Internet are invited to have their fortune told. All that is required is to mentally focus on a yes/no question about the future. When the inquirer feels ready, she clicks on the “submit question” button. One of three answers appears 1. Yes 2. No 3. You aren’t focused enough for the Oracle to respond. The oracle is consulted thousands of times a month by paying customers. That’s right, the first fortune is free, but there is a fee for any further “consultations.”

Doesn’t it seem a bit strange that human beings intelligent enough to use computers and navigate the Internet, actually pay money to gain access to the Oracle’s terse advice? Isn’t it a bit frightening to realize that some of these people may set aside their own intellect, experience, and instincts to follow that advice? What’s going on here? Are computers ruining our minds? Actually, such behavior is not at all new. Long before the computer age, people have had trouble making decisions. Free Will, which gives us the capacity to make choices, is a central aspect of what it means to be human. But being free to choose also means sometimes making a bad decision. So as long as human beings have had free will, they have sought guidance for their choices, hoping to avoid making painful mistakes. Historically, humankind has made some pretty odd choices about where to look for this guidance. “Ask the Oracle” is really just a high tech way of flipping a coin, saying “eeney, meeney, meyeny, mo,” or picking the petals off a daisy. It is way of letting chance decide for us.

Throughout the ages, people have also turned to God and religion to help them manage their free will. In Jesus’ day, the Jews had a religion, which offered them lots of guidance. They had a rule for practically everything. Central to the Jewish tradition, then and now, was keeping the law.

Although Christians are equally fond of making rules, keeping them is not the core of our faith. We believe that through faith in Jesus Christ our sins can no longer separate us from God. We understand our salvation to be a free gift – and not something we can earn by keeping rules – no matter how good those rules might be.

Nevertheless, Jesus did not leave us without guidance. As we proclaim in the prayer of Thanksgiving over the Water during the rite of Baptism: “…Your Son Jesus received the baptism of John and was anointed as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us, through his death and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life.” Instead of giving us a rulebook to show us the way, Jesus has become the way. In the church calendar, today is called “Maundy Thursday.” “Maundy” means “command.” This refers to the command Jesus gave his disciples after washing their feet. He said: “A new commandment I give you: love one another as I have loved you.” (John 13:34)

When Jesus washes the disciples’ feet, he asks them: “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you.”

The custom of foot washing was a common courtesy. In Jesus’ time and place, the ground was hot and sandy. Because people wore sandals, their feet also got hot and sandy. Washing the feet was a necessity when coming indoors. Foot washing was something like the customs we have today about a guest’s coat. When we come indoors, our coats have to come off if we are going to be comfortable. A host often offers to help a guest remove his coat, and then hangs it up for him. The difference is that most of us perform this courtesy for our guests ourselves. In Jesus’ day, the host’s servants would wash the guests’ feet, since it was considered a demeaning chore.

Part of the example Jesus was giving his disciples was one of setting aside the current worldly understanding of social status. Jesus loves us in such a way that rank has no meaning. The Lord waits upon his servants as though he was the servant and they were his master. Loving one another as Jesus loves us means reaching out to one another without worrying about the human-made rules, which push us apart from one another. Loving like Jesus means giving up the image of ourselves as being powerful or important in favor of sharing Jesus’ unconditional love with another human soul.

Several years ago, priest named Walter was asked to lead a three-day clergy retreat. For the first two days, Walter gave meditations and led discussions. Everything he did and said encouraged the participants to open themselves to God and to one another. Yet they chose to remain emotionally distant from each other. They made light conversation, told an occasional joke, and that was all.

The second night, Walter could not sleep. He realized that the clergy were afraid of sharing their true selves with one another. Each participant was highly invested in projecting a strong “together” image to the rest of the clergy. As Walter prayed about this, a remedy for the situation occurred to him. He wrote it down, and fell immediately to sleep.

The next morning, during the first meditation, Walter handed each participant several sheets of red construction paper. He instructed them to tear off a strip of paper and attach it to place on their bodies where they had been injured in some way. When they had all done this, he told them to keep attaching red paper to the sites of physical injuries until either all their paper was gone or they ran out of injuries.

No one stopped until every strip of paper was attached somewhere. Walter asked everyone to look around the room at the sea of red, which represented their woundedness. As they saw the outward signs of their brokeness, most of the participants also broke through their outer defense. The pretense that they could save themselves was gone. The sea of red proclaimed that everyone suffers, that we are all wounded, and that none of us can save ourselves through our own power.

Jesus asks us to love one another as he loves us. To do this, we must first accept the unconditional love he gives to us, and then we must share it the way he shared it: through the sharing of our true selves – wounds and all. So what do you choose? Right now we can each make the decision to open ourselves to Jesus’ unconditional love for us. We don’t need to “Ask the Oracle,” flip a coin, or consult a rulebook. Jesus doesn’t just guide us with laws; he does not just show us the way; he is the way, the truth, and the life. Amen.

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Christopher Sikkema


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