The Blessing of Now

Jesus Washing His Disciples’ Feet by Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893)

A sermon for Maundy Thursday, April 21, 2011. The lectionary readings are Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14, Psalm 116:1, 10-17 , 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, and John 13:1-17, 31b-35 .

The Reading from Exodus describes a meal eaten on the run. Moses puts it bluntly, “Eat it with your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. You shall eat it hurriedly.” Moses rushes the people through their meal because God is busy rushing through Egypt and making a way for the people to go forward, a way of freedom and new life.

When Jesus and his disciples gathered in an upper room to celebrate the Passover meal, they knew the tradition from Exodus, but I think Jesus chose this place and this time not to have a hurried meal. Instead, I think he chose this time and place in order to slow down. Biblical scholars argue about whether Jesus knew exactly what the next few days would bring, or whether he just sensed things were leading in a certain direction. But whatever the case, in the midst of confusion, uncertainty, worry, fear, perhaps some doubt—Jesus chose this supper as a chance to be with his friends and to savor ever minute. To taste the bread. To chew the olives. To smell the wine. To pray with eyes open wide.

Jesus speaks with them very gently. He talks about what might be ahead. When they become anxious, he offers calm. He shows them faith. He tries to prepare them spiritually, and as a symbol of servant hood and of cleaning away the old to make room for the new, Jesus washes their feet.

Simon Peter is uncomfortable with the idea. Probably for different reasons than we might be, but the reluctance, the vulnerability, the hesitation to yield to another, to allow another to touch, and wash, and offer— some of us might be in the same place as Simon Peter, and we might be uncomfortable.

And yet, just like Jesus tries to show Simon Peter that service involves not only giving, not only “doing unto;” but it also involves receiving, and allowing other to do, so Jesus offers us a way of service that makes for communion.

This act of washing feet not only recalls the service Jesus showed his disciples, but it also reminds us of where we are. We’re not back in First Century Palestine. We’re here, in Washington, DC. We don’t (all of us) have stylized, beautiful feet like in paintings or frescoes, we have what we have. And we have one another.

If you look around, you’ll see a sight that will never be repeated again: Each of these people, sitting where he or she is sitting, looking the way they do. This particular configuration of people, in this space, with the light just as it is—will never happen exactly like this again. Water, bread, wine, bodies, emotions…. they are all rare and endangered—endangered by the worries of tomorrow, by the regrets of yesterday, by the distractions of today,

And so, God invites us to be present in this evening. To be present now.

It’s not easy to be present. I remember a time when I was ANYWHERE but in the present. I was in seminary and it was one of the most unfocused and worrisome times of my life. It was Holy Week and I was confused. I was confused about the future, confused about the way my life was going, confused about my sexuality, my friendships, my understanding of God, my vocation… you name it, and it confused me and worried me. I was living with regrets from the past, and yet I was afraid to look ahead, feeling paralyzed by fears of the future. And then in church we sang a hymn.

Now the silence, now the peace,
Now the empty hands uplifted;
Now the kneeling, now the plea,
Now the Father’s arms in welcome;

Now the hearing, now the power,
Now the vessel brimmed for pouring;
Now the body, now the blood,
Now the joyful celebration;

Now the wedding, now the songs,
Now the heart forgiven, leaping;
Now the Spirit’s visitation,
Now the Son’s epiphany;
Now the Father’s blessing,
Now, now, now. (The Hymnal, no. 333, words by Jaroslav Vajda, 1919-2008)

God is here NOW.

Just as Jesus used the Upper Room as a time to be with his friends, so this night provides us an opportunity to be present. A lot has gone before us. The days ahead will bring their challenges, but we are here, in this place. And God is here, in this place, now.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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