Posted in Words!

Maundy Thursday: Finding Jesus

Thursday evening of Holy Week: Holy Thursday. Maundy Thursday. The moment when the liturgy recalls the mandatum of Jesus in the fourth Gospel. To paraphrase, “Do you know what I have done? I who am master and Lord have watched your feet. I have given you an example. As I have done, so you must do for each other.”

Do we know what he has done?

Perhaps partially, if at all. He has served, yes. But in doing so in this particular way, at this particular moment on the way to his death, he has revealed the very heart of God as a a heart of service. He has introduced God as One who wills to bend down before the other, to hold, to embrace, to wash and dry, to do whatever is needed. Whatever is needed for the sake of love.

This evening I went to pray at an evening Eucharist nearby. The homilist directed our attention to feet. Oft overlooked (no pun intended) they tell the story of who we are, of where we’ve been, and (in the path of the steps behind us) they tell what is important to us, what counts for us, where we have had the energy and the will to go. The two priests of the parish came into the assembly, got down on the floor, and washed the feet of all who came forward, of almost all who were there. Gently. In silence. With respect for the story told by the feet of each sojourner who stepped forward.

I love this night, with a special love. I always have, as long as I remember. This evening I recall Holy Thursday at dear Sacred Heart Parish in Lynn. I believe the night I picture in my mind now was either in 2003 or ’04. Two winters before, a frigid killing winter, we found Tommy. He was living in a car up the street. He was wrapped in blankets. He was cold, very cold. He wasn’t eating right. He didn’t have the medication he needed. He didn’t have the daily reminders of the love we all need. He was often drunk. He had a heart of gold.

Over the year and a half we had known him at Sacred Heart, Tommy came and went. He sometimes helped out at the Food Pantry on Thursdays. He would offer to do odd jobs. Sometimes he was sober for weeks at a time and stood taller and walked stronger and told stories about his childhood and growing up, and about his dad the fire chief. Other times he was very low, dragging himself to the door; hungry but not knowing it; lonely, but it couldn’t be admitted. The hole was too deep and dark.

But this one year I thought: Tommy should be asked if he will be one of those having their feet washed at the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday. We were asking twelve. I thought, ‘Tommy should be one of those twelve.’ I was thinking: ‘he’s become part of this community. He’s not perfect, Sometimes he’s radically imperfect. But hell, he’s only showing out loud what is true of every one of us here. Including the priests.’ So I asked. And he said yes.

Holy Thursday evening came. And so did Tommy. I wasn’t sure he would show up. It depended on a bunch of factors coming together just right. And they did. I think the English word for such a moment is: God. We came to the point in the liturgy for the washing of feet. Tommy moved up with the others and sat down. He took his shoes off, the best ones he could find. As I was privileged to do with the others, I poured warm water over his feet into a basin. I wiped them dry. I kissed them. I looked into his eyes. He was smiling. He was smiling like nothing had ever gone wrong for a single moment his whole life long. I think there’s a word in English, and every other language, for moments like that. I think you know what that word is.

In the 13th chapter of the Gospel according to John, it is Jesus who washed his disciples’ feet. Peter first protests, and then insists. The others, it seems, went along. Judas was there among them. Jesus washed his feet as well. With a special knowledge, but still with the very same love.

I was thinking on that evening ten years ago, and ever since, and again tonight: when you today as priest kneel down in front of men and women and do what Jesus did; when you hold their feet gently, when you look into their eyes, you are the disciple. That night, when I looked up into Tommy’s eyes as I dried his feet? I was looking at Christ. I was looking into the eyes of Jesus. Jesus struggling. Jesus suffering. Jesus trying. Jesus loving.

Saint Augustine, the amazing North African bishop long ago said it this way:

“If you want to understand the body of Christ, listen to what the apostle Paul says to the faithful: ‘You are Christ’s own body, his members’; thus, it is your own mystery which is
placed on the Lord’s table. It is your own mystery that you receive. At communion, the priest says: ‘The body of Christ,’ and you reply ‘Amen.’ When you say ‘Amen,’ you are saying yes to what you are.”

It was true before he said it and it is still true. But he said it so beautifully.

So did Saint John Chrysostom, who warned us sternly to care for Christ first on the streets, in the squares, lying in the gutters, and then after inside the church building. Chrysostom preached: “The temple of our afflicted neighbor’s body is more holy than the altar of stone on which you celebrate the holy sacrifice. You are able to contemplate this altar everywhere, in the street and in the open squares.”

During the distribution of the Eucharist tonight, as each one affirmed that here was present the Body of Christ and the Bread of Heaven, we sang the hymn Where Charity and Love Prevail. The tune was different than the one I learned as a boy at Saint John’s Parish by the water in Swampscott, on the north shore of Boston. But the lyrics remain the same. And the things that remain the same are rock-solid, damn-that’s- good-count-on-this foundational.

Remember the last couple of verses?

“Let us recall that in our midst dwells God’s begotten Son; As members of his body joined, we are in Christ made one.
No race or creed can love exclude, if honored be God’s name; Our family embraces all whose Father is the same.”

That is saving truth, given us to live. This night and every night. There are feet to be washed on any given evening. And Jesus to be found.

Tommy, thank you, on this Thursday evening when you are alive to me again. And rest in peace, dear brother.

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Posted in Preaching

Suffering and Greatness

English: Mary and Jesus
English: Mary and Jesus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

September 23, 2012 Homily
Season after Pentecost; proper 20.
Mark 9:30-37
Grace Church, Massapequa

 

 

 

For the second time now, as he did in the Gospel proclaimed last Sunday as well, Jesus pours out to his closest followers the truth of who he is, and of what this identity means regarding his fate: that he will be betrayed, suffer, die, and three days later rise again.

 

This teaching, even said right out loud and clear, cannot seem yet to break through their ears into their heads. The disciples cannot conceive of a Messiah who suffers, a Christ who dies, a God who empties himself completely to the point of death. It just does not make any sense. To make it worse, instead of asking Jesus what this means, what he is trying to tell them; instead of engaging him in conversation about this terrible and amazing teaching; instead of trusting him enough to raise the questions that are in them, they remain silent about it.

 

But not entirely silent. It sounds in Mark’s Gospel as if Jesus, after sharing this solemn word with his friends again, had separated a bit from them then along the road. Maybe he went on ahead, walking just a bit faster as he led the way. Or maybe he fell behind them a few yards in order to allow himself some time to contemplate, to take this truth of his mission deeply into himself, or perhaps to commune with his Father, his Abba, in prayer.

 

Wherever he was, Jesus apparently heard the disciples talking with one another with great animation. It sounded like an argument. Maybe Jesus hoped that the word he had just given them about himself had really struck them forcibly, had reached their hearts and engaged their minds: so that now as they walked along they were with energy discussing various understandings of how all this that Jesus had said could be true.

 

So it may have been with hope that his very slow followers had finally caught on that Jesus asked them after they reached the house: “What were you all talking about as we came along?” The truth, which they must have admitted with embarrassment, was that having just heard their beloved Rabbi tell them of his impending suffering and death, they strode along fighting over which of them was, or would be, the greatest in the Kingdom they expected their Messiah to inaugurate.

 

That must have hurt! They didn’t understand. They didn’t ask for explanation. Instead they turned in on themselves to fight like children might over who is the king of the hill. But Jesus takes his disappointment and turns it to something helpful. He patiently sits down with this ragtag bunch, and explains to them what real leadership looks like in God’s Kingdom. It is nothing like lording it over others. It is nothing like having the power to compel others to obey. It is, instead, choosing freely to be the last of all and the least of all. It is having the strength to let every one else pass on their way first and gain what they need, and then to follow along to guide and guard and love from an unexpected place behind.

 

That is what Jesus is doing for them, what he had done for them that very day, and what he was telling them he was going to do – despite the pain – for everyone in the days to come. He was showing them in his own flesh as well as his words, what it means to be the greatest.

 

To make this real for them, in an attempt to make this truth, at least, stick in their heads and take root in their hearts, he brings a little child into the midst of their group. Who was this child? Was it a boy or a girl? The son or daughter of one of the disciples maybe? Or a child from the neighborhood who was visiting in the house? We don’t know, and it really doesn’t matter. The fact that we do not know let’s us – invites us – to picture this child as one whom we know and love. Picture there one of your own children, now or when they were small. Picture yourself there as a child. Picture there one of the hungering children of the world whom we see pictured all around us, waiting for our hearts to open in love.

 

Jesus brings this powerless little child into this circle of grown men hungering to know which of them will win the biggest prize and possess the greatest power. He puts his hands gently on this child’s shoulders. He smiles and looks into those new eyes as he says to his friends: “Whoever welcomes a child such as this welcomes me and the One who sent me.”

 

Jesus’ closest failed to understand him and were afraid to ask him anything to make it clearer. Now, he demonstrates that the one who is greatest in the kingdom is the one who, like this child, like most any child, is ready and willing to ask questions: “Where did I come from? Who is God? What is death? Why does the sunset have all those colors? If the world is turning so fast how come we don’t fly off it, or at least fall down? Why not? Why? … Will you always love me, no matter what?” These and a million other questions a child is able, without embarrassment, to raise to us, and through us to Jesus. That trust, that voice raised in trust, opens the gate of heaven.

 

For any of us, no matter how long we’ve been a member of Christ’s Body, no matter how often or not we come to church, no matter how many educational events we attend or not – we all have unanswered questions about God, about his Christ, about faith, about suffering, about dying, about rising again.

 

Do me a favor. Promise me that this week every one of you will take one of your own questions – one that is real for you, that you have been holding in your heart since you were a child maybe – and speak that question with trust to someone you love. Ask what you need or yearn to know, and talk about it in trust. And then receive with respect the question your loved one will raise to you in return. In doing so, quietly and gently you will raise a corner of the curtain behind which shines God’s Kingdom.

 

Oh … and because it is good to hear the power and the truth and the laughter behind the questions children dare to ask, listen to this. Jeffrey, 6 years old, was standing at the back of the church one Sunday morning, intently studying a bronze plaque on the wall, inscribed all with names. Seeing Jeff there for several minutes, the minister approached and stood next to him. Looking up the boy pointed and asked, “Reverend, what is this?” His pastor responded, “These are the names of all the men and women who died in the service.” Thoughtfully, Jeffrey looked back up at the plaque for another half a minute. He then looked up again at the pastor and asked, “At the 8:00 or the 10:00?”

 

John P. McGinty
September 22, 2012