This sermon was delivered at a Maundy Thursday service, held at Clinton Memorial AME Zion Church in Greenport, NY, on Thursday, April 13, 2017.
Sometimes the gentle moments are the most striking. There’s a lot to grab our attention this week: the crowds at the gates of Jerusalem… the anger of the Pharisees… the righteous overturning of the tables in the temple… the meal they were preparing for… the betrayal and arrest to come.
Yet in the middle of this amazing narrative that begins the moment Jesus says to his followers “let’s celebrate Passover in Jerusalem” and ends with the miracle of resurrection / what is so striking is this one gentle moment.
A gentle action. Washing of feet. An act of humility, an act of honor. Today we won’t be washing each other’s feet, but we will be washing each other’s hands – similarly an act of humility and honor.
And what an honor. In this room are dozens of people who make a choice to come together with people they don’t know, to hear a good word, sing a good song, share a good meal. These Lenten luncheons are a highlight of the church year, but not just because of the services and soup. They are a highlight because here in these spaces, it doesn’t matter what you believe, or what you call yourself, or who your pastor is. What matters is that you come together to be with each other in a time out of time, in sacred space, to honor one another and honor that which is in yourselves to be fed spiritually and bodily.
I think sometimes we forget the bodily part of all this – as important as the body is to the Passion narrative, it tends to get lost in the storytelling and preaching and it becomes a very heady thing. We listen to the gospel readings, we think about our Lenten practice, we imagine the resurrection, but we forget sometimes that this is very much about our humanness.
It’s about getting on a donkey and riding into Jerusalem, and waving palm fronds, and turning over tables, and washing, and eating, and sleeping, and eventually it’s about physical violence and death and resurrection. Real, human, physical experiences. With real, human, physical emotions – joy, anticipation, anger, tears, surprise. We feel the Passion narrative in our bodies, as those who lived the events felt it in theirs.
And so I invite you into a spiritual celebration of our humanness, this flesh and blood. These bodies, that are young and old, elastic and stiff, energetic and really, really tired. These bodies that have these amazing appendages that do amazing things. We take our hands and feet for granted, until they don’t work anymore, but without them, we have to find other ways to get around, to do the work we’re called to do. But when we look at our bodies, the first things we notice are our feet and our hands. Is it any wonder that Jesus draws attention to our feet and hands too – a reminder of our bodily experience as key to our spiritual experience.
So let’s take a little time in this season of bodily experience to pay tribute to the miracle that is the human hand. I’m reminded of a soliloquy delivered by Hawkeye, the wise and wisecracking doctor played by Alan Alda in the TV series M*A*S*H. He exclaims “Look at your hand. It’s one of the most incredible instruments in the universe!”
He then waxes poetic about our hands and the “balletic interplay of parts that make up the human thumb” that allow us, as he says, to draw the thumb “inward over the palm, thus producing the movement of opposition. And the Boy Scout salute. Because of this magical engineering, we could do this. And this. And this.
“But our greatest triumph comes not from flexing the metacarpal bone and making a fist, which always seems to be thirsting to be clenched…No.
Our greatest moment is when we open our hand, cradling a glass of wine, cupping a loved one’s chin. And the best… the most expert of all…keeping all the objects of our life in the air at the same time.
“My friends, for your amusement and bemusement, I give you the human person. Thumb and fingers flexing madly, straining to keep aloft the leaden realities of life: ignorance, death and madness. Thus” – he concludes – “we create for ourselves the illusion that we have power, that we are in control.”
These hands of ours.
When we look at our own hands, we see decades of work, of play, of life lived. Maybe yours carry scars from touching a hot stove, or a mishap with a paring knife, or blackberry brambles. Maybe your hands have callouses from working, or gardening, or playing the guitar. Maybe your hands feel achy and arthritic. Maybe your hands are well manicured, or not so well manicured, or have early spring dirt embedded underneath the nails.
These hands of ours, that have held a million cups of coffee and hymnals and forks and toothbrushes and remotes and phones and tools and …other hands.
Some of you may be embarrassed by your hands; I know I have moments when I am embarrassed by mine, with their short, bitten nails, and cat scratches, and redness from washing too many dishes.
When I look at my hands, I remember the story of a young girl named May.
Now May was embarrassed by her hands too, which were always red and worn, and calloused from working after school to help care for her baby sister while her mom worked a night job to make ends meet. In class, when others would raise their hands and write on the blackboard, May would hide her hands under the desk. When there were writing exercises, May would work as quickly as possible so others couldn’t see them.
One thing May loved, though, was art – and when she saw signups for an advanced drawing class, she quickly scribbled her name on the list. All that evening, while she took care of her baby sister, and cooked, and mopped the kitchen, and did the dishes May was excited for the class. But in the morning, as she fixed a bowl of cereal, she looked at her red, worn hands, and realized she wouldn’t be able to hide her hands in this drawing class, and so ran to school to remove her name from the list.
But the list wasn’t on the bulletin board, so decided to tell the teacher right before the start of class. But the room was rowdy, and May couldn’t get the teacher’s attention, so she sat through the first session and was determined to tell her teacher at the end of class that she was no longer interested.
During the class, the teacher talked about how important it was to draw what you saw, even if nobody else saw the same thing. They’d eventually draw pets and people, but the first lesson was to draw their own hands.
May was stunned.
But, she did it, and quickly so the other children wouldn’t see her red, worn hands, and turned it in at the end of class.
The next day, the teacher showed all the wonderful hand drawings – the colorful ones with bright nail polish, the one that had rings on every finger, the big strong, superhero hands. And then the teacher held up a drawing that showed a small hand, with fingers curled toward the palm as if holding a precious stone.
The teacher said, “of all the hand drawings you turned in, this is the one I could not stop looking at. It is beautiful. It shows a hand that is not idle. A hand that has worked hard. The fingers are curved, as to protect something fragile.”
The teacher went to May’s desk and said “may I see your hands?” May reluctantly pulled her hands from under her desk, and her teacher held May’s hand. “Now as I hold in my own hand the hand from the drawing, I can see I’m not wrong. This is a hand that’s caressed kittens and held small violets. It’s a hand that’s washed many dishes and folded laundry and given baths and combed hair. Yes, this is a very interesting hand. A beautiful hand.”
Canadian folksinger Dave Gunning sings praises to all we can do with our hands – he writes
Some hands have held the world together Some hands have fought in wars forever
Some hands have blessed a million people Some hands helped free the world from evil
Some hands can stop a life from dying Some hands comfort a baby crying
Some hands give voice to a nation Some hands wrote “The Times They Are a-Changin’”
But then he asks, simply, “What shall I do with these hands of mine?”
What shall we do? What are we called to do?
Back to our reading from the gospel of John.
Jesus says to the disciples, “if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”
Up to this point, Jesus has been teaching his followers, whom we call disciples, from the Latin “discere,” which means to learn. Thus, a disciple is someone who is focused on learning and living certain values and ways of being in the world. We watch, throughout the gospels, as Jesus teaches them about goodness, hospitality, generosity, faithfulness, forgiveness, openness. There are teaching moments in the Sermon on the Mount, with the woman at the well, watching the scribes and the widows at the temple, in the parables about vineyards and prodigal sons and good Samaritans. Sometimes the disciples get it, but often they don’t. I can imagine Jesus’ frustration when the lesson he’s trying to teach whizzes by them.
But now, something is changing. Jesus has said “let’s celebrate Passover in Jerusalem” with a bit of foreboding and foreshadowing. He has spent the last three years preaching his message. He reveals in miracles the healing power of love, compassion, and hope. But because he’s telling the Temple establishment that they’re missing the point of their own faith, and because this radical spiritual message is a radical political message too, his ministry is becoming a bit of a problem. By going into the proverbial lion’s den, Jerusalem on Passover, he’s changing the game.
And he knows / because he may not survive this week, something must change with his disciples too.
The time of learning is coming to a close. Now it’s time to go out and teach others, to be an apostle, from the Greek ‘apostolos’ meaning one who is sent away into the world to proselytize.
Jesus washes their feet, saying “if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”
In other words, “I have taught you with humility and honor, and you should do the same for others.”
We often look at the events later on Thursday as the moment things change, but I argue that things shift here, in this moment, in preparation of the Passover meal and the betrayal and the events that follow.
In this moment, Jesus sees them differently and asks his disciples to see themselves differently, and to act differently. In fact, while the passage we know as the “great commission” comes later (and in a different gospel), the work Jesus has called them to begins here, in preparation of the hard days to come.
And in our retelling of this narrative, we are, at this moment, called to see ourselves differently, and act differently, to do the work our faith has called us to. The work of nurturing our spirits and healing the world begins here.
The work begins when we stop just being learners and start also being teachers.
The work begins when we stop just being receivers and start also being givers.
The work begins when we stop thinking only of own stories and start honoring the blessings of others.
The work begins when we stop wondering what God can do for us and start asking ‘how can I be God’s hands in the world?’
The work begins when we see the miracle of our hands, and ask ourselves “what shall I do with these hands of mine?”