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Thursday, April 09, 2009

"You will never wash my feet!"

John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Maundy Thursday – April 9, 2009
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton,
rector and pastor

Humility. It sounds so simple, so noble. Of course, we would all want to aspire to it, but it is so very difficult to achieve.

In fact, I think it is probably more difficult to attain the kind of humility Jesus requires of us than the virtue of forgiveness. Perhaps that's because humility is a prerequisite of forgiveness.

Then again, no one ever said it was easy to be a Christian.

Indeed, it’s only a guess, but I don’t think there’s a person in this church tonight who can't relate to Peter’s response to the request from Jesus to wash his feet.

Did you pay attention to what Peter said? He said, “You will never wash my feet.”

Get that? Not just "Don't". "Never!"

A few years ago, I hurt my back. I was in such pain that I couldn’t move. All I could do was lay on the floor and weep and moan. Oh, yes, and I also said, over and over again, “I don’t want to go to the hospital.”

When I finally agreed that I should probably go to the ER, Ms. Conroy turned to our daughter Mia and said, “Okay, call The Squad.”

“The Squad!” I shrieked. “Not The Squad!”

I simply couldn’t get my head wrapped around the - get ready for the word – HUMILIATION (sound like humility?) – of being put on a stretcher and carried out of the house. Besides, I thought, how are they ever going to carry me down those steep stairs? I’ll feel ridiculous.

Of course, Barbara called The Squad. Of course, they came. Of course, I was humiliated. It takes real humility to admit that you need help. It takes real humility to ask for help.

Why is that? Because humility requires that you admit that something may be wrong with you. That you are lesser, in some way, than others.

That’s as hard for us to admit, in the ‘pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-boot-strap’, independent spirit of America in the 3rd Millennium than it was for Peter in first century, ancient Israel.

“You will never wash my feet,” thundered Peter in that upper room in Jerusalem

“Not The Squad,” I shrieked from the second floor of the rectory in Chatham.

Now, it’s important that you understand why it is so important to Jesus that we understand humility before we undertake any ministry in his name. Jesus does not want us to come to Christian ministry with a sense of superiority.

Whatever you do in the name of Jesus must not come from a place of feeling, “Well, I have to help those poor people.”

If that’s your attitude, I have news flash for you: you are not doing Christian ministry. You may be doing a work of charity, but you are not doing Christian ministry.

See, Christian work is more than charity, harder than charity.

Before you can help anyone else, says Jesus, you have to understand your own limitations. You have to understand that – from time to time and in some way, shape or form, we all need help.

In this act of humility, Jesus is not asking us to humiliate ourselves. Rather, Jesus is teaching us that an act done in his name – if it is authentic Christian ministry – must come not from a place of superiority in you, but, in fact, from a place where you have known need. Where you have known how uncomfortable it is to ask for and receive help.

Why? So, whatever you do to help someone won’t make them feel worse about what they don’t have, or the situation they find themselves in right now. And, if you don’t have a clue what that might mean, says Jesus, let me wash your feet.

When I was in nursing school, one of the priests there who taught Ethics told us something I’ll never forget. He said that everyone who did Christian ministry needed two things:

(1) the ability to laugh at yourself and

(2) a scar.

If you can laugh at yourself, you’re never in danger of taking yourself too seriously, or feeling superior.

If you have a scar, you have experienced some pain, so you can understand when someone else is in pain.

When The Squad arrived at the rectory, one of the first people to come to me as I lay in pain on the floor was Mr. Orphanos, James’ dad. He knelt down beside me and recognized instantly that not only was I in terrible pain, but that I was scared half out of my mind. He probably was able to recognize that in me because he was able to remember a time when he was in pain and he felt scared.

He didn’t say, “Oh, there, there. Stop crying. We’re the Chatham Squad. We’re the best. You have nothing to worry about. What’s wrong with you? Just relax and let us take care of you.”

No, he didn’t do that. Do you know what he did?

He knelt down right beside me, got himself way down so he wasn’t above me like an authority figure, but right down on the floor next to me, making himself equal with me. Then, he spoke in very soft, comforting tones.

He said something like, ‘Rev’d Elizabeth, I know you’re scared. I know you’re in pain. You don’t have to be afraid. We’re here now. We’re going to take good care of you, you just wait and see.”

And, because he spoke from a place of truth in his heart, I believed him. I trusted him. I immediately relaxed, which lessened my pain. I stopped crying, so I could pay closer attention to what they were telling me they were going to do.

I no longer felt humiliated because I knew they weren’t judging me or thinking less of me. I was able to accept my own humility because they were so filled with humility. They treated me as if it were a privilege to care for me.

As human beings who are good citizens of the universe, we are expected to help those in need. As followers of Jesus, this is the night when we learn how to help those in need – by first acknowledging our own need.

Maundy Thursday teaches us how to live out the new commandment that Jesus gave us: Love one another as he loves us.

And, tonight, that’s just what we’re going to do. We’re going to find the places in our hearts that have been hurt and bears a scar, and we’re going to learn what it means to be able to laugh at ourselves as we wash each other’s feet.

Then, we're going to celebrate the Eucharist, the Last Supper, the Passover of our Lord, with hearts that are softened by humility.

It is in such acts of humility that Jesus is most present to us. Amen.


Priscilla said...

Elizabeth, simply breathtaking. I have been "on the floor" myself and, being a stubborn and feisty old bird, resisted help for as long as I could. I was at a hotel at a conference for work and did not want to be helpless in front of my boss and coworkers. I had no choice.

You certainly made this very meaningful to me and to many others, I'm sure. In my work with poor children I often tell newcomers to our school that approaching the kids from a place of pity is the recipe for disaster and heartache in the classroom. Approach them as human beings with high expectations and low tolerance for shenanigans.

Thank you for touching my heart (and washing my feet, if only metaphorically) with the hands of Jesus.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Apart from Ministry, which isn't for everyone, one place where this crops up is in old age. I've seen it, for instance, in the old people's home where I worked 2006-2008...

A ward of mine, 89 years of age, didn't want to be helped. He really didn't.

He was very polite, but he said Thank you! Thank you in a way to make you feel it meant Be off! and he did it as you entered the room ;=)

My mother was much the same, living without a char lady in a much too large house among mountains of old news papers and things wrapped in plastic bags, and eventually dying in a fire two days before someone from the Council was coming to assess her need of an old people's home on my fathers instigation...

And it was only my patient in the old people's home which made me see it...

Too much of an independent spirit is counter productive - even bad for you. Not to mention the pain it can cause your relations...

KJ said...

First, be washed, then wash. That was the order of our, my first, foot washing last night. When we are able to let go of what we want to control (i.e., ourselves and everything that is "ours"), then we're ready to serve in turn.

Thank you, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

That's exactly how we do it. My feet are washed first and then I wash the feet of the one who washed mine. The pattern is then followed throughout the whole congregation.

Thank you, KJ. It is a privilege.