Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Reckless Grace: A Sermon for Maundy Thursday

I recently discovered a blog by United Methodist licensed local pastor. He often posts haikus based on the lectionary.
One of the Maundy Thursday haikus begins, “Smelly ol’ bunions.”
That’s right, smelly ol’ bunions.
We’ve gathered here, on Maundy Thursday, from the Latin mandatum, the new commandment. We will break bread, drink wine, and wash each other’s feet. Yet I’m standing here talking about bunions??

But you know the way the conversation often goes…
“Next week we’re doing foot washing at my church.”
“I don’t know if I could do that.”
“It’s a little strange, but not so bad, because I always go and get a pedicure the day before.”

So, did you get your pedicure? Did you put a little baby powder in your shoes tonight, to make sure that your feet don’t stink?

Or did you just show up, smelly ol’ bunions and all? says that “many people may unnecessarily suffer the pain of bunions for years before seeking treatment.” Bunion symptoms can include pain or soreness, inflammation and redness, a burning sensation, and even numbness. Bunions hurt, and they’re embarrassing, so we live with them, doing our best to keep them hidden.

Are you ready tonight to put those ugly, sore spots on display…and not just show them off, but actually let someone touch them?

Are you willing to be that vulnerable?
What if I’m washing your feet and instead of gentle water, I pour salt on your wounds?
What if I push too hard?
What if I wrinkle my nose and turn away in disgust?
Will you risk it?

For Jesus and his disciples, having their feet washed was just part of the expected routine. Time and again their feet were washed by slaves in the households of their hosts. This was normal. It was nothing new to have your feet washed by a slave. If there was no slave, then you washed them yourself. The feet were dirty, and they had to be washed.

Over 10 years ago I spent some time in West Africa, and the journal I carried with me is still tinged brown from the dirt. I imagine it was like that in Jesus’ day…everything covered in dirt, and what it must have been like to be the household slave who had to kneel down and wash the dirt, sweat, and manure off the feet of a free person – someone who was free to travel, free to roam the streets and do as they liked.

But one night, the gospels tell us, Jesus becomes vulnerable and takes a risk. On that particular night, Jesus receives grace. Not unmerited favor, as we’ve often heard it defined. Grace. The empowering presence of God enabling him to live out his calling.

The gospel text tonight and every Maundy Thursday is not the institution of the Lord’s Supper found in the synoptic gospels (we use the 1 Corinthians reading to cover that), but the washing of the disciples’ feet found in John. And yes, we’ll come back to that night of foot washing. But before that night, there was another night, when grace was poured out on Jesus. You know the story.

According to John, it was 6 days before the Passover, and his dear friends Martha, Mary, and Lazarus were hosting a party for him. He had just given them the greatest gift they could imagine…Lazarus had his life back, and Mary and Martha had regained their brother…and thus their economic security. Jesus brought healing and hope to many people, and it was only natural that there would be dinner parties in his honor.

But he didn’t know that there was something different about this night. Mary broke from the tradition and did something unexpected, something exceedingly extravagant. A year’s wages, poured out on Jesus’ feet.

Judas reacts strongly, pointing out that the perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor. Now John clearly had a low opinion of Judas, to say the least. According to John, Judas didn’t care about the poor, but was a thief who stole from the common purse.
But regardless of Judas’ motives, can you imagine?

Before I came to seminary, my employers paid me $32,000 per year. I once had the opportunity to listen to and even meet Bishop Desmond Tutu, one of my spiritual heroes. If I had taken $32,000, bought perfume with it, and poured it out on Bishop Tutu’s feet, even he might have chastised me for my foolishness. Most people would agree that it would be a ridiculous thing to do. If you have that kind of money lying around, why not give it to the church? Why not give it to AIDS research in South Africa? Or – start a scholarship fund for seminary students?

Mary was wasteful – extravagant – with this full pound of nard. Very likely, it was left over from Lazarus’ burial. And to those in Lazarus’ house, it must have smelled like death.

So there’s Jesus, his bunions on display in all their glory. So often we read this passage as if Jesus is nonchalantly accepting her anointing. When Judas protests, Jesus says, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.”

But this is not a statement made lightly. Jesus knew that the end was near. He’d heard the rumors, and he’d stayed away from Jerusalem as long as possible. He knew that the path he had chosen would lead to agonizing state sanctioned torture and, ultimately, execution. At a dinner that was supposed to be a celebration of Lazarus’ resurrection, Jesus received extravagant, reckless grace that he knew would give him strength to face his impending death.

Several days later… - though it probably seemed more like a lifetime –Jesus had been greeted with palms and great fanfare as he rode into Jerusalem. And his predictions about his coming death were starting to seem more real to his disciples.

Several days later, they sat down to a meal together. They had done this many times before. It was Passover time, and they knew the drill – the food they would eat, in what order, the words they would say, the songs they would sing.

As she had done at her home back in Bethany, perhaps Martha was serving the meal. And maybe as Martha placed food on the table, Jesus remembered that night, just a few days ago, when Mary had wildly and earnestly anointed his aching feet.

The smell of death still in his nostrils, Jesus got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet. Then, just as Mary had wiped his feet with her hair, he wiped the disciples’ feet with the towel that was tied around him.

When it was Peter’s turn, he was embarrassed. Had he known, he would have gotten a pedicure and made sure there were no bunions showing. He would have put a little ointment on his feet that morning so they wouldn’t smell so bad.

His toes curled up, and he tried to hide his feet from Jesus. “Surely not, Lord! You will never wash my feet!” Perhaps he thought that Jesus would realize how vulgar his feet were, how improper it would be for him to allow his Master to wash his feet. He couldn’t believe that the others had allowed Jesus to do it.

Jesus’ answer stunned Peter: “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” O-kay! He was not expecting that one. “Well then, wash my hands and my head, too!”

Now, I don’t know whether Jesus is exasperated here… or amused… or perhaps just tired of the struggle. This band of ruffians willingly followed him, and they’re still completely clueless. So, he says, “You took a bath, didn’t you? So you are clean, except for your feet.”

But…But…not all of you are clean. He knew that he had poured out the waters of extravagant grace on even the one who would betray him.

Throughout the evening, Jesus must have been replaying the events of the past several days in his head.
The overwhelming smell of the perfume used to anoint the dead;
the shouting of the crowds;
the feel of the wobbly colt under his frail, tired body;
the crunch of palms underfoot;
the thunderous voice from heaven;
his repeated attempts to warn his disciples of the days to come.

After he had washed their feet, he put on his robe, and returned to the table. He said to them, “Do you know what I have done?”

Do you know? Do you know what it is to be anointed? Do you know what it is to have your feet washed? Do you know that you have had grace upon grace poured over you?

He doesn’t say, it is your duty to serve, even when it hurts. Or, give of yourself and keep giving until you have nothing left to give. He says, do as I have done to you.

It could have been Mary’s voice. Mary, who had received grace in the resurrection of her brother Lazarus, poured out grace upon Jesus when he needed it most. “Do as I have done to you.”

As Jesus looked at Judas, who needed, perhaps most of all, to receive his grace, “Do you know what I have done?”

We all stand with the disciples as those who have been called and sent. We are not here to begrudgingly put our hands in the water and try to keep a straight face as we kneel to wash one another’s feet.

“Do you know what I have done?”

We’re here tonight to put our smelly ol’ bunions out there for all to see. Are you, like most bunion sufferers, unnecessarily suffering pain because you can’t bring yourself to be vulnerable?
Have you suffered abuse?
Are you ashamed of your imperfections?
Are you afraid to take a risk, for fear that you might be hurt again?
Or, have you just gotten used to the numbness?

The invitation of the gospel this Maundy Thursday is to come to the basin…
vulnerable, frightened, confused, hurting…
Just come.
And allow grace to be poured out all over your tired, dirty, imperfect feet.

And then, when you know what it is that Christ has done, you will be able to live into the new commandment, this mandate:

“Love one another.
Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.
By this everyone will know that you are my disciples,
if you have love for one another.”

The table is set; the water is ready.
Won’t you come tonight, and receive God’s reckless, exceedingly extravagant grace?


  1. Beautiful. I wish I could hear you preach this!

  2. Great sermon. Thanks for this.