Sermon: Thursday, March 20, 2008: Maundy Thursday

Text: John 13:1-17 & 31b-35


Grace and peace be with you my sisters and brothers. God’s holy people. Amen.

I don’t know if it’s occurred to any of you or not – but a very rare confluence of dates is taking place today. It is both Maundy Thursday – the beginning of the great Three Days that move us from Lent to Easter – and it is the first day of spring.

Both events are determined by the positions of celestial bodies. The first day of spring is the day when the north and south poles are exactly the same distance from the sun, the day when darkness and light are evenly balanced. Today we experience day and night in equal measure. But tomorrow the day will last just a little longer than the night, and will continue to grow until midsummer. Maundy Thursday is the Thursday before Easter, and Easter (in the West) is calculated as the first Sunday after the first full moon (which is tomorrow) after the Spring Equinox (which is today).

Just as an aside, a bit of trivia, this is the earliest any of us have ever experienced Easter in our lifetimes. The last time it came this early was 95 years ago, and it won’t come this early again for another 220 years. It can only come one day earlier, March 22nd, and that won’t happen until the year 2285 AD.

So it is a rare thing indeed that we arrive at this Maundy Thursday, full of foot washings and acts of servitude on the first day of spring. For that reason, I’d like to meditate with you for just a few moments on the topic of spring cleaning.

Those of you who’ve spent any time in this church at all know that it takes quite a lot of effort to keep clean. We give this building a lot of use. It houses our worship and our feeding ministries. It is home to Boy Scouts and singing toddlers and elections and all sorts of activities. The last time Easter came this early our church was just barely ten years old, and in the century that has passed in between it has had plenty of opportunity to gather dirt in the corners. Our building is calloused and cracked and in need of scrubbing, and tuck-pointing and general tidying up.

Some of you have pitched in on some special cleaning projects recently. Our loft sanctuary has had three deep cleanings in the last year and is finally looking halfway presentable – you should go up and take a look. Underneath decades of chipped paint and dust and dung you can see the footprint of a room that was for decades where we came to worship. Cleaning it up and emptying it out has been a labor of love, but there is a special pride that comes with reclaiming that space for our revitalized ministry and mission. We look around the room and can begin to imagine how we might use it again, how we might put it to service for the good of our surrounding community.

Now, here’s an odd thing to consider: we can take great pride in cleaning – spring cleaning around our homes or church; we can even experience our cleaning as an act of love – as when we bathe an infant or aging parent; but we experience our dirtiness as a source of shame.

I recall as a child that one of the most shaming things another kid could taunt you with was an accusation of dirtiness. To be called “dirty” or “stinky” was deeply humiliating, and often connected to insults about poverty or race or gender. In the church we often hear the language of dirt as a metaphor for sin. We are told that God washes away the stain of our sinfulness in the waters of baptism. That we are made clean again.

But dirt, if we read Genesis right, is also what we’re made of. It’s what we will someday return to – as we’re told on Ash Wednesday, “remember that you are dust… and to dust you shall return.”

So here’s the paradox. We recognize that a good spring cleaning – of our homes, of our bodies – feels good. But none of us wants to be called dirty. We are happy enough to clean for others, but we recoil at the idea of someone cleaning up our messy homes. We are incredibly generous and loving when it comes to bathing babies and parents, but we are pained at the thought of someone bathing us.

You hear it on Peter’s lips, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” He is confused by this reversal of roles, then humbled, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head.” But Jesus will not allow Simon Peter to escape in either direction. He does not allow Peter to disappear into the constant posture of service – instead he creates a situation where Peter must receive the service that God would give him. He must acknowledge his dirty feet, and allow them to be cleaned.

But neither does Jesus let Peter disappear into a sense of worthlessness. He says, “one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean.” Jesus does not ask Peter to see himself as worthless, metaphorically or truly filthy, just that he needs to be bathed.

We struggle with this. We struggle with acknowledging that we have dirty feet, that we live in dusty homes and messy lives. We would like people to see us with our shoes and socks on. Neatly wrapped and presented to the world. But in our interior lives we are most often painfully aware of our shortcomings. We can feel like miserable failures, hopeless cases, lost causes.

We are neither. We are creatures of earth, living in earthy bodies and inspired with the breath of God. We are human, which is also to say that we are not perfect, we make messes. Like the pigeons in our loft, we leave evidence of our messiness all around us. It stinks.

But we are not our mess. We are dirt, but we are not our dirtiness. We are children of God, and like any loving parent God simply wants to give us a bath. God wants to do the humble service that parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and babysitters and brothers and sisters consider a joy, consider an honor: God wants to give us a bath. God looks at us the way we might choose to look at our loft, at our church, at our lives, at our feet – as things redeemable. Holy things, holy people. Gifts from God to the whole world.

I give you a new commandment, that you 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.


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