Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Christ the Servant”
John 13: 1-17, 31b-35
April 13, 2017 (Maundy Thursday)
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City
In 2006, I was hospitalized with pulmonary emboli. If you are like I was at the time, you may be clueless as to what a pulmonary embolism is. Simply put: it is a clot on the lung—at least that is my pedestrian knowledge of the potentially fatal malady. One embolism will kill you; I had four. It was touch and go. I spent five days in the intensive care unit and Dagmar faithfully watched over me. Thank God, I made it to the other side of that dark, dreadful tunnel.
Toward the end of my hospitalization, the charge nurse asked who my favorite staff person had been. I experienced my share of personnel–pulmonologists, cardiologists, nurses, x-ray technicians, phlebotomists, house-keeping staff, physical therapists, even a few caring pastors and a kindly bishop. The person I cherished most, though, was a nurse’s aide.
One evening, Claudia came to my room and asked if I would like a sponge bath. The experience was exquisite, more luxurious than anything offered at a deluxe Southern California spa. As she sponged my wretched body, tears welled up in my eyes. I was overwhelmed by her tenderness. Claudia’s calling was to anoint suffering patients with sweet-smelling oils of healing.
Of all those who tended to me, this servant worked twelve hour days and was one of the lowest paid hospital employees. When I told the charge nurse Claudia was the finest person sent my way—a gift from God really, he immediately asked, “Any nurses, doctors, you wish to add?” They were all extraordinary—well, except the cranky blood-drawer who cursed my crummy veins—and yet I will always cherish Claudia.
Tonight, we remember another servant, the most exquisite one, Jesus. He did what only servants do: he washed his disciples’ dusty, sweaty feet. His dear friends were dumbfounded: “Who are you to do this to me?” There were others who were befuddled over the years. One of the great historic heresies that continues in our own age is the belief that God could not possibly come to earth as Jesus, as a servant: the Almighty does not stoop so low to wash smelly feet.
Yes, tonight, Maundy Thursday, is about as low as Jesus could get. As one of his closest friends devised a sordid plan to betray him and others lacked the courage to stand by his side when the powerful pushed and shoved, even then Jesus washed their feet, even then he forgave them all that was soon to unfold, even then he shared the most intimate meal with them, even then he loved them until the end.
Washing one another’s feet must be the most awkward act of the entire church year. If you are like me, you look forward to foot-washing as much as you do to filing your 2016 income tax return. Don’t you imagine quite a few have steered clear of this evening altogether for fear that they might be cajoled into washing someone else’s feet? Some churches, perhaps the wiser ones, just don’t do it. I read one church’s Holy Week schedule announcing washing of hands instead of feet—that certainly is a creative approach to remedy the inelegance of what is soon to unfold, much more palatable it seems to me.
I take no delight in washing another’s feet. I will do my own, but not yours if I can help it. I am not particularly fond of taking off my shoes in public either. I had a sign on my dresser that warned me not to wear holey socks this evening. Foot-washing strips us down to our basest humanity; we become so vulnerable.
By the way, no one is compelled to wash another person’s feet tonight. However, if you choose to remain on the sidelines, watch closely nonetheless; recall how Jesus commanded us to love one another and how he loved those who fell short of his love to the very end. Judas soon betrayed Jesus. Peter, who had previously said quite proudly, “You will never wash my feet,” overestimated himself; he had no way of knowing how soon he would shrink from his high ideals and repeatedly deny ever having known his dearest friend. In spite of the horrid betrayal, denials, and cowardice—not by Jesus’ detractors but by those who adored him most—Jesus was glorified through his deep affection for his friends and enemies. Remember how he broke bread with them and touched them with heavenly grandeur even as their courage plummeted to disgusting depths.
The heavenly pendulum swings so low this evening that it is almost impossible to discern God’s presence with us.
Maybe it’s a good thing we are uncomfortable—servanthood does that to us. And when God becomes our servant, that really is excrutiating, so much so that it becomes almost unbearable…and yet, what wondrous love Christ has for us.
And so, I invite you forward now to be servants of one another. If you prefer not, then at least remember the servanthood of our Lord Jesus Christ.