A few weeks ago I saw a presentation in a parish I was visiting in which a priest was talking about the Lord’s Prayer with teenagers. As much as I like and admire this priest, I couldn’t help finding his discussion of prayer and its obligations rather one-sided. In this account, we’re supposed to hallow God’s name and declare God’s glory because we’re all God’s creatures and that’s what God’s creatures are supposed to do. That’s all true enough, I said to myself as I listened, but why exactly is this equation he describes so one-sided? What is God’s obligation toward us? The God whom this man described was at best a benevolent despot, a being mysteriously insistent on being hallowed and glorified. There was no suggestion in anything he said to these kids that there might be some deeper mutuality to this relationship. The Lord’s Prayer sounded as he spoke like a decidedly uneven proposition.
I want to go easy on my clerical friend, because this assumption about the one-way obligations of the divine-human relationship is broadly shared in our church culture. About a decade or so ago I attended a clergy conference led by Martin Smith, a priest and monk and writer, who told a story about a question he often poses to clergy coming to the monastery on retreat. On the first night he tells them to go back to their room and ask themselves what they would like Jesus to do for them. Without fail, he said, the next day the clergy always show up with long lists of what they are supposed to do for Jesus. No, Smith said, you didn’t hear me right. I didn’t want you to ask what Jesus wants you to do for him; I asked you to think about what you want Jesus to do for you. Not surprisingly, when the question is put that way, his retreatants have a very hard time coming up with any ideas. Jesus do something for me? Isn’t that backwards?
That’s the way it is in this Gospel for Maundy Thursday. When Jesus washes the disciples’ feet, Peter becomes distraught.
"Lord, are you going to wash my feet?" Jesus answered, "You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand." Peter said to him, "You will never wash my feet." [John 13]
Though we are tempted to think of Peter as they guy who never quite gets it, in tonight’s Gospel it looks to me as if he responds as any one of us might. Jesus is the teacher, the disciples are his students. The normal order of things in a hierarchical culture is for them to serve him. Jesus calmly but radically turns that hierarchy upside down. He establishes the primary obligation as being on his part, not theirs. He serves them.
I’m not a big fan of long homilies in Holy Week, so tonight let’s just sit with Martin Smith’s question as we think about the events we witness tonight, tomorrow, and Sunday. At most parish churches last Sunday many of us shouted “Crucify him!” as part of that dramatized Palm Sunday reading of the Passion Gospel. If you’re anything like me, you’ve thought a lot this Lent about the many and myriad ways in which you regularly let God and Jesus down. Fair enough.
But it’s too simple to say that we are the crowd in that Gospel. It’s more true to say that we are both the crowd and Jesus. And tonight Jesus’s act of washing his companions’ feet asks us to think about why God and Jesus are going through this whole experience of betrayal, crucifixion, and death in the first place. They are going through it for you and me. They are going through it because you and I are worth something to them. They are going through it because we’re precious enough in Jesus’s sight for it to be worth his while to wash our feet.
Maundy Thursday is both a penitential and joyous occasion: we gather both to lament Judas’s betrayal of Jesus and to give thanks for Jesus gift to us of the Eucharist as the way to be together in the world. As you enter into these three days of betrayal and death and resurrection, what is it that you want God to do for you? What is your need for God right now at this moment in your life? What would grace for you look like? How do you want God to act toward and for you? How have you been betrayed or misunderstood or mocked? How would God heal and restore you in the light of that? What would new, risen life look like for you if you dared to ask for it?
"Unless I wash you, you have no share with me," Jesus replied to Peter. In one sense we should hear that as judgment. But, in the context of the infinite love which undergirds the mighty acts of these three great days, we should hear that as a promise, too. Jesus washed his companions’ feet; God hears our prayers not because we grovel but because we are loved. Use the time between Maundy Thursday and Easter to ask yourself and God what you need Jesus to do for you. And then do your best to live-- creatively and joyously and maybe even with a little bit of risk and a lot of love-- into the answer you hear. Amen.