St. John’s Episcopal Church
207 Albany Avenue, Kingston, NY 12401

Sermons

  • Unless You Let Me Serve You

    April 14, 2022

    This evening, we come together in the same room as a community for the first time in 3 years, to celebrate Maundy Thursday.

    It’s an important act, this coming together, especially on Maundy Thursday. After the prolonged isolation, the endless waiting, the fatigue over worrying and adapting to new ways of doing everyday things. It’s important because, in all the ways we have kept one another safe, we have also refrained from one of the most basic human needs – touch.

    And this evening is the time in our liturgical year when we talk about touch because we talk about flesh. We consume flesh. We bless flesh. And we touch flesh.

    Studies about human touch have demonstrated many things. First, babies that do not receive human touch have a much higher infant mortality rate and, as they get older, they have much higher levels of stress hormones in their system. So, it makes sense that the need for touch never goes away, even when we sometimes struggle with being touched by others. Touch can help to relieve anxiety. And therefore keep us connected to our true self where we can more readily hear the whispers of the Holy Spirit.

    Studies have also shown that humans are prewired to be able to interpret the touch of others. In other words, we can decode another person’s emotions based on touch alone. Hundreds of participants in one study between the ages of 18-36 were able to communicate 8 distinct emotions through touch – anger, fear, happiness, sadness, disgust, love, gratitude, and sympathy – with a high accuracy rate. So we need touch, not just for lowering anxiety and keeping us connected to God, but for simple communication and connection with one another.

    This is all contextual of course. Different cultures have varying degrees of comfort with touch. And different people have varying experiences with touch. So, we can’t just expect that others are open to being touched just because we like to be affectionate.

    Still here we are. In the flesh. And we are given readings about flesh and blood and the intimacy of the incarnation. The incarnation means that we have this flesh. This gift that was molded from planet in which we live, sharing the same elements – air, water, fire, earth. The most common thing about us is this flesh. Yet, it’s also the most personal thing we can possess.

    Perhaps because this flesh is common, touch can be a part of serving other people as well as a part of healing ourselves and healing others. And especially tonight, to reclaim the gift of receiving touch from one another may be even more healing than we imagine it might be.

    Now, to touch someone on the arm or shoulder or give someone a hug or shake someone’s hand… these are all very different than removing our socks and shoes so that another person can wash our feet. Or kneeling before another in order to wash another’s feet. Even in this Gospel passage from John, we are given a glimpse of how the act of foot-washing was understood as troublesome then and still is today.

    It’s clear that at least some of the disciples are not ok with Jesus kneeling to wash another’s feet. Peter speaks up when Jesus approaches him. Peter says, “You will never wash my feet.” Because he doesn’t want Jesus, the person who they hold in high esteem, their rabbi, their messiah, if you will… Peter doesn’t want Jesus to be humiliated and shamed by performing such an act.

    And that is a curious thing. Why is this considered a shameful, degrading act?

    At the time of Jesus in the region in which he lived, the act of foot-washing was an act of hospitality performed for guests. But it was not performed by the host. It was performed either by a servant or the wife of the host. So, Jesus was, to quote a tired phrase, doing “women’s work.” The shame and humiliation was because it was women’s work, servant’s work.

    Of course, Jesus knows this. He understands the implications. And that’s exactly the point he’s trying to make. Because by performing this act, he turns humiliation into humility and lifts up the women of the house. And in his response to Peter, Jesus overturns the worldly order of power: “Unless I wash you, you will have no share with me.”

    Unless you let me serve you. Unless you reframe this so-called act of humiliation so that you can see it as an act of humility and service and love… you have no share with me.

    This is how God sees the world of power and prestige which is the same as the world of shame and humiliation. God sees that it needs to be righted.

    Because caring for another’s flesh, is an act of love. This flesh, this body and this blood, formed of the elements of the earth… to care for another’s flesh is to heal, not just ourselves, but the whole world. It’s righting something that went wrong. It is correcting the idea that touch is about power and recognizing that it’s about being human. Returning to the place of being able to accept touch and give touch is to come back to our own vulnerable self. The part of us that is yearning for love and connection.

    This flesh connects us deeply to one another because it is the common denominator for all of us. In reconnecting with this flesh and its needs, we learn to see that none of us are expendable. None of us are to be despised. None of us are untouchable. All of us are beloved children of God.

    When Jesus had washed their feet in the quiet of the evening dinner, he returns to the table to teach his friends what all this means.

    “Do you know what I have done to you?” Jesus asks.
    “You call me teacher… and even Lord. So if I am these things to you, and I have washed your feet, then you must to likewise. This is your example. This is what I’ve called all of you together for… to do this in and for the world.

    This is how we teach. This is how we heal. This is how we love.
    This is how we change the world because this is what God has dreamed for us all along.”

     

    (What follows is from the 2018 Book of Occasional Services)
    Fellow servants of our Savior Jesus Christ: On the night before his death, Jesus set an example for his disciples by washing their feet, an act of humble service. He taught that strength and growth in the life of the Reign of God come not by power, authority, or even miracle, but by such lowly service.

    Therefore, I invite you who share in the royal priesthood of Christ, to come forward, that we may recall whose servant we are by following the example of our Master. Come remembering his admonition that what will be done for us is also to be done by us to others, for “a servant is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.”