WORSHIP THIS WEEK: This Sunday, June 16, we worship on the Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time (the time after Pentecost).  Jesus highlights the mysterious horticulture of the kingdom of God, in which we can never underestimate the magnitude of what can be done with something small.  We welcome Pastor Arden Krych, who will preach and preside. Join us at 10:00 in our physical sanctuary at 300 Shunpike Road or in our digital sanctuary for worship:https://www.youtube.com/live/BVwInjrcBG0?si=931YpLrC1LksyemF

April 6, 2023

If I had known what would happen on Maundy Thursday of 2013, I probably wouldn’t have shown up.  It was my last year of seminary, the only year in which I wasn’t connected to a congregation for field work or internship, so I spent the year visiting all kinds of places of worship in and around San Francisco.  I’d gone out a couple of times that year with the San Francisco Night Ministry.  As the name suggests, the chaplains of that program spend the overnight hours moving through the city streets to talk with people, to pray with people, to offer some compassion in the midst of often-chaotic lives.  The Night Ministry interacts with everyone – tourists, street people, party-goers, drug dealers, sex workers, drag queens.  Everyone.

On Thursday evenings the Night Ministry hold Open Cathedral at the transit station near City Hall.  It’s a church service right out on the sidewalk for anyone who wants to attend.  They invited me to help with the Maundy Thursday Open Cathedral service, and I said yes.

Most of those who attend each week are unhoused.  It’s a place for them to connect with each other, to receive communion, and sometimes to get referred to other resources that could help them.

I should have realized that the Maundy Thursday Open Cathedral service would include foot-washing.  The various clergy leading the service would be washing the feet of those in attendance, and they expected me to do the same.

There was no getting out of it, even though, to be honest, the idea of washing the feet of folks who lived on the streets was at best unsettling and at worst revolting. I did it, reluctantly.  One person at a time, I held their bare feet – crusted with dirt and who knows what else, scarred by lives spent trying to outwalk danger.  I poured water over those feet, washed them, and dried them.  I worked hard to hide my discomfort, but I’m pretty sure most of them could sense it.

I don’t share this story to say, “Hey, look at me washing feet out on the streets!”  I share it to say that sometimes the Lord puts something in front of us that humbles us.  It’s like God is saying, “Here you go.  This one isn’t optional.  And your expectations and plans and fancy education do not matter here.  All that matters is that you show love, whether you want to or not.”

I’ve been reading about the work of Dr. Jim O’Connell in Boston.  In a book by Tracy Kidder called Rough Sleepers, I’ve learned about Jim’s decades of medical experience working with the homeless population of Boston.  One of my favorite parts comes in the beginning, when in 1985 Jim, a brand-new doctor, first walks into a clinic that has been set up by about six nurses.  He was expecting to stay just a year.  He’s still there today and has worked with others to establish a whole network of care and support for the unhoused.

Those first days he had no idea what to do, but nurse Barbara McInnis set him on the right path.  We need doctors, she told him, but you’ve been trained all wrong.  She made him put away his stethoscope in a drawer for the first month. She had him spend that month soaking the feet of their clients.  He didn’t understand this at first, but he soon learned.

Practically, the feet revealed a lot about people’s stories, lives spent walking on concrete and standing in lines for a bed or a meal.  The feet pointed the way to medical diagnoses too – frostbite, neuropathy, and others. But most importantly, while soaking people’s feet, Jim learned to listen – really to listen to whatever the clients were willing to share.  That listening built trust, which often opened the way to treatment.

Early on nurse Barbara gave Jim a piece of paper with a fragment of a poem on it.  It said: “Just give love. The soul will take that love and put it where it can best be used.”[i]

Just give love. You know where I’m going with this.

On this night we remember that Jesus faces threats from within and without.  Inside the room he is surrounded by many of his dearest people, but on this night they include the one who has already sold him out to the authorities and the one who by sunrise will pretend not to know him.  Not to mention all the rest, who, so far as we know, do nothing helpful to stand up for him.

Those are the dangers right there in the room, but there are also threats just beyond the walls.  Outside the political and religious leaders are conspiring to manufacture charges against him.  They’re shaking the 30 pieces of silver that have bought Judas’ betrayal.  They are closing in.

This is a year in which Passover and Holy Week converge, and we also remember on this night that centuries earlier the Israelites found themselves in the midst of danger – enslaved in Egypt, tormented by a pharaoh who refused again and again to let them be free.  What are they told to do?  Prepare a meal.  Get ready for what comes next.  And remember this night.  Tonight is the night that – against all odds – leads to freedom.

That’s what we remember this night.  Jesus as Passover lamb, ready to give his own life to set us free from sin and death.  As this Lamb of God senses all the powers that are coming for him, he does not flinch.

What he does is love.  He feeds his friends.  He washes their feet.  He loves them – even those who have betrayed him, even those who will pretend they’ve never met him.  He loves them – even though washing feet is the work of a servant.  He loves them – and he commands them to do the same.

He commands it: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”  It’s not optional, this kind of love, this love that feeds others, this love that washes feet.  It’s necessary.  It humbles us.  It sets aside all of our pretenses and plans and says, “Just give love.”  Even when it scares you, even when you don’t feel up to it, even when you want to run in the other direction, just give love.

How can we help but do as Jesus commands us when he has already loved us so much that he has given his very life?  He has stared death in the face and said: “These are my people. You don’t get to claim them forever.”

Death and danger and disaster are all around us.  Some of the disasters we can prevent, but there are so many we can’t do anything about.

What can we do?  What can we always do?

That’s right.  Just give love.


S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ

[i] See Rough Sleepers by Tracy Kidder, pp. 25-32.


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