Thursday, March 28, 2013

To Love Is to Serve

John 13:1-17, 31b-35
March 28, 2013
Maundy Thursday Service

“Gotta get out of bed and get a hammer and a nail
Learn how to use my hands,
Not just my head, I think myself into jail
Now I know a refuge never grows
From a chin in a hand in a thoughtful pose
Gotta tend the earth if you want a rose.”
                That is the refrain from one of my favorite Indigo Girls songs, Hammer and Nail.  The basic message of the song is about the importance of doing; about giving back.  It’s not just about talking about making the world better place or thinking about making the world a better place; it’s about acting in a way that brings that better world into reality. 
I interpret Amy and Emily’s verse about thinking themselves into jail as seeing that living only in your head makes it easy to forget what it means to do, to act.  And along that line, I would say that forgetting what it means to do means that you can forget what it means to serve. 
I assume that the Indigo Girls were probably not thinking specifically about service based on faith, but I think there is a connection to be made with their song and our passage from John’s gospel; the passage on which we base our tradition and observation of Maundy Thursday. 
It is the festival of the Passover and Jesus is at table with his disciples.  According to John, Jesus is fully aware that his hour of departure from this world has come.  Jesus knows that he is going to the Father.  He has come to the world as the living incarnation of God’s love, and that love is there until the end.  So knowing all this, he gets up, ties a towel around himself, and pours water into a basin, then begins washing the disciples’ feet.  As he washes he wipes the water away with the towel around his waist. 
This is the job of a servant – literally.  In that hot and dusty climate feet would have gotten extremely dirty on a regular basis.  The laws of hospitality, which were all important in that culture, would have dictated making a guest comfortable.  One way to do that was to wash the grime and grit away from your guest’s feet.  So who else to bring the basin of water than a servant?  Who else to lower himself to the chore of washing another person’s feet than the one in a position of serving?  In a traditional Jewish household, or any household for that matter, the master of the house would never stoop, literally or figuratively, to wash a guest’s feet. 
But Jesus, the Master, the Teacher, bends low to wash the feet of those who follow him. 
Once the disciples recovered from their astonishment at this unexpected turn of events, I imagine they were horrified.  The Master should never wash the feet of the servant!  Then Simon Peter, in a moment of in for a penny, in for a pound, declares that if Jesus is going to stoop to wash his feet, then why not wash all of him.  But Jesus tells him that isn’t necessary.  His whole body isn’t in need of washing.  What Jesus is doing isn’t just about making the feet of the disciples clean; it is about demonstrating what it means to serve.  
Yes, he tells them, he is their Teacher.  He is their Lord.  But he was willing to wash their feet.  He wasn’t too good or too superior to do this simple, humble act for them.  And if he is willing to do that for them, then they should also be willing to do the same for each other.  They should also be willing to serve as he has served.  No one is greater than another.  No one is too good to serve. 
At the end of the verses selected for tonight, Jesus gives them 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.” 
How did Jesus love them?  He served them.  To love is to serve. 
To love is to serve. 
As many times as I have observed this night, I only learned this week that in the Roman Catholic tradition, Maundy Thursday is the time when priests recommit themselves to their calling.  Priests believe that reading the story of Jesus’ humble example of and commandment to love is an appropriate time to reexamine how they are living out their call and their vocation to love as Jesus loved. 
On the heels of learning this information a dear friend of mine from high school sent me an article about a priest in Nashville who has found his call in serving the homeless of that city.  Father Charlie Strobel began his service to the homeless when he opened the church door to a group of homeless men sleeping in the parking lot.  They were literally under his window, and though he knew full well that a consequence of giving them shelter for one night would be that they would return the next night and the next, Father Strobel could not leave them out in the cold.  So he invited them in and his ministry and his life’s work began at the moment. 
In the article I read he recounted the story about a man named Doy Abbott.  To quote Father Strobel, “He was my terrorist.  He kicked in the screen door.  We had to have that door replaced three times.  He cussed out everyone in the parish.  He expected everything to be done for him.  My mother used to say to me, ‘Doy is your ticket to heaven.’ And I’d tell her, if he’s my ticket to heaven I don’t want to go.  Everyone in the parish was afraid of him.”
Everyone except one woman named Mary Hopwood.  She was the housekeeper, secretary and bookkeeper for the parish.  She had raised 12 children of her own, and when she spoke to Doy she was quiet and respectful.  Her tone of calm, quiet respect made Doy respectful in kind.  Strobel recalled that at the time he was reading Dorothy Day, who wrote that “what she wanted to do was love the poor, not analyze them, not rehabilitate them.” 
Father Day said that reading that was like having the proverbial light bulb flash on above his head.  He told novelist Ann Patchett, the writer of this article, “I realized that Doy was not my problem to solve but my brother to love.  I decided on the spot that I was going to love him and not expect anything from him, and overnight he changed.  He stopped the cussing, stopped the violence.  I feel we became brothers.  I was his servant and he was my master.  I was there with him when he died.” 
This homeless man, this child of God was not a problem to be solved.  He was a brother to be loved.  It was that simple.  H was a brother to be loved.  The homeless who come into contact with Charlie Strobel know that he loves them.  He loves through his service to them.  Because to love is to serve. 
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”  To love is to serve.  How will we love?  How will we serve?  Let all God’s children say, “Amen.”

Song lyrics from Hammer and Nail, The Indigo Girls
Quotes by Father Charlie Strobel excerpted from "The Worthless Servant" by Ann Patchett from Not Less Than Everything: Catholic Writers on Heroes of Conscience, From Joan of Arc to Oscar Romero, edited by Catherine Wolff.  Reprinted on

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