(shared with the people of Friendship Church, March 24, 2005)
In a small town in Russia, legend says, there was a rabbi who disappeared each Friday morning for several hours. His devoted students, young and old, boasted that during those times, their rabbi went up to heaven and talked to God!
A stranger moved into that village and was skeptical about these claims. So, he decided to check things out for himself. He hid himself somewhere in the rabbi's house late one Thursday night and watched.
He saw the rabbi get up, say his prayers, and then dress in peasant clothing. Then, the rabbi grabbed an ax, went off to a nearby woods, and cut some firewood, which he then carried to a shack on the outskirts of the village. There, an old woman and her sick son lived. The rabbi left the wood, enough to last a week, and then sneaked back home.
Having seen the rabbi’s actions, the newcomer stayed on and he too, became a student--a disciple--of the rabbi. Whenever he heard one of the villagers brag, “On Friday morning our rabbi ascends all the way to heaven,” the newcomer would add quietly, “Maybe he ascends even higher.”
On the first Maundy Thursday, some two-thousand years ago, another rabbi (a title that means teacher), a rabbi Who also claimed to be the visible, physical, tangible, human incarnation of God Himself, served others.
On that night before His arrest and subsequent execution, Jesus took off his outer garment and crawling on His hands and knees, bent over the dirty feet of His disciples and washed each one.
At first, Simon Peter, the most vocal of His disciples demurred. This was the work of a servant, Peter thought, not of the Savior of the world.
Jesus, in effect, told Peter that the Savior is a servant. The human race could only be saved from the sin that otherwise kills us by a Savior so humble that He is willing to serve the lowest of the low and take the fall for the worst sinner who ever lived.
After washing the feet of all twelve of His closest followers, even the one He knew would soon betray Him to the Jewish temple police and the Roman soldiers, Jesus put His outer garment back on, resumed His place at supper, and with eyes locked on Him, spoke:
“Do you know what I have done to you? You call Me Teacher and Lord---and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet...”Jesus is saying that His followers are closest to heaven and to Him when, like Him, we serve others.
Last year, you know, I began to serve on the corporate board for the Boys and Girls Club of Clermont County. It’s one of the most gratifying things of which I’ve ever been a part because I know that the clubs in New Richmond and Amelia--and one day, this will be true in every part of our county--have such a positive impact on the lives of the kids. Just playing the small part God allows me to play in this endeavor moves me more than I can say!
But there’s been another wonderful aspect of my service on the board. Most of the other members could, financially, buy and sell me many times over. There are occasions when that makes me feel a bit uncomfortable, although not a single soul has ever lorded that fact over me. It's my hang-up entirely.
But I’ll tell you why I ultimately have grown to feel comfortable and like I'm part of things. It’s this: At the beginning of almost every meeting, one of the board members, a guy with cash and connections, grabs the glasses and pitchers of water set out on the table around which we meet, and pours water for each of us. He does it without ceremony or self-consciousness. In a small, yet meaningful way, he serves us and perhaps without knowing it, signals, “We’re all in this together, folks. We’re all part of the same team.”
Jesus says that when we serve others in His Name, we do more than make them feel comfortable. We give them a glimpse of heaven. We let them see the Servant-Savior we follow and Who lives in those who believe in Him. He then says, “Do this. Be a servant like me.”
Tonight, followers of Jesus from around the world celebrate Maundy Thursday. Maundy is an Old English derivative from the Latin word, mandatum, which means mandate or commandment. On that first Maundy Thursday, after washing the feet of the disciples, Jesus gave them a new commandment. He told them to love each other.
I think that there's a reason Jesus linked servanthood and love the way He did that night. Servanthood in Jesus' Name is powerful because it's the most profound, meaningful, and practical way we can fulfill His command to love others.
And God knows that the events of this past week demonstrate how desperately we need to love each other.
Earlier today, I was reading the New York Times' story about Jeff Wiese, the troubled sixteen year old who, this past Monday, killed his grandfather, his lover, a security guard at his school, a teacher, and several of his classmates. It enumerated one troubling fact and event after another in this kid's life. Yet nobody had seemed able to muster the love required to turn him in or get him the help he needed. The love of Jesus, lived in the guts of everyday life, might have made a difference in his life and saved it and nine other lives!
And as we meet here tonight, Terri Schiavo is dying in Florida hospice center. I don't know what your opinion may be of that and my purpose in mentioning her situation isn't to get on a soapbox. My purpose though, is to deplore the utter lovelessness with which the debate over her fate is sometimes waged. There are people claiming to be followers of Jesus who are, at the same time, advancing their opinions on whether Terri Schaivo should live or not, in an utterly vicious, condescending, and loveless way.
Jesus says that it's the love we show and the service we render to others that demonstrates His presence in our lives.
I wish that I were as creative about loving and serving in Jesus' Name as a friend of mine is. A few years ago, you know, it was common for sanctimonious Christians to haunt the entrances to abortion clinics, hurling epithets and directing the messages of derisive placards toward the staff and others who entered them. It's doubtful that these demonstrators changed too many minds about following Jesus with their tactics.
That's why my friend took groups of people from his church to serve refreshments to all who entered an abortion-providing facility, no strings attached and no questions asked. He and his church weren't expressing an opinion about abortion when they did this; they were simply sharing the love of Christ and being servants to people that others might revile. What do you think that the recipients of their loving service learned about Jesus?
They later did the same thing outside a topless night club that "decent folks" were protesting. They even provided babysitting for some of the dancers.
But to tell the truth, even in more conventional settings, servanthood has never come easily to me. I suppose that’s true for all of us.
We’d rather get bumped up to first class when we fly.
We’d prefer that someone else cleaned the toilets.
We like it when our table is called first to go through the banquet buffet line.
But something terrible happens to us when we always think of ourselves first: We build walls between ourselves and God, between ourselves and others. We can begin to think that we’re somehow entitled to being first. And when the world refuses to bend to our wills and preferences, we become angry and bitter.
Our lives make a lot more sense once we embrace the simple insight that the world doesn’t revolve around us, but around God.
When we dare to serve others as Jesus has served us, we give Him an opening that He fills with His love and grace.
It is the servants who follow Jesus who show us all what heaven is like.
Just as amazingly, like that rabbi who sneaked away on Friday mornings to serve without recognition, those who serve others in the Name of the God made known through Jesus, get to feel what heaven is like themselves!
Speaking for myself, I’m praying this Maundy Thursday that God will keep making war on my ego and that as I surrender my life to Him, Jesus will make a willing servant out of me because I love experiencing what heaven is like and I love sharing it with others!
[The story about the rabbi is adapted from the telling of a Russian legend by author Saul Bellow. I found it in Perfect Illustrations for Every Topic and Occasion (Barrett, David P., ed., Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2002)]