Maundy Thursday sermon, April 21, 2011
If you had all the power in the world, what would you do? If you had all the money in the world, how would you spend it? If you were King or Queen, and could by your mere command, make something happen, what would you make possible?
As we enter this special short season called the Triduum: now that we’ve left Lent and are on the way to the cross, watch what Jesus does. Notice how Jesus uses his power.
He has come into the Jerusalem riding on a donkey. People have spread branches of palm and their coats in his path. They have cried “hosanna” and hailed him as their king. Now the tide is turning. He has taught and preached in the Temple. He went to the temple and turned over the tables of the money changers and the animal vendors. The leaders of the Temple and the government of Rome have decided that this would be king must die. Say what you want about the Passion and Jesus’ role in it, what is happening here is a struggle for power.
Power happens. Power is. People are all the time looking for ways to get or keep power, and I don’t just mean political power or the power of wealth and fame. People struggle their whole lives to gain, keep and exercise power…power to make their own choices, power to influence others, power to make things happen. But power doesn’t just rise from within. It is all around us. Sometimes we are on the receiving end or, maybe, we are on giving end. Many people who study the psychology and behavior of people see this theme over and over again--how do we get, keep and use our power?
Much human struggle—both in human history and in our selves—is taken up with what to do about power.
Jesus, who could change water into wine, who could make the blind see and raise Lazarus from the dead, is about to walk into the full force and might of human power. He is about to go to the cross.
But first, he will gather with his disciples in the upper room and give them a lesson about God’s power versus human power. He will break bread and pour out wine and tell us that the broken bread is also his broken body, given for us. He will pour out wine and tell us that this is his blood which is poured for humanity for the forgiveness of sin. And then he will do something really strange: he will get down on his knees, assume the role of lowliest of servants, and wash the feet of his disciples.
He will tell us that in God’s economy, the way God’s power is expressed is in service to the least, the lowest and the lost. God’s power is not hoarded, but it is shared.
The word “Maundy” is an old-English word that grew out of the first line of the Latin form of Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John, “A new commandment I give to you that you love one another as I have loved you.” Many Christian traditions call this “Holy Thursday” instead or “Great Thursday.” Maybe we should think about this feast as “New Commandment Thursday.”
In England there is the custom of the Maundy that continues to this day: today Queen Elizabeth II gave out 85 bags of coins to 85 people on her 85th birthday. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury talked about the Queen’s Maundy money and what Jesus was up to in the upper room. He reminded listeners in Britain that once the kings and queens of England would not just hand out bags of coins but actually stoop to wash the feet of the poor.
They didn’t all do it because they were lovely humble people – some were, and some definitely weren’t – but because they accepted one great truth that needed repeating over and over again, the one big thing that Christianity had brought into the world of human imagination.
And that was – and is – the truth that power constantly needs to be reminded of what it’s for. Power exists, in the Church or the state or anywhere else, so that ordinary people may be treasured and looked after, especially those who don’t have the resources to look after themselves. The Bible is crystal clear that this is the standard by which the gospel of Jesus judges the powerful of this world.
It is not just monarchs, or presidents or titans of industry who have problems with power. We do too.
Have you ever noticed how when someone tries to grab power, to attract attention to themselves, to hoarde to themselves what they think they are entitled to, that the people around them tend not to trust them very much. People who are least at home with themselves, often try to get and keep power.
And isn’t just as true that when we feel the most out of control is when we do everything we can to stay in control? We try to manage other people’s feelings or to fix things so that everyone is happy or to make so that everyone will like us? The question is not if we should have power…we all do. The question is how we should use it. What is our power for?
Jesus’ lesson to his friends and followers is that real power comes only when we use it for others. That we will never know what it is like to be truly powerful until we discover what it is like to truly serve.
Our money is our power for good…if we choose to use it that way.
Our talents and gifts are our power to make the world a better place…if we choose.
Our relationships—our family life and our friendships and our encounters with strangers—is our power to heal and to lift up the dignity of others.
Jesus teaches us tonight that we will never know or have real power until we learn how to be served. If we cannot allow ourselves to be served, we cannot serve—which is why it’s important for you to risk a little embarrassment, a little discomfort, to allow your feet to be washed. It puts us in touch with the place in us that needs to be cared for; the place that we often hide because we don’t want to seem weak.
And it is important for people who lead to remember that we are in fact servants.
If you had all the power in the world, what would you do? If you were Queen, what would you do? The model and heart of the Christian faith is this: that the creator and maker of the universe, the One who spoke creation into being, took of his cloak, rolled up his sleeves, knelt down and did the humblest thing a person can do. This is how God treats the world…treats us…this is why Christ goes to the cross. So that we may have the power to do the same.