Sermon: Starting Hospitality

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.” After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “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. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.
When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you 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.”

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

My sermon from Maundy Thursday (March 28, 2024) on John 13:1-17, 31b-35.

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A few days ago, while working on this sermon, I looked out my front window and saw my neighbor walking across the lawn. She was bringing over her oldest child who happens to be the same age as my youngest. He opened the front door, walked in, and took off his shoes. Then, after placing them neatly next to our closet in the foyer, he draped his jacket on a chair in our dining room. When he first started coming over years ago, it was our tradition to take his shoes and jacket and put them in those places so he and his mom would know exactly where they were. Putting his shoes and jacket in a specific place was among the very first things we’d do as we worked through our short list of what hospitality in our home looks like. Before the fun; before we would give permission for them to generate the kind of chaos only five year olds can bring; and before the snacks would flow freely from the pantry straight into their hands – we would first make sure what was his would remain safe and whole. After a while, this pattern for hospitality became so routine, he does it the moment he comes through the door. It’s a routine that has, over time, become one of the ways he knows that – in this place – he belongs. And I suspect that if this routine was abruptly changed, he’d wonder where that welcome had gone. The routines we follow that show hospitality to those we welcome into our homes often set the stage for whatever comes next. And when that routine ends up out of order, we’re left wondering what’s actually going on. 

That sensation, wonder, and concern underpins, I think, a lot of what’s happening in tonight’s reading from the gospel according to John. Jesus, while at a dinner party with all his friends, interrupted everything by doing something that had already happened. It wasn’t only Jesus’ actions that struck everyone as strange – it was also when he chose to do it. We get a sense from John’s description of the meal that it followed the pattern of most Greco-Roman dinner parties. During the first part, people would lean on chaise lounges while munching on whatever items were brought to them. Once the eating was done, the second part of the meal would kick off with an opportunity to talk, teach, and learn from each other. These kinds of dinner parties were expected to last for hours which required a lot of planning, resources, and people to pull off. Yet before the first dish was served, there was a need to show hospitality to everyone who entered through the front doors. In Jesus’ day, that first act of hospitality was often a welcome trying to make all the dirt, grime, and dust from outside stay outdoors. The disciples, like most people in the ancient world, spent most of their lives outside. Their homes and apartments were, unless they were super rich, small, with each room serving many purposes. Much of the shopping was done in open air marketplaces and many of the available jobs involved working in fields, vineyards, or fishing on the sea. And since hygienic indoor plumbing, regular garbage collection, and closed toe shoes weren’t really a thing, anything outside often ended up on a person’s feet. When someone showed up at the home of a friend, neighbor, or to attend a dinner party, it was expected they would leave outside – outside. To do that effectively, the guest needed their feet washed which became the task given to the person with the lowest social status in the home. It was their responsibility to pour water over a stranger’s toes in an act that was both very intimate and dirty at the same time. And while the act itself wasn’t complicated, what it signified – that they had been brought into a different kind of space where they would be supported and cared for – set the stage for whatever came next. 

Now by the time the food had been mostly consumed, Jesus and his friends had experienced a lot of hospitality. When they arrived, their feet were – most likely – washed and they had been served by servants, chefs, and the enslaved people who worked in that space. They, for the moment, felt safe and secure as they talked freely about their journey to this point and what they expected would come next. Everyone around that table was, for better or worse, able to be themselves and couldn’t wait to see what Jesus would say when the second part of the meal began. Yet it was at that moment when Jesus looked at all of them – those who would stand at the foot of the Cross; those who would flee when the Roman soldiers came; and even the one who would betray him – Jesus looked at all of them and then got up, wrapped a towel around his waist, and washed their feet. It was not only a dirty, intimate, and unexpected thing for a religious leader to do for those who followed him; it also took place hours after the meal had already started. Jesus took what they had already experienced – the initial sign of hospitality – and inserted it at a very random time. Yet it was, I think, Jesus’ way of putting into action the words he was about to share. He, according to John, knew the Cross was almost here and how confused, alienated, and alone his friends would soon feel. They would have their world and their expectations torn down on a Friday that would feel anything but good. Jesus knew they would feel lost and so he wanted them to realize how, no matter what, they already had a home in him. Their failures, worries, and tears wouldn’t stop God from bringing them into a hope that would not end. The hospitality Jesus extended to them wasn’t only about being welcomed into that physical space; it was also Jesus’ way of letting them know how they were already part of the grace and love that would bring them through whatever came next. 

Now, if we’re honest, it is a little strange to imagine how water poured over our feet could express the hospitality God offers to each of us. Yet I’ve often found that it’s in the smallest of acts when we discover how much we belong. Jesus, knowing what was around the bend, interrupted everything to show just how much everyone matters to him. And so tonight, we will do the same. We will, after we sing, pray, and feast at the Lord’s table – interrupt everything to remind one another that in spite of what the world says about you – or you say about yourself – that you are a beloved of God. And while that declaration, first made in your baptism, will not eliminate the pain, sorry, and worry that comes around the bend – it will set the stage for the mercy, forgiveness, and hope that will bring you through. 

Amen.

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