Sermon Given at St. James Episcopal Church, Knoxville | April 18
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
“Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”
The woman lying in front of you is about to die. That is obvious to all gathered around her. The only question is how long before she breathes her last.
There is a wash cloth on her head, keeping her forehead cool. I do not know if she is aware of the cloth’s presence, or that we take turns soaking it with cold water. After a time, the cloth becomes warm, so we turn it, before soaking it again.
For those of us not well-versed in the ways of modern medicine, the cool wash cloth on the forehead is how we try to bring comfort to the dying. It is a simple towel, with water from the tap, but along with water and cloth, there are so many prayers and desires mixed in with the layers of love placed upon that head.
We do not fool ourselves. We know no matter how cold the water becomes, no matter how many times we turn the cloth that death will not be frozen out. Whether the cold wash cloth brings comfort to her, we cannot say for sure. But the water and the cloth allows us to touch her, to anoint her, to honor the body dying before us. We, the living, are preparing the dead.
We read of studies that indicate coffee is good for you, so we drink up. Or you discover that coffee is bad for you, so you try to cut back. They tell you blueberries are a kind of super food, so now every meal you take includes the blueberries.
But has anyone ever studied the cold water and the wash cloth? Has anyone discovered all the healing properties found in the offering of wet cloth on feverish head? What if tonight’s offering was collected and sent somewhere to see what all the water and the towel could do?
That’s not the point, though is it? We do not take turns soaking the cloth because it is effective. We take turns wiping the brow because of love, because we do not know what else to do once we know the end is approaching.
St. John’s Gospel this evening begins, not simply in an upper room, but in the very mind of Jesus, as he sees those in the room and the night that surrounds them for all that it is, for all that it holds.
This is no longer the time to call disciples or to turn water into wine. This is not the season of large teachings or public conflict, not the moment for great feedings and healings. This is the time when Jesus recognizes that the end is before him. The life in him knows that the next thing to touch him will be death.
Even as death drew close, Jesus was able to cast his gaze beyond himself, to look at those who had followed him to this place, to the place before the end. To these people, who called him Teacher while not grasping all the lessons, who called him Lord while not able to see the kind of world he was creating, Jesus reaches out one more time with love.
If you know the end is before you, if you know the time is short, then what words, what gestures are worthy for such a moment?
If you are Jesus, then all the right words, all the miraculous gestures are available to you. If you came for the whole world, for the world you still love in spite of itself, then the last thing, the last word, the last movement, should be as grand as all creation.
But on that night, no blind eyes are given sight or lame legs restored to strength. On that night, Elijah does not enter into the room in order to bear witness to the Teacher before them. On that night, Jesus loves them to the end by offering an absurd gesture.
When I was in college, once on a whim, I decided to go to the barber and get a crew cut. The next weekend, I went home to visit my parents. Upon seeing my crew cut, my mother, not approving, said, “Anybody can get a crew cut.”
Jesus is aware that the end is before him, that the hour is before him, and so decides to love them by doing to them what anyone could do. He washes their feet.
With towel and water and basin, he bows before them, and removes dirt and soil and sweat from the feet of those who called him Teacher and Lord.
Washing feet is not miraculous. Throughout the Gospel of St. John, Jesus performs miracles and gives signs in order to let the people know that the Word has come into their midst. Now, as the end is before them, he performs, not a miracle, nor does he give a teaching that will confound the wise and frustrate the corrupted powers.
He does what anyone could do. He washes their feet.
A dying man stands before his disciples, his followers. But they do not prepare his body for death. It is the One who knows that death is coming, coming for him, who stands and prepares the bodies of the living, who washes the feet of those who have journeyed with him to this hour and who will continue to walk in the world that he loves, long after death has swallowed him.
And see how he loves at the end, with a gesture that anyone could perform.
It would take a long time to learn how to make water into wine. It would take a long time to learn how to restore the dying or enliven the paralyzed. It would take a long time to learn how to feed the multitudes or walk on the waters.
But those are not the things that Jesus leaves with his disciples on that night when the end is near. On that night, he leaves them with a gesture that anyone can do. Such a gesture, the washing of feet, is the final way he chooses to love.
Now, just as the cool wash cloth on the head of the dying will not hold back the end, so the washing of feet will not cause all the powers that be to give up their plans to take Jesus’ life.
Where are the miracles now? Where are the sharp words before the religious leaders? Death is drawing near you, Jesus, and you appear to be breaking down, to be confusing the work of the Teacher and the work of the Servant.
In washing feet, Jesus loves them by offering them a gesture available to all. He has come into the world, to draw all people to God and to God’s love. Such a love is not offered in some kind of exclusive form, available only to the miracle workers, to the wisest of theologians.
It would have been more effective if Jesus had left us with a loving gesture that could cause wars to cease, with a movement that could arrest cancer cells, with an action that would restore all the things that have broken since last you gathered here to wash feet a year ago.
But Jesus, in the hour when he realized the end was approaching, when death was just outside, did not turn away from the very brokenness before his own life. He did not construct a wall between himself and the cross. He did not blind the eyes of those who came for him.
Instead, he wondered how best to love to the end. When you stay with love to the end, you have to let other things go.
After some reflection, an acknowledgement that this hour was unlike any other hour he had known, he stood up and searched for water and a towel. And then he loved them, knowing such an action would not hold back death.
Such an action, however, both then and now, keeps love close, still preparing the living, the bodies in our midst, for this world and the world to come. Amen.