The Rev’d Ann J. Broomell
Christ Church, New Haven
March 23, 2016
I have a pair of earrings that I cherish. Each is a small disc of old dull gold, with decorative engraving around a tiny pearl. Some years ago I dropped one of them and stepped on it, breaking the disc off the ear wire. I was quite sad when I realized what I’d done.
Then I thought, why do I care so much? I couldn’t see myself ever wearing the earrings. I thought about what meaning the earrings held, that having it broken one of them would matter to me. I remembered that it belonged to Tante—my great great aunt. I’ve seen photos of her. She was a very petite woman—the small earring was perfect for her. I never met her, but there’s lots of family lore about her courage. She was one of first women to have a mastectomy, in the 1930s. Eventually she’d had a double mastectomy. She lived for many years. I realized how important that piece of jewelry was to me. Owning it somehow links me to her and to her strength.
I’ve learned there can be similar connections when we consider our spiritual gifts. I once attended a workshop on spiritual gifts. We were asked to list the three people we most admire, and consider what we most admired in them. My list included my grandmother. As she opened her arms and gathered us in, she was an icon of God’s enveloping love for all of us. She marched with Suffragettes and became the first female leader of the Red Cross in the county where she lived. Then I listed my first spiritual director—a learned, wise man, whose support of my priesthood was unwavering. He helped me deepen my sense of who I was, who God wanted me to be. Last on my list was my father—I deeply admire the strength of his ethics, and his ability to take on new challenges throughout his life. I’ve realized that it is a true gift to me to try to live into the unique gifts and attributes of those I most admire, to try to carry all that they offered me into the world today.
Much in the way we can be encouraged to take on the gifts of those we most admire, we can see that in the last weeks of Jesus’ life he was intentionally offering a new way of being to those who were closest to him. He needed to bring along his disciples to a place of transition where they would be willing and able to carry on his ministry of teaching, healing and prophecy. They needed to begin to live outside of themselves, draw on their gifts following him, and share what had been his ministry with the world.
Earlier in the week Jesus had come into Jerusalem seated on a donkey with crowds hailing him as the King of Israel. When he decided that he would go to Jerusalem, he was walking intentionally toward his arrest and death. His disciples who gathered with him on the night we remember tonight knew that reality. The evening must have hung with an intensity—a desire to enjoy being together for one more meal, underscored by Jesus’ desire to share his last instructions to them.
There is a scene some call “the last supper” in the film “Of Gods and Men”, an extraordinary and memorable film. The scene shows a group of monks sharing a last meal together before they are to be arrested and taken away, ultimately to death, during the Algerian civil war in the 1990s. As they begin, we see them enjoying the conviviality of the evening—wine with dinner, music on the boom box—rare treats. Then the reality of their situation comes over them and we see sorrow, fear, pain mirrored in each face. We watch as one by one they become at peace with the choice they have made. They come together spiritually, bonded in the life they share.
Surely that last supper with Jesus must have held much of the same range of feelings. However, Jesus had a far reaching goal. He was passing on the bonds and experiences they shared to those who would follow him, in sacrament and in action. Jesus took two events that were part of any meal in a Jewish household at that time and changed them in our eyes forever.
In the Gospel of Luke we read that he took the bread and wine blessed it, and asked that every time that men and women gathered in his name, they would bless, break and eat in memory of him. As they did so he would be in the midst of the meal they shared. In the Gospel of John which we read today, we see Jesus take off his outer cloak, place a towel at his waist and take on the role of the lowest slave of the household, washing, one by one, the feet of those closest to him.
Each event is a passing on of leadership and a defining of what that leadership will be. This was a time of re-membering, both in the sense of recreating the membership again and again, and in vowing never to forget Jesus and all he was and is. It was a time for the disciples to take upon themselves the mantle of ministry from Jesus.
In the history of the Hebrew people, through Jesus’ time and beyond, a mantle was a piece of cloth worn over the robe. It was a sign of the authority and courage of prophets throughout scriptural history. At the same time it showed a deep connection with God, an ability to hear God speak. Surely being a prophet is a specific gift, but one to which many may be called without knowing they are called. We hear in Scripture of prophets taking up the mantle, and of the mantle being passed from prophet to prophet.
On this evening so long ago Jesus passed the mantle to his disciples. He shocked them by doing what only the most invisible slave would do, washing his visitor’s feet. Jesus chose to wash dirty, stinking feet that had walked through whatever was on the road for miles, maybe, to join them that night. Jesus, carefully, picked up their feet one by one, washed them, and then he tenderly dried each foot.
Jesus got to Peter, impulsive and straight speaking Peter. Immediately Peter said: You will never wash my feet. Jesus responded, Unless I wash you, you have no share with me. And then we remember Peter’s memorable words: Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head.
Jesus, their leader, friend, and master, is the ground of their being together. He takes on a towel and moves from being master to host, host to servant. He is passing the mantle. That role of master, of teacher, prophet, healer is theirs to receive, their mantle to take up.
Peter wants to keep Jesus, on a pedestal. The disciples don’t want to become the leaders of the future. They don’t want this shift that will require an absolute transformation for each of them. Yet Jesus has reached the last stage of his life. Now he gives away his role on earth for his followers to receive, for his followers to become.
Jesus says to his disciples, as he says to you and to me:
Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”(1)
I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.(2)
I am the vine, you are the branches, those who abide in me and I in them will bear much fruit, and become my disciples.(3)
In our lives, we see that gift given again and again. In our varied ministries, we wash others’ feet day after day. Doing so, we demonstrate that we are followers of Jesus the Christ. Leader, follower, healer, prophet, servant—the roles we take on as we follow him move and change throughout our lives.
Yet each time we remember Jesus, each time we look beyond ourselves to give our selves away, each time we work for justice in our world, each time we welcome outcasts, following him, we act. You and I take up the mantle of his ministry. We accept the responsibility. We acknowledge the humbling and almost unbelievable gift.
(1) John 7:37-38
(2) John 8:12
(3) John 15:5