Maundy Thursday A2017
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
by Pastor Sarah Stadler
Vulnerability is not weakness.
Serving others is not weakness.
Washing another’s feet is not weakness.
And while these are true, what’s wrong with weakness?
It occurred to me this year as I was thinking about the Maundy Thursday story that I have always been very invested in making the claim that this story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet is not a story of weakness. I have said to you and to myself that this is a story of vulnerability which means courage. I have said to you and to myself that this is a story of service which means generosity and love. But the truth is that there is some weakness hiding here too: weakness in the betrayal by Judas Iscariat, weakness in Peter’s shame about having his feet washed, weakness in the disciples’ misunderstanding of Jesus, weakness in the dust and grime of the disciples’ feet. While this is largely a story of vulnerability and service and love, this is also a story of weakness. And what’s wrong with weakness?
In our culture, we hate weakness. I, for one, want to be a strong, powerful woman. Wonder Woman was my hero growing up. I do own and regularly use my Rosie the Riveter lunchbox. I avoid doing anything at which I am not competent for fear that I will reveal my weakness. The pressure to not be weak is even greater for men in our culture. At least the men with whom I’ve had this conversation have attested: There is nothing I avoid more than weakness. Collectively, men I know have said: We don’t back down from a fight. We use bravado when we don’t know what else to do. We talk about all the stuff we’re good at just to cover up everything we’re not good at. It’s epidemic: we hate weakness. Why?
I wonder if we fear that others will not love us or not respect us if they find out we are weak.
Well, the jig is up. The time of reckoning is here. We are weak, each one of us, at times.
What weakness looks like varies from person to person, of course. Maybe our weakness is a physical weakness, an illness, maybe a mental illness. Maybe our weakness is a tendency towards judgement of others or a lack of compassion. Maybe our weakness is making choices quickly that are unwise or how we succumb to certain substances that aren’t healthy for us. Maybe our weakness is simply shame, and we all deal with that on some level, how we wonder if we are really good enough or smart enough or just worthy to even be.
Not too long ago in my own life, I was struggling with something in particular. My dear friend of nearly 20 years who was my roommate in college is a person with whom I share nearly everything. In my struggle, I shared with my friend the details of the situation, but I could not allow her to care for me. Some of my favorite defense mechanisms are analyzing, predicting, and understanding—of which I made good use in this situation. I failed miserably at simply being and allowing her to support me in this situation. And another friend who witnessed this asked me: Why don’t you let Leslie help you when you’re weak?
Faced with Jesus washing the disciples’ feet tonight, maybe we are like Peter: Lord, you’re not washing my feet! To do so would be to admit weakness either literally or figuratively. Maybe we came to worship tonight with the game plan of keeping our shoes on, thank you very much. Maybe our guard is up all the time, and that’s the way we like it. Maybe the stench of our feet or their disfigurement or their unloveliness is just not something we wish to share. But honestly, who cares? Is there anyone in this room who will leave worship tonight and think judgmental thoughts about someone else’s feet or someone else’s weakness?
When I see Jesus washing the disciples’ feet, I see a room full of love, Jesus’ love for the disciples. Not only does Jesus love the disciples, Jesus commands the disciples to love one another as he has loved them. We never really know if the disciples succeed, and the reality is that, even though we’ve heard that same commandment time and time again, we fail at it time and time again. That’s true. To admit our weakness is risky because we are never really quite sure if people are going to love us. But I say: Let’s try tonight to be that loving community for one another. Let’s admit our weakness at least to ourselves and allow other people to take us as we are. Let’s get our feet washed as a symbol of all the stuff we try to hide and learn that people are actually happy to wash our feet, honored in fact to pour water on them and dry them with a towel.
And then, when we and our weaknesses have been received with grace, let us show that same grace and love towards others in their weakness. For that grace and love have already been extended to us by Jesus, and here’s where the risk falls apart. Others may reject us, revile us, judge us, but Jesus washes the disciples’ feet knowing full well that Judas will betray him, that Peter has doubts, that they will all abandon him. Yet the love is still there—just as it for us.