("The Thankful Poor," by Henry Ossawa Tanner.)
Maundy Thursday C—March 28, 2013—Trinity Episcopal ChurchExodus 12:1-4(5-10)11-14; Psalm 116:1-2, 10-17; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Maria L. Evans
“For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”
Something that was said at our weekly Eucharist and Text Study over at Twin Pines really caught my attention Tuesday. I heard someone describe our Gospel reading we just heard tonight as a parable of action. Usually Jesus’ parables are stories; but in this one, it is his actions, not his words, that create the paradox. One of the commonest forms of hospitality in those days was to see that a guest had clean feet after a long day on the road—but it was usually a servant, a slave, or the woman of the house who performed that task. Certainly not the Lord and Master! Yet it is exactly the Lord and Master who is the one kneeling with the water and the towel at the feet of the disciples, in the hopes that they learn by example and do likewise.
On our bulletin cover tonight, Henry Ossawa Tanner illustrates this in a different way. Even though the house in this painting is rather bare, and the meal a meager one, the grandfather is setting an example by giving prayerful thanks for it. Certainly his hope is that his grandson will follow this example. It’s a safe bet that the grandfather learned this from someone in his life with a similar hope.
Many of us can look at the stories of our lives and think fondly of the people and situations where we learned by example. We can probably also think of the times when we were a little slow on the uptake with those examples. This slowness is captured in our Gospel reading through the interchange between Jesus and Peter. (Poor Peter, he’s always the fall guy in these stories!) We, of course, have the benefit of knowing the plot spoiler in advance—we can see that Jesus is trying to teach that serving in love—even serving at the most mundane or ordinary task—sends an extraordinary message about where God’s power actually lies. Peter can only see his own discomfort in being the recipient of this gift. “Dude! You are not going to clean off my gnarly, toe jam-ridden feet! That’s a job for underlings, not a great teacher and prophet like you! Let the help do it!” He totally misses the message until Jesus points out that Peter’s refusal is a refusal of Jesus, rather than just a refusal of a foot bath.
When I look at our picture on tonight’s bulletin cover, the posture of the grandson makes me wonder if he may not yet totally understand his grandfather’s message. The grandfather’s prayer posture seems to reflect a slightly deeper sense of gratitude. The grandson is obediently following his lead, but his left hand seems to be pushing against the table a little. Perhaps the grandson simply is hungry and wants to eat—or perhaps he hasn’t yet learned the lesson about gratitude that is best expressed by an old saying of the Hausa tribe in Nigeria—“Give thanks for a little, and you will find a lot.”
Lessons about gratitude aren’t always the easiest lessons to learn. Maybe it’s because poverty and abundance are so hard to define in a way that is consistent in our lives and at the same time unclouded by judgments and assumptions. Take the title of the painting on our bulletin—“The Thankful Poor.” Would we think the title appropriate if the grandfather had a smart phone sitting on the table? Would the title fit if the man and his grandson were a little on the portly side? What if they were giving thanks over a McRib, a Happy Meal, and a pair of giant sugary Cokes? It’s not always easy to sort out, is it?
Even the kinds of images the Bible uses for “abundance” are a little problematic. At first glance, they seem great--lands flowing with milk and honey; cups overflowing; vats of wine bursting at the seams. That said, God’s abundance is not particularly neat and tidy. There’s probably a sticky residue with all that milk and honey. Overflowing cups stain the tablecloth. Bursting wine vats most certainly leak all over everything.
In a world where we are told that we can never be too rich, too thin, or have too many electrical outlets, it’s almost impossible to believe that the simplest and commonest acts of humble service can amount to much. Yet it’s equally impossible to predict their delayed reaction. Jesus points that out when he tells Peter, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Even if the grandson in our painting doesn’t totally understand his grandfather’s gratitude, he might get it later. All of us know lessons we didn’t get the first time, but the example stayed with us somehow.
Acts of humble service, when performed in love, also create a window for others to be opened to even more opportunities to express their own callings and to respond to their own nudgings from the Holy Spirit. Many of us who volunteered at the food drive Saturday heard several donors relate times when they had to be the recipients of assistance and the difficulties of having to accept help. Our food drive gave others the chance to reflect on their own stories and respond by being participants in even more acts of humble service. You can bet that others were watching their example, too. This was especially evident when donors were either letting their children pick out a food item to donate, or allowed their small children—some as young as toddlers—place the food in the truck. No, they really didn’t understand it now—but the hope, of course, was that someday they would.
I imagine God hopes for the best in us every day—even in the midst of humanity at its most evil—wars and hate and greed—and in those times God truly grieves and hopes that someday, we’ll understand. I like to imagine God smiles at us when we manage to get something—anything—right, much how we smile when toddlers are imitating our good examples. Sometimes, it’s hard for us to see the good examples in this torn and hurting world. We are reminded in our Epistle, though, that Jesus still teaches us by example, because we always have an opportunity to receive, reflect, and repeat his example by sharing in the Eucharistic feast. Tonight is an opportunity to reflect upon this in a way that we only get one time a year.
Many of you know that one of our traditions on Maundy Thursday is the stripping of the altar—the removal of all things related to Christianity and the liturgical traditions that evolved from it. I’ve often sat here on Maundy Thursday and wondered, “What if Jesus had simply never happened? What would be missing from my life if this never existed? What stories from my life would be stripped from my memory? Would I have ever bothered to know any of the people sitting here with me? What would sit on this piece of ground instead of this building? How would the absence of all this change who I understand myself to be?”
In short, this night invites us to temporarily experience an extreme poverty that we never have to fear in real life, because the truth is that we can strip the church of all its trappings, but God can’t be stripped from us. It calls us to a deeper understanding that when we are asked to “lift up our hearts” in the Eucharistic Prayer, we are already lifting up something stripped of all of our pretenses, and stripped of the judgments everyone else has put upon them. We are holding up our hearts to God as only God sees them. On this night—Maundy Thursday—we are invited to become one of the thankful poor. AMEN