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Who Cleans Up the Mess?

April 5, 2007

Glynn Cardy

Maundy Thursday


Who wipes up the kid’s mess? You know, when there is a cordial spill, or when mud is traipsed in? Ideally, so the family theory goes, ‘the one who made the mess cleans it up’. But you know and I know that ideals and theories don’t always work. Inevitably it comes back to Mum or Dad – or, in Jesus day, the servants.


Not that Jesus had servants. He wasn’t from the wealthy end of town. But, being the local popular healer [or was it just the novelty factor?] he seems to have got a lot of invitations to the homes of wealthy people. “Come in, Mr Jesus.” “Pleased to meet you, Mr Jesus.” “Care for some wine Mr Jesus?”


When one arrived at such a home the host would admit you and a servant would wash your feet. While this custom may seem rather nice to us the dirt and mud of Palestine was not particularly nice inside one’s house. People’s feet carried the world with them. The washing was a menial task, one that wasn’t popular among the servants, and therefore usually left to the least influential. One could imagine that a child, lowest on the pecking order, would get this task.


In the Last Supper account we are told that Jesus ‘knowing that he had come from God and was going to God’ got up from the table and began to wash his disciples feet. The preface is important. Knowing the end was coming Jesus wanted to convey and pass on the things that he considered essential. He chose to teach about leadership by ritually symbolizing their primary call to be a community of equals.


Jesus didn’t take up the towel and basin in order to show his humility. He didn’t need to. Nor was it in order to encourage those who would be leaders in the emerging Church to do menial tasks. This wasn’t about so called “servant ministry”. There was, and is, nothing glorious about being a servant – as many of us whose ancestors came here to escape the English class system know.


The foot washing was a demonstration of equality. The master [Jesus] is not greater than the servant [Peter, you, or me]. Neither is the reverse true – the servant is not greater than the master. The Jesus movement sought to encourage servant-less and master-less communities where people were brothers and sisters to one another and the only ‘master’ was God.


Leadership in the Jesus realm is not based on who is the greatest, or who is the most powerful or popular. Nor is the inverse true. Rather within the community of equals each person’s gifts and talents are accepted, nurtured, and used. These gifts and talents are God-given, and to God we are accountable as a community regarding their usage.


When choosing people to be bishops or priests I often hear “servant” language – that clergy should be involved in the menial tasks of church life and life in general. While all of us have menial chores to perform, and some of us [especially parents and workers in the hospitality industry] have more than others, I don’t think they are a prerequisite for leadership. What is a prerequisite is an attitude - an attitude that no task or person is beneath you; an attitude that the number of menial tasks doesn’t means you are better or worse than anyone else. In other words the leader must have an innate knowledge that they are fundamentally the same as anyone else – they are no better or worse. The leader will be given, or acquire, a degree of power. Power does not mean they are better, or worse, than anyone else.


Of course, there is a problem with power. When power comes your way the temptation is to think that you earned it, or it’s your right, or that you are somehow better than others. There are many examples of monarchs, politicians, bishops, business people, and clergy who have fallen into this pit. Maybe Jesus was aware of what his followers would have to face in the future, and he was trying to warn them.


So, this ritual foot washing this evening is a reminder to us all. It reminds us of our vision of Christian community, equals in the sight of God and one another, encouraging each other in our gifts and ministries. It reminds us who have positions of leadership that we are no better or no worse than anyone else, and at any time we may be called upon to serve God and our community in ways we don’t expect, even in ways we think are beneath us.

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