April 2, Maundy Thursday

Bryan Cones 

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

I imagine most of us have seen “the painting” of the Last Supper, the one produced by Leonardo DaVinci, which I think of as “Jesus and his 12 dudes,” or maybe we know the spookier, more mystical one by Salvador Dali, which I think of as the “Last Supper in Space.” They both reflect “the standard” image of the scene: Big long table, Jesus in the middle, a younger-looking disciple on his right, and a guy on the far left, Judas, about to slip out the door.

Some artists have creatively reimagined the scene, such as the work by Polish artist Bohdan Piasecki, who places women disciples among the men, an artistic argument for their inclusion at that first Eucharist.

Piasecki’s image, and others like it, got me thinking about some other folks who were probably there on that night, but who remain invisible in our religious imaginations, even though they likely played important roles. Perhaps it was the cook who prepared the food, or the daughters of the innkeeper or householder who had given his home for the Master’s use. Perhaps it was the children, all of whom had jobs in an ancient household. If the owner was wealthy enough, maybe there were slaves who were part of that family, serving food and providing hospitality on behalf of their owner.

As I imagine myself in their shoes that night, I wonder how they felt for them when they saw the Teacher rise from his place of honor, strip to the common garment they all wore, and start doing their work, washing guests’ feet. What was it like for them to have their work recognized, made an example of, elevated to revelation? How might it have changed how they felt about themselves, and about the dignity of their own work?

Like the “standard picture” of this Last Supper, there is also the “standard interpretation”: Jesus was teaching his disciples that leadership means service, that they ought not get full of themselves and lord it over one another. Leaders in the Christian church should be willing to basically demote themselves and be servants.

But what if Jesus was, instead of “demoting” his disciples, rather, elevating all of those invisible people, making visible the dignity and honor of their work, elevating not only their work, but them, pointing to them as signs of the pattern of God’s action in the world. By washing feet, Jesus perhaps was revealing these servants as the feet, the ground, upon which everything is built, just as everything is built on the divine foundation. If you want to be like God, Jesus seems to say, look to the children, look to the women, look to the slaves. It is these who are first in the reign of God, because whether they have chosen it or not, their work reveals the pattern of God’s relationship to creation: foundation, housekeeper, foot-washer, food-server, table-waiter.

It leads me to wonder what sign Jesus might offer today: Whose work would he do? Whom would he make visible? That question got me thinking about our society’s invisible or less visible people whose work I rely on— the farm workers, home care-givers, grocery store stock clerks, stay-at-home parents and childcare workers, night nurses, and countless others, whose work in what we call “the service industry” reveals the divine pattern of service and care and hospitality in the world.

It got me thinking about a young woman I met at a clergy gathering last week. Her name is Ashley, and she works at McDonald’s at 79th Street and Yates in Chicago, and on her $8.25 an hour she does her best to help her mom pay their family living expenses, to buy uniforms and school supplies for her two younger siblings, and pay on her student loans, though she can no longer afford to go to school. As I listened to her tell her story, her long hours in a hot kitchen, moving heavy machines, always uncertain if she will get enough work, she became more visible to me, and her dignity and her work of feeding and hospitality reminded me of what Jesus did this night.

So tonight, as I participate in this sacrament of footwashing, this sacrament of serving, it is Ashley, along with so many others, who will be visible to me, revealing the divine pattern of God’s work in the world, and inviting me to be Ashley’s friend, her partner, her ally.

Who will you be imagining as you wash feet tonight? Whose work will you be dignifying? Will it be your own unrecognized or unsung work? A family member’s? The worker at Panera or Jewel?

In a few minutes we will gather in the south end of this room, where Sunday by Sunday we affirm the dignity of the work of teaching and learning, important work so much at the heart of this community. How appropriate, then, that tonight in that space we honor and dignify so many other kinds of work, our own work as well as the work of others, so that the divine pattern of dignified service, of generous hospitality, might be more deeply inscribed and made visible in us.