Exodus 12:1-4, [5-10], 11-14
1 The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: 2 This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. 3 Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. 4 If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it.[5 Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. 6 You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. 7 They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. 8 They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. 9 Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. 10 You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn.] 11 This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord. 12 For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. 13 The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. 14 This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
1 Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2 The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4 got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5 Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. 6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7 Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” 8 Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” 9 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10 Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” 11 For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.” 12 After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14 So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16 Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17 If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.
31 Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33 Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
I have to say that I hesitated for a very long time this week about whether we should have read that passage from Exodus for tonight or not. It is one of the assigned readings every year for Maundy Thursday, which we will get into in a bit. But I found myself wanting to protect you from the reading. Because it’s quite an awful story if you really listen to it. It is the story of the 10th plague that hits Egypt, which is meant to get Pharaoh to release Moses and the Israelites from slavery.
It’s not a story we hear very often, but I’m certain some of you are familiar with the 10 plagues: water turns to blood. Frogs fell from the sky. Gnats. Flies. Diseased livestock. Boils. Hail. Locusts. Darkness. These were all the plagues that fell upon Egypt because of Pharaoh’s unwillingness to free the people. To let the Israelites go. And then there was the 10th and final plague – death of the first-born of every family in Egypt.
As the story goes, before this plague struck, the Israelites were told to each take a lamb for the family, and slaughter it together. They were to put the blood of the lamb on two of the doorposts in their home and then eat the lamb as part of a meal with unleavened bread. It would be their last meal in Egypt.
And then God will pass through the land of Egypt. And anytime God sees a home with lamb’s blood on their doorposts, God will passover that home and it will not be hit by the plague. So all the Israelite families would be safe. But in the Egyptian homes where there was no blood on the doorposts, the first-born child of both the family and the animals would be killed. I mean think of the chaos that must have been.
And it was after this 10th and final plague struck that Pharaoh finally freed the Israelites from slavery. He let the people go. And ever since then, the Jewish faith has celebrated this night, this freedom from slavery with the festival of Passover, and with a Passover meal.
A meal with a slaughtered lamb and unleavened bread. And that’s the meal that Jesus is having with his disciple’s at the last supper. They are celebrating this story with all the other Jews who came to Jerusalem for the festival.
But it’s a pretty horrifying story, isn’t it? Which is why I hesitated to even read it. I wanted to protect us from it. But then I realized that this is the week when we cannot protect ourselves from that which is hard to hear and see, otherwise we will miss the point. I mean just join us tomorrow night on Good Friday, when we will watch and hear Jesus be crucified, and you’ll see what I mean.
So, what a terrible story. But then we have this other story about Jesus with his discipleship celebrating this meal, and Jesus kneels down and washes the feet of his disciples and we hear Jesus say things like, 34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
I mean talk about opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to stories and images of God. We have a terrifying story and then a beautiful story.
I’ve been listening to the band The Decemberists a lot lately and in one of their new songs, they sing – Oh my God, what a world you have made here. What a terrible world, what a beautiful world.
And when I hear these two stories, that’s what I want to say – My God, what a terrible world where first-borns are killed in a plague. And what a beautiful world when we wash the feet of one another in love.
Okay, so how are we supposed to make sense of all of this? I mean, do we really believe in a God who would kill the first-born of Egyptians? I don’t. What kind of God is that? That’s a play out of Pharaoh’s playbook – to wipe out all the firstborns. Not God’s. I mean what horrifying image of God – of a god who gets even. And it is that kind of thinking that keeps us at war with each other. No, we need to be liberated from this kind of image of God.
So what could have happened? Well, let’s just imagine for a moment. Pharaoh is a tyrant who has enslaved the Israelites and he will not let them go and be free. Pretty terrible and awful. Now, imagine that during that time Pharaoh experienced his own tragedy. Maybe his first-born died for some reason or another.
And I’m willing to bet that if that happened, that some of the Israelites would’ve said, “See, serves you right. Now, you know the horror of life that you have subjected us to, Pharaoh.” In fact, all we have to do is listen to ourselves whenever something bad happens to someone who does horrible things. When something bad happens to someone who has been cruel to you, aren’t you tempted to say – Good! Serves you right! What goes around comes around! And we actually have a word for that in our culture now. A word I hear a lot among the youth. Karma.
So maybe that’s what happened – my Pharaoh’s child died. And then the people used that event to make meaning out of their situation. They started to think that it must have been God punishing Pharaoh. And like any good story, we always exaggerate the details, don’t we? And so maybe as they told the story, it got bigger and bigger and suddenly it isn’t simply that Pharaoh’s child died but suddenly the story becomes that God punished all of Egypt’s first-borns to set the Israelites free.
And maybe this story got so big and so out of control that now suddenly we are believing in a God who will go around killing children just to punish those who have done bad things. And that’s not a god I believe in. I don’t think it is the God of Creation, the God we see revealed to us in Jesus.
So I guess, what I’m wondering, is could it be that Jesus is making a new meaning out of this Passover celebration? That it isn’t a celebration of a God who gets even. But on the one hand it is a night when we are reminded of what not to do. If we enslave others (and I use that term broadly), like Pharaoh did, we will self-destruct. Not by God’s hand, but by our own. And we’ve all seen how capable we are of self-destruction by mistreating others.
And so the story of Pharaoh is a great example of what not to do. What the way of God doesn’t look like. And now Jesus is going to show us what it does look like. And he models the way of God, the way of Jesus, by clothing himself like a servant, and kneeling down and washing the disciples feet.
As you might imagine, back then, the feet were regularly the dirtiest part of the body. With unpaved roads made of dust and dirt, and only sandals at best for protection, the feet got pretty beat up. They were in constant need of cleaning.
And feet carry a similar reputation still today. Right, they smell. Sometimes they are misshaped from many years of hard use. Sometimes they are heavily calloused, and cracked and peeling. Sometimes they have warts or other contagious skin condition.
So I’ve been trying to imagine what that moment must have been like for Jesus’ disciples, when Jesus’ lines them up to wash their feet. And the best I can do is relate it to an experience I had recently.
This past Saturday, I forgot that Kayla Paape was going to stop by the house to deliver palms for Palm Sunday service. She was scheduled to arrive at 10am and she was exactly on time. And I was in my snowflake pajamas. And so the doorbell rings, here I am, a grown man still in his snowflake pajamas at 10 am on a Saturday morning.
And so I had that moment of like, Uhh…what I am going to do? I can’t go to the door like this! Do I have time to change? Should I just hide and act like I’m not home? Well the car’s in the driveway, so that’s not gonna work. Gah!
I so didn’t want to go to the door in my pajamas. Because it revealed something about me that I didn’t want others to see. But what could I do? So, I went to the door in my pajamas, apologized for my state of dress, and ended the conversation as quickly as possible.
You know what that’s like. You’re in the middle of an argument with your spouse and then a friend knocks on the door. Or the house is just a disaster and someone stops over. And there’s that moment when you’re like, what can I do to hide? And that’s our truth, right? That we all try to make it look like we aren’t who we really are. To cover up to pretend.
And I imagine the disciples having a similar reaction to seeing that Jesus towel up with a basin of water and kneel at their feet. I imagine the disciples in a slight mode of panic, thinking, Umm…I was unaware that tonight would involve people touching my disgusting feet. How can I get out of this quickly? I mean Peter even tries that, right? He says, Lord, “You will never wash my feet. I’m not worthy.”
That’s the thing about this act of love. This act of love on Jesus’ part demanded that they allow themselves to be really seen. To stick their feet out and be seen for who they really are. Literally warts and all. All the dirt and grim that their life has gathered up along the way.
I’m not entirely sure what Jesus’ technique was for washing the disciples’ feet, but if he did use a basin of water, who’s the poor soul at the end of this line of feet who has to stick his feet in that bucket that probably looked like the bucket of water you used to clean your paint brushes off in. Just a gray, mud color, with probably some floaters in it.
And it can’t feel that great to be getting other people’s dirt and grim all over your feet. But that’s actually another truth we can say about the dirt of life. Our dirt, our grime of life – it gets on other people, doesn’t? Like my sin doesn’t just impact me. It ripples out on all these other people. When I lose my temper at home, I watch as Elliot is changed by it. And it hurts to see.
So what’s your build up? What’s your junk that clings to the bottom of your feet and seems to spoil the bowl of water for everyone else?
What we see in this story is what Jesus wants to do with you. To wash you of all the weighs you down. To let it dissolve away like dirt in the rain. So that you can be free. And then he wants us to do the same for others.
This is the way to life. The way of Pharaoh, that’s not the way. This is the way. It is how Jesus wants us to love one another – to take one another’s feet in our hands and to wash them clean. If we can offer kind and gentle hands to each other’s dirt. If we can help each other to wash it away. To assure one another that you don’t have to wash it away all alone, only then can we be a community of the way of Jesus. But it mean’s you’ll have to stick out your feet. And you’ll have to embrace each other’s feet too.
May you have the courage to receive this love tonight in the form of water washed over your hands, and bread and wine placed in them. And then may you go and share that love with the world. Amen.
 I’m indebted to Alan Storey for this insight.