Sermon: Maundy Thursday 2017

“Christ of Maryknoll,” Robert Lentz

*Delivered at Chaplains on the Harbor, Westport WA on April 13, 2017*

“Jesus the Felon”

Text: John 13:1-17, 31b-35

It gets a little lost in all the talk about washing feet, but what’s also happening in the Gospel reading today is that Jesus is having dinner with his friends. For the last time ever. This is the story we call the last supper. Does anybody remember what happens after this? That’s right, he’s killed. And what happens before that? He’s arrested. He’s arrested and he goes to jail. Has anybody here ever been to jail, or have loved ones who’ve been to jail? That’s a lot of us. What are the kinds of words you hear others use when they talk about people in jail? “Criminal.” “Junkie.” “Predator,” “super predator.” These are not kind words.
Jesus was also called names like this. People who didn’t like him called him a drunk, and a glutton (which is kind of an old-fashioned way of calling somebody a freeloader). He was accused, especially by the powerful and the respectable people in his society, of rubbing elbows with all the wrong people– tax collectors, sex workers, sinners. If he were around today, walking the streets of Grays Harbor County, he’d probably get called a tweaker and a junkie and be accused of hanging out with all the worst people. And to top it all off, almost as if to prove all his haters right, then Jesus goes and gets himself arrested. You can almost hear them gossip: “We knew it! We knew he was trouble, we knew he was a low life.”
A lot of people, a lot of Christians, get nervous about this part of Jesus’ life: Jesus the prisoner, Jesus the felon. A lot of people try to dress it up. They say “Well he wasn’t really like all the other cons,” that somehow he was different, or better, or more special. But that’s not what Jesus says. Jesus is just one of them. He’s a leader, he’s a healer, he’s a teacher– and he’s a jailbird through and through. His good qualities aren’t what set him apart; many prisoners have good qualities. What sets him apart is that he’s the Son of God– he’s God’s proof that when God comes to earth, God takes sides. God takes sides with the poor. God takes sides with the prisoners. Back in Jesus’ time, like today, prisons were full of poor people. People who couldn’t pay their debts. Slaves who stood up for themselves. Like today, in Jesus’ time rich people were very rich and there weren’t that many of them. Meanwhile, just about everybody was poor. It was a lot easier to end up on the wrong side of the law than it was to get out of poverty. And Jesus, who was working not just to get himself but everybody he met out of poverty, ended up way out on the wrong side of the law.
We tend to talk about Jesus like he came down from on high to fix the outcasts. That’s not what the Bible shows us. His whole life, he was an outcast himself. He was born in a barn because nobody would take in his homeless family. Then, when he was a baby, his family became refugees as they fled across the border to Egypt running from King Herod. He was a disruptive, mouthy kid who ran off from his parents, made a lot of noise in the synagogue, and created a street family for himself that was just as important to him as his blood family. A street family he loved and cared for, even as the police and the powerful were hunting him down.
Something I like about today’s Gospel story, weird as the foot-washing stuff can seem to us all these years later, is the way Jesus shows us how to be a “servant leader.” I don’t mean he was putting on a show about how humble he was, either. I mean he was a leader from a class of people who worked as servants, or even slaves– he was a leader who came from poor people. I think that’s important because we don’t look at poor people as leaders often enough. Everybody’s always looking for somebody rich and powerful to come down and fix our communities. They’re not coming. They’re never coming. All we have is us. All we have is each other. And what Jesus’ life shows us is: that’s actually everything we need. If we can work together, if we can come together across the divisions that keep poor people hating on each other and instead start taking care of each other, start organizing together to make the changes we need– we could be unstoppable.
We do real well at taking care of each other here, in this community. I think we’re onto something. The foot-washing, yes, it’s a little weird and awkward but it’s a symbol for the real, concrete ways we take care of one another. We feed each other. We shelter each other. This winter, our young homeless folks spent their food stamps to buy baby formula for a mother and child who were sleeping here. Over the holidays, our overnight guests pooled their turkeys  from the food bank to throw an incredible feast for this whole community. And we all– this group here– have extended that love and care into the local jails– where Jesus the prisoner can still be found today, in the kindness the prisoners there show each other under really bad conditions.
I’m gonna finish with a story, a jail story, about us. Last year we were doing the School of Hard Knocks on Friday afternoons. Each month we’d get together and just have conversation about hard topics that are real in our community. The first month, we were talking about jail. And at the very first class, this group decided it was important that we send a letter of love and support to all the people Rev. Sarah visits. It was a simple letter: we said we’re thinking of them, praying for them, they’re always welcome at our place when they get out, that we wish we could give them a better world– one where it’s easier to get a decent job and a good education than it is to land in jail. Sarah mailed that letter out. One young guy named Zach Vester got a copy. He was in lockdown at the Grays Harbor County jail then. We found out later: in the middle of the night when the guards couldn’t hear, Zach was shouting the words of that letter through the metal toilet drain in his cell, so that it would echo into the cells of everybody else in lockdown. He was shouting your prayers, your words of encouragement, your love so that everybody could hear it. When I think of servant leaders, of Jesus the prisoner’s style of leadership, I think about Zach. And I think about all the folks here who wrote him that letter.
Zach died this fall. He was twenty-four. Two hospitals turned him away before he landed at St. Pete’s in Olympia, where he died of pneumonia. They turned him away because they said he was a “drug seeker.” They didn’t know he was a leader. They didn’t know he was brave, or funny, or smart, or honest. But you all did. When you sent in that letter, you knew there were people locked up in there who deserved better. Who deserved love, prayers, a future. You knew they deserved that because they’re children of God, the same as Jesus. Keep trusting that. Trust him. Trust Jesus the prisoner.

About aaron

Catechist at Chaplains on the Harbor.
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