Thursday, March 20, 2008

a simple act of service

First let me acknowledge that none of what I am about to tell you is original. I owe it all to three of my brothers in Christ, Paul, Stan, and Jerry.

Jerry was the bishop who saw me through from my first tentative expression of a desire to serve as a priest, to my ordination to the diaconate, my ordination to the priesthood, and most importantly to my marriage with Sarah. He showed me how to serve, and to aspire to be the servant of many. So, thanks to Jerry.

Stan I last saw at his wedding, in the Mount Hermon chapel at a summer camp in the Santa Cruz Mountains, where he served as leader of outdoor education programs. When I first met him, he was organizing a Sierra Club chapter at our high school, and getting us together to celebrate Earth Day, April 22, 1970. He showed me the importance of Christian faith in the stewardship of the earth and showed ways to be of service there. So, thanks to Stan.

Paul – whom I will speak about for a bit longer than I did of the others – I last saw when I was a seminarian at St. Anselm’s, Lafayette, California, where he belonged. And when I realized who he was, I told him two stories – about himself. Which I will tell you now, he shrugged off – but which were great teaching moments for me. I had seen him first on New Year’s Eve 1968 when he was regional administrator of the Federal Water Pollution Control Administration (FWPCA) in the San Francisco area; he’d pulled together a conference that brought into one room people from all sides concerned with conservation of natural resources, and, a new word – ecology. There they were polluters and protesters alike – complete with jerks from the home office and guerilla theater acts. There was room for all of us under that one roof, and we got a chance to talk, and to learn. (I was a Boy Scout – so conservation was the word that got me in the room.)

I met Paul again – after high school and before seminary – when I was working for a summer in a U.S. civil service job, as file boy for the EPA office in San Francisco.

One day at the end of summer there was an unusual amount of activity among my senior clerks & typists: it was the end of the fiscal year and so the deadlines for getting out some grant letters.

They were all working feverishly against the deadline, as was the head of our division and her assistant. The middle managers all left at 5 – leaving the clerical staff and the senior managers to finish the job by midnight, when a postal clerk would meet us outside the post office to take our mail in just before the deadline.

We worked away, typing and photocopying, and addressing and labeling, into the hours of the evening – until all the copy machines on the floor gave up the ghost.

I know what to do! someone said. We can use the big machine in the copy room downstairs.

Usually it had a team of operators running it full time, but they had gone home, at 5, too. And the door was now locked.

I know what to do! someone said. We can break in through the regional administrator’s office next door.

And so they went downstairs –

-- and the door was open, and the light was on, and there, working late, was the head of the whole agency for the Western United States. The big boss. Paul.

What’s going on? He found out – and got up from behind his desk and ran the copy machine himself until the work was all done and the letters were in the mail and the deadline was met.

I told him, when I saw him those years later in Lafayette, that he had set an example of leadership for me, twice. Gathering the people together under one roof, so they could talk to each other. And getting in there and doing what needed to be done, setting an example and pitching in.

Aaaah, he waved it away. No big deal.

But still I think of Paul when I think of servant leadership.

Maybe there is some one you think of, too.

Of course. We turn from these modest examples of service to a story, a dramatic enactment, of true humility.

It had been a pretty good week, so far, for the disciples. They’d seen last Sunday the Romans shown up at their own game – as Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg told us in their book, The Last Week, the imperial progress of Pilate and his soldiers into Jerusalem was easily made ironic by the same-time scene of their Jesus entering the City on a donkey’s colt, saluted with palm branches, his path paved by overcoats.

This is real leadership, they seemed to say: to come not as judge but as savior, to be one of the people not their overlord.

And then he’d shown them up again, taking up a whip of cords and driving the moneychangers from the Temple. All that, and now, a gathering in an upper room, a meal together – a celebration of the passing over of Israel in Egypt and a hope for similar deliverance in the very near future, from Rome.

More than Rome was at stake, however. And the triumph would not be of this world: it would come only at the end of a long hard road that led to a cross – and only then beyond.

Jesus – the Messiah, as they had begun to think of him; Christ, the King of Kings – now we were at table with him; surely now we were in our element.

And then, he shows them what real leadership means: before he even takes the bread to give thanks and break it, before he takes the cup and shares it, he takes upon himself something that would surprise Moses, shepherd as he was, and even Abraham, the host of the angels. He gets up from his place at the table, and takes on the role of a servant. He does what only the lowest slave in the household would ordinarily do: he washes their feet.

They’d come a long way from Galilee, on foot mostly likely, on dusty roads, through crowds and countryside, village and town. This was no mere demonstration – it was real work. And Jesus does it. He washes their feet.

And so before he takes on that deeper humiliation we will recall tomorrow, he did what was ordinary, and uncelebrated: he served. And he still does.

And he invites us to join him, in his service.


Maundy Thursday

Exodus 12:1-4, 11-14
Psalm 116:1, 10-17
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Almighty Father, whose dear Son, on the night before he suffered, instituted the Sacrament of his Body and Blood: Mercifully grant that we may receive it thankfully in remembrance of Jesus Christ our Lord, who in these holy mysteries gives us a pledge of eternal life; and who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

May I speak in the Name of the Son,
in the Power of the Holy Spirit,
to the Glory of God the Father. AMEN.

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