1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
In 1991, Jewish Cantor Michael Weisser and his wife Julie moved into a house on 58th & Randolph St here in Lincoln. He was the cantor at the South Street Temple, and they had been renting an apartment for over two years. Only days after they moved in, they received a phone call: You’ll be sorry you ever moved into 5810 Randolph Street, Jew boy! Soon after, they received a package in the mail containing anti-Semitic material and an unsigned card that said, “The KKK is watching you, scum.”
The Cantor suspected that it came from the Nebraska Grand Dragon of the KKK—the highest position of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan had become a very solid group over the years in Nebraska, spreading anti-black, anti-Jew hate across the state. The Grand Dragon, Larry Trapp, was a particularly hate-filled individual and responsible for a variety of race crimes in Lincoln and Omaha. He lived in an apartment in Lincoln filled with loaded weapons, Nazi hate material, and his white Klan robe. He was restricted to a wheelchair after he had both legs amputated due to diabetes.
In response to the call and the package, Cantor Weisser began calling Mr. Trapp once a week, leaving messages like: “How can you feel any real sense of freedom when you’re doing all these hateful things? Maybe you should let all that hate go.” And “Larry, there’s a lot of love out there. You’re not getting any of it. Don’t you want some?” His wife suggested that if Larry ever answered the phone, he should offer to do something for him. One day, Larry picked up. The Cantor said, “I realize that you are restricted to a wheelchair, and that must be difficult. Do you need help getting groceries?”
Larry didn’t go for it, at first. But eventually he called the Weissers. He said he was tired of the hatred and violence he was part of, but he didn’t know how to get out of it. They went to his apartment that night and visited for several hours. Not long after, Larry moved into a bedroom in the Weisser’s house so that Julie could be his caretaker as his health continued to fail. He converted to Judaism, and Cantor Weisser spoke at his funeral.
Now, there were a lot of details and a lot of people that were part of this transformation. But the question we ask ourselves on this day—this day when Jesus gathers his disciples around the Passover meal and washes their feet—is this: Can kindness change the world? I think Cantor and Julie Weisser would say, “Yes.” I think Larry Trapp would say, “Yes.” I think Jesus would say, “Yes.”
In fact, that’s the very reason Jesus does what he does. In the middle of the meal, as the disciples are reclined around the table watching Jesus preside over their Passover ritual, Jesus does something new. In the midst of the story-telling of the great Exodus, he rose, took off his outer robe, and put on a towel—an apron—a sign of servant. He poured water into a basin and made his way around to the disciples’ extended feet, washing each one with love—even Judas.
He already knew Judas would turn him over. And yet, he washed the feet that would bring his death. Isaiah says, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’” I wonder, then, how horrifying must be the feet of the one who speaks hatred and betrayal, who undermines love, who is threatened by the good news, who says to the world, “God is dead.” But Jesus washes even those feet.
Were he present at the Passover table at the Cantor’s house, he would have washed the feet—or the hands—of Larry Trapp, the man responsible for a great deal of racial violence and intimidation across the state. Instead, Julie did that. She washed his body. She oversaw his medications. She cleaned him up when he needed it. And together, she and her husband presided over his funeral preparations, ritually washing his body and perhaps anointing it with oil and herbs. Even in death, his broken body would have been shown honor and love.
Can kindness change the world? You might point out that Jesus’ kindness and humility didn’t change the mind of Judas. But that wasn’t the goal, was it? When Jesus returned to the table, he asked the disciples, “Do you know what I have done to you?” What he did was commission them—anoint them—baptize them—ordain them for the same service he had practiced. He sent them on a mission of kindness, humility, compassion, and service. He sent them as messengers of his love—as those who live in love for one another.
He didn’t tell them to show love to those who supported him. He didn’t suggest they protect their love from those who would betray and hurt them. No, they were to love all. We are to love all. We are to serve all. We are to wash the hands of feet of all—friends, enemies, strangers, neighbors. We are to feed those in our community with the bread of life. We are to offer ourselves to those in need—whether they are nice or not. Not only that—but we are to be washed by others. That’s, perhaps, even harder. I can only imagine the humility required of Larry as he allowed his body to be cleansed by this woman he used to hate. It’s intimate. It’s tender. It’s vulnerable—and perhaps even frightening. And yet, we too must be washed if we want to wash others—we too must be served if we are to serve.
This is not an obligation. Though Jesus commanded it—gave us a mandate—to love and serve one another just as he has don, we don’t do it because we’re ‘supposed to.’ We serve and love and wash and heal because we hope. We care and visit and feed because we hope. We hope that kindness can, indeed, change this world we’re living in—a world filled with hopelessness and loss and brokenness. We hope that the love God showed us through the Son is more than a failed attempt at overthrowing a political system and is a reality-altering event.
But before we can hope for the world to change, we hope for change in ourselves. We hope to be cleansed of our own prejudices and fears. We hope for our hearts and minds to be re-oriented to the God who saves us from ourselves. We hope to be fed the Body of Christ so that we, too, will be the Body of Christ for the world. Only then can we turn our attention to those around us. Only then are we capable of washing the wounds of neighbors and strangers. Only then do we have the resources to address the hunger of friends and enemies.
Only through the humility and foolishness of the cross will we, too, be willing to die to our own brokenness. When the ugliness of our feet and hands and hearts and minds are washed by the love of Christ, we will see them transformed into the beauty of messenger of the gospel—beauty in what was once frightening. For we are all made of the same stuff. We are all given the same breath of life. And we are all being changed and transformed by the hand of God. Thanks be to God!
Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church