Last night at the Newman Center, we said goodbye to Zack Liley, our part time campus minister. Zack had some prepared remarks – things that he had learned from his time with us. Things that he hoped we had learned from our time with him. He took the opportunity to tell us how much we mattered to him. And how much he loved us. People had the chance to say how he mattered to them, how much they loved him. People laughed. And cried. And were irreverent. And were serious. And were very reverent. At the end of that time, the community “prayed him on” from his service to the Newman Community to his service with the military.
After last night, it is easier to put myself into that upper room where Jesus gathered with his disciples, because in truth, I had just been there as Zack said his farewells. And even though it looked a lot like the fireplace room of the Newman Center – what was present in that room was exactly what was present in that upper room with Jesus. You see, Zack talked about the pivotal moment of his young life when he was in fourth grade. It was September 11. He told us how the call came over the intercom for every teacher/staff/custodians – basically every adult in the building – to report to the office. When her teacher came back to their room about 10 minutes later, she was white and just put her head down on the desk and sobbed. He was petrified! What had happened? Finally, with the whole class begging to find out, she said: “I guess you should know.” And she turned on the TV, just in time to watch the second plane crash into the second world trade center tower.
At that moment, Zack ‘knew’ what his life was going to be about. Protecting this great country. Being a soldier so that no more innocent people should die. Spending his life so that we could celebrate ours. It was the moment in his young life that summarized all he would be in his adult life. And it set the steps for all the stages of the journey from that point onward – to live in concrete ways a sacrificial love. That is what we heard last night – the story of one man’s commitment to be intense love to everyone he met.
In that context, it was not hard to understand what that upper room was like for Jesus. Jesus knows that ‘everything’ is coming to an end. His life. His ministry. His time among his disciples. His preaching. One way or the other, whatever was going to unfold was going to unfold soon. So he took advantage of the opportunity that was before him on that last evening – as they gathered in that upper room. He wanted to make sure his disciples knew EVERYTHING that was important for them to know about him and his mission. That they (and we) would know how much he loved them. And that we would know the steps for all the stages of our lives. That was what mattered to Jesus that night.
And so he gave us two gifts: himself in the Eucharist and his mission for us in the Mandatum – the washing of feet. Understanding both of those are essential for us to know who we are. So that we would know he loved us to the end, and would be with us until the end of time – he invited both his disciples and us into that upper room. There, by the gift of self and the gift of his service, he would love all who would be his disciples into life. That is, at least in large part, what that last supper night must have meant for Jesus.
Because of last night at the Newman Center, it was also easier to understand how difficult that night must have been for Simon Peter/the disciples/ and why I sometimes resist this meal and this foot washing. As always, Peter voices what the others were thinking. “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus replies with those ever so difficult words: “If you do not let me wash you, you will have no part of me…” Or another translation says: “You will not belong to me.” How hard it is for me/us to do that. We want to SERVE. We want to DO STUFF. Our School’s Lenten ‘theme’ –was “DO SOMETHING this lent. I loved that theme. I know how to do stuff. What I am less good about is receiving things. Tonight Jesus says: Do nothing UNLESS you have first learned to receive. Unless you have first come to know that foundational, rooting, source of everything that I am – which is my Father’s love for me – then your service will eventually become about you and not the one served. That is the second thing Zack modeled so powerfully last night – letting people in to love me.
So if you struggle with either of those truths of the upper room tonight – the call to give love away in service or the call to receive love in humility – this ‘upper room’ has the antidote for you. If you need to just be loved – then let me kneel as the presence of the risen one and wash your feet at this center station. And if you need to learn how to give yourself away in service, then come to side aisle – first to have your feet washed, and then, to wash the feet of the person following you.
And then, bring all of that experience – the struggle to be loved and the struggle to be of service – here to this altar – there to receive the one who still and always and forever loves each of us till the end…