During my two weeks in mission I had the opportunity to wa3tch an extraordinary church in action. The First Presbyterian Church, Germantown in Philadelphia is one of only 2% of congregations in our denomination that is both diverse and stable. In other words, it’s racially mixed but people are OK with that and aren’t leaving the church in droves. This is my kind of church. I’m sure this is where Jesus would choose to spend His time. Actually, He probably does. If folks are paying any attention, this church should be not be just stable but growing by leaps and bounds.
The Associate Pastor, Kevin Porter, came with a team of about 15 youth. Another staff member came and her title tells us where the heart of the church lies: Eileen Jones is the Director of Urban Ministries. I just love it. Even though they had so many of their youth, I didn’t get to see as much of them as I would have liked. There is a slightly controversial but understandable ruling that you have to be over 18 to stay in the PDA camp; insurance and legal mumbo jumbo, etc. So their kids ate dinner and had evening devotions with us but then went off for their own work project and slept at a different camp run by different people who I guess don’t worry about legal mumbo jumbo. At the same time, a couple of their adult ladies had social work experience so instead of rebuilding a house they went on a “listening project.” I didn’t get to hear nearly as many of their stories as I wanted.
But the best part of the week was Maundy Thursday. The South Carolina church designed the liturgy for the evening since they were assigned the devotional for the evening. But it was Kevin of the Germantown church who led the worship service.
It was also Neighbor Night. Every Thursday in the camp we are encouraged to invite the homeowners whose houses we’re working on plus anybody else we want to include. So, for Maundy Thursday we had Johnnie and Evelyn Dawsey, their daughter and granddaughter. I already knew them from helping with the siding on their house in October. It’s finished outside now and waiting for the flooring. Shirley Thompson came with her mother, Miss Annie. We also had the Hosty family who I got to meet the following week when I went to their house to work. And Miss Dorothy came. She’s the lady who presided over the kitchen where we ate lunch every day. It was a true neighbor night and everyone enjoyed spending time eating and talking with their new friends.
Our instructions were to sit with someone we didn’t know. I got to sit between Sarah Watermulden, a seminary student and intern at the Germantown church on one side of me with the whole Dawsey family on the other side.
It was a very moving candle-lit service. Kevin offered some words about the new commandment Jesus gave us on the Thursday before he was crucified, the new maundatum. The scripture reads:
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:34-35 (NIV)
Then Kevin moved into the communion service and did the most extraordinary thing I’ve ever seen a minister do: he did nothing. After he blessed the communion elements and sent them around the table he sat down and waited. I’ll bet he didn’t say anything as a minister for maybe 20 minutes. In that time we gradually lapsed into quiet conversation with our neighbors. I don’t know if Kevin did this on purpose or by accident. Possibly he got to talking with someone and forgot what we were doing. I like to think he orchestrated this because it created the most phenomenal tone to our gathering. I talked a bit with Sarah about going to Guatemala. I talked with Evelyn about her house and her family. She told me she “had always known her neighbors’ names before the storm but had never really talked to them before.”
When Kevin finally stood and ended the worship service with the prayer after communion, I realized that all this time, our conversation had taken place within the bonds of the sacrament of communion.
I’ve been a Presbyterian all my life. I’ve attended worship for the last thirty years at the same church, through three pastors and two interims. And every Maundy Thursday has the same feel to it. We come in and have a solemn service, and then we leave in silence. The bulletin even tells us to do it that way.
But I’ve decided the way we did Maundy Thursday in Mississippi is closer to the way Jesus meant for us to act. Quietly and respectfully, for sure, but in community-- as friends, as people who love one another and appreciate that bond.
I’ve been to Neighbor Night at camp many times before. People usually eat, visit and leave. They go home to their FEMA trailers and we go back into our tents. This time, on Maundy Thursday, people lingered outside the dining tent for over an hour. We had become more than neighbors. We were brothers and sisters now.
I learned something else that night.
The same evening Jesus gave us the communion service He also washed the disciples feet. John 13:14 sums it all up:
Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet
Foot washing has had a place in my imagination for years. I’ve often wondered how we could incorporate this practice into our worship in the starched and white bread atmosphere of Sunday worship. The truth, of course, is that you can’t. Nobody wants a whole congregation of barefoot, stinky feet. But once in a while you can try it at a very informal gathering. I tried it once with high school youth then again with middle school youth. Our pastor tried it at a women’s retreat. While it was an effective way to encourage openness and acceptance within the group there is always the element of having someone hold your foot, see your toes, discover your corns, and notice how clean or dirty your feet are. You’re showing a body part that is usually hidden and no matter how you are coached on the subject, you’re still uncomfortable with the intimacy. So I’ve spent a lot of thought trying to find the modern day equivalent to the ancient practice so everyone could follow Christ’s teaching in a comfortable way that they could relate to.
That night in Mississippi, living the new maundatum, I realized what we had been doing all week was foot washing. I remembered the first time I visited the Gulf coast after Katrina. We mucked out a house for a mother and son named Linda and Charles. Their husband and father had died only a couple of years ago. Their house had been filled with four feet of water for a week. As we were pulling soggy and moldy sheetrock from the back bedroom walls I spotted a section of the wall where someone had written telephone numbers. I wondered if I should write the numbers down in case I was taking away the only copy of these numbers. Would I destroy a personal directory if I continued to pull the wall down? Later that same day I took a black but beautiful minister’s robe from a temporary closet they had set up in the carport. I found out this robe had belonged to Charles’ father who had been a Baptist preacher. All their pictures of him were lost in the flood. This robe was all they had left of him. I realized in horror I had gotten sheetrock dust all over the robe in moving it. I felt that I was manhandling something sacred. And not just because it was a minister’s robe—it was all Linda and Charles had left of a man they loved. I felt like such an intruder moving around their house, tearing things apart.
The work we do in Mississippi and Louisiana is both practical and intimate, just like what Jesus did with the disciples. I have seen the insides of Shirley Thompson’s toilet, for goodness sakes. We sat on the edge of her bathtub and talked. I know where her hand lands when she reaches for toilet paper. You can’t get much more intimate than that.
And for Shirley, it was the same intimacy. I’m sure it was a stretch for her to open herself to our tramping around her house talking about the placement of her plumbing. When I asked her about all this she told me she’s normally a very private person but she was open to our work because she saw we were working out of love.
Christ calls us to be intimate with each other. We are to love one another with a love that calls us to muck out houses after a hurricane and to treat each other with love and respect. That same love allows others to accept strangers into their half-built homes, trusting us to put the house back together again.
We cannot leave Maundy Thursday in silence unless we hold each other’s hand. The new maundatum calls us to a divine connection between ordinary people.