Today is Maundy Thursday, the first of the three days leading up to Easter. The word “Maundy” is from the Latin mandatum which means command. On this day, we remember that Jesus illustrated his command to love one another by washing the feet of his disciples, a job usually relegated to servants or slaves.
In our gospel for today Jesus tells us by both words and actions that if we are going to be faithful disciples we need to follow his example of self-sacrifice. While it is usually considered easier to sacrifice for those we know and love, it is also important to sacrifice for those whom we may never know. Jesus did not sacrifice his life only for the followers who came to know him on his earthly journey, he sacrificed for all who believe and trust in God’s promises. Sharing the Passover Seder with his disciples and friends gave him the opportunity to wash their feet, but he was also making it very clear that he willingly serves anyone in need, and so should all who claim to be his followers.
Father Maximilian Kolbe was a Polish priest during World War II. He was arrested by the Gestapo for giving shelter to Jews and Polish refugees and was sent to the concentration camp at Auschwitz. One day three men managed to escape. The commandant ordered that ten men be chosen at random to be isolated in cells and forced to starve to death in order to remove the temptation to others who might try and escape. One of the men began to cry that he would never see his wife and children again. Father Kolbe stepped forward and asked that he be allowed to take the man’s place. He said he was a Roman Catholic priest, he was old and did not have a family. Surprisingly, the commandant permitted him to take the man’s place.
Every day in his cell Father Kolbe said Mass, prayed, sang hymns and tried to keep up the spirits of those in neighboring cells. After two weeks, he was the only man left alive. They needed the cell, so they decided to kill him by lethal injection. Witnesses said he offered his arm and went calmly to his death.
Thanks be to God we don’t normally find ourselves in those circumstances. However, we are aware of people who live in our communities, especially first responders, who put themselves in harm’s way in order to save others, often total strangers. They pull people out of burning buildings or disabled cars in order to try and save them at great risk to themselves.
Sometimes children set the example for us. In the rural areas of India, it is a practice to throw peelings and rinds from vegetables and fruits that travelers snack on to the side of the road. Within minutes they are devoured by the cows and goats – but not only the animals wait for the food. A traveler was visiting a small village where she observed a little girl who carried her tiny brother and waited by the roadside. When banana peels landed on the road, she took out a ragged cloth, smoothed it out, and placed the peels on it. She then carefully removed the soft fruit left on the peels. First, she fed her brother and only then ate some herself, with a big smile on her face.
Here, in our congregation, many of us practice sacrificial giving without looking for acknowledgement. Some people help care for members of our congregation, neighbors or strangers. Others provide transportation for those who otherwise would not be able to participate in activities. Even though it is expensive to live here on Long Island, we regularly give to ELCA World Hunger, ELCA Good Gifts, and food for the I.N.N. Giving of ourselves is often as simple as purchasing some extra groceries when we shop to contribute to the food we bring to our local food pantries.
We often think of ELCA World Hunger as large quantities of food being delivered far away to people who are hungry. It can be, but more commonly it is used for projects such as the McLaughlin Grows Urban Farm which provides fresh produce to poor residents in Muskegon, Michigan, and hires local students as interns. This is an investment in the future, because more than a quarter of the residents live below the federal poverty level and there is hunger because high food prices mean people cannot always get healthy options. Their story is similar to the Garden at St. Francis Episcopal Church which grows fresh produce for our local food pantries. Hunger is often hidden but exists right here on Long Island, one of the most prosperous places in the world.
Another example of ELCA World Hunger at work is the Senegal Lutheran Development Service. Instead of just buying cows for the people, World Hunger worked with herders to create an animal husbandry center to help increase milk production. They crossbred indigenous cows with other breeds, and the resulting cows produce three times more milk than the local ones. This has eliminated the loss of income during the eight-month dry season when the local cows do not produce much milk.
Jesus continues to serve others through people like us, when we serve others in his name. We remember his ultimate sacrifice when he offers himself to us in the bread and wine of the meal we share. We remain obedient to the command to love one another, and we are strengthened and empowered by the sacraments, so that we can share in the journey to the cross and in Jesus’ triumphant resurrection. Amen.