(Note: Today, July 26, 2013, marks 23 years since my first wife Claire Marie Carmody died of cancer at 43. I diverge from my usual posts about fracking to post here a sermon that my friend and former Sociology professor (turned Episcopal priest) Mark LaGory gave on a Holy Thursday in 2005. Some have asked to read this sermon, so this is a way to get it out via Facebook and share it as part of remembering Claire Marie on this day. Thank you, Mark, for this lovely way of remembering her.)
Bread and Roses
The following is from the text of a sermon preached by the Rev. Mark LaGory on Maundy Thursday 2005 at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Birmingham, Alabama
“O Lord you have given us so much, give us now the courage and energy to live as you taught us.”
I think she was a saint, I don’t know. Well she did cuss a little sometimes, and she talked tough and plain. She wasn’t very pious, but she did say her prayers and she sure did understand the gospel, and oh how she lived it. Claire Carmody was an ordinary looking person. Her hair was stringy and gray, she was bone skinny, and she had the thickest Brooklyn accent I’d ever heard. She was our friend, maybe the first real one we had in Birmingham, but more importantly she was a friend to the unloved and unwanted of this community. She was an ordinary person who performed extraordinary acts of love and kindness.
I’ll never forget the first time we met her at a party. We talked early into the morning about our families, our faith and our lives, and then about the awful poverty we had encountered in Birmingham. Not exactly good party talk, but her passion for the poor and the homeless was contagious, and she never stopped teasing me the whole night about what I did. I was a researcher who studied poverty and poverty housing—I was good. I had published books. I knew all the numbers, all the problems, but as she put it I never left the ivory tower to really meet the poor. She wanted me to do more, and I listened that night in a way I hadn’t for quite some time about the gospel and the plight of the poor.
Claire wasn’t just a talker. She and her family had opened their home to the city’s homeless. She brought women off the streets to sleep in the two spare rooms of her modest home. She fed them every morning and evening and gave them a place to stay at night, all on a social worker’s salary. The women sat each night at the dining room table with Claire’s husband and kids, talking and eating together. She used her connections in the community to help them find assistance and jobs, but mostly she gave them back their dignity. In some ways it was risky and foolish to do what she did. Heeding the gospel is that way—risky, foolish. It doesn’t always calculate.
But from this little private effort, Claire and her husband raised enough money to eventually start Bread and Roses, a shelter for homeless women and children. Until it merged last year with PATH it was one of the largest shelters of its kind in Birmingham. Thousands of women and children have been given a fresh start and hope because of her actions.
She called her shelter Bread and Roses because the poor needed more than just a bed and meal each night—the poor, she said, deserved roses as well. The hurting, the homeless, the unloved, needed not just food, but respect. They needed to be given back the dignity that had been snatched away from them by poverty and homelessness. They needed to feel love and a sense of their own worth.
Claire you see understood the radical hospitality of Jesus. The hospitality we recall this special night in Holy Week. The hospitality Jesus asked us to spread around in the broken, hurting world we encounter daily.
We call today Maundy Thursday. The word Maundy comes from the Latin for mandate or command—a reference to Jesus’ command to his disciples to follow his example of love and service. Tonight we recall two remarkable acts that Jesus performs on the eve of His passion and death. Two acts that he wants seared in our memory. This night he asks his disciples to remember him by offering a Eucharistic feast and a foot washing—bread and roses—to those in need. “Remember me”, he says, “not by a legacy of stone monuments, fancy speeches, or beautiful churches.” “I want a living remembrance. All I ask is that you love one another” he says. Eat the food I offer you. Share it with each other, and then don’t forget to wash each other’s feet.”
Indeed Jesus’ actions and words in today’s gospel are at the heart of his hopes for us—a dream for a Church that offers unconditional love and hospitality to all. A Church whose doors are flung wide open to everyone.
Think of the deep grace involved in Jesus’ actions at this moment. All has suddenly gone very wrong. From a triumphant parade into Jerusalem earlier in the week, to this deeply melancholy moment. He’s about to die. He knows it. He knows that these friends he loves are going to abandon and betray him, yet he hosts a meal for them. During that meal he washes their dirty feet and then offers his very flesh and blood in friendship.
Jesus is teaching, teaching us how to love tonight. How to be church to each other. A church that not only offers spiritual nourishment to its followers, but humbly serves all those in need. That is the kind of church that Jesus wants.
And tonight is the night where those hopes and dreams Jesus has for his church are truly palpable. You can hear it in John’s gospel. You can feel it in the liturgy for this day. Tonight Jesus kneels before each of you. Whether you come up here to have your feet washed or not later on. He comes before each of you tonight as humble servant and loving host. He comes close; close enough to touch you. Can you see those penetrating eyes? Do you feel him brush against you? Then he kneels before you, looks you in the eye and smiles at you. He makes you feel that you are home, home perhaps for the very first time.
Or does his closeness make you feel uncomfortable tonight— like Peter who at first refuses to have his feet washed by Jesus? Maybe you don’t want someone you respect so much to be kneeling before you right now, touching your feet. Maybe taking your shoes off reveals more of you than you would like, but He insists. He wants to show you heaven’s hospitality. “Don’t worry”, he says, “I washed twenty-four gnarled dirty feet the night I was betrayed, you can’t show me anything I haven’t already seen.” All he asks is your trust, “Put yourself in my hands, come on” he pleads. And you do. And when you do, you are transformed. For you have learned how to love, as only God can teach you. Love in a way that is out of your character and mine, but in his.
Jesus wants to show us his hospitality. Because the only way we can love as Jesus does, is to be willing to accept his love. We must accept the bread and roses that he offers us tonight. We must be open to Christ’s radical hospitality, for unless we receive it first hand, we can’t offer it to others.
We have to learn before doing, because this love is like no other. It doesn’t come naturally to any of us. It is much more than mere kindness. There are no conditions placed on this love. There is no pretense of power. It is humble. Jesus washed the feet of his disciples.
The love that Jesus asks us to share is also inclusive. He doesn’t just wash the feet of those loyal to him. He washes the feet of Judas and Peter too. It doesn’t calculate does it? It doesn’t seem rational. Jesus’ love doesn’t make sense to us. And so we have a lot to learn about loving. But then Jesus reminds us, that we just need to keep practicing. “Don’t build monuments to my name or fancy churches. Don’t give me righteous doctrine, or beautiful vestments. Instead I want you to remember me,” he says “by practicing my love on others.” Who knows, if we do keep practicing eventually it might just come naturally?
Tonight we remember the incredible love that Jesus offers, and we celebrate the power it can have over each of us and our world. Jesus asks us to love as He does.
Many feet walk into our lives and into our church everyday. Old feet, young feet, the feet of the needy and hurting, the feet of the arrogant and proud, the feet of those who annoy us and those we love, the feet of liberals and conservatives, the feet of those who are like us and those who are not. Whose feet do we choose to wash? Jesus showed by his example that we really don’t have a choice. We are called to wash everyone’s feet no matter who they are. Claire Carmody did, and literally thousands of homeless women and children in Birmingham experienced life changing bread and roses. This church does, in hundreds of little and big ways with its many outreach and pastoral programs, and as a result many lives throughout this city and world are transformed.
The danger in these troubled moments in the life of the Episcopal Church is that we can lose sight of this great commission that Jesus sends us into the world to do. It is simple. Let Jesus be known to the world by your service, by your love for one another. Wash each other’s feet. Offer bread and roses. That is how the world is transformed. We cannot forget. We must remember Jesus.