The Rev. Adele K. Langworthy, preaching
March 29, 2018
“What would you do if you had two hours to live?”
This is a question that Omid Safi had to ask himself at a young age. It was not part of a thinking exercise; nor was it a question posed at a spiritual retreat. This existential query was posed to him by his father, as he laid down in a hospital emergency room on the doorsteps of death.
Omid was just 13 when his father was hosting a party in the family home. Omid was watching his father scan the party to make sure everyone had food and drinks when he noticed his father’s glance across his face. Omid writes, “He smiled as he does each time he looks at me and kept moving past me to look at other guests. It was then that I saw something that I had never seen before, and have never seen since then: His neck whiplashed, and his eyes returned to mine. I saw every drop of blood leave my father’s face, his smile evaporating. With a purposeful stride, he walked toward me and stared closely at my face. He turned to my mom, and in a measured voice, said: ‘Omid and I are going to go for a drive. Please carry on with the gathering.’
“We got to the car, and my Baba started to drive toward the children’s hospital where he worked. My father is a pediatrician and served as the head of the pediatrics department in that hospital. In addition to working as a pediatrician, he had a rather strange fascination with rare and exotic diseases. … Years ago, he read about one such disease: a form of meningitis that, once transmitted, stayed dormant in victims’ nervous system for years. At some point it would become active and attack the spinal cord and the brain. The sign of its activation: a series of pimples appearing on a person’s face. From the time that the pimples appear, one has a few hours to pump the body full of serious antibiotics. If that does not happen, the overwhelming majority of patients die.
“These were the same pimples my father saw on my face. He sat by my bed in the emergency room. He held my hand and asked me: “Son, I have always told you the truth, and I will always tell you the truth. There is a possibility, and a strong possibility, that you may have two hours left to live. What would you like to do in these two hours?”
“The rest of that night is a feverish blur. I asked to talk to my mom; had a slice of chocolate cake; prayed. I remember waking up every few hours and seeing my mother praying by my bedside; nurses in the hospital, cleaning staff members, all praying for me. I remember taking my father’s question most seriously: ‘If I have only two hours, what would I do? How would I spend it?’
“The morning came, and I remember the first sensations that came to me: relief at not being dead, and then — joy, overwhelming, total, heart-bursting joy. …
“Over the years, I have reflected on that night. I come back to how that night and the next morning forever changed everything about what it means to live and to be alive.
“I sometimes use this night as an occasion for spiritual reflection with my friends and students. I ask them to think about what they would do if they knew that they have two years to live. Most talk about travel and experiences. They would want to see Paris, Hawaii, New York City, Istanbul, and so on. They talk about thrill-seeking adventures, like going bungee-jumping, walking in an ancient redwood forest.
“I then ask them what they would do if they knew that they had two hours left to live, and the answers change radically. There’s no more Paris, no more Hawaii, no more bungee-jumping. There is usually a deep silence over the room, and one by one they say: ‘I’d love to see Momma. I’d want to say ‘I love you’ to her once more.’ ‘I’d love to go be with my dad, and say ‘I am sorry for that whole period from ages 12-18.’ ‘I’d love to go back to my true love, and have one more moment to sit together, hold her hand, and see how her eyes look when she is giggling.’ “When we are told that we have two hours left to live, what we want is to be with the ones we love the most and to tell them that they are loved. …”
And that is just what Jesus did that first Maundy Thursday. He had a few hours left to live. How would he spend them? He chose to spend them with his beloved disciples, and to love and teach them. He would have a last meal with his disciples. He had them gather in a large upper room for a simple meal where he would show how much he cared about them. To prove his love for them, he would wash their dirty, stinky feet as an act of humble servanthood, and he would challenge them to follow his example and also serve others in humility and love. Jesus had high aspirations for them: that they would carry on the work he had begun and do it as he did.
How does washing ‘stinky feet’ in humble service translate into our lives today?
Perhaps it is cleaning a bathroom: Dan Cathy, the CEO of Chick-fil-A, had been out and about and his hands were all sweaty and dirty when he entered a Taco Bell restaurant. He went in the restroom to wash his hands and he noticed the sink could use some touching up. So this CEO of a competitor pulled out some paper towels and cleaned the sinks of the Taco Bell bathroom, it was not above him to do a little cleaning and make a competitor’s bathroom a little cleaner.
Perhaps it is cleaning a pair of boots: On the previous night Latin American theologian René Padilla and Anglican Priest John Stott had arrived in Bariloche, Argentina, in the middle of heavy rain. René writes, “The street was muddy and, as a result, by the time we got to the room that had been assigned to us our shoes were covered with mud. In the morning, as I woke up, I heard the sound of a brush—John was busy, brushing my shoes. ‘John!,’ I exclaimed full of surprise, ‘What are you doing?’ ‘My dear René,’ he responded, ‘Jesus taught us to wash each other’s feet. You do not need me to wash your feet, but I can brush your shoes.’”
In the words of Pope Francis, “The more powerful you are, the more your actions will have an impact on people, the more responsible you are to act humbly. If you don’t, your power will ruin you, and you will ruin the others. There is a saying in Argentina: ‘Power is like drinking gin on an empty stomach.’ You feel dizzy, you get drunk, you lose your balance, and you will end up hurting yourself and those around you, if you don’t connect your power with humility and tenderness. Through [Christ-like] humility and concrete love, on the other hand, power—the highest, the strongest one—becomes a service, a force for good.
I invite you to humble yourself before the Lord, that you might be led to “stinky feet” moments and discover the blessings of fulfilling Christ’s aspirations for your life.