Maundy Thursday April 6, 2023 — Rev. Hillary Kimsey

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Welcome to the Triduum, the Great Three Days. Today we remember Christ setting the example for the Eucharist at that Passover meal with his friends. We remember his example of humble servant leadership in washing his disciples’ feet. And we begin to grieve his betrayal and arrest by stripping the altar, taking away each beautiful symbol just as Jesus was taken away into custody, where powerful people made him suffer.

I could talk about state violence or the death penalty or police violence, and it’d probably be a good sermon. Or I could preach to you about communion and the power of the sacrament, and it’d probably be perfectly adequate. Maybe, if I was braver, we would explore the topics of betrayal and forgiveness. Maybe we will, by the end.

Instead I want to tell you about nurses.

The first confirmed case of COVID-19 appeared in Snohomish county in January 2020. The first death was reported on February 29th at LifeCare Center in Kirkland where 39 residents died within four weeks. By March, Governor Inslee issued a stay at home order. During those first terrifying weeks, healthcare workers were issued a single N-95 mask to re-use, and many stripped off their clothes in the garage or stayed away from their families, afraid that their work would put their loved ones at risk. Signs that said “Healthcare heroes” started to show up at the hospital. Free food was delivered to nurse’s stations day after day. So many people wanted to say thank you to the people risking their lives, doing the unseen work of battling back the pandemic.

It was exhausting work, physically and emotionally and mentally. Patients with a severe COVID-19 infection had to go on a ventilator; the sickest ones were proned–laid on their stomach to help their lungs perfuse better. Someone on a ventilator is sedated and paralyzed so the ventilator can breathe for them–they require total care including constant turning to avoid pressure sores. To enter one of the rooms required a protective gown, gloves, a respirator, and eye protection in a negative pressure room, loud from air filtration machines to keep the room at negative pressure so the airborne particles don’t escape when staff go in and out the door. All the while, family members were calling, begging for updates, begging someone to put the phone up to their person’s ear, to hold the iPad up to their face, to give last messages. “Tell him we love him, and that we wish we could bet here.” Nurses held dying patients’ hands, and nurses held signs up to windows when families gathered outside– “She’s at peace now. We’re so sorry.” Once I watched a nurse walk out of a COVID room of a dying patient. She methodically removed her PPE, took a few steps away and stood against the wall, then slid down the wall, drew her knees up to her chest, and cried. Within just a minute or two, she squeezed my hand, got back up, and went into the next room.

What does it mean to truly love someone, even to the end?

Everything shifted once the vaccinations were available. When I got my first vaccine in December 2020, I cried. I felt hope. At my hospital, staff took selfies and celebrated and sighed and even wept in relief. But within months, those Healthcare Hero signs shifted to angry protests. By summer of 2021, most patients hospitalized with COVID-19 were unvaccinated. Many were afraid or uncertain, but sometimes the patients were rude, suspicious, even cruel. Some declared it wasn’t real even when it was time to go on the ventilator. Some asked for medicine they heard online and refused treatments recommended by their doctors. Some demanded to know if they’d been vaccinated against their will. Sometimes families called, spewing every bit of their grief and rage at the nurses trying to save their loved one’s life. After days and weeks and months of this, those same nurses and doctors would leave the hospitals and sometimes find protestors outside, protesting vaccine mandates.

What does it mean to truly serve someone, expecting nothing in return?

“Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world, and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”

When Jesus sat down to that Passover meal with his friends, he already knew most of them would scatter and abandon him in the garden. He sat down and celebrated with them anyway, When Jesus broke the bread, he already knew about Judas’s betrayal. But he fed Judas anyway. When Peter declares with his characteristically impulsive boldness, “Lord, not just my feet, but wash my hands and head also!” Jesus already knew that within hours, Peter would deny even knowing him three times. But he washed Peter’s feet anyway.

What does it mean to truly love someone? To love them to the end?

What does it mean to truly serve someone, expecting nothing from them in return?

Sometimes it means keeping their body clean when they are sick, or washing their feet like a servant. Sometimes it means placing blessed bread into the same hands that accepted 30 pieces of silver to betray you, or caring for a patient who snarls hateful accusations at you or giving them a hot, homemade breakfast despite their erratic behavior from addiction or mental illness.

To serve and to love are verbs, action verbs, choices we make irrespective of the recipient’s choices. Service and love are gifts we give without any expectation of payment or even gratitude in return.

What does it mean to truly love someone and serve them with humility?

For Jesus, it meant giving his friends food, washing their feet, praying for them, and forgiving them even after they betrayed him. See, we did get to betrayal and forgiveness after all.

When Jesus approaches Peter, towel in hand, Peter demands, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” And I imagine Jesus say, with rueful patience, “Peter, you do not know now what I’m doing but later, you will understand.”

Three years later, there are still times when the trauma of the pandemic pulls me back in time, freezing me in place, brokenhearted again. I throw question after question up at God, and sometimes, I can imagine hearing those words in return. “Hillary, you don’t know what I’m doing but one day, you will understand.”

I hope so. In the meantime, I’ll do my best to follow the directions Jesus left for us this night. Take this bread. Drink this wine. Wash each other’s feet. Love each other enough to forgive. Do this in remembrance of me.


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