Sermon for Maundy Thursday, April 18, 2019 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Exodus 12:1-14 ++ Psalm 116:1, 10-17 ++ 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 ++ John 13:1-7, 31b-35

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table,  he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you?  (John 13:12)

On April 7, 1994, the first killings began in what would be a 100-day-long genocide in the East African country of Rwanda. In the past couple of weeks, there have been many news stories and remembrances on this, the 25thanniversary of the genocide during which anywhere from 800,000 to 1,000,000 people died at the hands of their fellow Rwandans.

In the summer of 1990, my sister, her husband, and their two young daughters moved to Kigali, Rwanda from Dakar, Senegal. As the violence escalated in 1993, I remember Jane telling me of how traumatic it was for the girls who could hear the shouting and the beatings and attacks just outside their windows.

I checked in with Jane last week to see how she’s doing with this surge in interest on the anniversary of the genocide. Here’s a part of what she wrote:

We were there from the summer of 1990 until spring 1993, when the girls and I were evacuated. Alan stayed until late fall of 1993. The RDF (Rwanda Patriotic Force – (future president Paul) Kagame’s group) began taking territory in the north of Rwanda in early 1993 in response to the ‘practice’ killings of Tutsis and the then-Rwandan leadership’s refusal to negotiate in good faith to end the conflict— it is a complicated history. The genocide started in earnest in April 1994 – a few months after Alan left & a year after the girls & I evacuated. We could have returned to Rwanda because the State Dept. said it was safe, but we knew it wasn’t & I had no desire to show up on CNN coming off a military transport (we did have friends we saw that way).

Alan was the Peace Corps Director and I worked for UNICEF. I was hired to write the 5-year country strategy, which I knew was fiction before the ink was dry. After I finished the strategy, I was the UNICEF person sending cables to NY for emergency supplies as thousands of people were displaced because of the conflict and killings. People fleeing across the mountainous countryside reminded me of locust & grasshopper infestations in Senegal in terms of destruction of the trees and fields, except these were people fleeing for their lives.

When the genocide began in April 1994, we lived in Jamaica. A State Dept friend (who was at the White House crisis room) called me at USAID/Kingston & said he had lists of names of those killed he could fax me (no email then). He faxed 50+ pages of names before I could reach him & tell him to stop. Such a horrible, devastating, overwhelmingly helpless feeling. I have such admiration for our friends who survived and moved forward with their lives, even those raising children from when they were raped. I don’t know if I possess such strength or determination to live, forgive & move forward.

In a separate phone conversation, she also told of a friend who survived and having lost all of her siblings, went in search of her nieces and nephews, ending up with more than 40 of them to raise, mourning that she could not find all of them.

In Rwanda, it was not just the Rwandan army and the militias doing the killings. It was regular people, inflamed by centuries of racial, cultural, and ethnic hatred and conflict. So many people were betrayed by those they knew and loved. Even by family members and closest of friends. As Jane wrote, it was complicated. 

And Jesus asked them, “Do you know what I have done to you?”

No one really knows why Judas turned against Jesus. It could have been greed. It could have been jealousy. It could have been anger. Maybe Jesus was not the messiah Judas wanted him to be, one who would overthrow the Romans. Whether it was well-planned or in the heat of the moment, whether it was Satan entering into him (as Luke and John say) or just frustration, don’t believe for a moment that Judas’s betrayal of Jesus was any more unusual or different than the betrayals we perpetrate against Jesus all the time. Maybe it doesn’t result in crucifixion or death, and maybe we won’t go down in history with such notoriety, but whenever we deny Jesus, hiding the love and mercy shown to us, or refuse to love and serve others the way Jesus taught, we betray him. If we are the only hands and feet Jesus has in this world, we deny him if we use them only for ourselves and not for others. 

And Jesus asked them, “Do you know what I have done to you?”

Jesus knew Judas was about to hand him over. He washed his feet anyway. He gave him bread and said, “This is my body, broken for you.” Because that’s the kind of love Jesus had for him, and the kind of love Jesus has for each of us. No one is beyond the reach of that love. No one is beyond the forgiveness that is ours in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. And nowhere are we more reminded of that love than in remembering that, on this night, Jesus took a bowl and a towel and washed the feet of the twelve, all of whom, in ways large and small, would turn against him over the next several hours.

And Jesus asked them, “Do you know what I have done to you?”

My sister told me about her local Anglican Church in Kigali, the one where she knew all the women and where she took the girls to church, but which also handed over a list of its Tutsi members who were then systematically killed. The Roman Catholic Church did the same with the active assistance of the priest. The complicity of the Church and clergy in the genocide has been well-documented. The betrayal by Judas, the disciples fleeing away from Jesus in his moment of greatest need – this has been repeated over and over again, by individuals, by the Church, by everyone who claims to follow Christ but fails to actually live out the command to love God and love neighbor.

Rwanda has had a miraculous recovery over the past 25 years. Neighbors have reconciled. Perpetrators of genocide and victims live side-by-side. There has not been a renewal of the violence. The economy has prospered, and the parliament has a majority of women – the only such parliament in the world. How is it that the worst that we can do to each other can be turned to good? How is it that out of such massive death, life springs again?

We Christians believe that on this night, self-sacrificing love showed us the way. We may not have gotten the messiah we wanted or expected, but we got the messiah we needed most. Because no matter who we are or what we have done, no matter how small our faith or how unforgiving our hearts, Jesus invites us to be washed and to be fed. And he asks us, “Do you know what I have done to you?”

ASEPSermon for Maundy Thursday, April 18, 2019 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas