As Many Times as It Takes

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

It isn’t quite foot washing, but it is close.

In 1968, Mr. Francois Clemmons,
who played a black police officer
on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,
filmed a scene with Mr. Fred Rogers,
a white Presbyterian minister.

Mr. Clemmons hadn’t originally wanted the job as the police officer.
He reports that he grew up in the ghetto.
In a neighborhood, where police would sic dog
and water hoses on people.
Yet, Rogers kept asking him to play the part,
so at last he relented.

Clemmons and Rogers are shooting
a scene together in 1968.
It is a hot day
and Rogers is resting his feet
in a small plastic pool.
Rogers splashes his feet around
and when he sees Clemmons,
he says, “Hi, Officer Clemmons.
Would you like to join me?”
“Okay sure,” Clemmons responds.

Clemmons later comments about this experience that:
“The icon Fred Rogers,
not only was showing my brown skin in the tub
with his white skin as two friends,
but as I was getting out of that tub
he was helping me dry my feet.”
Clemmons says, “That scene touched me
in a way that I was not prepared.”

In the scene, Rogers says to him,
“Sometimes just a minute like this,
will really make a difference.”

It isn’t quite foot washing, but it is close.

Clemmons continues,
“I’ll never forget [another] day
I was watching him film a session.
And you know how at the end of the program
he takes his sneakers off, hangs up his sweater, and he says,
‘You make every day a special day just by being you,
and I like you just the way you are.’
I was looking at him when he was saying that,
and he walks over to where I was standing.
And I said, ‘Fred were you talking to me?’
And he said, ‘Yes, I have been talking
to you for years,
but you heard me today.’
“It was like telling me I’m OK as a human being,” Clemmons says
That was one of the most meaningful experiences
I’d ever had.” (1)

I have been thinking about Mr. Roger’s words this week:
“I have been talking to you for years,
but you heard me today.”

I wonder if that is the good news of today, Holy Thursday.
We gather today to remember
the last time that Jesus ate dinner with his friends,
the time that Jesus knelt down and
washed the feet of his students.
This Thursday is often known as Maundy Thursday,
because Maundy means commandment and
Jesus’ last commandment is this:
“Love one another as I have loved you.”

Jesus has been talking to the disciples,
to the people, to the countryside,
to the cities for years.
On the night of Holy Thursday too,
Jesus tells the disciples again
about God’s steadfast love,
even though they won’t get it today
when they will fall sleep repeatedly,
as Jesus asks them to stay awake
while he prays.
Jesus tells them even though
they won’t get it tomorrow,
when they abandon Jesus at the cross.
Yet the good news, the good news
is that Jesus keeps telling them, telling us
until we get it,
until the truth of God’s care for us
seeps deep down into the marrow
of our bones
and changes our very being.

How many times, how many years
does it take for us to hear?

I recently attended a conference called “Why Christian”,
where people came together
and shared why their relationship
with Jesus mattered to them.
This one woman, Amy Cantrell,
told the story of starting a community
for the homeless in Ashville, North Carolina
called BeLoved.
One day a man named James came to the house
and Amy welcomed him in.
He told her that he had traveled across the country
seven times
to avoid being in a relationship.
When he came, he slept a lot and played the guitar.
He told jokes to the other guys.
When he came to worship on Sunday,
he would wear a tie on top, but jeans on the bottom.
He would say: “We might be casual here,
but we have dignity.”
We have dignity.
One day, as James, is headed out the door,
Amy says to him, “I love you man.”
He freezes.
Amy continues on, naming all the ways she loved him.
James then leaves and does not come back.
Amy worries. “Should I have said that?” she wonders.
She doesn’t know if she will see him again.
Two weeks later, he returns.
He finds Amy and says, “I thought about it,
and I love you all too.”
Amy says, in that moment, he found home.

What does Mr. Rogers say?

I have been talking to you for years,
but you heard me today.

God never stops coming to us.
God through Jesus keeps saying to us:
I love you
on the days you don’t get it
and on the days that you do,
on the days when you fall asleep at the job
and when you are awake,
on the days you show up
and on the days you run away
or run across the country.

Jesus comes to us
in foot washing and drying,
in bread and grape juice,
in ancient stories and modern ways.
Jesus comes to you
so that the truth might seep in,
so that you might hear Jesus
as he looks right at you and says
“I love you for the fullness of who you are.”


(1) Full video of Francois Clemmons and Fred Rogers can be found here:

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