The small stuff matters most

A Sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden

ThUrsday, APRIL 18th, 2019 (Maundy Thursday)

The message of today, amid all of the drama of the story of Jesus last days before his crucifixion, and amid all of the ceremony of our services, and the complex layers of theology, is actually a very simple one. It’s all about love.

But, what is love, anyway? Ask yourself every moment of every day, “In the situation I am in right now, what would Jesus do?”

We generally know what the right thing to do is. The problem we usually seem to have isn’t knowing what is the right thing to do, but how to get ourselves actually to do it.

The phrase that encapsulates this evening’s gospel reading is this: ‘servant ministry’. It’s turned into one of those pious phrases that clergy like to throw around, but basically all it means is this: “does everyone around me right now have everything that they need in order to be able to be happy and comfortable, so that they can flourish?”


Mostly it’s not about big, grand gestures but about little, kindly acts. Being hospitable in the most basic of ways, even holding a door open for someone, saying “thank you” to someone, saying a prayer for someone, making a cup of tea and a sandwich for someone. The small stuff.

I hesitate to use this example, but I’m going to anyway. Someone who occupies a high and exalted position within the national church (and who I am not going to name) is forever going on about the importance of people engaging with the Baptismal Covenant and focusing on respecting the dignity of every human being, and grandstanding on big, grand church initiatives which address such and such systemic injustice, but has never replied to any of the emails I have sent to them. I’m not telling you this as a hard-luck story but to make the point that it’s the small stuff that matters the most. Look after the small stuff, and the big stuff will begin to fall into place.


I want to tell you a short story, a story from modern Spain. It’s a simple story, it needs little embellishment. It speaks for itself.

Santiago de Compostela is a cathedral and university city in NW Spain. Its cathedral is reputed to be the resting place of the Apostle St James the Great. It’s been a great center of pilgrimage for over a thousand years, and remains so. To the people of the surrounding towns and villages it is also a great place of pilgrimage on festival days and, for the locals in Padron, around 15 miles away, no day is more important than Holy Thursday, when the Washing of the Feet ceremony was celebrated. The twelve people chosen to have their feet washed came from the surrounding villages and usually the choice was of some local worthy, or minor dignitary.

The Cathedral of St James the Great, Compostela, Spain.

The Cathedral of St James the Great, Compostela, Spain.

In Padron, on this occasion, things didn’t quite work out like that. The parish was without a priest, so when the diocesan representative came the only person to meet him was Maria. She was the church caretaker, cleaner and sacristan all rolled into one. Her face was lined and worn, her hands calloused. She wore traditional black clothes and the local dignitaries and worthies were not in her social circle. The diocesan representative was impatient, he needed to get going, he had an important appointment, and all he wanted from Maria was two names to attend the Foot Washing ceremony. ‘Well, there’s Pedro and his friend Juan’, she said. ‘That’ll do’, he said, and he was off. ‘You’ll hear in due course’.

Padron, Spain

Padron, Spain

The invitation finally arrived, impressively enveloped, with the Bishop’s wax seal, and papal yellow ribbon. Word got around, and Juan and Pedro were quite the local celebrities. They were old men, and old friends, they spent a working life building roads and digging ditches. A lifetime of hard laboring had left their bodies sore and tired. They were widowed and spent their days reminiscing and snoozing in the village square.

As Holy Thursday approached, Maria took it upon herself to make sure their clothes were clean and pressed and that they would get there OK. As the day dawned, they travelled to Santiago in her battered car and, having persuaded some minor bureaucrat that they were expected at the service, they entered the magnificent Gothic cathedral. At last the proceedings commenced. An enormous procession led by the civil authorities, and then the choir, the minor canons, the priests and finally the bishop’s entourage. The bishop was escorted to his throne in the chancel where he could survey the scene – on one hand the high altar with its rich carvings and priceless art treasures, the other way down to twelve grand chairs, each with its own footbath, sponge and pristine white towel.

The service proceeded, the gospel was read – St John, chapter 13. Then as the choir sang the antiphon ‘Ubi caritas et amor’…. God is love, and where true love is, God himself is there’… the 12 local people were escorted to those grand chairs, reading to have their feet washed. Their shoes and socks were removed for them from their right foot and placed for them on a wooden footstool. At the same time, the bishop came down from his throne to a place in the sanctuary where, flanked by acolytes, he was censed and divested of his mass vestments and re-clothed with a white leather apron, vividly contrasted against his purple cassock. With great dignity, the bishop’s procession moved from the high altar down to the chancel, facing the participants. In the symbolic ceremony that then ensued, in the recognition of Jesus’ servant ministry, the bishop washed and then dried each person’s foot. Juan and Pedro were at the end of the line. They waited patiently until their turn came and sat in awe as the bishop first washed and then dried their feet.

The ceremony being over, the bishop and his entourage returned to the sanctuary. He was re-clothed in his mass vestments and at the same time, the participants, one by one, returned to their seats in the nave. The Bishop moved to the high altar, the choir stood waiting to begin as the organist held back from playing the prompting note. A hushed congregation looked up from their kneeling and gazed at the chancel. Maria looked up and saw that, sitting there all alone on his fine carved chair, was Juan. He was desperately trying to put his boot back on his foot. She waited until she could wait no longer before finally she slowly and quietly ascended the stone steps to where Juan was sitting, alone and struggling. Gently easing his foot into the boot, she tied the lace and, lifting his arm she helped him up from the chair and led him down the steps back to his seat in the nave. The noise of Juan’s old hob-nailed boots clattered and echoed on the stone steps as the cathedral looked on.

All I want to say is this: who exercised the real servant ministry that night?

It’s the small stuff that matters the most.

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