Many years ago, I visited a zoo where there were two otters in an otter habitat. They had a pool full of toys and on the ground around the pool were tunnels and hills and logs for them to play on. Otters are very playful creatures, as you probably know.
A few minutes after I arrived, a handler came with a big bucket of peanuts, and she stood just inside the habitat tossing them to the two otters.
One of the otters would catch a peanut, roll it around a little bit, and then crack it open and eat it. Then he would look up to the handler, catch another, maybe juggle it, and eat it. Then he would take a break and go for a little swim, or a roll over the log, and then came back for another peanut or two or three. Just doing what otters do.
The other otter, though, responded differently. He caught a peanut and held it between his front paws. Then he caught another and another and swept them together to start a pile.
The handler tried throwing a peanut several feet to the otter’s side; the otter herded all of his peanuts over those several feet and pulled the new peanut into the pile. He didn’t stop to eat any of them.
Pretty soon he had an impressive stash of peanuts, but he was so anxious about them, dragging everything this way and that to gather a new peanut while at the same time hanging on to all those peanuts he already had, keeping them in their pile between his front paws.
The first otter clearly understood that the handler was going to feed him, was going to take care of him. He knew she would come every day. So he could play and eat peanuts as they came and be joyful and happy go lucky. Doing what otters do.
The second otter apparently did not operate under this assumption. He seemed to worry that he would not have enough, that he had to hoard what was given him, that he couldn’t stop to play or enjoy his food. I wondered what on earth had happened to that otter to make it act in such an un-otter-like way. He just didn’t seem to believe that he would be taken care of despite the pool and the toys and the regularly scheduled feeding times, the handler who always came to bring peanuts. He wasn’t able to do what otters do. My heart went out to him.
I have never forgotten the scene. It showed me how warped God’s creatures can become, how alienated from their (our?) nature, when they (we?) do not feel safe and trusting.
Tonight we are here to remember what Jesus said and did on the night before he was betrayed. We see him at supper with his friends, a group of people who had trouble understanding him and who often failed him, breaking bread and pouring wine, saying that this meal represents
his giving of himself to them, and asking them - and us - to continue this sacred sharing.
And we see how after supper he washed their feet, an unheard of, unthinkable action for a teacher to take. He washed Peter’s feet,even though he knew that Peter was going to deny and abandon him while Jesus was dragging his cross to Golgotha. He washed Judas’ feet, even though he knew that Judas was going to betray him to the authorities who would kill him the very next day.
How could he do that?
I’ve always been drawn to this line in the story, which I think helps explain: Jesus, knowing that he had come from God and was going to God, got up and washed his disciples’ feet.
Jesus knew that he had come from God and was going to God. And that knowledge made him free and gave him the power to do the unthinkable, to take huge risks, to do what he believed he had been sent by God to do. Because he trusted that he was wholly God’s. He trusted God’s promise to raise him up. And that trust was what Jesus was grounded in all of his days.
I often have difficulty believing that as it was true for Jesus, so it is true for me. (Oh, but he's JESUS! And I’m not. I’m not good enough.)And yet, we, too, have come from God and will return to God and so we are safe, and saved, and free! are free to risk loving and serving not only our friends but strangers. We are free from self-doubt and anxiety about our salvation and don’t have to spend all of our energy grasping at it as if it were our only possession, like that poor otter.
Remember? God has pursued us through every sort of barrier because God loves us. Salvation is ours if we want and will receive it. God did not come down from heaven to live among us, to show us how lavish God’s love is, only to pull the rug out from under us. We don’t have to be anxious about that.
Jesus came to earth to show us God, and Jesus loved lepers and beggars and social outcasts. Jesus showed God’s extravagant generosity through making hundreds of gallons of wine from plain water and acres of life-giving bread from a few measly loaves. Jesus was so full of God’s life-giving love that Lazarus could not stay dead in his presence. God loves us and God’s love is never used up. We don’t have to hoard it for ourselves.
Jesus poured himself out for us and asks us to pour ourselves out for others, but that doesn’t mean we come up empty. Instead, if we dare to try it, we come up full, sustained by the love that names us as God’s own beloved ones. That love makes us free to give and give and give. With God, there is always enough and more than enough.
And so, trusting in God’s overwhelming generosity and promise to always be with us, to sustain us with the holy meal we are about to receive, perhaps we might feel free to follow Jesus, who on this night, after he showed them how to do the daring and the unthinkable, said: "I give you a new commandment: love one another just as I have loved you. The world will see and know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another."
Jesus asks us to show God to the world through our actions that are the fruits of this unquenchable love. He was able to love so freely because he was secure in the knowledge that he came from God and would return to God.
And so in that knowledge we also are free to be what we were meant to be and do what we are made for: to love.