Can we be honest this morning about something very serious? Feet are dirty and they often stink.
Now, I realize that this is not true of all feet (certainly none of the fine feet assembled here!); and moreover, I’m not talking abject filth and infection. I’m just saying that as a general rule, our feet do tend to get dirtier, and shall we say, more odiferous than the rest of us! And we know this to be true, as evidenced by the fact that my mere mention of it from the pulpit has immediately made us all feel very self-conscious!
But while such a statement might possibly apply to us today, it held even more truth in Biblical times! Back then people either wore sandals or went barefoot; the streets, if you could even call them that, were made of mud and dirt; you shared pathways not only with everyone else in town, but also their animals, so there was no telling what you were going to step in. By the end of the day, an average pair of feet was heavily caked in dust and mud and who knows what else; and so it was customary outside of every house for there to be set a pitcher and basin of water, and generally, there’d be a servant to wash the feet of those coming inside for a meal.
This was a matter of both cleanliness and faith: a devout Jew would no more eat a meal with dirty feet than you and I would sit down to supper with dirt on our hands from working in the garden. Moreover it was considered an act of great hospitality to wash the feet of guests as they came into your home; the only problem with this, however, was that washing muddy feet, while a necessary chore, was also considered to be both a dirty and demeaning one. That’s why only the lowest slave of a household would be assigned such a duty, which tells you just how nasty and repulsive a task it was!
Which is what makes it so remarkable that on the night of betrayal and desertion that we know as Maundy Thursday, during supper Jesus “got up from the table, took off his outer robe… tied a towel around himself… poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet.” Now, on the face of it, it was just a simple act of caring and hospitality, something any devout Jew would have done; but in truth, it was also an act unimaginable, even downright scandalous: for here was their master and teacher, this one who “had come from God,” all stooped over, towel in hand, doing the work of merely a common servant, but that of the lowest kind of servant!
In fact, the sight of it was such a shock to Peter that at first he refused to even let Jesus wash his feet. Peter knew the custom, you see; but he also knew that it wasn’t right that the Lord take on such a humiliating task. But when he said so to Jesus, Jesus was persistent about it, saying to Peter that “unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” (Or as The Message puts it, “you can’t be part of what I’m doing.”) So, Peter went along (in fact, as was typical of Peter, he went on to ask if Jesus ought to wash his whole body); and one by one Jesus carefully and lovingly washed the feet of each of his disciples: even Judas, who had already been “prompted [in this heart] to betray Jesus.”
And when he was done, when he’d wrung out the towels, poured the now muddy water out of the basin and gotten dressed, Jesus returned to the table and asked his question: “Do you know what I have done to you?” Or, as it’s translated elsewhere, “Do you understand what I have done for you?”
The truth is that right then, the disciples didn’t know; they didn’t understand, not at all; any more than they’d understand, later on that night when Jesus was arrested, why he’d go with his captors willingly; or why when he was put on trial, mocked, beaten, and condemned to death, he was as silent “as a sheep before her shearers.” Jesus always seemed to make these deliberate choices that took everything they’d thought they’d understood about the Messiah and turned it upside down and inside out; and this time was no exception.
What Jesus was doing was trying to teach them just one more lesson about the Kingdom of God; this was, in fact, a “hands on” parable made manifest in and through their “last supper” together. Do you understand what I’ve done here? Don’t you see? That you call me your “teacher” and “Lord,” and yet I still washed your feet? You see what that means? And here it is, Jesus says: because I’ve washed your feet, “you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”
Turns out that what’s happening here has less to do with the actual washing of dirty feet than it does about how willing Jesus was to do that for those he loves; in the process asking how willing you and I are to do the same thing. It’s another example of Jesus’ willingness to be a servant, which is the true measure of greatness in God’s kingdom. When Jesus asks, do we understand what he’s doing, he’s asking if we know what we’re to be doing as his disciples.
It is a good question, isn’t it; once again cutting to the heart of what you and I perceive true Christian discipleship to be, and how that fits into the reality of our daily lives. After all, it’s one thing for us 21st century believers to say that as Christians, we are the servants of all; it’s quite another to actually adopt the stance of a servant as Jesus did washing the feet of the disciples. The hard truth is that we’re much better at being served than we are at serving; easier to express heartfelt sentiments of concern and caring than to take the risk to put ourselves in the middle of someone else’s pain for the sake of helping them through it; easier for us to keep our hands clean than to get “down and dirty,” so to speak, in the effort to do what Christ would have us do for one another in love. All too often, you see, it’s been that “easier” stance that has kept us from truly being the Christians – and the Church – we’re meant to be!
And the worst part of this kind of a stance is that people get hurt – and stay hurt – in the process! We like to think of ourselves in the church as being good and caring people – and I would agree with that assessment – but in all honesty, friends, I’ve heard so many stories over the years as a pastor from people who sought out the church in a time of great need, some who regarded the church as their place of last hope; people who came wanting and needing love and acceptance, but never received anything of the sort. In fact, tragically, sometimes their experience yields just the opposite; there’s judgment, rejection, and perhaps worst of all, the kind of humiliation that comes with being ignored – and so they leave the church and they never come back. And more often than not, it’s not because of something someone said or did; it’s in what they didn’t do.
Now to be fair, sometimes there’s more to the story than what we know, and yes, we all make mistakes and fall short of the glory of God. But I hear these stories, and I always wonder: what difference would it have made if when these people had first come to the church in that moment of need, they’d been greeted by a servant’s voice; encountered a servant’s heart; and received a servant’s effort?
What Jesus would have us remember is that the first voice someone hears at a crucial moment, the first face they see in a time of loneliness, the first hand they reach out to might well be yours or mine – so the question is, what example (or more to the point, whose example) are you and I going to follow?
You see, there are always feet that need washing. Susanna Metz says this beautifully; she writes that “many feet walk into our lives and into our church every day – old feet, young feet, feet of different races, poor feet, children’s feet, feet of the needy, feet of the arrogant, feet of the annoying, feet of those we love and feet of those we fear, feet of those who are like us and feet of those who aren’t just like us.” And admittedly, there are feet that we’d rather not touch at all; but, Metz goes on to say, “if we have, through our baptism, promised to live a godly life, to live by Jesus’ teachings, to respect the dignity of all God’s creatures, then we must be willing, literally or figuratively, to wash everyone’s feet, no matter what… to show that same hospitality, that same acceptance, to everyone, no matter what.”
Yes, it can be inconvenient and even uncomfortable. But here’s the thing; when we’re willing to have that servant’s heart and stoop down with unconditional love, there’s where God’s kingdom will be found.
Several years back, I actually had the opportunity of seeing this particular biblical story get told in reverse. One year at the church I was serving, the children of the Sunday School decided to put on their own version of a “Passion Play,” in which each class acted out a part of the Good Friday and Easter story. It was kind of an interactive, “progressive” production in which people went from classroom to classroom to hear the whole story as told by the children, with special activities in each room that went along with the story.
Our 4th grade class had been given the task of telling how Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, and as you might have guessed, they were going to demonstrate this by washing the feet of the adults who had come to see their part of the play. Great idea; the only problem was that the adults were apparently just as uncomfortable with having their feet washed as the disciples were, and nobody – and I mean, nobody – would take their shoes and socks off to get their feet washed!
The whole thing was destined for complete disaster – until Joe stepped up to the wash basin. Now, I say this to you with all love in my heart, but to be blunt, Joe was the last person in the church that anybody would have expected to do something like this. Joe was, to say the very least, “difficult,” never had a good word to say about anything or anyone (including the pastor!), and forgive me for saying so, basically he was a “grumpy, crotchety old man,” minus the charm!
Frankly, none of us could figure out what this guy was even doing at this little kids’ Easter pageant; but all of a sudden in the midst of all this awkwardness, here’s old Joe, throwing shoes and socks off and plopping himself down so the children can wash his feet and properly tell this story of Jesus; and as he does it, he’s got this big old grin on his face like maybe this was the best thing he could ever do for those kids – and you know what? It was. Where nobody else in the room was willing to take the risk to be uncomfortable and awkward for the sake of the children’s learning of the gospel story, grumpy, nasty old Joe jumped right in with a servant’s heart, not to mention a pair of dirty servant feet!
I ask you, friends, how would it be for the church, for the kingdom, and for the cause of Jesus Christ if you and I had that same willingness to jump in to life’s needs and concerns with a servant’s heart? One thing is for certain: we would be blessed; and we would be a blessing in ways that we can’t even begin to imagine.
“Do you understand what I have done for you?” Even now Jesus is asking. And… will you follow my example?
I hope and pray that we will.
Thanks be to God!
Amen and AMEN.
c. 2013 Rev. Michael w. Lowry