I Hate Feet – a homily

The sound system stopped recording about half way through tonight’s sermon, perhaps it is where I should have stopped.  But you can read the whole thing below.

I hate feet.  They are gross.  They are dirty.  They are sweaty.  They are stinky.  I hate feet.  Every Maundy Thursday, I spend most of the day giving thanks to God that by the time Acts 2 rolls around, the disciples had decided that the central act of Christian worship would be based on bread and wine rather than water and feet. Note that I said I spend most of the day giving thanks for that.  For about an hour, starting at six o’clock every Maundy Thursday, I am profoundly thankful for the example that Jesus set for those who would come after him by washing the feet of his disciples.

It is the Last Supper, one of the five most famous meals that Jesus ate during his lifetime.  Safely situated in an upper room, Jesus and his closest friends are gathered for an emotionally charged evening.  It’s been an interesting week, to say the least.  They arrived in Jerusalem on Sunday afternoon, with Jesus riding a donkey and people shouting “Hosanna!  God save us!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, the King of Israel!”  After a brief but ominous stop at the Temple, they returned to Bethany for a good night’s sleep.  On Monday, they saw Jesus lose his mind, curse a fig tree, and flip the tables of the money changers right there in the Temple court.  Tuesday brought an endless barrage of nuanced socio-religio-political arguments between Jesus and the Scribes, Chief Priests, and Elders.  And just yesterday, Mary, the sister of Lazarus, poured thirty-thousand-dollars’ worth of ointment on Jesus and washed him with her hair.

Now it is Thursday, the Day of Preparation for the high feast of the Passover.  Imagine the table conversation in this supercharged environment.  The disciples can hardly contain themselves.   The excitement for what they think is going to happen next is overwhelming.  Tomorrow is the Passover, the annual remembrance of God’s gift of salvation, the night the Hebrews were set free from Egyptian bondage and returned to favored status as God’s Chosen People.  Tomorrow will be a big day, they can feel it in their bones as they eat, drink, and make merry.

Without warning, Jesus gets up from the table, takes off his dress coat and begins to wash their feet.  This is not the behavior of the Savior of Israel.  The Messiah shouldn’t wash people’s feet, their soon to be Roman slaves should.  Peter, true to his nature, is appalled and will have none of it.  “You would wash my feet!?!” he asks.  Jesus tries to calm him down, but Peter balks all the more, “You’ll never wash my feet!”  And then Jesus says something very interesting, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”  This act of love by Jesus is so important that he won’t allow anyone who wants to have a part in his Kingdom to miss out.  This is what Jesus’ life and ministry has all been about: washing his friends’ feet.  Still seemingly missing the point, Peter relents, but for Judas, this was still not the behavior of the Savior of Israel.  It was just too much for him as he takes off into the darkness, but he doesn’t get away before Jesus had washed even his feet.

Clearly, the dinner conversation changed after that.  In fact, after Jesus sits back down to supper, John has him doing 99% of the talking for the next four-and-a-half chapters.  Before he predicts Peter’s denial or promises the Holy Spirit; before he prays for his disciples, Jesus gives them a new commandment, “that you love one another.”  The Latin is [Man-datum novum d’oh vobis ut dili-gatis in-vichem si-cut di-lexi vos][1]

from which we get the name for this day, Maundy Thursday.  Jesus’ mandate, his commandment to his disciples and all who would follow him, is that we have love for one another, and there is no better example of how we should love then the profoundly counter-cultural act of washing each other’s feet.

I detest feet.  Feet are gross.  Every year, Keith reminds me that the ceremony of foot washing is very much an optional part of the Special Liturgy for Maundy Thursday.  Some Episcopal Churches have taken on a new-fangled practice of washing each other’s hands.  Others won’t do foot, hand, or any sort of washing.  If you ask me, you’d be better off doing nothing than washing hands precisely because feet are disgusting.  For me, it just wouldn’t be Maundy Thursday without foot washing.  Jesus’ true act of love isn’t sharing a meal with his disciples; he did that all the time.  The sign and symbol of his deep and abiding love was washing the feet of Judas who would betray him to death, Peter who would that very night deny him three times, and the rest of the rag-tag group who would fall asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane, abandon him at his arrest, watch from afar as he died on a cross, and lock themselves in this same upper room out of fear and heartbreak.

We have a chance to model that deep love of Christ, to live into his Mandate, when we set aside all our pride, all our dignity and stoop down to wash the feet of one who we might only know in passing.  When we serve one another, we serve God, and tonight, as we wash each other’s feet, we are both Christ doing the washing and Christ being washed.

I abhor feet, and if the history of this service is any indicator, many of you do as well, but it is my sincere hope that every single person here this evening will come forward to have their feet washed and to wash the feet of another.  It is the outward and visible sign of Christ’s love for us and of his Mandatum novum that we love one another.  After all, how will they know we are disciples of Jesus unless we love, care for, and serve one another?  Even if it means touching each other’s feet.

 

[1] “Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos”

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