Holy Thursday 2008
Peter was probably thinking..."It almost seems like this might be our last Passover. We’ve gathered in a secret place, and it’s not clear why. Our feet are filthy-dusty as we talk, as we’re cutting up and just enjoying being together. It’s been a gloomy week...we needed to celebrate. Suddenly we piped-down...could’ve heard a feather hit the floor".
Not many things can silence a room full of rambunctious fishermen. Jesus takes off His robe and puts on a towel. He fills a basin and begins to wash their feet. Peter was the reluctant first, the others seemed speechless and even became easily incensed, taking their lead from protesting Peter. They’d gathered to celebrate their identity as the free people of God, and the supposed Savior was doing what would have been disgraceful even for a slave! What was Peter’s objection really about? Peter asked Him what He was doing. Jesus told him that he would later understand. But, Peter still says, "No way"! He had spent three years of his life with this man, given up everything to follow. But...if refusing meant refusing Him, clearly he’d missed something, so, he got on board with the Master’s desire.
As the rough hands of the carpenter cradled the rougher feet of this fisherman, Peter was struck with the tenderness of this act. Feet are very basic things, right? They’re just there! But, as Jesus’ fingers moved between toes to wash, Peter was devastated by the intimacy. But...he did begin to understand. On that night in a little room in Jerusalem, just before the mayhem, this is ‘love us to the end’ meant. Jesus was dedicated to them. There were no lengths to which He would not go to love, heal, and set people free. A lowly sacrifice reveals the heart of God.
Foot-washing makes people more uncomfortable than pretty much anything else we do in our church. I remember well when that ritual became part of the liturgy for Holy Thursday. As the young associate pastor, I remember calling 50 or 60 people in order to get twelve people to participate in the washing of feet. For tonight’s service, Deacon Jack called less than a dozen parishioners to surface twelve. The tide has turned. There’s a new understanding of what the Lord was doing. Everything else we do in church is so neat and tidy...baptisms, confirmations, funerals, marriages, ordinations, Eucharist. No other ritual requires us to get quite as vulnerable as foot washing. Foot washing used to make people so uncomfortable that the priest had to make sure those he asked didn’t feel badly for expressing reluctance. Therein lies the rationale for Peter’s objection. I thank those who serve us tonight for their willingness. People have told me in the past how personally moving the gesture is for them.
Feet...as a foot washer, I know why people think twice. Some friends of mine came to visit me Palm Sunday weekend. One of them had just had surgery on her foot. She was telling me about the pins, the pain, the slow healing...the mess. She asked me if I wanted to inspect the surgical results. Now, I’ve seen just about anything you can imagine between parish ministry and police work. "No thank you very much", I said.
But, I’m talking about regular reasons familiar to us all, reasons that make us think twice about baring feet to another...that they may feel their feet are not presentable, that they might smell or look ugly, or because we don’t feel comfortable touching another person’s foot. I had a friend once who wrote H I D O N on his toenails to make me break-up...not very nice, not a good understanding of what is going on at that moment, but, a demonstrable example of personal awkwardness.
Let’s face it, feet are not the prettiest things we’ve got on our bodies. Feet are weird-looking, little stubby toes sometimes with not so pretty nails. And, they get dirty and smelly really easily, because they’re so close to the ground. For sure, the feet Jesus washed on this day nearly 2000 years ago weren’t all fresh and rosey from the pedicurist. Those feet had been tromping around the dusty ancient near east for several days in sandals, with none of the benefits of stockings or SKIN-SO-SOFT. To have to wash feet like that is a nasty job. And to let someone wash your nasty feet is too intimate, too self-revealing.
Yes, let’s face the facts. All God’s children have nasty, dirty, smelly feet. We all have things in our lives that we feel uncomfortable about, things we try to hide, things we’d rather not talk about. They’re just too embarrassing to mention. Nasty, dirty, smelly, stinkin defects. None of us are that anxious to deal with anyone else’s embarrassment. Often (usually), we don’t want to confront people who are in real need or in real pain because it’s just as uncomfortable for us as we imagine it to be for them. Instinctively, we don’t want to handle anyone’s nasty, dirty, smelly feet.
We often don’t want our friends to reveal the hidden pain in their lives any more than they want to tell us about it. I wonder if that might be the surprise when a volunteer at Holy Thursday Mass feels a sense of ‘honor’ and privilege, that someone would WANT TO welcome whatever is presented! None of us want to find ourselves eye-to-eye with the poor, or needy, or ostracized, any more than they want to admit that they need help. We don’t want to see anyone’s dirty, nasty, feet, and we certainly don’t want to have to show anybody ours.
This is the major dilemma that we face tonight before we get to the Cross of Jesus Christ. This is in the quandary of partnering with God in the healing of the world. It’s uncomfortable, it’s painfully intimate. Confronting evil, pain, illness, and suffering is a dirty, nasty, stinky job. That’s why Jesus sets this example of foot-washing for His disciples and now for us. The washing of feet is Jesus’ example of love in action. The new commandment that Jesus gives the disciples that night...that you love one another as I have loved you, is lived out in Jesus’ willingness to wash feet, His willingness to serve rather than be served. That’s what love looks like. Love looks like foot-washing. Love looks like the willingness to share the burdens of others. Love looks like the willingness to be vulnerable. Love looks like dealing with people as they really are, instead of whom they pretend to be or who we wish they were. Love looks like being real.
In my college years I visited a place called "Merton’s Heart", in Up-state New York. I was (still am) a ‘devotee’ of Trappist monk Thomas Merton. "Merton’s Heart" is where he sat and wrote "Seven Story Mountain". This quote is so poignant about being real: "Sooner or later we must distinguish between what we are not and what we are. We must accept the fact that we are not what we would like to be. We must cast off our false, exterior selves like the cheap and showy garment that it is. We must find our real self, in all its elemental poverty but also in its very great and very simple dignity: created to be a child of God, and capable of loving with something of God’s own sincerity and unselfishness".
I hope that each of us can choose tonight, to find out and accept who we really are, stinky feet and all. Eucharist is about committing TODAY, to stop pretending and start getting real. I pray that you and I can become real by allowing ourselves, whether we are the giver or receiver of love, to willingly become vulnerable. Sometimes it hurts...but, hurt has the uncanny outcome of revealing infinite worth and dignity. Foot-washing should be regarded as a "Sacrament". Partnered with Eucharist, a cohort with the Lord’s Ordained Ministry of Deacon and Priest, that’s what Eucharist means. He loves our dirty, nasty, stinky feet and all other defects.
May we remember tonight that you and I are called to have the same kind of love for every human being. He told us that this should be the pattern for our lives. This foot-washing, this raising up of the cross, this coming out of the tomb, is HOW He welcomes our sin, failings and idiosyncrasies. That’s who He is, and what He calls us to be. This is the story about learning who we are.