Sermon - 20 March 2008

Notes for a sermon for the Church of the Annunciation, Oradell, New Jersey, on Maundy Thursday, 20 March 2008, by the Reverend J. Barrington Bates, Rector.

Jesus says, "For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you." In the gospels, he says this clearly and directly about a number of things - and in tonight's lesson he says it about foot-washing.

You see, in Jesus' time, washing feed was a job for servants. People didn't shower every day, as most of us do now. Oh, they bathed - sure. But they also walked around in a hot and dusty climate wearing sandals. Their feet got dusty and dirty, even when the rest of them remained relatively clean. And when they arrived at someone's house or gathered for a dinner party, it was the custom for the servants to wash their feet - to remove all that grime and grit so they could enjoy each other's company, and not be distracted by warts and bunions and bits of sand between their toes.

The servants would wash their feet. And Jesus takes the place of a servant, demonstrating that the Son of Humanity came not to be served but to serve. Traditionally, the foot-washing is seen as a reversal of the normal hierarchy, the Lord of lords serves the lowliest, even the one who will betray him.

Yet is all seems rather far away to us. In Manhattan, we walk at lot - but we don't walk from here to Brooklyn, and in Jesus' time people did walk from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, or even farther. And mostly we don't wear sandals, and our climate is not nearly so hot and dusty. And that's just the beginning.

Foot-washing is a rather strange event in early-twenty-first-century America, isn't it? We don't experience this as normal. Foot-washing is just not part of the pattern of our life any more. We don't much need it anyway: if our feet are dirty, it's more likely because of the perspiration resulting from their imprisonment in our shoes than the dust of the road. And we don't see the action of foot-washing as much of a sign of servanthood, because we don't much have servants. In fact, I want to reveal to you that foot-washing makes me, personally, a bit squeamish I'm really uncomfortable with the idea of having someone touch my feet, or me touching someone else's. I'm not even sure that I'm comfortable letting people see my feet; oh, on the beach, sure - but in church?

Foot-washing may just have evolved over two centuries since Jesus walked the dusty road to Jerusalem, a road that has long since been paved over. Once a sign of servanthood, foot-washing may have become, instead, for us a sign of intimacy. It made Peter uncomfortable to have his Lord wash his feet - for Peter saw his role as serving Jesus, not to be served by him. And it also makes us uncomfortable to have just about anyone wash our feet, or to expose our feet in public, or to touch anyone else's foot.

But foot-washing, this is different, right? Someone might see our bunions, or that we haven't clipped our toenails this week. Or someone's smelly foot might make us gag. Or we might have our foot washed by someone with whom we have a disagreement. If we participate in the foot-washing, we don't now exactly how things will work out - and this can terrify us.

And, for me, that's exactly the point. Foot-washing may not be about servanthood to us, but it is about giving up control. Foot-washing may not be about comfort and necessity to us, but it is about letting go of our fears. Foot-washing may not be a part of normal behavior to us, but is about obeying Jesus' commandment.

When I think about the number of things that we do that are later accretions, things added to the Christian tradition over the years - things like processions, dressing up in special clothing, using Sterling-silver dishes - things that (for the most part) I very much appreciate - when I think of these things, I wonder why we are so reluctant to take part in the foot-washing. Because (you know what?) Jesus himself did it.

There's absolutely no evidence that the poor carpenter ever wore a chasuble, or drank from a chalice bedecked with a jewel. And the only procession that we can tell he ever participated in was the triumphal entry into Jerusalem - the journey that led directly to his betrayal and death. He never once followed a cross, singing a hymn.

The one procession of Jesus we commemorate each Palm Sunday, but just what are we doing the rest of the year when we parade in and out of the church? Certainly (as lovely as it is) nothing that Jesus taught us.

But foot-washing - that's something he not only told us about, but also showed us. He told us to follow his example, and gave Peter that most stinging rebuke, "Unless I wash you, you have no share with me."

It's all very unsettling to me: Jesus' clear command, and our somewhat idiosyncratic tradition, role reversal and role confusion, servanthood and intimacy. And the only suggestions I can offer to make any sense of this are these: First, we do it because Jesus said to do it: "You ought to wash one another's feet."

Second, it's probably not going to hurt. The water is clean, the company is loving, and the setting is sacred. If this is the risk of intimacy, it's about as safe as human intimacy ever gets.

And, third, by taking part in this, we participate in a graphic and powerful symbol of what it is to seek and serve Christ in every human being. We don't know who will come before us, or who will follow. We look into the eyes of that person - be it stranger, enemy, or friend - we look deeply into their eyes and we can see the face of Christ. Maybe it's not Andrew Foster washing your feet, but Jesus. Perhaps the foot you smell is not that of your friend in the choir, but that of Christ. It is just possible that the person whose feet you wash - the one whom you serve - the one with whom you let down your guard and share this amazing intimacy - is none other than the incarnate God. - Amen.

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