Texts: Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14 • Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19 • 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 • John 13:1-17, 31b-35
My feet are nothing special, as someone here is bound to notice tonight. My toenails are not well maintained, I’ve got dry heels with little cracks in them, and there’s just enough fur on the knuckles of each toe to make you wonder if I have a little hobbit in me. But I’m not self-conscious about my feet. Most of you have observed by now that as soon as the weather warms up, which it seems may not happen until June this year, I am the first to don flip-flops, and they stay on my feet until late September because I hate shoes.
I do recall bouts of stinky footedness back in junior high and high school. I don’t know if it was the result of some changing body chemistry, or if I was just negligent in keeping my shoes well aired out after sweating in them, but I definitely went through a stinky foot phase.
Foot funk stinks for the same reason breath sometimes stinks. Something is dead and decomposing. With foot funk it’s usually dead skin between your toes and under your toenails, exacerbated by the activity of bacteria that thrive in warm, moist places like socks. With breath it’s food particles stuck between your teeth being eaten away by your saliva. But the root of the issue is dead, decaying material. It stinks, and we don’t want it near us.
There’s a pretty limited period of time in one’s life that people will universally find your feet beautiful, and that ends not much later than your fifth birthday. We’ve had an outbreak of infants here in the last seven months, Rebecca Abbo and Emmett Byrley, Emily Vignaroli and Campbell Kelter. Something as simple as a foot, on a baby, becomes a miracle of perfection. Babies, we understand, are about the furthest thing from death we can imagine – and even their feet are free of the stink of decaying things. But, for the rest of your life, it’s a small group of people – for the most part – who will adore your feet. Podiatrists and lovers, mothers and masseuses. That’s about it.
Tonight we mark the beginning of our transition from Lent into Easter. Like the natural process of dying, or being born – neither of which take place quickly – this transition is not instantaneous. For instance, while we are still within the forty days of Lent, with tonight’s worship we move out of the penitential season of Lent and into the Triduum, what is often called the Three Days, beginning at sundown tonight and lasting through sundown on Easter Sunday.
Each of the three days has a different purpose in moving us towards the mystery and the miracle of the resurrection. Tonight we see the teaching ministry of Jesus distilled into three distinct acts:
First, the forgiveness of sin. Throughout his ministry Jesus saw the suffering of humanity embodied in broken bodies and broken relationships. Jesus tended to both, and for this he was condemned by religious folk who considered his healings and his proclamation of forgiveness a blasphemy, an act against God. They could not see them for what they were, acts of God, because they could not imagine how wide the circle of God’s mercy and love truly is.
Second, the act of service. Jesus kneels to wash the feet of his disciples and in doing so he takes on what was the work of slaves. It was outrageous that he, the teacher, should stoop to wash the feet of his followers. But hadn’t he been saying this all along, “the last will be first and the first will be last,” or “whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me?”
Jesus understood that a system which tolerated the privileging of some people over others would always mean the pitting of one against the other, and could not lead to God’s order, where strangers know one another as family. So Jesus does here what Jesus does over and over, by coming to us as a servant and calling us to serve one another.
Third, the sharing of a meal. Defying all convention, Jesus does not eat only with insiders – other Jews, other men. Jesus shares meals with Gentiles and women, tax collectors and prostitutes. Those who oppress us, and those whom we oppress. Jesus shared the basic necessities of life – food and drink – with everyone, regardless of racial, political or gender identity, and asked that we do the same.
Living his life in this way meant confronting the powers that be with the truth of their sinfulness. It meant exposing each of us for the ways that we fall short of the life God wants for us: that we would welcome strangers into our communities, that we would become like family for those without families. No one likes being confronted with their failures, and the messenger who brings this kind of news can expect harsh treatment. For his work among us Jesus was rewarded with death, and as he shared dinner with his friends that evening, the smell of death drew close.
When Jesus approaches Peter, to wash his feet, Peter’s reply is, “You will never wash my feet!” I know that’s exactly how some of you are feeling about tonight’s footwashing service and it’s entirely understandable. Peter responds to Jesus as he does because he cannot tolerate the idea of being served by his master. Even among equals, as we are, it is difficult for many of us to allow ourselves to be served. There is pride in being one who serves, whether it’s a wonderful dinner or a duty to family, friends or nation that is carried out, we take pride in being able to do for others. But for those who take pride in serving, how difficult it can often be to allow yourselves to be served!
For others it is an issue of image – the thought that feet bent by age, toes touched by fungus, are embarrassing. This is only exaggerated in a culture that expects beauty at all times and at all costs.
And for others it is an issue of intimacy. Our feet are tender and sensitive to touch, easily injured. Being bare foot before others can feel dangerous. We would prefer to keep layers of wool and leather and polish between ourselves and the world.
I recall as a child that one of the most shaming things another kid could taunt you with was an accusation of dirtiness. To be called “dirty” or “stinky” was deeply humiliating, and often connected to insults about poverty or race or gender. In the church we often hear the language of dirt as a metaphor for sin. We are told that God washes away the stain of our sinfulness in the waters of baptism. That we are made clean again.
But dirt, if we read Genesis right, is also what we’re made of. It’s what we will someday return to – as we were reminded on Ash Wednesday, “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
So here’s the paradox. We all know how good it feels to take a long, hot shower or to dig in for a day of spring cleaning, as we did here at St. Luke’s last Saturday. But none of us wants to be called dirty. We are incredibly generous and loving when it comes to bathing babies and parents, but we are pained at the thought of someone bathing us. We are happy enough to clean for others, but we recoil at
the idea of someone seeing our messy homes or our messy lives.
You hear it on Peter’s lips, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” He is confused by this reversal of roles, then humbled, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head.” With Peter, and with many of us, it’s all or nothing. He’s either going to refuse to have his feet washed, or demand his whole body. But Jesus will not allow Simon Peter to escape in either direction.
Jesus does not allow Peter to disappear into the constant posture of service – instead Jesus creates a situation where Peter must receive the service that God would give him. He must acknowledge his dirty feet, and allow them to be cleaned.
But neither does Jesus let Peter disappear into a sense of worthlessness. He says, “the one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean.” Jesus does not ask Peter to see himself as worthless, metaphorically or truly filthy, just that he needs to be bathed.
We struggle with this. We struggle with acknowledging that we have dirty feet, that we live in dusty homes and messy lives. We would like people to always see us with our shoes and socks on. Neatly wrapped and presented to the world. But in our interior lives we are most often painfully aware of our shortcomings. We can feel like miserable failures, hopeless cases, lost causes.
We are neither. We are creatures of earth, living in earthy bodies and inspired with the breath of God. We are human, which is also to say that we are not perfect, we make messes but we are not our messes. We are dirt, but we are not our dirtiness.
I hope that you will find it in yourselves to practice letting go of those concerns, if only for a few moments tonight. Whatever fears might assert themselves as you imagine removing your socks and shoes and allowing someone here to serve you, to see you, to touch you, or to wash you – imagine those fears as the very things that Christ has come to relieve you of.
It is with eyes of love that God looks at you. When Jesus knelt at Peter’s feet to wash them, it was Peter who was affronted by the impropriety of the situation. But to Jesus, who sees with God’s eyes, it was a chance to wash the feet of a loved one – not unlike the feeling you might have touching the feet of an infant.
We are children of God and, like any loving parent, God simply wants to do the humble service that parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and babysitters and brothers and sisters consider a joy, consider an honor: God wants to give us a bath. God looks at us the way we might choose to look at our church, at our homes, at our lives, at our feet – as things redeemable. Holy things, holy people. Gifts from God to the whole world.
Our feet – stinky with decay, wrinkled with age, ugly from infection, bruised by labor, signs of our march toward death – our feet are not scary to the one who has bound us up into a new body, a body of life, a body we entered into through baptismal waters. God, who is not afraid to draw close to the decaying portions of our world, sees our feet and loves them and we are called to do the same for one another.
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34)