A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on April 17, 2003.
Based on John 13:1-15 (Maundy Thursday, Year B).
No one likes dirty feet. And whether the Maundy Thursday foot washing is always an integral part of your Holy Week experience or whether the mere thought sends shivers down your spine, we can all agree that no one particularly likes dirty feet. And even more to the point, no one likes someone else’s dirty feet.
The disciples who gathered with Jesus in the Upper Room for what would be their last supper together didn’t like dirty feet either. Even in a culture where it wasn’t as unusual to have another wash your feet, this certainly wasn’t high on anyone’s priority list that night. And Jesus’ silent movement towards the disciples with towel, basin and water pitcher in hand must have drawn some strange glances. What was going on here? The only people washing feet were the lowest of the lowest classes. Not the one they knew to be the anointed one of God, the Messiah, Jesus the Christ. But there he was, approaching them as the lowest of servants.
As much as we might not like dirty feet, or even relatively clean feet for that matter, it’s often easier to think about washing someone else’s feet than having our own feet washed. Being served by another can be uncomfortable. I remember the first time I went up to have my feet washed during a Maundy Thursday service. It was probably ten years ago or so but I’d been avoiding it for years. I wanted to have my feet washed, at least in theory. I wanted to experience what the disciples felt that night in the Upper Room. I wanted to be drawn closer to Jesus through the experience. But my own comfort level kept me from it. Each year I’d get closer but shied away at the last moment. I had all sorts of good excuses built up. It just seemed un-church like somehow. I couldn’t imagine taking my shoes off in church; it didn’t exactly fit in with the notion of wearing your Sunday best to church – even if it was a Thursday. What if I had a hole in my sock? What if my feet smelled? What if they were sweaty or too cold? Maybe this command to love one another as Christ loved us, with its visible expression through foot washing, wasn’t really a literal commandment. Maybe it was only meant for the more demonstrative Christians. Couldn’t I experience this spiritually rather than physically? It’s so public. Maybe it’s just not meant for the shy or the introverted or the self-conscious. I don’t remember doing this when I was a kid. What about all the people who don’t even come to church on Maundy Thursday? At least I’m here.
But then one year I ran out of excuses. So slowly, against my better judgment, I removed my shoes. Then my socks. Then I found myself walking toward the foot washing station. I don’t remember much about the whole experience except that the floor was cold. As I walked down the main aisle the stone slabs cooled my feet in an eerie sort of way. I felt closer to that church and to Christ than I ever had. And I later realized that our deepest points of relationship with Jesus take us out of our comfort zones. We recognize that there is something greater than ourselves at work in the world.
Having your feet washed is not comfortable. But then, the cross is not comfortable. The Christian life of discipleship is not comfortable. If we respond to Christ’s call with authenticity, we’re often transported to places we’d rather not go: spiritually, emotionally, and physically. But we’re not drawn to these places arbitrarily or ruthlessly but deliberately and out of love. Christ washes the disciples’ feet not to keep them guessing about his motives but to show them that accepting love can be uncomfortable.
I’m not insisting that we all must have our feet washed to fully experience the love of Christ. Some of you may well choose to experience this for the first time tonight. Others will have their feet washed as they have for many years. Some will consider it and either shy away or decide that this is not the year. Others will never see this act as a helpful way to be drawn toward Christ. But what ultimately matters is that we always remain open for the love of Christ to draw us outside of our zones of comfort. It is in these moments that Jesus so often touches us in new ways. The disciples in that Upper Room experienced just this. They learned that sacrificial love breaks down the barriers of comfort. And they would soon learn that sacrificial love in its most profound form is even more uncomfortable: for it is to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2003