A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on April 13, 2017 (Maundy Thursday)
If I had to title my sermons, and I’m always so thankful this is not a practice in the Episcopal Church, this one would be called, “God loves us, warts and all. No, literally.” Because when it comes to Maundy Thursday, the focus is so often on our feet. And that’s not necessarily something we’re comfortable with. Yet God does indeed love us warts, callouses, blisters, corns, hang nails, and all.
That’s what Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet at the Last Supper reminds us of in a very tangible way. Now, it would be easy enough to just leave the act of foot washing in the realm of the theoretical or the spiritual. After all, this story is really about love, not clean feet. But tonight we are actually going to wash one another’s feet. Why? Because Jesus is pretty clear when he says, “just as I have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”
I realize this isn’t a natural act. Taking off your shoes in a public place other than the beach or a pool can make us supremely uncomfortable. It breaks all our cultural norms and notions of social decorum. And there’s a vulnerability inherent in submitting to such an intimate act with someone you may hardly even know.
But we’re not alone in this discomfort. The foot washing that took place on the night before Jesus’ crucifixion also violated societal norms and pushed against the disciples’ very notion of propriety. Though for slightly different reasons. It was customary for feet to be washed when entering someone’s home. Wearing sandals and living in a hot, sweaty, sandy climate made this a practical gesture of hospitality. So it wasn’t that the disciples were shy about the act of having their feet washed. Rather, their discomfort stemmed from who was washing their feet. This was something done by a servant, not a master. And in their teacher-student relationship with Jesus, one who had been further identified as their “lord,” they should have been the ones washing Jesus’ feet, not the other way around. And so the gesture was seen as wildly unconventional and even offensive.
There’s a reason Peter so strongly resists when Jesus bends to wash his feet. He’s shocked and perhaps even embarrassed for the one he’s identified as the “anointed one of God.” It’s beneath the dignity of so lofty a figure. Peter cries out, ‘You will never wash my feet!” But Jesus encourages him saying, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” And Peter consents.
This very much reminds me of the encounter with John the Baptist when Jesus shows up at the Jordan River and asks John to baptize him. John basically says, “What are you nuts? You’ve come here to be baptized by me, but you’re the one who should be baptizing me!” But Jesus encourages him saying that it is proper in order to “fulfill all righteousness.” And John consents.
And so from the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry we see him overturning conventional wisdom and flipping cultural norms. And in both cases he uses water — the most basic element on the planet, a symbol of purity and new life — to make his broader point.
Jesus often does things that push against our natural inclinations. Love tends to bring us into such places. And for us, that’s what the foot washing represents. Following Jesus is not always comfortable. And this evening we encounter that face-to-face.
In a few moments we will invite you to come forward and have your feet washed and then stay and wash the feet of the next person in line. Some of you will choose to stay safely in your pews, with your laces doubled-knotted. And I understand that. No one is compelled to participate. It personally took me years of attending Maundy Thursday services before I mustered the courage to take off my shoes and join in. I still remember walking down the cold, stone floor at my home parish in Baltimore feeling quite awkward and out of place. But finally doing so unlocked such trust and evoked a letting go of control that served me well throughout a moving Holy Week experience. And I do wish for you the same this evening and throughout the next few days. Even if, or especially if, it takes you way out of your comfort zone.
So, will you do as Jesus commanded and allow your feet to be washed? Will you embody Jesus’ call to love one another as he loved us and wash another’s feet? That’s the invitation of this night.
And while foot washing may be optional, remember that in the Christian faith, love is not optional. Jesus gives us a new commandment to love one another as he himself loved us. A commandment to love, not a suggestion to love. And there’s a difference. The very word “commandment” is so identified with the Law of Moses, the 10 Commandments. How audacious, then, for Jesus to present a new commandment.
But the foot washing, the institution of the eucharist, the entire Last Supper is all about lovingly doing this “in remembrance of me.” It is rooted in love. May this night be an entrance into the ever-unfolding drama of God’s love for you — warts and all.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck