Friday, March 21, 2008
Maundy Thursday Sermon
"Why wash feet?"
Why wash feet? It’s a fair question, especially since, in a little while, we are going to wash feet right here at (XXXX) Church, and not in the fellowship hall either, but right here during this worship service. But why? And if I detect a look of worry flitting across your face right now, please be assured that this is totally voluntary. Nobody will be forced to come forward and take off their shoes and expose their feet if they don’t want to. There, now you can relax again, and we can think seriously about the question: why wash feet?
For the past few years we have been washing feet as a part of a dinner we have had before this service on Thursday evening. Every year Pastor W. and I call around to people to see if they will come and have their feet washed. And every year it is not so easy to persuade 2 or 3 people to let their feet be washed. People have a lot of feelings about their feet, it seems, and not all of them are positive. So every year, while I am calling people and asking them politely, if I may wash their feet, I’m also thinking: "Why wash feet? Why are we doing this?" It’s hard to persuade people to let me do it. It’s embarrassing for some people. It’s inconvenient. And frankly, it might seem a little strange, because it’s so uncommon. There are two things that we remember on this Maundy Thursday: One of them is the Lord’s Supper. "Do this in remembrance of me," Jesus commanded, and we do it every week. The other one is foot-washing. We do it once a year, if that. So: why wash feet?
It was a common, everyday occurrence in Jesus’ time. In those days, if you can imagine, feet got pretty tired and dirty and achy every day from walking around. And it was considered common courtesy for a host to provide water and perhaps a servant, even, for guests to wash their feet before a meal. Not so today. When was the last time you visited friends for dinner and were treated at the door with a bucket of soap and water, and invited to take your shoes and socks off? There are other signs of hospitality and service for us. There are other things we do to make our guests feel welcome, and at home. That’s probably one reason not to do it. Our feet don’t get so tired and dirty every day as they used to. It’s not necessary in the same way as it used to be. And yet..... Jesus said to his disciples, gathered around, that we ought to wash one another’s feet. "If I , your lord and teacher, have washed your feet," he told us, " then you also ought to wash one another’s feet." Do you know that there are some Christians groups who consider foot-washing right up there with holy communion? The Seventh-Day Adventists who meet here wash each other’s feet. Men wash men’s feet and women wash women’s feet, but they do it: because Jesus said so.
Why wash feet? Why have our feet washed? Perhaps the only way to answer that question is to do it, to practice it, and see what we learn. So now, we would like to invite the children who are here to come forward, and Pastor Wegener and I will wash your feet.
(After foot washing, Part II)
So.... why wash feet? And why have our feet washed? What do you think, now that we have washed feet, now that the children have let us wash their feet? One thing I notice whenever I wash feet (that is, once a year) is that I have to bend over. And, especially now that I am older, that means that my back hurts, or my knees hurt, or my shoulders hurt, a little. That might seem like a small thing to notice, but I think that’s part of why we wash feet, and it is part of the meaning of being a servant. Being a servant means bending over, stooping down, going out of our way, standing all day. Being a servant means sometimes an aching back, or feet, or knees, or hands. There is no way to be a servant without some pain, sometimes. And we are called to be a community of servants, a community that bends down for each other, that stands up for each other, that walks with each other. Sometimes we will have aching backs and necks and knees, because the work of a servant is not easy, or glamorous. It’s like being a waitress at a diner, or the cashier who works a twelve hour shift, or the person who scrubs floors for a living. I was always taught that scrubbing floors with a mop was for wimps. If you want to do it right, you have to get down on your hands and knees and really scrub. That’s the only way to get the floors really clean. And I was proudly telling this one day to a shut-in, an older woman friend of mine, and she replied, "Yes, but you might find that eventually you will need a new set of knees."
In other words, the work of a servant is hard, and painful, and might even wear us out. That’s what Jesus asks when he commands us to be a servant, to wash one another’s feet. But that’s not all he asks. He not only commands us to wash feet, but to let our feet be washed. And I’m not always sure which is harder. It’s hard, and humbling to wash feet, to be a servant. But I think it’s equally hard, and sometimes even harder, to let our feet be washed. We can make the excuse that it’s because it’s so strange and uncommon: and of course that’s part of it. But I don’t think that tells the whole story. I think that it is also humbling to let our feet be washed.
For some people it is the simple act of taking off our shoes and socks, and showing our feet, exposing something we don’t want anyone else to see. For others it might feel too much like being a child again, not being an adult. We want to do things ourselves, not to let someone else do it for us. We would much rather be the giver than the receiver. I remember a friend from work long ago (I have mentioned this before) who saw a bag of clothes in the back seat of my car and asked about them. When I said they were for the needy, she said, "Oh Diane! Show them to me! I’m the needy!" How many of us would cheerfully call ourselves "needy" as she did? I think one of the reasons it’s hard for us to have our feet washed is that we are used to being the givers. It’s hard to us to admit that "we’re the needy", hard for us to take a hand-out, hard for us to admit that we might need a new set of knees, even.
I remember once in college, in the community I was part of, once a member came to us and said he would like to gather a group together and wash everybody’s feet. He came to us in humility, and we agreed, and so a circle of us had our feet washed. And I remember thinking all the time, "I do NOT want him to wash my feet. I do NOT want him to wash my feet." I felt a little like Peter, I think, repulsed by his Lord’s action. And I think a little of my feeling was the thought of being served instead of serving, of being a child and not an adult, of feeling needy and not wanting to have needs.
And yet, our Lord whom we serve, and in whom we live, is in the business of making all things new. He is in the business of filling our empty hands with good things, of healing those who are sick, of making dry bones live. Our Lord, whom we serve stoops down to serve us, and knows our sins, our griefs, our aching feet, no matter how we try to hide. Our Lord stoops down this evening, to give us new knees, a new heart, and new lives, and says to us: "If I, your lord and teacher, have washed your feet, so you ought to wash each other’s feet." "Love one another," he says, "as I have loved you."
As he has loved us, and bent down to the cross, for us.