“Our Foot Washing Lord” John 13:1-15
Burr Ridge UCC, Burr Ridge IL and
Lyonsville Congregational UCC, Indian Head Park IL
Rev. Sean Weston
At the church I grew up in in Kansas, the confirmation class is in charge of the Maundy Thursday services. I have a distinct memory of the year that the class decided to include foot-washing as part of the service. We made it abundantly clear that that, no, you didn’t have to participate if you didn’t feel comfortable. And almost nobody did, except the students’ parents, doing their duty. I imagine if I used this time to invite you all to come up here there would be a similar reaction.
“You will never wash my feet,” said Peter to Jesus. Jesus responded saying “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” If Peter wanted to stay with Jesus, he had to allow his feet to be washed. I know I would respond the same way as Peter – I don’t want anybody touching my stinky feet, and certainly not Jesus Christ my Lord. After all, not only are feet easily dirty, they are also fairly intimate. How many people do you allow to touch your feet? In Jesus’ day, only gentiles and women were supposed to wash others’ feet. Peter must have thought Jesus was a terrible lord. Lords aren’t supposed to do that kind of stuff, but this Jesus fellow is a different kind of Lord: “You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am. So if, I your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”
I think that part of us doesn’t want a foot-washing Lord! We want a Lord who will take control of this world’s mess, and usher in a world of justice and prosperity and going around washing people’s feet is not the way to do that. Come on. And I don’t know about you but I don’t really want this Lord to tell me that I need to do the same thing. But we are here tonight to remember that our Lord took conventional wisdom and flipped it on its head – and for it he got the death penalty at the hands of those the rest of the world called Lord.
Last time I preached on Maundy Thursday was seven years ago. I was a college student and I was at a place in life where I was very angry with church. After all, let’s be real, how often do we really live up to Jesus’ command to be foot-washing people? How often do we share Jesus’ love with the world that way? I was asked to preach for Maundy Thursday, and I took it as a golden opportunity to take the church to task for all of its shortcomings and failures. Since people are fairly used to preachers telling them about all their mistakes, people were polite and kind to me and then went home. It turns out my sermon didn’t fix everything.
It is true that we in church land have a lot of issues to work on. There are many people who if you asked them what church meant probably wouldn’t say anything about servant leadership that turns the world upside down or anything about love. You might hear about how the church is judgmental, hypocritical, and anti-gay, or you might hear that the idea of God is a ridiculous concept that teaches people to accept injustice. There is a problem: Jesus’ disciples are supposed to be identified by love. And we’re so often not.
But one thing I’ve learned since that angry Maundy Thursday seven years ago is that preaching is not magic. I can though all sorts of shoulds and oughts at you today and you might even agree but that is not actually the same thing as us growing closer to God and acting more like Jesus. My guess is that you already have plenty of shoulds and oughts in your life. My guess is that each of our churches could easily produce long lists of changes we’d like to see.
If so, we’re in good company. In today’s gospel story, Jesus’ disciple Peter was also a bit of a mess. He didn’t get what Jesus was doing, he didn’t like it, and this is just one of many examples in the Bible of Peter not really getting things right. And this is the same Peter who Jesus said was the rock upon which his church would be built. Jesus knew all of Peter’s shortcomings and still looked at him and said “you’re the one who will make this thing happen.” The church is filled with human beings like Peter who have a tendency to mess things up.
But to focus on all of our mess-ups and mistakes is to miss the point, because this story isn’t about Peter, and it’s not about us. It’s about Jesus, and the kind of Lord this Jesus is. Jesus knew already that Peter messed things up a lot, and still Jesus washed Peter’s feet. Jesus knew already that Judas would betray him, sending him to his death, and still Jesus washed Judas’s feet. Jesus looks at each of us, with our divided hearts and silly schemes and stinky feet and he puts a towel on, kneels before us, and asks for the honor of washing our feet. Jesus wants to wash our feet, no matter who we are or what we’ve done, no matter what shame we carry, no matter how arrogant we can be, no matter how much mess there is or how quickly it returns. How amazing is that, that God wants nothing more than to be with us, to help us and to heal us, that God wants to serve us?
With Peter, we may object to this. We may not want Jesus to see our feet, to gaze upon our divided hearts and silly schemes and raw failures. We may not be ready for that kind of intimacy with God. Peter wasn’t, but when he objected Jesus said “unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” I don’t think Jesus said this as a threat as much as a statement of truth: the only way to truly draw close to Jesus is to allow him to wash our feet, to offer him ourselves just as we are and allow him to wash the mess away, over and over again. Jesus is here tonight, right now. He is in us and around us and he invites us to draw near, just as we are, right here, right now: by sitting with him, letting him see our feet, and letting him love us with that amazing grace that makes us and all things new. I believe that if we want to be more like Jesus, we must truly allow him to be with us. All of us. Even our feet.
Thanks be to God, and amen.