This sermon was preached by LSTC Seminarian Sharayah Robinson at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square on Maundy Thursday (03/24/2016).
Ok, full disclosure here. I am sort of a modern day Peter. Though, unlike Peter, my issue isn’t with the hierarchal switch in the status quo that Jesus demonstrates here. My issue… is feet. I HATE feet. A terrible incident with a terrible foot years ago has left me with a phobia – which I hate even more because it is absolutely an irrational fear. Logically, I know they’re just feet. Just the hands of your legs…but the idea of looking at random feet, let alone touching them, gives me this queasy-heart-racing-nervous grossed-out terror feeling. I don’t do other people’s feet, and other people don’t touch mine. And for the majority of my life, that’s perfectly fine… until we get to Maundy Thursday and Jesus is telling me not just to acknowledge feet, not to let someone’s sock covered foot touch me while sitting on a couch, but TO WASH THEM. To put MY hands, on THEIR feet. And/or to let them put their hands on mine. And every year I think about it for a whole 2 milliseconds, the grossed out fear feeling rises in my stomach, and I don’t participate. I just sing and ignore and figure out how I’ll serve people and humble myself in a more convenient way. I’ll do other things that are more important than washing someone’s feet. Or letting someone wash mine. I’ll make it up another way. It’ll be fine, as long as it’s also my choice… I’ve got to be humbled for sure, but only in a way that I’m ok with.
I think what’s most ironic about it all, is that my first communion was on Maundy Thursday. The first time I took part in the Eucharist, my feet were washed first by the pastors who helped raise me. And I remember it really well…but I never relived the memories until last year and in preparing for this sermon. I remember getting to church and seeing all of my friends. We were all in very similar giant pink or white dresses. And we were invited up to the front of the church. We each had a chair for ourselves. We removed our shoes. One of my friends accidentally wore tights, so there was this hysterical awkward moment of a 7 year old trying to discretely remove her tights up in front of a whole congregation. It was the best. And then there were some words spoken, but I don’t remember those. Then the pastor who baptized me gave us all a blessing and did a little remembrance of baptism. Then the pastor who is like a second dad to me washed my feet and we all received the body and blood of Christ for the first time.
But for at least decade, I’ve almost suppressed that memory, because it told me something different than what my phobia tells me is true of foot washing. For me and my phobia, foot washing is gross. But in that memory… foot washing was beautiful and reminded me that I was a beloved child of God blessed to be part of this loving community… so that memory had to go. My phobia shut it down.
That was until last year. Last year, though still not participating, was the first year I watched a congregation while the foot washing was happening. Still very carefully avoiding seeing feet, I finally watched people’s faces as their feet were washed. People’s feet were taken and wiped clean by a member they’ve known for years, but spoken to maybe twice. A child volunteered to wash and washed the feet of the 70-year-old woman who took care of him in the nursery for years before. All these people were washing the feet of dear friends, acquaintances, mothers, siblings, strangers… all with the love of God in their hearts. The Spirit got me to pay attention and I saw this new command to love play out. I can say I have rarely felt simultaneously as ashamed and blessed as I did watching their faces. I was reminded that I have been ignoring this command, thinking I could serve and love and be glorified all on my own. It was almost as if I had been looking into a mirror that was suddenly broken in front of me and I could finally see what was on the other side. I was finally able to see out to all these beautiful things God was doing, but I also saw in the remaining shards that I was keeping myself locked up inside. That was a humbling moment for me… and I did not choose it. Something pushed me to pay attention to this act of service and love that still gives me that queasy-fear. I started crying then and there, and was a wreck the rest of the time. My friends were honestly a bit worried about me.
So what happened those years in between this vivid memory in my head of my first foot washing with my first communion and the decade of refusal to participate based on disgust? Well, I think I, along with many others, found a way to turn that moment into what Claudio Carvalhaes, a professor at McCormick Theological Seminary, calls “Jesus’ best practices, Jesus’ cute little gesture, another important moment of Jesus niceness,” which belittled it to some quaint example that I could work around. I took this practice and act of love and wrapped it up in so much of its own context (or the context I wanted it to have) so that I could rework it and find something more appropriate for today. Servants are no longer waiting at the door to wash our feet when we arrive as they were in Jesus’ day, so I didn’t need to actually touch other people’s feet. I could just serve some other way and move on with my life. Because, as Carvalhaes continues, if Jesus’ little act is more than just that, “we can’t take it.” This practice in a service was hard enough for me, but I couldn’t even imagine doing this in real life. And isn’t that what we’re called and empowered to do here?! To humbly serve by washing the feet of those around us? To put ourselves in a situation that disrupts the status quo by kneeling down to the level that others have been pushed in order to lift them up with love? It all just starts with foot washing.
But what do we do instead? Well, I remain at a safe distance. I sing and I think of other ways to serve and don’t engage with my siblings in Christ around me. I deny the gifts that I wholeheartedly know I received during my first foot washing. When I actually look back, I remember feeling loved and embraced and though my seven-year-old self obviously couldn’t put it in these words then, I think I knew I was reminded of the promises of baptism by this community and by God. And then I remember having communion, which was kind of a big deal then but also not. But which over time, became a huge deal because it was a weekly remembrance of Christ’s presence with me. No matter what happened during the week, how terrible I felt, how lost I felt, I got to Communion and was immediately reminded that I was a beloved child of God and Jesus was with me even in all of that fear and loss.
And this is what I am now realizing Maundy Thursday is kind of about too. After this long season of Lent, which we have now finished (way to go!) we are able to confess our loss and our fears and our realities knowing that we will continue to mess up. We can lay all that down and simply know that God has and will continue to wash it all away, despite our past and future messes. We can (try to) stop closing ourselves off from those around us, and telling ourselves, and God, that we know what’s best for us. We have been freed to love and serve and glorify God through the love that we show others. And though we’ll mess up plenty, God will continue to wash it all away, and will continue to be glorified just because we tried. As Jesus did for Peter, who had said the wrong thing plenty times before and whom Jesus knew would deny him in the future, and as he did for Judas whom he knew would betray him, Jesus is simply waiting for us in love to stop claiming “You will never wash my feet” and to simply start paying attention to this mutual love and service – these means of grace we’ve been offered – this new commandment to love… in remembrance of him.