(We have a few technical difficulties with the mics last night, so just ignore the rough start of the video. I started this sermon from the chancel.) Sermon Text: John 13:1-17, 31b-35
You probably notice that I am barefoot right now… You are most likely wondering why. You might think I am breaking some kind of dress code for worship or forgetting how I am supposed to act in church. You might be afraid that there is a footwashing ritual awaiting you… And there is a reason that you are most likely uncomfortable…because it is shockingly vulnerable to bare our feet in public. They are a part of our body that is not pretty and we would prefer to keep them hidden. And prepare to feel even more uncomfortable, because I am going to invite you to take off your shoes and socks for the remainder of this sermon or of this service, if you feel comfortable doing so. Tonight is the start of the three Holy Days. This is Maundy Thursday where we have Jesus meeting us where we are, out of pure love and service, despite our dirty feet. So take off your shoes.
This story of footwashing is unique to John’s Gospel, but it was not a unique practice in first century Jerusalem. In a time where travel by foot was the norm, it was customary for hosts to offer a chance to wash up before a meal began. The feet of guests would have been dusty and dirty from many hours of walking, and it was an act of hospitality on the part of the host to provide this opportunity to be clean prior to eating. But it was not the host who did the footwashing, it was the job of some forgettable person without a name, who would do the hard and dirty work and then fade into the background. That Jesus would kneel down with a basin and a towel and wash the feet of the disciples was bizarre. It was shocking. It was offensive.
I imagine the disciples looking at one another, their eyes meeting over Jesus’ head, eyebrows raised slightly. Sitting in the sort of awkward silence that happens when it is clear that someone is breaking a well-established social norm. Perhaps exchanging glances about who should break the tension. Finally it is Simon Peter, who asks Jesus, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answers, “You do not know what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter protests. Jesus insists. And Peter, perhaps thinking that this is an opportunity to improve his hygiene after a long and busy week at work in Jerusalem, asks for Jesus to wash his hands and head also. But Jesus corrects him and says this footwashing is not about being clean. It is an act of service.
It would have been shocking enough that Jesus himself kneels down on the floor, ties a towel around his waist, and physically washes the filthy feet of the disciples. After all, this is the man who just days before triumphantly rode into Jerusalem amid shouts of “Hosanna!” and “Make way for the King!” He has taken the posture of a servant, he is literally getting his hands dirty. It’s a nice model for how to be of service to others and is certainly an important consideration for those who would be leaders. But there is something else going on here.
The writer of John’s Gospel inserts an editorial comment into this account of Maundy Thursday, writing, “The devil had already put into the heart of Judas to betray him. And during supper, Jesus, knowing that the father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, removed his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet.” (John 13:2-5a) Jesus knew that he would be betrayed by one in this close circle of friends, that is Judas Iscariot, yet he knelt down and washed the feet of the man who would betray him and turn him over to those who would kill him.
If this is not an act of pure love, I am not sure what is. Perhaps because I have a finely honed sense of self-preservation, or a general intolerance for being in the presence of those who want to hurt me, if it was up to me I would have thrown Judas right out of that upper room then and there. But Jesus saw Judas for who he was, the man who would be forever known as the betrayer, and loved him anyway. He saw how dirty his feet were, and knelt before this man, the one who would betray him, and washed his feet.
And friends…this is good news. Because while we would prefer to see ourselves as the rest of the disciples who enjoy a last meal with Jesus and have their feet washed, and manage not to turn Jesus over to the authorities for 30 pieces of silver, we have some Judas in us too. How often do we put our own needs before those of another?...How often do we betray Christ by refusing to love someone who is different than us? But Jesus sees us in the midst of all our brokenness and despite our dirty feet. Jesus meets us in love right where we are, not after we have managed to become holier or cleaner or a better version of ourselves.
I asked you to take off your shoes tonight so that you might experience a little bit of what it means to feel vulnerable and seen and loved in the community of Christ’s body. Many of you have asked throughout this year about the moment when I felt called to ministry. It was on a perfectly ordinary day eight years ago at the homeless shelter where I was working. A woman who frequently came to the shelter had told us that she had relapsed after many months of trying to stay sober and stop using cocaine. This was also a perfectly ordinary thing to happen in this shelter. But then this woman said, “Please help me” and collapsed onto the dirty floor. While one of my coworkers called for an ambulance, I sat on the floor with this woman, holding her hand and stroking her tangled hair and hot forehead. And I told her that it was going to be okay, although I had no idea how this would be true. But I only knew that Jesus shows up in the most impossible situations and loves those who are most unlovable. And I didn’t see this woman as a homeless drug-addicted sex worker, but as a child of God, and that my only command was to love as I have first been loved. This was ministry and this was the place to where I am called.
But this sort of loving of one’s neighbor is really, really hard, and more often than not I do not manage to show this sort of love. I avert my eyes from those holding signs on street corners or keep walking when someone asks me for spare change. None of us manage to exemplify this sort of love all the time and on our own, which is why we continually need to be reminded that we are loved so deeply by Christ despite our dirty feet. Our feet that are dirty from walking past those who are in need. Our feet that are dirty from being in a hurry to have our own desires fulfilled. Our feet that are dirty from running away from our identity as beloved children of God.
Hear this, people of God…we are loved and we are fed by Christ so that we might love one another as we have first been loved. We hear each week before we commune together, “The Table is ready. All who hunger and thirst for God’s love are welcome here.” Tonight as you make your way forward to receive communion, I hope that you will continue to be barefoot and know that you are seen, that you are loved, and in turn, realize that you are freed to love one another. Amen.