A sermon preached by the Rev. Dianne Andrews at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA, March 24, 2016.
This is the last night that Jesus will be with his disciples. This is the night when Jesus up-ends, once again, our understanding of about just about everything by showing us what it means to serve and to care for one another as God would have us do… in right relationship with one another. And this means everyone. This is the night in which Jesus will bless, break and give himself to us at the table instructing us to remember to return, to come back together to be with one another, to share the holy meal that he instituted on this night… and when we do… Jesus promises to be present with us.
Tonight night we will follow Jesus’ instruction and mandate as we participate in an intimate gesture of washing. Touch is powerful. Water is cleansing. We wash those who cannot wash themselves… we wash our babies, we wash the sick and the dying. In many cultures, and sometimes in our own culture, family members perform the sacramental act of washing the the bodies of loved ones who have crossed over the mortal threshold.
In Jesus’ day sandals were a common form of footwear. When a guest arrived at a house it was the custom for the host to supply a bowl and water so that the guest could wash his own dusty feet, or the host would have the slave with the lowest status in the household wash the guest’s feet. Even if a guest arrived with shoes or boots on, even if their feet were clean, the service of foot washing may well have been offered as a gesture of hospitality.
Through the centuries the symbolic act of foot washing on Maundy Thursday would be carried out by Popes who would step into Jesus’ role by washing the feet of twelve men. In 2013 the newly elected Pope Francis shook the patriarchal foundations of the Roman Church on Maundy Thursday. One article reported that the Pope: “stunned traditionalists by washing the feet of the wrong people.” Who were these “wrong people?” On that night the Pope washed the feet of prisoners, a Muslim from Libya, and a man from Cape Verde. But…“What really chapped the backsides of the keepers of the ecclesiastical keys” said a Huffington Post article, “was the fact that Pope Francis washed the feet of two teenage girls.”1 Earlier today the Pope washed the feet of twelve Muslim refugees.
One of the most beautiful acts of foot washing that I have heard in recent times was at the first Community Resource Exchange for the homeless in Seattle. It was a large gathering at one of the large sports fields. Services of all kinds were brought in and made available to those who have the hardest time receiving healthcare and other assistance. There were doctors and dentists. There were social workers to help connect folks to social services in the community. There were gifts of food and fresh clean socks…. And there was a podiatrist and a station for washing feet that tended by deacons in our diocese. One of the organizers of the event was Carter Hawley who was in the process of being ordained a vocational deacon in our diocese. It was clear to Carter that the service of foot washing would not only be utilitarian, it would be a witness of faithful discipleship following the example that Jesus showed us on the night before he died. The act is tender, caring and compassionate. It is also an act of radical acceptance that “levels” all manner of socioeconomic and other differences. Such caring helps to us recognize the depths of our common humanity in shared vulnerability. This is the power of Jesus “Mandate” to follow his example. Yes, dirt and grime are involved. The great gift is the experience of receiving… and of feeling refreshed, renewed, and deeply cared for. The other great gift is offering this caring to another.
During the first Community Resource Exchange event Bishop Nedi Rivera joined with Carter and other volunteers to wash the feet of about 200 people. It was memorable in that there were not enough chairs and washing stations, there was confusion, horrible ventilation, and they ran out of hot water. Bishop Nedi arrived late, and breathless, and was directed to wash the feet of a gentleman who had been waiting for a time. As she gently washed his feet it was apparent that a quiet conversation was occurring between them that resulted in the shedding of tender tears. Their meeting was about much more than soap and water.
Deacon Carter continues her ministry in the Diocese of Oregon. As an indelible mark of her ministry and calling Carter has literally had “John 13:14” tattooed on her own foot as shorthand for the verse in which Jesus says, “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”
It is so easy to take some of life’s most basic comforts for granted. For too many among us decent food is not close at hand. For the homeless…safe warm shelter and basic facilities are not “a given.” We are mandated to care our needy sisters and brothers in the provision of such basics… but more than that, we are also called to meet one another, eye to eye, soul to soul, and to incarnate the love that Jesus showed us in service and witness of caring touch.
Pope Francis witnessed his Christian faith, as head of the Roman Catholic Church, by washing the feet of the “wrong people.” And that is what we are to do in our acts of servanthood, go to the edges in our servanthood and caring. That is what Jesus has been teaching us all along.
Along with great thanksgiving for the faithfulness in our midst… I cannot help but be inspired, also, by the fact that a deacon among us would have the shorthand characters
…on her own foot…
“So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’ s feet.”
1 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/derek-penwell/pope-francis-and-the-beautiful-iconoclasm-of-washing- the-wrong-feet_b_3055325.html
Exodus 12:1-4 (5-10) 11-14
Psalm 116:1, 10-17
1 Corinthians 11:23-36
John 13:1-17, 31b-35