April 17, 2014: John 13

April 19, 2014

Maundy Thursday, Year A                                      

            I have always been a little torn about the foot washing portion of the Maundy Thursday liturgy.  There are a couple of different approaches to the service.  The first is to have the clergy wash the feet of any and all who would like to have their feet washed.  This is what was done in my previous parish.  Another method is to have the clergy start the foot washing and then people wash one another’s feet.  Both of these approaches have been used at St. John’s in recent years.  There have also been times when there was no foot washing at all.  I was told by a couple of people that it would be ok with them if we stopped the whole foot washing thing and it would definitely be ok if we skipped the assembly line method in which one person gets their feet washed, and then they wash the feet of the next person, and on and on.  The assembly line was not a popular technique.

            Sticking with the traditional method was fine with me because that was what I was used to and being a good Episcopalian, I will usually defer to what I have already done.  What I was accustomed to- was being the person who washed everyone else’s feet. No one washed my feet and that was perfectly fine with me.  This is not to say that I enjoy washing people’s feet.  I really don’t have strong feelings about it either way.  I am not one of those people who fears feet, it’s just an intimate act and it’s innately uncomfortable for that reason, especially for Episcopalians, “God’s frozen chosen” (as we are commonly called).   Yet there is something that has always concerned me about having the clergy wash everyone’s feet.  It feels like we are making ourselves out to be Jesus and you all the disciples.  While we should all try to emulate Jesus, I do not want to give the impression that I am emulating Jesus better than the rest of you.  We are all his disciples.

            Of course foot washing is not a new-fangled liturgical act we have just started in the last couple of years in an attempt to be all touchy feely.  Foot washing has its origins in the Old Testament.

At the time, it had a very practical purpose.  People wore sandals and the streets were not paved.  Often times the streets were covered with animal feces, so people’s feet were covered with more than just dust.  They were filthy.  Because of this, when you entered someone’s house you would wash your feet before sitting down for dinner.  The job of the host was to provide the water so you could wash your own feet.  If your host had the resources, they would provide a servant to do the washing. 

            It was also a way to show hospitality in a culture where hospitality was considered almost sacred.   One of my favorite examples of foot washing is in Genesis when Abraham is sitting in his tent in the middle of the day.  He sees three strange men approach and he runs to them and bows before them.  He says, “My Lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant.  Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree.”  These three men turned out to be angelic messengers bringing Abraham and Sarah the news that they had been praying for.  Abraham did not know they were angels.  It was his custom to provide hospitality to anyone who turned up at his home.

Foot washing was also used for ceremonial purposes.  The priests would wash their hands and feet before entering the temple as a sign of purity since they were entering a holy space.  It was also a symbol of forgiveness.  In biblical times, people considered the hands and feet as the area of the body that symbolized human activity.  To wash the feet or the hands is to wash away offensive deeds.[1]It was a way to literally cleanse you from your sin.

            In my experience with the liturgy of Maundy Thursday, the focus has always been on the service and humility that Jesus displayed.  Jesus is the Lord and he was willing to stoop at the feet of his disciples and wash their dirty feet.  As we have already heard, this was an act of a servant.  Thus it makes sense to focus on servant hood.   However, I think this action was more than just one of humble service.  Earlier in the passage we hear that Judas had already planned to betray Jesus and Jesus knew this.  We also know that Peter would deny him and Jesus knew this as well.  Yet Jesus felt this was the time to wash the feet of his disciples.  In doing so, he was showing them that he had already forgiven them and that they would need to forgive one another as well. 

            Jesus knew that there would be factions amongst his followers.   While his disciples were faithful people, they made mistakes and they sinned.  If they were not willing and ready to forgive one another and themselves, then they would never spread the message of Jesus Christ.  The community would never survive.  That is why he was so insistent that follow his example.   He would not be there to keep peace and love in their fellowship.  They had to be ready to forgive one another. 

            Foot washing could mean any number of things.  It could be a person showing hospitality to an angel in disguise.  It could be a way to prepare ourselves to enter into a holy space or a holy time.  It might be an act of forgiveness or repentance.  Or it could be a display of humility or vulnerability.   Maybe it is all of these things.  Let it be what you need it to be tonight, or preferably what God needs for you tonight.

Part of the purpose of this is for us all to be a little uncomfortable and vulnerable.  One of the things that makes me really uncomfortable is not having control over the flow of the service.  I like to know what is going to happen so I can make sure things run smoothly.  I’m going to lead by example and let go a little tonight because I want you all to do what God is calling you to do.  Maybe you want Charlie or me to wash your feet.  Then we will do that.  Maybe you would like to wash someone else’s feet.  Then you can do that.  Charlie and I will start (because I have to control something).  We will be available to wash people’s feet or have our feet washed.  Then we will see where the spirit moves us. I need your help in this service.  Try to open your heart to the movement of the spirit.  What is it that your soul longs for on this holy evening? Before we continue, we will take a couple minutes just to be still, to be silent, so that you can hear God speak to you.  What is God calling you to on this evening: hospitality, repentance, forgiveness, humility, service, vulnerability or perhaps something known only to you?  What does your soul thirst for?  Whatever it is, I hope you will find it in these waters.

[1]Saint Louis University Liturgy, John Pilch   http://liturgy.slu.edu/HolyThursdayA041714/theword_cultural.html