Maundy Thursday C2019
by Pastor Sarah Stadler
You might know already: I love foot washing.
Because, through it, we love people. Because, through it, we care for people. Because we show our lack of fear of others when touching their feet. Because, in foot washing, we accept the grimiest part of people and thus accept people—as they are. What keeps on surprising me about foot washing is that those who wash others’ feet don’t mind. We really don’t. We’re happy to kneel at the feet of our friends and community members. We are honored to do so. Not once have I heard or seen anyone laugh at or even comment upon someone else’s feet.
Rather, what I’ve noticed in the years I’ve been washing people’s feet is how uniformly the one whose feet are being washed tries to help the person washing feet. We elevate our feet above bowls of water, stiffly, awkwardly, not knowing what to do. We sometimes fight the person, politely of course, if we get confused about how they are going about the process of washing our feet. It is a rare person who allows the foot-washer to be in control, who relaxes into the foot-washing, who trusts the foot-washer. We sit vulnerably in the chairs at the back of the sanctuary, not sure what will happen.
In the first century, people needed to have their quite dirty feet washed when entering the home of a host. Far from a romanticized ritual performed only in some churches once a year, foot washing was one of those dirty but necessary jobs assigned to the lowest servant of the house. In 2019, we don’t typically employ people to wash our feet, and when we invite our friends over for dinner, we don’t keep a bucket of hot, soapy water at the door so that we may wash their feet voluntarily as part of the experience of hosting a dinner party. Maybe as hosts we would rather not wash people’s feet, but I suspect our guests wouldn’t go for it either. In an age of cleaner feet, it’s not just foot washing we won’t allow others to help us with. Some of us refuse all help, sometimes refusing care from friends or church members or family even at times of need. When people insist on caring for us, maybe when we’re sick, we sometimes politely wrestle with them over what they may or may not do to care for us. You can pray for me but no food.
When I served a congregation in Iowa, I got roped into volunteering as the administrator of this little community organization called Denver Cares that provided meals on holidays, rent and utility assistance, emergency help when people had fires or floods, and a Christmas gift program for families. People in the community contributed financially, and I distributed the monies and organized the programs the best way I could. We always had more than enough. In this small Iowa community, people living in poverty keep their poverty a secret, and I struggled to figure out who needed help. The first time I delivered meals to families on a holiday, I drove through the mobile home park just outside of town knocking on each door. When the person would come to the door, I would ask, after introducing myself, “Would you like a meal from Denver Cares?” One family after another said, “No, thank you.” “No, thank you.” “No, thank you.” After six families refused help, families I knew had trouble paying their rent, I gave up, went home, and pondered my problem. I don’t recall what inspired me, but at some point, I got back in my car and drove through the mobile home park again. When the person opened their door, instead of asking if they wanted a meal, I just held out the packages of food and said: “Happy Thanksgiving from Denver Cares!” And family after family received the meals with joy and loving expressions of gratitude—as well as “Are you really sure? I’m not taking away from someone else?”
Allowing others to care for us, this can be difficult. Even though hosts of first-century dinner parties routinely provided a servant to wash the feet of guests, at this dinner party where Jesus was host, Peter resisted Jesus’ care. “You will never wash my feet!” Peter cried. I’m not sure from where Peter’s resistance emerged—and from where ours stems. Is it believing we are unworthy of care? Is it fear of letting someone else see our imperfections, our dirty house, our ingrown toenail, our unwashed hair after days of sickness? Or are we just sure we can care for ourselves without interference? If it’s the latter, I am reminded of just two Sundays ago how we read of Mary kneeling at Jesus’ feet, anointing them with nard, and drying them with her hair. As Jesus anticipated this night of betrayal, he too appreciated care. When the disciples protested her loving act, he spoke of the beautiful thing done for him. Even Jesus who surely had no need to rely on the care of others allowed and appreciated the care of Mary.
At one of our mid-week Lenten services, Donna read a haiku by Tyler Knott Gregson that I repeat silently to myself at times, hoping to take in its message. He writes:
It’s okay you know
To be carried now and then,
Strength too needs a rest
Across the church tonight, preachers are likely preaching some variation of “serve others and love them,” “imitate Christ’s service.” I know you. I know you already do that. You are a strong and giving people. So, instead, it’s okay you know to be carried now and then. Strength too needs a rest.
On Jesus’ last night among his disciples, he cares for them. He knew what they would go through—the anguish of denial and betrayal, the hopelessness of his crucifixion and death, the fear and amazement of his resurrection, and ultimately, the exciting but terrifying prospect of carrying Jesus’ ministry into the future. They needed a rest. They needed his care. Yes, he calls them—and us—to love one another, but for right now, and now and then, strength too needs a rest.