Back in 1979, I had the enormous blessing and privilege of going on a study abroad program during my junior year in high school. I lived for a year in Rennes, France, staying with a French family and going to a French school. It was a life changing experience that really opened me up to the world.
1979 was longer ago than I care to contemplate. There was no internet then, no smart phones, no texting — even long distance phone calls were rare. Given the time and place, we couldn’t go home for the holidays. So when I finally came home and landed at JFK in June, my parents had not seen me for ten months. Maybe some of you remember what JFK was like back then: if you were picking up a passenger from an international flight, there was a window back then, but you could only see the lower legs of the people waiting to go through immigration and customs. My mother told me later that she knew I had arrived because she recognized my shoes immediately.
Now that may sound odd — how did she know my shoes? But when you consider that we were only allowed to take one large suitcase for the entire year, and that I probably only had two pairs of shoes with me — it’s actually no wonder that my mother recognized them. But — her ability to spot them also speaks to another interesting thing. Shoes are, because of their hardworking function, an especially intimate thing. Our shoes protect our feet — one of the parts of our bodies that is most vulnerable. They keep us safe as we interact with all kinds of things on the ground thousands of times a day. And because shoes take such hard wear, carrying our weight with every pounding step, they conform to our feet in very individual ways — and parents know their kids feet.
Recognizing all of these things about shoes, it was no surprise to me that on March 13th of this year, an art installation of 7000 pairs of shoes appeared on the lawn in front of the Capitol building. Each of those 7000 pairs of shoes was there to represent a young person. But these young people were not returning home from a year away. Instead, each of them was killed by gun violence in the US. 7000 children killed in the six years since Sandy Hook in 2012.
These shoes on the lawn were part of the broader national conversation we are currently having about gun control. They are part of a continuing thread of voices speaking out against senseless violence — a thread that includes the Black Lives Matter movement, Sandy Hook Promise, the Brady Campaign, and most recently, March for Our Lives. Many of you participated in the march against gun violence last Saturday here in NY. It was wonderful to see how many people, young and old, showed up in Washington and all over the country and the world. All of this activity shows that it is possible to change a conversation that has remained intractable for far too long. The 7000 pairs of shoes spoke powerfully to the humanity and uniqueness of each of the lives cut short since 2012. They were shocking to witness — not only because of their number, but also because they were so personal, so specific, so vulnerable, just as the feet of those children were vulnerable. Placing them near the Capitol was a way to challenge our law-makers to reexamine a stance of complacency that says we cannot change how things are in this country.
The disciples experienced just that kind of shock when Jesus washed their feet.
He stopped them cold, knocking them out of their established way of thinking, “This is how things are.”
Washing someone’s feet was about as lowly an act as one could do in the Ancient Near East. Feet were considered the dirtiest part of the body. Jesus took off his own outer robe before he began because he knew this would be a messy job. By washing their feet, Jesus became their servant in the most blatant way possible.
How do we know it was shocking? Just listen to what Peter said when Jesus approached him with the basin.
“You will never wash my feet.”
This was not at all what disciples expected from teachers. Teachers were revered in those times. Surely they should be serving him. Why was he doing such a confusing thing? In response, Peter immediately tries to negotiate — to control how things will happen. He tries to place limits on what he will experience, and by doing so, he tries to place limits on the action of God in the world. Peter wants to set boundaries on just how much he will allow God in. Doesn’t that sound familiar to all of us? Isn’t that something we’ve all done many times in our lives?
Jesus’ loving action was radical. By washing their feet, he upended all of the disciples’ convictions of how the social order should work. He also overturned any of their remaining assumptions about the nature of this new kingdom of God. This would not be a time of military triumph and defeat of the Roman Empire. Jesus knew how quickly violence engenders yet more violence. He knew that such a choice would lead to senseless waste. He knew that if they fought back with violence, all that would be left would be 7000 more pairs of shoes and the broken hearts of the families who lost their children.
Would any of us have allowed Jesus to wash our feet? Wouldn’t we have been just as shocked as Peter?
Part of the discomfort this story causes us is that Jesus is not only asking us to serve, but also to allow ourselves to be served – to be vulnerable – out in the open, in public. We often think of servanthood in only one direction — of us being called by Jesus to serve others. But it’s also important to remember that allowing ourselves to be served is part of the equation too. Because when we look at it from that perspective, we recognize that we are being served, somehow, by someone every single moment of every single day. Every one of us is vulnerable in some way. And sharing that vulnerability is the way God’s Love can crack us open to make us whole.
Episcopal priest Martin Smith says it this way in his book A Season For the Spirit:
The secret of being a burden-bearer in Christ must lie in the word “exchange.” We must bear one another’s burdens and we will not be able to do that if we hang on to our own. Those who make their own the cares and sorrows of others must continually hand over their own burdens so that the heart is light enough and has room enough for a share of our neighbor’s and the world’s load.
The truth is, however much we may do for others, we are still indebted to countless people for all that they do for us. Every day, every hour, every minute. If we are honest about it, there’s not one second of our existence that passes without that unseen, and too often unacknowledged, support. Jesus’ great commandment in today’s gospel is to “love one another just as I have loved you.” Having our feet washed is an embodied act of recognition of our indebtedness to others — we are acknowledging that we do not exist in isolation, but that our very being is communion, is relationship. That we owe everything — our lives, our well being, and our very existence to the astonishing gifts of God and of each other.
We are, together, the body of Christ. The historical Jesus may no longer be here, in our presence, washing our feet. But he is very much alive in our own hands and feet this night and every night. The first line of our gospel passage says, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” The Greek verbs in that sentence are all in the aorist tense — indicating continuing action, valid for all time. This love is not limited to that one moment in history. We are Jesus’ hands — we are Jesus’ feet.
Honoring and lifting up the nurturing work of God incarnate, as Jesus did, is one way of giving a recognizable face to the challenging actuality of living out our baptismal covenant “to see Christ in all persons.” For Jesus to model this service on the last night of his earthly life reminds us that when we are baptized we vow to take on the mantle of service to others — not in order to puff ourselves us by congratulating ourselves on how good we are — but to remind us, in an embodied and visceral way, that we too are always being served. We too are in need of help. I’m sure you can think of ways in which you both enact and receive that kind of love in your life.
This Maundy Thursday liturgy celebrates our interconnectedness. It is the assertion that God take form in whatever way is needed to enact love. By having our feet washed, we relive God’s love for us, just as we do so daily in embodied nurturing acts of love for one another. The willingness to get ourselves dirty in order to help others become clean is a profound act of radical love.
I will conclude with a prayer by Janet Morley from her book All Desires Known:
O God who took human flesh
that you might be intimate with us:
may we so taste and touch you
in our bodily life
that we may discern and celebrate
your body in the world,
through Jesus Christ.