Last year, Holy Week was my first week at St. John’s. (Weirdly, I recommend this method of starting as a rector. Provided you have enough coffee.) But it meant I basically was hanging on by my teeth the whole time, and stumbling around, praying someone would point me in the right direction.
This year, people kept asking if I Had Opinions. What would I change? What would I upend? It took me a while, but finally, I decided—footwashing!
For whatever reason, the parish previously had no practice of foot washing. None. Zip. Nada. This, I decided, would be the Big Change. This, we would tackle!
So, I asked anyone I could think of who might have Strong Liturgical Opinions–what think you of foot washing? Some said, yes, absolutely! Others said, yes, please describe it in Latin! (Anglo-Catholic streak in our region.) Others said, never done it before, sounds awkward and uncomfortable, but worth a shot!
So here is my “We’re going to wash feet!” sermon.
I should tell you that I expected maybe 5 people to do it–roughly the people whom I had talked into doing it beforehand. About 30 people came forward. Over half the congregation.
I’m so freaking proud of my parish.
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
April 18, 2019
Maundy Thursday, Year C
I think everyone knows I have a strong fondness for shoes, yes? I do. They are my favorite. I have an absurd number of shoes in my closet, I follow the Shoe Museum in Canada—a thing that exists!—on Twitter, and until this past year, was fairly proud of not owning a pair of sneakers. (The fact that I now own Merrills and actually wear them is thanks to my husband.)
Feet, on the other hand. Feet are awful. So much so, that part of the reason I like shoes so much is because shoes manage to turn something I am self-conscious about (my feet) into something I can enjoy looking at.
But think about it—feet are intrinsically awkward. They get beat up from carrying us around all the time. They smell, usually. They get dirty fast. They develop calluses, and odd growths. If you have any sort of chronic illness, chances are your feet will bear some symptoms of it. They’re like your hands, only much less useful. No one wants to see someone else’s feet.
In the ancient world, of course, these issues were heightened. In a time before regular street cleaning was the norm, people were walking all over creation in open sandals, so their feet picked up all manner of thing. It was customary, upon entering someone’s house for dinner, for a servant to wash the feet of the guest, as a gesture of hospitality—and of basic cleanliness (you don’t know what those feet have walked in.).
But not just any servant; the lowest guy on the totem pole. It was a humiliating task—the sort of task you assigned to a servant that your guests could feel absolutely comfortable ignoring. A complete nobody.
So at the Last Supper, in the Fourth Gospel, the disciples are having a very understandable reaction to Jesus. They’re all having a nice friendly dinner, and all of a sudden, he gets up from the head of the table, and STARTS WASHING THEIR FEET. Something that is awkward enough, but when your beloved and respected teacher does it? Ew. No. Jesus is Jesus. Jesus should not have to endure everyone’s feet! They want to protect him from their weird feet!
As always, it is Peter who serves as the disciples’ collective Id. Peter who first refuses to let Jesus wash his feet, and then, when Jesus explains that that won’t work, goes entirely the other way—Then wash EVERYTHING! Peter may not exactly understand what is happening here.
But after he washes their feet, Jesus turns to the disciples and says, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me teacher and you are right, for so I am. If I have done this for you, you also should go and do likewise.” The command to wash feet is one of the most direct we get in the gospel—and we get very little in the way of straight talking from Jesus in the gospels. But he tells us to go and do likewise. Go, wash feet! Go, and do it!
When Jesus washes the disciples’ feet, he enters in to their deepest vulnerabilities, and shame, and sits with them there. He lovingly attends to their brokenness and their awkwardness, the places where they are ashamed and wounded, and he comforts them. He serves them in their least pretentious humanity.
They, in turn, have to learn how to be open enough to receive that care. How to be vulnerable enough to allow Christ to minister to them, even in the places where they would rather not acknowledge at all. And then, they have to learn how to go out and serve others, as dirty and as awkward as they were, who also need their feet washed.
Jesus told them to go and do likewise, so we, here, tonight are going to do just that. In a moment, once I get done talking (!), I’m going to walk down there and stand at the foot of the stairs with water and a basin. And I invite you, if you’d like to, to come forward, so I can wash your feet. And I know that may sound awkward and embarrassing and it is! That’s kinda the deal. Christ calls us into awkward and embarrassing places and meets us there,
But not only that: once I wash your feet, you will then turn, and wash the feet of the person behind you in line. Then they will get up, turn, and wash the feet of the person behind them. And so on, and so on. Because the gift that Jesus gives us is that we learn both to receive and to give in love. And we are going to try that out, right here, right now.
Liturgy is, after all, meant to be an acting out of God’s reign—a sort of practice of how we are meant to be in the world. We try out our identity as God’s icons here, as we worship, and then we head out into the world and do it for real. So tonight, we are going to try out what Jesus has asked us to do, to bear with each other in the mess of our humanity, in our very awkwardness and vulnerability, as Jesus does for each of us, and then, we’re going to head out into the darkness of the night outside, and wash the feet of the world for real.