Maundy Thursday A: It’s Not About Feet

Readings

  • Exodus 12:1-14
  • Psalm 116:1-2,12-19
  • 1 Corinthians 11:23-26
  • John 13:1-17,31b-35
You can find the readings, in the CEB and NRSV translation, by clicking this link.

Sermon

I have always had a soft spot for Maundy Thursday.  Perhaps it’s because that’s the service I remember going to when I was younger – it wasn’t very often we went to church in the evening!  Or maybe it’s because something about this gospel and the act of foot-washing resonates within me.

Maundy Thursday is a special service that tenderly envelops this mandatum, rather, this commandment that Jesus Christ speaks to go wash somebody’s feet. I think it’s important that we remember that Jesus is talking about a commandment, not necessarily a choice.  This act of washing feet is simple enough and easy enough to make relatively insignificant – but that simple act has the power to make us so very humble.

Even though some of us get a little uncomfortable with the idea of someone else touching our feet, or having to touch someone else’s feet – we really have no comparison to the shocking action that Jesus takes on in simply tying a towel around his waist.  What Jesus does with the disciples completely turns the entrenched attitude of class structure and the cultural understanding of human value on its head!

I kind of get hung up on the foot thing, though.  I happen to like feet – and I think that washing and caring for feet is a beautiful thing to do.  I am oftentimes bemused by the revulsion people have about feet – every year there are those two or three who ask, with a hint of terror: “Pastor, we’re not going to do that foot-washing thing are we?!”  But, you know, for people who get so uncomfortable about feet, we seem to know a lot about each other’s feet, don’t we?

There’s this quote from the film Forrest Gump that I really like and that sums up this knowledge:

“Momma always says there’s an awful lot you could tell about a person by their shoes. Where they’re going. Where they’ve been. I’ve worn lots of shoes.”[1]

Here’s a quick experiment:

Look down at your shoes right now.

What were you wearing? Are they work shoes?  Or, are they the ‘run around the house’ variety?  Did you make the choice to put on shoes that you know are presentable?  Are they nice shoes, even if they are little scuffed around the edges?  Perhaps they are sandals, in hope of warmer weather maybe?  Or perhaps you decided that the hole in the toe of your sock or the chip in your nail polish wouldn’t look so nice in your sandals and you opted for something else.

Point is, we get an awful lot of information from the people around us simply by looking at their shoes.

“Psychologists from the University of Kansas found that the style, value, colour and condition of the footwear can paint a picture of the owner’s emotional, political and other vital personality traits.
It is such a giveaway that in the tests, observers who were shown a picture of a pair of shoes were able to guess a person’s characteristics at better-than-chance levels on 45 percent of the dimensions that were measured.”[2]

The observers were asked to look at each pair and guess the gender, age and social status of the owner.  They were also able to guess whether the owner was an extrovert or introvert, liberal leaning or conservative, their emotional stability, agreeableness, conscientiousness and openness.

All from a pair of shoes.  We certainly get a lot of information from people’s feet.

When we consider how much of what we show the world is controlled by what we are wearing, it’s no wonder the idea of someone taking off our shoes and socks and handling them with care as they wash them and dry them might seem just a little too intimate.

But, then, maybe that’s the point of Maundy Thursday, at the beginning of the Three Days:

“Today the journey into the heart of our faith begins with a bald and uncompromising look at ourselves. In contrast with the example Jesus sets for us (disrobing, kneeling, washing, insisting on his servanthood) we see our own inability to let this happen. ‘You will never wash my feet’ is an attempt to stay away, keep a distance, insist on my lack of need, assert my strength to carry on without the Great Servant who is the rabbi and shepherd, who stays silent before his accusers and leaves us with his body and blood. The stark look at ourselves, which has been undertaken throughout Lent in prayer and almsgiving and self-denial of all kinds, on this day comes to a head. When we look at ourselves as Peter, with pride splayed out for all to observe, we find ourselves, then, grateful that along with Peter, Christ Jesus teaches us to let our feet be washed.”[3]

The profound act of foot-washing isn’t really about feet.  It’s about “…the caring of somebody’s body, the materiality of someone’s Spirit, the flesh of someone’s life who dreams, desires, hopes and lives.”[4]  It’s about the commandment to touch someone else – to care for the wholeness of someone’s life.  It’s about creating and offering a safe space where we can all be vulnerably open to God’s healing, and sharing the shalom that comes when all the senses are opened to the fullness of God’s presence.  Every person – fully loved, heard and cared for, and sent out again into the world.

I spent some time trying to think up a modern equivalent to what this foot-washing would look like.  I have noticed that a number of my colleagues have posed similar questions in various online communities of which I am a part.  And the conclusion that we have come to is that there really isn’t anything.

I realized that the idea of acceptance and healing and the feeling of shalom is the thing I most want you to take away from this day, and to do that, I offer prayers for healing and the personal touch of being anointed with oil.  May you find it to be a balm of comfort in the midst of whatever is going on in your lives – may you discover the fullness of God’s presence in this moment.  And, may you find deep in your being that you are fully loved, heard and cared for.  A brief and deeply intimate moment with God that begins our journey to the heart of our faith.  Amen.


Sermon Inspirations

  1. Cláudio Carvalhaes. “March 24, 2016: Commentary on John 13:1-17, 31b-35” Preach This Week: Gospel Reading. Working Preacher.
  2. Forrest Gump. Dir. Robert Zemeckis. Paramount Pictures, 1994.
  3. Melinda Quivik. “April 17, 2014: Commentary on John 13:1-17, 31b-35”  Preach This Week: Gospel Reading.  Working Preacher.
  4. Eddie Wrenn. “How to tell a good sole: You really can judge a person by their shoes…”  MailOnline, June 12, 2012.

This week’s image is entitled, “Jesus Washing the Feet of his Disciples,” created by Albert Edelfelt, in 1898.  The image is public domain.  You can find out more about the painting here, and the artist here.  The image has been modified for the purposes of this blog.


[1] Forrest Gump. Dir. Robert Zemeckis.  Paramount Pictures, 1994.  Film.
[2] Eddie Wrenn.  “How to tell a good sole: You really can judge a person by their shoes…”  MailOnline, June 12, 2012.
[3] Melinda Quivik.  “April 17, 2014: Commentary on John 13:1-17, 31b-35”  Preach This Week: Gospel Reading.  Working Preacher.
[4] Cláudio Carvalhaes. “March 24, 2016: Commentary on John 13:1-17, 31b-35” Preach This Week: Gospel Reading.  Working Preacher.

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