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  • Writer's picturePastor Maggie

Foot Washing: never gonna happen, no way, not in a million years...times infinity

Pastor Maggie's Maundy Thursday homily, from John 13:1-15.

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Frank spoke on Saturday about the reality that we are all as prone to failure and frailty as the disciples were in their response to the events of Holy Week. We are prone to abandon situations when they get hard, or deny our allegiances when they become dangerous. He talked about how that isn’t cause for us to beat ourselves up, to think we’re unworthy scum, or undermine healthy self-esteem, but it should tether us to the reality that without God, we can’t. We can’t honor promises. We can’t grow and mature. We can’t manage the hard things that crop up in our lives. We need God—need to dwell in God in order that God can move through us and help us do what we cannot do on our own.

And with that in the back of my mind, as I’ve been thinking particularly about tonight’s reading, I’ve wondered how we live with this reality in community? How do we build a community where we are supported, where we can remain in relationship with people we think of as betrayers? I sometimes wonder if that’s the big question of our age.

We are more connected with each other than ever before. We can get firsthand accounts of life on the other side of the globe in a matter of seconds. We can see into other people’s lives, albeit often in a curated way, and learn what they find important to a degree that has until now been unimaginable. Parts of our lives that would have only been visible in our living rooms or around our dining tables are now shared in public. And for the record, I don’t think digital space is inherently bad. Online gathering spaces are real and valuable for lots of people, like folks who live in remote places or have health struggles, or folks who would be in danger if they gathered physically, for example.

Yet with all this seeming opportunity for connection, society as a whole is more disconnected and more polarized. We’re heading into an election year, and so likely to be hearing more and more outrageous things about whoever our “opponents” are. We’re witnessing ongoing wars and genocides and the inhumane treatment of people. Studies also show we are more isolated. More lonely. How can we be both more connected than ever and also more disconnected than ever? How can both of these things be true? And what can we begin to do about it? I wonder if Peter and Jesus as we encounter them in this story have anything to show us.

Jesus tells the disciples right away that what he’s about to do won’t make sense to them yet, but that it’s important. And then Jesus starts to wash their feet—a common enough practice of hospitality for servants to do for guests. But Jesus isn’t a servant, or so the disciples think, and Peter says in no uncertain terms that he wants no part in what feels like a display of humiliation. The Greek word he uses here basically means, “never ever ever, not in a million years, no way, buddy, nuh-uh…times infinity. Not gonna happen.” Peter is a person of absolutes, after all.

And so when Jesus says that the only way to be part of what Jesus is doing is to let Jesus wash your feet, Peter swings to the other absolute, saying, “Well then why are you stopping with my feet? Wash everything so I can be clean.” Did you notice the undertone shift there? Peter seems almost to think what Jesus is doing is some kind of purification ritual. Water is used in that way in a lot of places, including the Ancient Near East, which we know, in part, because the Pharisees were regularly on Jesus’ case about not following cleanliness protocols they thought were important. But Jesus says to Peter, “No, no. That’s not what this is. You’ve already bathed. You’re clean enough. This is something else entirely.”

I think Peter may be all of us here. Do you ever fall into the trap that Peter fell into? The “I must be perfect to be able to participate” trap? When we stop and think about it, we know in our heads that isn’t true—God isn’t waiting for us to be perfect. God isn’t holding things back from us until we are good enough disciples. We’ve already bathed, and Jesus isn’t kneeling down to make us clean—isn’t kneeling to wash away the stains of what somebody else thinks is original sin. We know this, but sometimes we forget.

That perfection trap has another side, and at least for me, it’s the trickier one. The other side of that trap is about other people. It says that other people have to be perfect. Sometimes it gets even more twisted and it says, “Other people must be like me before I’m okay with them participating in our communal life.” They must think the way I think about the things that are important to me, or I don’t want to be in community with them. Again, when we stop and think about this, we know it isn’t true. We know it isn’t even possible for us all to be alike. But when we’re out and about it can be easy to forget.

I know that when we’re gathered in this place and we’re all focused on God together we would never think of other people that way. But then, when we’re gestures out there out there, you meet someone who really makes you mad, or you hear somebody talk on the news, and……………at least, for me, there are lots of people I wish would be more like me, and think more like me. Sometimes I even wonder if some of them could actually use a little of that Jesus washing that Peter asks for.

The trouble is, there are lots of forces in the world that want to invent enemies for us. They want to invent problems between us so they can sell us the solutions. There are corporations and think tanks and governments invested in our disconnection from each other. That count on our belief that different is dangerous, and that people who don’t think like us are evil or stupid.

And the more I buy into the idea that somebody has to be like me to be worthy of their place in my community—or even buy into the idea that worthiness is a real thing, buy into the idea that there is anything else outside of our shared belovedness in the eyes of God—the more I set up some kind of purity test, the less and less I resemble Jesus.

Because what does Jesus do? First he remembers who he is—where he came from and where he’s going. Which I think is a real lesson in staying true to yourself. He remembers who he is. And then he washes everybody’s feet. Everybody. Even Judas. Even Judas who is about the closest thing to an enemy you could have. Jesus washes everybody’s feet. Because Jesus isn’t worried about our cleanliness or whether we’re following all the rules. Jesus cares that we can see what really is.

The only other time the word “wash” is used in the Gospel of John is the man born blind who is told to wash in the Pool of Siloam. We read that story a few weeks ago, and we know that story isn’t about purifying that man from his sin. His washing allows him to recognize Jesus. To see what really is.

Jesus washes our feet so we can see what really is. Jesus washes our feet so we can see ourselves as full of failure and frailty, and still beloved. Jesus washes our feet to open our eyes to the possibility of hospitality—of making a community—with those we think of as enemies. Jesus washes our feet so we can offer to our enemies what we wish they would offer to us—dignity and consideration. Jesus washes our feet so we can see that the power of God is about service, not might.

If we are going to be this community, this communion, of frail, failing people, we have to see what really is: that we have no enemies, only siblings who need us to be like Jesus. Who need us to kneel down and wash their feet.

So when you encounter someone you think might be an enemy, whether that person is just an annoyance or an arch nemesis (hey, maybe you have one, I don’t know your life), be like Jesus. First, remember who you are. Remember where you come from. Remember where you’re going. Let this knowledge strengthen you and give you courage. And then do the thing that helps the world see the Christ that really is. The Christ who kneels down in love, offers care, and doesn’t demand perfection or uniformity. The Christ that knows our pain and leads us toward resurrection. May it be so. Amen.


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