Allowing Our Feet to Be Washed

Homily, Allowing Our Feet to Be Washed
Maundy Thursday, 2023
Good Shepherd Episcopal Church
Tequesta, FL

The Rev. Derek M Larson, TSSF

Today’s Lectionary Readings:

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Imagine with me that it is the year 750. You are a simple monk living and working with others in a monastery when the head of your community, the abbot, stoops down and washes your feet. 

Imagine with me that it is the year 1200. You are a poor peasant living mostly outside in the fifth of the city when the king comes out from his mansion to greet you, and then stoops down and washes your feet. 

Imagine with me that it is the year 2016. You are a Muslim migrant traveling hundreds of miles searching for safety when you are invited to meet and visit with Pope Francis, who stoops down and washes your feet. 

In a few moments we will participate together in a liturgical action that has taken place for hundreds of years as a symbol and expression of humility and our love for one another. A liturgical action that was instituted by Christ himself when he wrapped a towel around his waist and stooped to wash the feet of his disciples. 

And yet, despite centuries of tradition, every year when this day comes around, we still find ourselves uncomfortable. Washing feet is difficult. And it’s difficult for a number of reasons. For some of us we are uncomfortable washing someone else’s feet because, frankly, we are a little grossed out. We don’t want to touch someone else’s dirty feet. But I think perhaps we are even more uncomfortable with someone washing our feet. We feel awkward or embarrassed. Maybe we’re self-conscious about our feet. Maybe we don’t want our fellow parishioners to see that crooked toe or those cracked heals. 

The fact is, feet are very personal things. There is a certain level of intimacy and vulnerability involved when we allow someone to touch our feet. And to do it in the middle of a church service, for many of us, is not our idea of peaceful prayer. 

Having listened to today’s gospel reading, it seems Peter felt much the same way. As Jesus circled the table washing the feet of his disciples and came to the feet of Peter, he found some resistance. “No way,” said Peter. “You will never wash my feet.”

Now the traditional reading of this passage is that Peter doesn’t want his feet washed because he doesn’t want Jesus to be humiliated in taking the role of a servant. But I can’t help but wonder if it was also difficult for Peter because of his own pride. Perhaps, in his pride, Peter found it difficult because he was uncomfortable being vulnerable with others. Perhaps Peter found it difficult because he took pride in taking care of himself. He didn’t need someone else, least of all Jesus, to wash his feet. 

How many of you find it difficult to receive help from others? How many of you find it difficult to ask for help? How many of you find it difficult to allow your imperfections and vulnerabilities to be seen by those around you? Perhaps that’s what Peter was feeling. He wanted to follow Jesus. He wanted to serve Jesus. He wanted to help Jesus in his mission. But to have Jesus serve and help him, that was something even harder.

And yet that is what true community is all about. We can serve people all day long, but until we allow ourselves to also be served by them, we will not have true community. Jesus says to Peter, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” In other words, unless you are vulnerable with me and allow me to care for you, our relationship will only go so deep.”

Jesus, in this passage, is teaching his disciples not only how they as individuals should care for  others; he is teaching his disciples what it is to be beloved community to care for one another. To care for, and to be cared for. Notice the words he uses at the end of the passage. He doesn’t say, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love others.” He says, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Do you hear the difference? It’s not simply that you love others, but that you should love one another. In other words, true love is not one-directional. It is reciprocal. To love and to be loved. To care for, and to be cared for. So often on Maundy Thursday we hear about the importance of loving and caring for others. But if we look closely we will see this passage is also about the importance of allowing others to love and care for us. 

In a few moments many of us will wash one another’s feet. And despite the discomfort we may experience, in the intimacy of this act and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable we may find it also quite powerful. But let us not forget that this ritual is not really about washing feet, but about fostering beloved community. It’s about fostering that kind of community where people feel able to serve and to be served, to help and to be helped, to love and to be loved. 

The foot washing, although meaningful, is really optional. Some of us will choose not to participate because of health concerns, or challenges of mobility, or experiences of trauma, or a variety of other reasons, and that is completely okay. Because the act of washing feet is simply a symbol. A symbol which points us to something much more important: Jesus’ command to love and to be loved. 

So tonight whether you wash someone’s feet or not, the questions is: how will you offer yourself to this community both as a servant and as one being served? Amen.