April 13, 2017, People Who Serve People – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord–and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.
“Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, `Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
I think the thing most people remember about the Maundy Thursday service is that Maundy Thursday, that’s the day we wash feet. I have heard more than one Maundy Thursday sermon about the awkwardness of feet , and really, for most of us it takes a lot of courage each year on the Thursday in Holy Week to pull off our socks and shoes and let people see and touch and wash our feet. It feels weird. Sometimes it takes more courage than we have – and there isn’t any rule that says anyone has to participate in the footwashing. And we think to ourselves how humble Jesus was, to kneel down before each of his disciples and wash their feet, which were so much dirtier than our feet will ever be.
We might imagine that the disciples’ reaction to Jesus was because they felt as awkward as we do about having someone wash their feet for them. But the truth is, it was just common courtesy for a host to arrange for his guest’s feet to be washed. In fact, Jesus chided Simon the Pharisee for failing to provide that common hospitality when he had invited Jesus to be his guest for dinner. That was the evening a woman of some unsavory reputation came in the dining room and began to weep at Jesus’ feet, washing them with her tears and wiping them dry with her hair. We may think of foot-washing as weird and uncomfortable, or we may think of it as particularly profound just because of its strangeness – but for the disciples it was as ordinary a thing as us providing a place for our guests to wash their hands before supper.
But it is definitely true that the disciples were terribly uncomfortable, and the reason is this: washing feet was the job of a servant. Clearly Jesus, their Rabbi and leader, was the last person who should be walking around the table with a towel wrapped around his waist, to be kneeling down to wash the feet of his followers. That’s what was really weird for the disciples. And of course, that was exactly the point. Jesus had said it many times, but on the night of this last supper his friends began finally to understand him – at least well enough to be shocked and offended by him, and by the way of life Jesus embraced as his very identity, and to model and to teach his followers, which was that of a servant.
And, that is something we can understand being disturbed by, as much today as two thousand years ago, because as much as we talk about Christians serving one another, nobody really wants to be identified as a servant. Recently there were some racial incidents in the news that resulted in quite a few people – black women, many of them professional women – sharing publicly, ways in which they had been insulted and humiliated. And one common theme was the disrespect of white people who assumed that because they were black women, they must be the cleaning staff. One man tried to stop a woman from parking in her own reserved parking spot at her office, because he assumed she must be a cleaning lady. And those women had every right to be angry and offended. We Americans, especially white Americans, who consider ourselves very egalitarian and non-class-conscious, are very often total snobs and bigots when it comes to the status of our jobs and education and finances. Professional people get our respect because they have credentials and earn a lot of money, and common laborers – the woman who comes in after hours to mop the floors and clean the bathrooms – get little or no respect, mostly because they earn very little – minimum wage (if they’re lucky). And worse, our culture tends to have a whole set of expectations about race and morality and integrity that we use to judge people on sight. But the point here is that servants absolutely belong (or so our cultural prejudices go) at the bottom of the heap. We really haven’t progressed very far since Bible times in that respect. And our bigotry that forces or relegates certain kinds of people into a servant “class” is evil in the eyes of God, and the farthest thing in the world from what Jesus was teaching.
But here’s the thing. That dreary, low-paying, disrespected identity of servant is exactly what Jesus was modeling for us on that night when he wrapped the towel around himself and knelt down and totally scandalized his disciples by washing their feet like a common slave. Jesus wasn’t using flowery metaphors when he told us, more than once, “whoever would be first must be last, and the servant of all”. He wasn’t talking about our cautious and sanitary reenactment of his foot-washing, with clean basins and warm water, though that is excellent practice for us, and we are totally going to do it. But Jesus was talking about being the person nobody notices, except to ask them to do something. He was talking about being people that others look down on or laugh at or ignore or use – not because we were forced into it but willingly, joyfully, deliberately putting ourselves in the place of the “least of these.”
What Jesus was showing us by example at this last meal he shared with his friends was that servanthood isn’t a little piece of our discipleship; it is its very heart and soul. Our Master came purposely to be a servant to the world he loves, and we have no greater goal, no other goal, in this life than to become like our Master, our Master who said, “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” There is nothing whatsoever that is Christlike about denigrating or enslaving a fellow human being. There is absolutely nothing Christlike about being a doormat or a helpless victim. But to serve, willingly, in love, is to imitate our Lord.
Jesus told us, “I am the Good Shepherd. I lay down my life for my sheep. No one takes it from me; I lay it down willingly, that I may take it up again.” As disciples of Jesus Christ, that is our model for servanthood. We are a free people, set free from the tyranny of our sin and the bondage of the law by his gift; no one enslaves us. But if we follow our Lord, we choose to become servants as he did, laying our lives down willing for love of our neighbor or our family member, the kid who works the cash register at the grocery story or the Syrian family we see on our TV screens. But we begin here, today, by washing one another’s feet. There is a saying I like very much that goes: “Start here. Start small. Start now.” And that is what we do today.