By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, October 9, 2022
Reading: John 13:1-15
A friend of mine moved to Paris to do PhD work with the greatest scholar in her field, a distinguished older monk and professor. Her husband was at their flat without her when the doorbell rang. Speaking no French, he did his best to direct the plumber under the sink where the problem was. Only he wasn’t the plumber. When my friend came home to see her husband and this man on the floor in the kitchen, she freaked out. It was actually the world-famous scholar she had traveled to study with. As a monk, he was practiced at humbling himself, just not so much with the fixing plumbing.
Washing feet is a role reserved for the lowest in the household, for slaves. After walking to a guest’s house, someone would pour water, wash your feet, then you could recline to eat without even thanking them. What’s striking here is the reversal of roles. Jesus is the host of this meal, the honoured teacher. He’s about to go to his death, so this is his last night with his friends. He knows that. They don’t, but they’re beginning to suspect he’s the saviour of the world and the Son of God.
Now he shows them exactly what that means.
Jesus takes off his outer robe. He strips down, bends low, and washes like a slave. . . I don’t know what the equivalent in our day would be. Perhaps a CEO stooping to clean a public washroom, but even that doesn’t get at it. Jesus knows full well these guys will all abandon him. One will betray. One will deny. The rest will flee. And still, he washes them all, tenderly.
This is a reversal of our notion of God. It’s not that hard to think of a God who is almighty. All-knowing. Unchanging. We just take our notions of might, knowledge, power, and we extend them infinitely. It’s like standing on tiptoe, we can just brush up against the underside of such an idea of God. . . and then we trip over the crucified slave washing our feet. God isn’t just omni this or all that. God stoops and washes. And then invites us to do the same.
I’ve caught a glimpse of this watching Pope Francis, leader of the world’s billion Catholics. On Maundy Thursday of holy week, the pope traditionally washes the feet of ten ordinary Romans. Big Frank has taken this a step farther. ‘Ordinary isn’t enough. Get me ten prisoners.’ And he didn’t just wash, he kissed their feet. And it was not like he was shy about it. He held feet in two hands and pressed his face in. One was a Muslim woman. Media reacted like it does. Professional Muslim-haters objected. Muslims objected. That’s a woman. A prisoner. He’s the pope. Yeah, that’s the point. For Francis, for any Christian, the rejected one is Jesus. Kiss like you would your saviour. Those feet are about to be pierced.
Here in Toronto, we ate out the other night someplace fancy and too expensive. Leaving the washroom on the way out I caught the eye of the young woman cleaning. She looked perhaps like an immigrant and she smiled at me, kindly. That was Jesus, not just serving, in a lowly way, but doing so with grace and dignity. I didn’t kiss her feet. Jesus would have.
It’s Thanksgiving Sunday and the church looks beautiful. I trust you’re celebrating with family. I also trust you know something of the dinner table over which Jesus presides. He has a betrayer among them and eleven denyers with him. Not one of his twelve closest will stick by when he needs it most. Some women disciples do but all the boys vanish. And none of this is a surprise to Jesus, he knows it’s all coming. So, when he washes his friends’ feet, he’s also washing away the sins of his betrayers, denyers, and abandoners. He says, ‘I know what you’re about to do to me. And I love you anyway. I’ll use your betrayal for good. In fact, I’ll save you, and the world through it.’
There was a Meryl Streep movie, I can’t remember the name. She’s dying of cancer. Her teenage son doesn’t know how to respond, so he goes surly and won’t speak to her. And she says this amazing thing, ‘I know you love me. You can’t say it now because you’re mad. But you’ll hate yourself one day for not having said it. So, I want you never to forget, I know you love me.’ God also mysteriously weaves our betrayal into his restoration of us.
I don’t know a family without some betrayal in it, some denial, some pain that won’t heal. You feel it again at holiday weekends like this. And right in the middle of that, Jesus comes, washes, forgives, retraces the lines of fracture, and heals them, into lines of glory.
There’s a Japanese art called Kintsugi in which broken pottery is glued back together with liquid gold. The goal in life is not to stay unbroken. That’s not possible. Nor is it to stay smashed into shards. The goal in life is to watch God mend every break with brilliance. Ernest Hemingway said, “The world breaks everyone. Some people get strong in the broken places.”
One thing we’re struggling with here at church, like everywhere else, is how to re-enter the world after COVID. TEMC is spectacular online, with our great music and video production, you can worship in your jammies, and no one gets COVID. Here’s the issue: Life in person is better. Every faraway spouse, every distanced grandparent and grandchild, knows that as great as technology is, you want to be together for real. We need life face to face. Because how do you make an enemy otherwise? TV is entertaining, low cost, low reward. But church is high-cost, high reward. You can’t wash feet online. We need to be in each other’s space, not just shaking hands and back-slapping, but also arguing, disagreeing, because how else do you learn how to forgive? God in Christ doesn’t stay safe up in the heavens. He comes among us, lowly, poor, a servant, ready to wash, and to die. And that’s why we invite you here in person. Not everyone can do this: some immuno-compromised or with other disorders, some on another continent, some live elsewhere part of the year, that’s all great. But if you can be here, come to this table of friendship, denial, and restoration. Come to wash feet and maybe, even more difficult, to have your feet washed by someone else.
There was a great monk of the early church who frowned on becoming a hermit. He asked, “If you live alone, whose feet will you wash? Who will wash yours?”
There are churches where foot washing is a bigger deal than ours. Some congregations practice foot washing instead of the Lord’s Supper or baptism. Where I pastored before in North Carolina, we had to come up with policies for weddings around foot washing. It became so popular for the two people getting married to wash one another’s feet that our trustees were worried: All that water sloshing around up there, all those fancy shoes and hose coming off? It became popular as an image for service of the other, which is what marriage is, it’s what any important relationship is. Foot washing can birth faithful ministry. I’m told that TEMC used to hold sock drives at Maundy Thursday. For street people good, dry socks can mean more than cash. One church in Miami brings in podiatrists that time of year and they treat folks’ feet for free. What’s better than kissed feet? Healed feet.
I wonder what we could do to bend low and serve again, here, now, today?
But these rituals can go wrong, can’t they? European monarchs used to wash feet like the pope still does. Some pointed out those feet seemed a little prewashed: no actual dirt. But even that got to be too much so they gave money on Maundy Thursday instead. It’s a pretty bad distortion, right? ‘Jesus got up from the table, took off his outer robe, poured water into a basin, and gave some pocket change to a beggar.’ No, that’s not quite it, is it? One US senator washed his staff’s feet. He said it was to demonstrate humility. A critic observed that if you have to demonstrate humility, it’s a pretty good sign you don’t actually have it. A superficial approach to this story would say it’s an erasure of distinctions between peoples, we’re all just equal. In one way that’s true, we are all made in the same image of God, no more or less. But senators and monarchs do have more power than the rest of us. Some popes are better or worse—I’m with the Baptist who said of the pope: “Now, that’s a pope who really knows how to pope.” We human beings need others to look up to. And the ones we should look up to keep bending down (and not just when the cameras are around).
If the Gospel of John were a play, the character Jesus keeps taking the stage in the wrong role. We heard in John 2 last week that Jesus strolls into the temple . . . and acts like he owns the place. Here he’s the honoured host . . . and he takes the role of a slave. This sort of role reversal is the stuff of great literature. Folks switch identities all the time in Shakespeare. Generals and kings ascertain the mood among the troops by dressing down as commoners to listen in. In Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities a man breaks into the Tower of London and switches places with a condemned man. The wrong man goes to death and the wrong one to life. Sorry for the spoiler, but the book’s been out since 1859, if you haven’t read it yet it’s your own fault. And perhaps you heard the story about the tourists who came upon Queen Elizabeth and a staffer picnicking near Balmoral. They didn’t recognize her. But they asked him whether he’d ever met the queen.
“I have,” he said.
“What’s she like?”
“Well, she has a terrific sense of humour.”
The tourists handed her majesty their camera to get a photo with the staffer who’d met the queen, then they all four took a selfie together. The queen later hoped when they got home and developed their photos someone would let them in on the joke.
What if everyone we met were royalty in disguise? The Bible says they are. They just usually don’t know it. Nor do we.
These mix-ups are deeply human and the perfect stuff of comedy and drama. But Jesus’ foot washing is no mix-up. It’s why he came. So, imagine if Francis didn’t just kiss that Muslim woman’s feet. What if he took off that papal robe, and put it on her, and went to serve her sentence for her? What if her majesty pulled her crown out of that picnic basket and coronated one of the clueless tourists? Not possible. But that’s what God in Christ does for us. Takes our humanity. Dies our death. And gives us his life. This isn’t a game, a temporary switch for comedy, or to look humble. God pours himself out to death. And fills us up with his life. If you can understand that you’re doing better than I am. All we can do is wonder and adore. And wash a few feet ourselves.
Lot of folks have been hurt by the church. I have too. I’ve spent two-thirds of my life and all my career in the church. You can’t do that without being disappointed. So, I get it. Jaylynn baptized several refugee families at her old congregation, and this mom came to me full of joy, and said ‘I miss my family back home, but now in this church I have a new family!’ It was so beautiful. And I just wanted to say ‘Oh honey, you don’t know, do you? Church is where you get hurt.’ Because the church is full of people. And people are knuckleheads! We call it sin. If there were a church with no sinners in it, please go join that one, because only they won’t hurt you. But there are no non-sinning humans available. The only church there is, is full of half-baked ideas and half-hearted commitments and petty squabbles and long memories of pain. It’s the church of Jesus and Judas, Peter, and the rest of us abandoners. To have forgiveness, you gotta have harm, it’s just how these things work.
It's sort of like family. Family brings you into the world and then harms you. It doesn’t mean to, it’s just what happens when human beings live in close proximity. There would be no therapists without family. And then God picks up the pieces and patches something back together that’s . . . lifegiving. Not always this side of eternity, but sometimes. Church is far from perfect, everyone who’s ever been here agrees. Here’s the only reason the church exists: to dole out forgiveness of sins as fast as we can. Please come be part of this table of . . . betrayal. It won’t be a perfect family by a long shot, but it’ll a family built on mercy.
Oh, and that newly baptized refugee? She would have been killed for being baptized back home. There’s harm and then there’s harm. The martyrs teach us patience. And boy do we need it.
Another superficial reading of this story suggests we should be nice to those, “below our station.” The washroom attendant. The staff of the senator. What civic leader doesn’t talk about “servant-leadership” now? That’s not very interesting. Here’s what is: The only God there is bends low to wash your feet. If that doesn’t take your breath away, you’re not paying attention. Our Muslim neighbours, and I say this with all respect to Islam, say this cannot be. It would be a disgrace to God to be as low as a human, let alone a slave, crucified. So, Jesus is in the Koran, but none of those things happen. We respectfully think quite differently. Jesus is God in our flesh, lower than us. Dying to save. This is no disgrace. This is the most godly thing there could be. Then he invites us to do likewise, but none of us can do it quite like he does. Only his death saves the world. Only his resurrection heals it.
I gave you another salacious title this week, forgive me. “Naked God” not just because Jesus strips down to wash, but also because God is vulnerable to us. When Jesus bends at our feet, we can refuse him, like Peter tries to. We can kick him, like we do to other people at our worst. When God disrobes, he is defenseless. We can accuse him, mock him, torture him, kill him. Crucified people were naked, part of the humiliation. God is that vulnerable to us, to receive our violence and give back salvation.
There’s an old and terrible joke about church nerds who die and find two options. One sign says, “This way to heaven.” The other sign says, “This way to a discussion group about heaven.” And you know which one we church nerds take. Ooh, I like discussions. Talking about faith is often a substitute for doing it. But Jesus says do what I do. Not think what I think. Not be a little nicer, please. But divest, take off those signs of power and authority, bend low, and dig out the muck between someone else’s toes. It’s spectacularly weird. No less weird than the God of the universe having feet, being a body, with a Jewish mom. Giving away his divinity to us mere humans, to make us daughters and sons of God Most High. Amen.