I served a church where the Associate Pastor was given the responsibility of putting together the Maundy Thursday service. Tom was passionate about including a foot washing as part of the service. That made a lot of sense, as this passage from the gospel of John takes place at the Passover Meal, the Thursday before Jesus’ death. Tom originally wanted to wash the feet of the twelve members of the governing council of that congregation. He made the calls to every single person. One by one they turned him down. All except two of them.
So, that Maundy Thursday, as the darkness gathered in a chilly sanctuary, two people sat in folding chairs nervously facing their congregation. There were only four feet to be taken care of but as the congregation looked on – feeling empathically awkward – that foot washing seemed to take forever.
Not all of us want Jesus to wash our feet.
Maybe like Simon Peter, we are confused by the whole thing. “Washing feet …is that a symbol? Then Jesus wash all of me!” Plenty of us can get so caught up in a ritual or symbol or piece of scripture that we just about wring all meaning and sense out of it.
For more us, sitting here in church, the problem is – like it was for those elders Tom and I knew – simple embarrassment about our feet. All our feet started out cute and pudgy, ready to be tickled, but they can take a beating through the years. Not even a good pedicure or a trip to the chiropodist is going to make many of us want to put our feet into someone else’s hands.
The real hesitation, though, is that if we let Jesus touch our feet, we allow him to touch our will. We all have emotions. We all have thoughts. And we all have a will – which is our decision-making power. Our feet are generally how we put our will – our decisions -into action. We can feel for a person. “My heart breaks for him now that he’s alone.” We can think about people. “I think it would be helpful if someone brought over a meal to him.” But it takes a conscious act of will to stand up, cook and get over to that lonely house. And our feet will have to be involved.
To allow Jesus to wash our feet is to receive Jesus’ grace and caring. To let Jesus wash our feet is to let him remove all that keeps us from following his will. He scrubs away our insecurities. He washes away our weariness. He buffs off our bitterness. He exfoliates our excuses. Then he dries us off, so with still damp feet, we can follow in his footsteps.
Sometimes, to be quite honest, we aren’t quite certain we want to do that. That night in the upper room, Judas Iscariot was convinced he didn’t want any part of this foot washing, this service, this following Jesus. He wanted out, and he got out.
We’ve probably all had moments when we felt that way. Like what Jesus expects of us is too much. Too much responsibility. Too much time. Too much of ourselves.
More often, we can’t deny what Jesus has done to us.
That’s the language Jesus uses about the foot washing. He doesn’t say “See what I have done for you?” He asks, “Do you know what I have done to you.” What Jesus has done to the disciples by washing their feet, by serving them, is to change them into people who have received grace and care. Now, they must decide if they will follow his will and offer grace and care to others. The foot washing – the serving that Jesus does to us, it changes us. It changes us and the people who receive it. And sometimes even the people who are watching.
I want to tell you about another foot washing that did just that.
It took place on the television show Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.
Last week, was the fiftieth anniversary of the show’s debut. Fred Rogers was, of course, a Presbyterian pastor who wanted to use television to communicate to all children – in every circumstance – that they are unique and valuable just as they are. One of the ways he did that was by including a diverse group of people on his show.
One of the people that Fred Rogers invited to be part of his neighborhood was Francois Clemmons. Clemmons was an established musician with an operatic singing career when Rogers heard Clemmons singing in his Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh.
In a StoryCorps interview, Clemmons recounts: “Fred came to me, and said, ‘I have this idea…you could be a police officer.’ That kind of stopped me in my tracks. I grew up in the ghetto. I did not have a positive opinion of police officers. Policemen were sicking police dogs and water hoses on people. And I really had a hard time putting myself in that role. So I was not excited about being Officer Clemmons at all.”
Still, Clemmons agreed. In 1968, four months after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., he became the first African American to have a recurring role in a children’s TV series.
An episode that aired only a few months after Clemmons’ debut opened in the typical manner, with Rogers inviting viewers to be his neighbor. But this day, instead of putting on his iconic cardigan, Rogers talks about how hot the day is and how nice it would be to put his feet into a pool of cool water. In his front yard, he fills a small plastic pool with water and begins to soak his feet. Soon Officer Clemmons drops by for a visit and Mr. Rogers invites him to share the pool with him. Clemmons accepts, rolls up the pant legs of his uniform. And viewing audience watches as the camera focuses on the two sets of feet for almost 25 seconds. Clemmons remembers: “Fred Rogers was not only showing my brown skin in the tub with his white skin, he was showing two friends. ”
When Clemmons is done soaking Rogers begins drys his friend’s feet. Mr. Rogers quietly says, “Sometimes just a minute like this can make all the difference.”
Clemmons now says: “And so that scene touched me in a way that I was not prepared for. I think he was making a very strong statement. That was his way. I still was not convinced that Officer Clemmons could have a positive influence, in the neighborhood, and in the real world neighborhood, but I think I was proven wrong.”
Both Fred Rogers and Francois Clemmons knew what Jesus had done to his disciples. Both men acted as disciples in that televised act of foot washing. Clemmons decided to expose his feet, his personality, his personhood to be part of a greater change. Rogers decided to offer grace and care – not just to Officer Clemmons – but to all the children who were watching and to tell them that each of them was valuable and worthy just as they are.
We are Jesus’ disciples who receive his grace and care. What has he done to us?
He has made us into people who serve. Who serve the lonely with a visit, a call a card, a meal. People who go to soup kitchens and fill food pantries and show up at service sites. We have been turned into people who put our heart, mind and will into a myriad of opportunities to care for those without homes. We don’t just watch feet being washed. We are people who with follow Jesus out into the world to find every way we can to let every person know they are of value just the way they are – no matter who they are.
In the StoryCorps interview, Francois Clemmons concludes by saying: One day I was watching Fred film a session, and at the end of the program, he takes his sneakers off and hangs up his sweater as he always did and he says, “You make every day a special day just by being you, and I like you just the way you are” I was looking at him when he was saying that, and Fred walks over to where I was standing. And I said, “Fred were you talking to me?” And he said, “Yes, I have been talking to you for years. But you heard me today.” It was like telling me I’m OK as a human being. That was one of the most meaningful experiences I’d ever had.”
Jesus had been talking to his disciples for years. He loved his disciples, despite all their flaws, their misunderstandings, their demands for what they thought they needed. Jesus still knelt and washed their feet and dried them. Some of them heard him that night.
Jesus has been talking to us for years.
Sometimes we are Peter, who misunderstands what is happening. Sometimes we are Judas and can’t stand to have ourselves exposed, or we resent how much we have to change for there to be change.
Sometimes there are those glorious moments when we are Francois Clemmons and Fred Rogers. Moments when we see the love of Jesus right before our eyes, and we understand what he has done to us. We know we don’t deserve it, but we know that Jesus has seen us. We know that because of what he has done to us we can make every day special just as we are. And with all our heart and mind and will we follow Jesus. And the world watches as we make our damp footprints through the world to deciding to be kind, caring, gracious and just.
We don’t know how long it took Jesus to wash the feet of the disciples.