Confirmation Sunday, May 1st 2016

Homily: Stinky Feet

Rev. Caroline Lawson Dean at Christ Church, Summit


A reading from John Chapter 13 verses 12-16

After Jesus had washed the disciples feet, put on his robe, and returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you?13  You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am.14So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15…You should do as I have done to you. 16Truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

Let us pray:  “God of Love, sometimes we don’t always know where we belong, other times we are afraid to be ourselves.  We ask this day, oh God, that your love would soak into our hearts, into our bones, that we might know that we belong to you, and to each other and most of all that you love us no matter what.  And then, oh God, help us to go out and embody that kind of love in the world.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.”

One day Jesus’ disciples have a really important question for him, a question that they have been debating for days.  They finally come out with it, “Who is the greatest among us?” they ask. Someone else shouts, “Yea, Who gets to sit in the seat of honor at your side?!”  Jesus on his last day with his friends and followers he finally gives them an answer.  He stands up, in the middle of what the disciples would think of as a perfectly normal festival dinner.  He takes off his cloak, pours water into the basin, takes up a towel, and bows to wash the feet of his friends.

Don’t worry!  We won’t need to reenact the foot washing today, I am betting that our confirmation ritual will give your feet a good cleaning.

But when Jesus starts bowing down to wash the disciples’ feet, they are shocked!  You see, as they made the long journey to Jerusalem for the Passover festival, these sandal-wearing men and women collected a significant amount of dirt, sweat, and yes even toe jam and animal dung.  And in most households the host would provide a bowl of water for them to wash their own feet upon arrival.  In others, the lowest servant would offer to wash your feet for you.  But now instead Jesus, their Rabbi, their Lord was going to be the one to clean the dirtiest part of their body, with his own hands, during dinner!?  So Peter, speaks up and says aloud what everyone else is thinking, Jesus should surely never demean himself with such a vulgar task!  So Peter says, “Jesus, you won’t wash my feet!”  And Jesus says, “You won’t understand this now, Peter, but unless I wash your feet you have no part of me!”

“Who is the greatest among you?” Jesus says that the greatest among you must take the lowliest, grossest job, not the seat of honor but the one on the floor.  The one who wants to be a big deal in my Kindom, must be the “foot washer,” the lowest servant.

Pastor and Professor Alyce M McKenzie tells a story about a time when her church decided to do a foot washing service a few years back.  She writes about this time when the administrative assistant in their church was tasked with setting up a foot washing service.

“It was the first (foot washing service) that they had ever tried, and, to my knowledge, the last. The pastor had the administrative assistant call down the list of Board members trying to get twelve people to agree to sit in a row up front (for their Maundy Thursday service) and let the pastor wash their feet. She got turned down six times. She got discouraged & ended up settling for half a dozen pair of feet up front instead of twelve.

That evening, as the sun set and the moon rose gleaming through the stained glass scene of Jesus in the Garden behind the altar, there they sat up front, in a line of folding chairs facing the rest of us, with their shoes neatly lined up next to each of their chairs… There was Joyce up there on the end seat.  She had had a pedicure just for the occasion.  I could see her bright coral nail polish blinking from my seat.  I could see Ralph’s “gold toe” socks neatly folded on top of his newly polished wing tip shoes.  I could smell a hint of Febreeze that Denise must have sprayed in her shoes just before she left home. We in the congregation got to watch while the pastor washed the six best smelling pairs of feet in the entire town.

But when I hear the story of the church elders and their perfectly pedicured feet, it does make me wonder, why is this foot washing ritual so embarrassing?  First of all, a foot washing is embarrassing because, I don’t know about you, but my feet can be pretty stinky.  I totally understand why those church leaders washed their feet before they arrived at church that day.  Don’t we tidy up our house before guests arrive?  Don’t we get dressed up for big occasions, like Confirmation Sunday?  Don’t we edit our virtual presence to reflect our most flattering selfies?  Personally I confess that I floss more regularly when the dentist appointment starts showing up on my calendar.

Molly Phinney Baskette talks about our “front stage” and our “back stage” selves.  You know how in a play or performance there is the front stage which is perfected & polished?  The stage crew has been working on it for months.  After each scene the set moves perfectly & quickly to set the stage for the next scene.  And then backstage you see the real action, the make-up artists, the set crew running to and fro.  There are costume changes.  The contraptions & lines that you pull to move the set.  And you even sometimes find the junk leftover from last year’s musical in the corner.  Backstage you see the real chaos.

And so this why we come to a foot washing with clean feet.  If we are honest this is how we move through most days.  We tuck away our imperfections, our fear, our real selves “back stage.”  We show up in the world as the sanitized, “Febreezed” version of ourselves.  And then, we live in real fear of being “outed,” having our back stage revealed to the world.

And to make things worse we them immerse ourselves with images of professionally manicured celebrities, OR photo-shopped, perfect bodies and even when we see the so called “popular” kids on social media – it is so easy to compare their perfected “front stage” self to our messy chaotic back stage self and then we feel totally crappy about ourselves!

And so this why the foot washing is so embarrassing because in a true foot washing, not the “Febreeze version,” you have to show your stinky feet, you have to be real.

The second reason that the foot-washing is so embarrassing, especially for Peter that day, is that Jesus’ radical display of love was also a radical reversal, even an undoing of the social order – which everyone is so concerned with when they ask “Who is the greatest among us?”.  Whoever we think is the “greatest among us” is maybe not so superior.  Or to put it more bluntly, Jesus’ life and ministry and death undoes the system that makes a “cool” kid cool and a “not so cool kid” not so cool completely upside down.

In Middle School (& I will share a top secret with you – even sometimes in adult hood!) there is this pecking order.  Whoever has their act together the most (at least pretends to) is at the top.  The kids who are perceived to be the most attractive, richest, most athletic, most talented, popular kids they are the best and we should all try and be like them.  And the loneliest, more “ordinary,” invisible kids are at the “bottom” of the ladder and we should avoid them, just in case anyone starts to think that we belong with them at the bottom.  But here is the twist, God’s love doesn’t work this way.  God’s love doesn’t rank us by our “cool” factor, or even by our “goodness” or our “churchy-ness.”  Jesus says I love you no matter how “cool” you are, or how much money you have, or “attractive” you are to your peers, no matter how many crushes people have on you or how many Lacrosse or swimming trophies you win.

One of the things that takes my breath away when I imagine the foot washing, is that we know that Judas was there at the Passover dinner and we know that Jesus knows that Judas will shortly betray him.  And on top of that, we know that Peter, and in fact all of the disciples will shortly betray Jesus.  Jesus, surrounded by his best friends who will betray him, does not react in pain, or anger.  Jesus doesn’t disassociate from them or shun them.  Instead he shows them the most vulnerable, display of love, this beautiful foot washing ritual, which foreshadows his death, his ultimate display of love.

While the disciples are grappling for the best seat at the table, and some are even plotting betrayal, Jesus bows and takes off his robe and washes their feet.  He says this is how much I love you.  My love is bigger than all of your betrayals, all of your “back stage mess.”  My love will pour out like water from the pitcher of a lowly servant called to wash your dirty feet.  And I will lower myself to such a place to show you how much I love you, even when you are at your worst.

Because you see, Jesus does not wash the disciples’ feet show us how important it is to have clean feet – Jesus does this to show how much he loves his friends – how much he loves us – how much he would give up for us AND he does this to show us how to love each other.

Jesus says my love for you is so big that I can handle your betrayals and imperfections.  Jesus says I love you, toe jam and all.

And then Jesus says, now it’s your turn, go out and love other people this way, with grace, humility, and forgiveness.  When you experience the amazing ways that God loves us, even in our broken places, that grace, humility and love gets somehow mysteriously stored within us and then it overflows.  At the foot washing Jesus says to us “I’m going to love you no matter what.”  And then Jesus calls us to go out in the world and be God’s love, to love people “no matter what” (Father Greg Boyle).  We are called to love the unlovable, to serve in the places that others would find reprehensible or at least embarrassing, to pray with the sick and dying, to fight for justice & peace when no one else will, to take care of the least of these – the left out kids, the invisible ones.  We are called to let go of the best seat at the table, and to serve our brothers and sisters, no matter who sits at the table.

And so sometimes when you wonder where you belong, or who would still love you if you revealed your stinky feet, your real self, know that God’s love is bigger than our embarrassment, our imperfections and our brokenness.  Today when you get dunked in that water and wash your feet, know that you are now called to take up the towel to go out and serve others with this kind of radical love.

And through it all also know that you belong here, that Christ Church.  That we are your home.  That we love your feet, even when they stink.  And that we need your help!  We need our feet washed too!  Amen.



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