Sermon: Foot-washing can heal the world (Feb. 25, 2018)

Lent 2 (NL4)
February 25, 2018
John 13:1-17


When we left off, Jesus had just brought Lazarus back to life, called him out of the grave, and commanded the community to “Unbind him and let him go.” The act had so upset the authorities that they began to plot Jesus’ arrest and his death. Since then, a couple important things have happened: Jesus has gone into hiding to stay safe from the Jewish authorities. He has had his feet anointed by Mary (Lazarus’ sister) in their home. He has given his last public discourse, and, he has arrived in Jerusalem for the Passover. His triumphal entry into Jerusalem is what we normally recall on Palm Sunday, and that’s what we will do this year well – so dog-ear that page, we’ll come back to it! But now, we skip ahead to the eve of the Day of Preparation for the Passover feast. The Passover, you may remember, is the Jewish festival that remembers the story of the Exodus of the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, through the Red Sea, and into freedom. In the other Gospels, do you remember what major event happens at this meal? … The institution of the Lord’s Supper, in which Jesus gives the disciples bread and wine and calls it his own body and blood. In John’s Gospel, though, the meal is not the featured event. Instead, Jesus gives of himself in a very different way: he kneels down to wash the disciples’ feet. Let’s hear what happens. Please rise.

Public Domain. Wiki Commons.


Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

In 1964, in the midst of the struggle for civil rights, some black and white protesters in St. Augustine, FL staged a “wade in” at a “whites only” pool at a motel. It was a typical non-violent protest, like a sit-in at diners, not meant to do harm so much as make a statement. The owner of the motel was displeased, and he tried to drive them out by throwing acid into the pool water.

A few years later, a new children’s show began, hosted by the Presbyterian minister, Fred Rogers. Mister Roger’s Neighborhood first aired 50 years ago this past week. When Mr. Rogers was assembling the cast, he heard an African American man by the name of François Clemmons singing in church, and he invited him to join the cast as a singing police officer. Clemmons was hesitant at first – he had grown up in the ghetto and been poorly treated by the police, and didn’t think such a role would make much difference in the world anyway – but he agreed.

In an early episode, 1969, exactly five years after that motel swimming pool incident, Mr. Rogers began his show sitting in front of his house, with his feet soaking in a kiddie pool of water. He invites Office Clemmons to join him in soaking his feet. Officer Clemmons does, and the two men, black and white, soak their feet together. When Officer Clemmons gets up to leave, Mr. Rogers dries his feet for him. In an era in which black people and white people could not even drink from the same fountain, much less swim in the same pool, in which black people were routinely beaten and disparaged, Mr. Rogers publicly shared a pool with a black man, and then knelt down to serve him.

25 years later, for Officer Clemmons’ final appearance on the show, the two repeated the scene. This time, Officer Clemmons finished the scene by singing, “There are Many Ways to Say I Love You.” Later, in an interview with NPR’s StoryCorps, he commented, “I was not convinced that Officer Clemmons could have a positive influence in the neighborhood, or in the world neighborhood, but I think I was proven wrong.” (Listen to the StoryCorp episode of these stories here.)

Well, who knows the impact that scene in a children’s show in 1969 had on the larger fight for civil rights in America. No question, it was a bold move by Fred Rogers, to invite François to be a police officer on his show at all, much less to broadcast sharing a pool with a black man in that moment in history. One thing we do know, though, is that this scene, and the biblical scene it harkens, in which a first century rabbi named Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, has the power to heal the world.

In the scene we just heard from the Gospel of John, tensions are running high. The disciples and Jesus both know that Jesus is a wanted man, that the authorities are trying to kill him. They know something big is about to happen. To prepare them for this, Jesus doesn’t arm them, teach them self-defense, or show them how to form a human barricade around him. No, he shows them in the most shocking and unexpected way the depth of his love for them: he, the rabbi, kneels down to wash the feet of this ragtag bunch of sinners and misfits. This was unheard of in the first century – people generally washed their own feet, or maybe a servant girl would do it, but never did a rabbi wash the feet of his followers.

I said this simple act could heal the world – how could that happen? It’s not so much the act itself – clean feet alone are good, but that won’t heal much – but rather, what heals is the acting out of what is required to carry out such an act: namely, humility, and vulnerability.

First, humility: Humility in this case is a willingness to kneel at someone’s feet, even to become the lesser, to put someone else ahead of you. To metaphorically wash another’s feet is to take the time to dwell completely in the needs of another – not with the intention of responding, nor certainly to refute, but simply to allow them to be heard, and their needs to be met. It is taking the time and energy to notice what is someone’s deepest need, and then simply to be there with them in it, and in doing so, to genuinely connect with them. This sort of connection takes a lot of humility, but this humble connection that Jesus demonstrates is what has the power to heal our divisions and our pain, wherever in our life they occur.

The flip side of humility is vulnerability – and vulnerability is indeed a powerful tool for healing. It seems unlikely, doesn’t it, because we normally associate vulnerability with weakness. Like if you don’t have proper armor in battle, then you are vulnerable to injury. But when I say vulnerability, I mean a willingness to truly be seen. Just as the foot-washer exercises the humility to dwell in your deepest needs, the washed allows those needs to be seen and expressed. Vulnerability is letting another see not just the shiny exterior you work so hard to make look presentable and acceptable to the world, but also the dark, embarrassing parts – your dirty feet, as well as your broken heart. It might look like admitting some of those less nice emotions we all have – like saying aloud to someone else that you are scared, or sad, and what it is that makes you feel that way. It might mean being willing to admit you are wrong about something, or that something you did or didn’t do allowed for someone to be hurt. It might mean being brave enough to say something important into a group where you know others disagree. It might mean admitting you don’t have the answers.

Each of these runs so much against our instincts when we are feeling hurt – our instinct is to protect our hearts, not to bare them! When you break a bone, it heals by putting a cast on it, not by leaving it loose and exposed to further danger! Why should our broken hearts be any different? And so we seek protection by becoming harder, by hiding, or by lashing out. It is not generally our first instinct to respond to pain by opening our hearts to the possibility of more pain. Peter shows us this when he insists Jesus not wash his feet. I usually read this like, “Jesus, you have no business washing my feet!” but I wonder if there is also a bit of, “I don’t want you seeing that embarrassing part of me.” But, as Jesus points out, this sort of exposure and vulnerability is required to have a close and meaningful share in a relationship with Christ.

And why wouldn’t we want Christ to see these parts of us? Yes I know, Jesus knows us through and through whether or not we share it with him – but I believe healing can only come when we actively share them with Jesus, when we take off our shoes and socks and show our smelly feet to Jesus and say, “Here, Lord. Here is where I need to be well. Help me.” Maybe that happens in prayer, maybe in a conversation with a pastor or a trusted, faithful friend. Whatever the case, however it looks, when we can be vulnerable with Christ, healing can begin.

I keep thinking about that scene from Mister Rogers. MLK had just been shot, racially charged tensions were high, black people were being beaten and lynched… and a neighborly young man invites the black policeman in his neighborhood to join him a moment, relax, and soak his feet. Clemmons said later, “The icon Fred Rogers was not only showing my brown skin in the tub with his white skin as two friends, but as I was getting out of that tub, he was helping me dry my feet. And so that scene touched me in a way I was not prepared for.” Mr. Rogers took a risk with this scene, and so did François. Though on the show they are just two friends, having a nice chat, we know that to play out that scene in that particular era required immense humility and vulnerability. And maybe it did do something to heal, as François called it, the worldly neighborhood in which they were living. But at the very least, it brought healing to a young African American singer and actor – because someone had been humble enough to make a real effort to truly see him, to know him, to dwell in his needs, and because he was vulnerable enough to let that happen.

At the end of our reading from John today, Jesus says he is setting an example. That example is both to venture out to wash one others’ feet – that is, to be willing to notice and listen to people’s deepest needs and to dwell with them there – and also to be vulnerable in our interactions with others and with Christ. If we are able to do this, I believe that the simple act of foot-washing can indeed heal the world.

Let us pray… Rabbi, Teacher, you showed us what true love looks like: to be humble and vulnerable with one another. Give us the courage to follow your example, and in doing that, make us agents of healing in this broken world. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.