I had this friend, and we served together for a youth weekend spiritual retreat. She had a phobia of feet: not like ewe gross, but like frozen, nauseous, can’t move kind of aversion. This youth weekend normally culminated with a point where the retreat leaders would wash the feet of the youth. I must admit, that even I, with no marked phobia, had an aversion to washing the stinky, sweaty feet of teenagers. But somewhere deep inside herself, my friend found the strength, and she powered through the washing of some sixty teenager’s feet. It was truly remarkable. I never asked where she found the strength, but I imagine that only through the power of prayer and perhaps crying herself to sleep that night.
In this evening’s gospel text Jesus will insist on washing the feet of the disciples. I can’t image that the sandal wearing people of an arid climate would have pristine pedicured toes and soft supple skin. Yet, as the laughter and the soft sounds of dinner died down following the meal, Jesus took off his outer robe and placed a towel around himself. You can imagine the discomfort in the room. As much as foot washing is uncomfortable for us, when Jesus picks up the towel of a slave and kneels before his followers, they revolt. Peter comes unhinged:
NO WAY! This is not the way it works. You will not wash my feet…nope, not gonna do it. This is the job of the invisible nameless people, not yours Lord. Let someone more fitting take care of the demeaning task of washing feet.
We can easily imagine the conversation about who is the greatest among them inverted and them trying to figure out who is the least because the least is the one who should perform this task. Is it Matthew…maybe John…Judas.
A few years ago I stepped into a local coffee shop to grab a cup of coffee to go. Looking at the barista, I knew he looked familiar. I kept trying to place him. Where had I seen him, was it church, school, I know I know him. Then as I approached the counter to order my coffee, The lightbulb went off. I recognized him. I had worked with him shortly after college in my first job in software development. At this point I looked down averting eye contact, I didn’t want to know what had brought him from the relatively lucrative software industry to working as coffee shop barista. I was suddenly embarrassing for him and wanted to hide. I prefer those people who are serving me to remain anonymous. I don’t want to feel ingratiated toward them. I want them to be the invisible ones. I need my barista to be faceless without any personal regard to the specifics of their story.
Perhaps you’ve been in a circumstance in which you came across an old acquaintance who maybe came upon hard times and took a demeaning job. And perhaps they had to serve you. It is a moment when the nameless are suddenly given name, when the social mores are exposed, that we avert our eyes, embarrassed for them, trying to reestablish the anonymity, “maybe the didn’t see me, oh i hope they didn’t remember me.” Or perhaps it was you who took that job and became the nameless one. There are countless people who work in the shadows of our lives, tellers, clerks, cleaning people, lawn services, ditch diggers, framers, drywallers, plumbers, electricians…
In this regard, there is something entirely subversive about Maundy Thursday. The truth is, we all have invisible people in our lives, whom we cross paths with daily. A delicate but persistent balance is placed upon our social context. We work, live, move, have our being in a world that simply insists, that needs, some people to remain invisible, unknown, unnamed. The powers count on this. The powers need this. The powers require this, and everything is enforced by our own deeply flawed and insatiable desires for more.
Perhaps in Jesus’ actions of stripping off his robe and taking on the servant’s towel, we might see again John’s Gospel prologue of a God who becomes fully human so that we might know love, that light might shine in the overwhelming darkness. We might see also the cross, the ultimate sacrificial act reflecting in the wash basin at the disciple’s feet. And I suspect we shouldn’t let it go unnoticed that both Peter who will deny Jesus and Judas who will betray him are washed right along with the rest. Jesus takes the lowly place, the invisible place, in order to undo the powers and desires of the human heart. Undoing that which makes it necessary for people to be invisible. That instead of lack of power and position driving who does what, who is entitled and who isn’t; we are driven deep genuine love that makes one a servant to all. Notice that Jesus does not ask, “what have you learned?” He asks, “what have I done?” In his actions, Jesus creates a new kind of community, a new kind people who will turn the world upside down, not with weapons and force, but by taking on a new commandment, to serve one another.
So here, as we take up the towel of Jesus and wash one another’s feet, we might be reminded of the undoing of power and position. As we wash the dirt from our neighbor’s toes, we might begin to comprehend the deeply sacrificial love that God will show on the cross. That in our revulsion to the task, we might learn something about the humility of Christ.
So I invite you into this act of self-sacrifice…of letting go of the embarrassment…of who should and shouldn’t do this…of giving yourself over to another pattern of life, a pattern of love for one another.