The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews
18 April 2019
St. Joseph-St. John, Lakewood
John 13.1-17, 31b-35
It’s only in the last few years, despite growing up in Alabama where it is very, very hot that I’ve really started to appreciate flop flops or being barefooted. I’m reminded of that in particular as Brandon and I just moved. We got rid of most of our rugs because we moved them to San Francisco and then to Seattle. They were not particularly nice rugs to begin with, so they’re tired.
We love our new floors. They’re cork. It’s soft. We can see a previous owner had a dog because there are little dog nail prints in the cork. What we can feel, what I can feel, has made me remember why I loved socks for so much of growing up. It’s because my aunt and uncle built a new house in rural Northwest Florida — Vernon, FL, where my mom grew up. If I wasn’t wearing socks, I could always feel sand between my feet and their tile floors. Their whole downstairs was tile.
Now it’s not sand; it’s cat kibble. It’s not even litter its kibble, because one of our cats needs to feed himself and then scatter food all over the floor. Then it gets kicked around. It’s not as bad as stepping on a LEGO. [Humor with parents in the room about children and the preacher’s expected child.] If I have a sock on, the kibble doesn’t bother me as much. All those grains of sand, where I can feel my feet getting dirty inside didn’t bother me as much.
I’m talking about socks and dirty feet because in the Middle East in the first century there weren’t socks. Everybody wore sandals. It was too hot. It was too difficult to get enough leather to make an entire shoe, so feet were gross. Like really gross. The rest of you could be pretty well covered. If you think about Middle Eastern dress today, there’s an aspect of it that is modest as people have lots of layers on. They’re also light layers, so it’s cooler than just being exposed. You’ve got some shade.
Jesus is making a point when he takes his robe off and puts a towel on himself and washes the disciples’ feet. Peter is Peter. Above and beyond everything. He’s also missing the point, or hoping for the point to not be made. Peter is the one who said to Jesus “You will not die.” That’s when Jesus called him Satan. Peter really is not interested in a messiah who goes to the cross or a messiah who washes dirty feet. Peter says instead, “If you’re washing my feet, just wash all of me then!” In that offer it loses the impact of only washing the dirtiest part of Peter, walking around in his sandals like me and my cousins in sandy Northwest Florida.
Jesus says, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. You are clean, though not all of you.” He knows that Judas is going to betray him, particularly in John’s gospel, written decades after these things have happened. Jesus still wants to make the point about his servanthood. Going up to the cross, soon, knowing it’s going to happen and letting it happen. He ends his time with his friends by giving them a new commandment: to love one another.
There have been some good discussions this week, on Twitter, asking why foot washing is not considered a sacrament, what’s called a dominical sacrament — that is a sacrament given directly by Jesus. We break bread and share wine because Jesus told us to. We baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit because Jesus told us to. More protestant traditions that don’t think anything happens in those events still do them because Jesus told us to. Here we have in John’s gospel Jesus telling the disciples that as he washes their feet they should wash each other’s feet too. In at least one tradition, they do not celebrate the Lord’s Supper at all without communal washing of feet — because one goes with the other.
At yesterday’s Eucharist I talked about some of the changes in our current Prayer Book as a result of Vatican II. The shift of tonight has moved from the celebration of the Institution of the Mass to Jesus’ new commandment. Maundy Thursday — Maundy from mandatum, a direction, a new commandment I give to you: Love one another. I’ve said this in sermons before: In John’s gospel, all of the characters are screen onto which we can project ourselves. Who we are in each narrative changes depending on where we are in our lives. It’s okay to say, “You know, in this passage I really identify most with Jesus” sometimes. Not because you’re perfect or because you’re fully God and fully human, but because something in the narrative, something in the passage, has a commonality.
In the story of the prodigal son I’m always the older brother. I’m the oldest of three. Different parts of John’s gospel I’m different people. Sometimes I’m the accusers who want to stone the woman caught in adultery. Sometimes I’m the person caught in sin who needs to be forgiven. In our passage from John tonight I really feel closest to Jesus. Not because I’m about to die, but because as Jesus says, “Where I am going you cannot come.”
I’m not about to die but I’m about to leave. I think it’s ten of you here tonight, are here. You’re here at most things. We’re almost a happy little twelve and Jesus. As we go into these Three Days, our last three days together, I want you [looks each person in the eye] to remember Jesus’ commandment, the new commandment he gives knowing he’s about to die, knowing that even after his resurrection he’ll be ascending and leaving, knowing that his community of followers will be experiencing something brand new! He knows that their anxieties are sky high, and they’re probably going to get snippy with one another. They’re going to be stressed and anxious, knowing that is the human reality he says, “A new commandment I give to you: Love one another.”
Whether or not I identify with Jesus I have seen some of the stress and anxiety that is normal among you. It’s okay. Change is stressful. Growth hurts. So remember this night, this meal we’re sharing the meal we’ll share in there. Remember Jesus’ commandment in the stress, in the celebrations and the sorrows: love one another. Amen.