We use our face and hands to interact with other people. You can tell how I am feeling by whether I am smiling. We might kiss the face of a child or grandchild, or the lips of our beloved. We shake hands with someone when we meet them or pass the peace.
Our feet, not so much. Some of us have very pretty feet. We run around in flip flops or sandals on sidewalks and tile floors in malls. Most of us not so much.
Mitchell Tolle, the great Central Kentucky artist, paints these scenes of quilting bees and Pentecostal prayer meetings in the hills of Kentucky. The people in them are beautiful, the curves and the shadows and color. You can see under the tables and beneath the pews, some of the older women’s feet, there is a blue tinge beneath the skin where they may have circulation issues. Or the toes extend at a slightly off angle because they have arthritis. You can tell it is hard for them to get around, it hurts to walk.
Feet are personal. We are not used to people looking at them, much less, people touching them.
In Jesus’ day it was even more so. Everybody wore sandals or went barefoot. They did not step in their flip-flops from concrete sidewalk to carpet or tile. They stepped through dust and mud and manure and hay and grass. Like a barnyard. Their feet were not pretty, and may have smelled bad.
In our Gospel lesson for this evening, Jesus washes his disciples’ feet.
It is a scary thing for someone to wash your feet. Someone holds this deeply personal part of you. The water is cool and soothing. It is a humbling thing to wash somebody’s feet. You hold this part of a person gently. You let love come through your hands.
Nowadays, Jesus’s commandment would be as if he was telling us to actually wash each other’s feet. It would also be as if he was commanding us to clean each other’s toilets, or sweep behind one another’s refrigerators, or to change one another’s babies’ diapers.
We deal with one another’s unsightly, smelly humanness. We love one another.
For example, my friend Terry grew up in the Eastern part of Washington State, a very big farming community. They grow the wheat there that they make into noodles in Asia. Terry’s grandfather came to Eastern Washington State from Norway, crossed the North Atlantic Ocean in a twenty-six foot boat that someone in his community had made. Sixteen people in it. Now, mind you, they knew how to make boats in Norway, but still. His name was Jens, and he had strong opinions, which you would have if you had crossed the North Atlantic in a twenty-six-foot homemade boat.
Along with several other farmers, Jens had helped build this Norwegian Lutheran church in Eastern Washington. Attended for many years. Finally, after a long time, a controversy came up in the church, as controversies will. A church without controversy is a church without life. The question is how do we deal with the controversy?
This time the controversy came up because some people in the church felt like it was time to put indoor plumbing in the church building. Tired of going out to those outhouses in back.
Jens felt very strongly about this. He stood up and said that the church was a sacred place, a holy sanctuary, it was not appropriate for people to be doing things like going to the bathroom in the church. The outhouses were just fine to use.
The rest of the church listened to Jens, then decided that, even though Jens didn’t like it, it was still time for the church to have indoor plumbing. So they put it in.
But they left the outhouse for Jens. So every Sunday at church, sometime after the confession, Jens would get up from his pew, about half way down the center aisle, and walk out of church. You could hear the floorboards creak. Out the door. Could hear the door close. Around the church to the outhouse. Then, a little later, he would come back around the church, through the front door, down the center aisle, sit down again in his pew. Every Sunday. For ten years. Until he died.
The church was filled for Jens’s funeral, and funeral dinner afterward. After the dinner, some of the men of the church, who were all farmers, got their tractors. One of them had the forklift attachment on, and lifted up Jens’s outhouse and carried it away. Another came with a scoop in front of his tractor and poured some topsoil into the hole where the outhouse had been. A third came in with another scoop that had in it a Norway Spruce. They planted that Norway Spruce in the hole where Jens’s outhouse had been. It stayed there for a long time.
We deal with each other’s dirty feet. We do not let each other sabotage the church’s mission or hold it hostage. We are honest with each other. But we are not brutally honest. We hold each other accountable, but not stridently accountable. We love one another.
I have been here for nearly a month now. I have heard a lot of almost-visions, a lot of “Is it possible to hope?” I have also heard some hurt and some frustration. Well here’s some good news. Jesus is here. With Jesus’s love, we can realize some of those visions and hopes. Not all of them, but some. We can heal some of those hurts and frustrations. Not all, but some. It will take a lot of work. It will take washing one another’s feet.
In a few minutes, we will share communion. This is a deep part of the community of the church. The words are related. Community and communion. Jesus started this meal at his last supper, Maundy Thursday, the night when he commanded us to love one another.
At communion, all God’s people are present. Africans who dance into church with drums and rattles and singing are here. Eastern Orthodox and Ukrainian Orthodox, who stay up all night singing and praying and listening to the stories of our faith, the creation, Noah’s ark, the escape from Egypt, all night Saturday night, waiting for Easter dawn. They are here with their bells and incense. The Pentecostal churches of the inner city and the outer hills are here with their speaking in tongues and their prophesy and passionate praise. The churches of South America are here with their bright colored pageants and candles.
Those who have gone before us into heaven are here. Loren Waa is here. Elga Norgello is here. Jens is here.
This is the body of Christ. This is the community of love that shows the depth of God to the world. This is us at our best, washing each other’s feet.