Take off your shoes! Takeâoffâyourâshoes. No, not literallyâfiguratively. But think about what that would look like in this placeâin this holy space we worship in. All those feetâour feet. Many of us would feel oddâall dressed up, but without shoes. Others might feel freed. Little children, for example, love to take off their shoes and run with abandon, with total unselfconsciousness, with innocence. Many of us older folks kick off our shoes the minute we get in the house after a long dayâs work.
Feet are amazing things. Even anatomically, theyâre small but incredibly complex. Theyâre our means of propulsion, our means of balance. For dancers, theyâre vehicles of art and beauty. They take lots of punishment, and often we donât think about them until they hurt or are damaged so they canât hold us anymore.
We find many references to feet in Scripture. âHow beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of those who bring glad tidings of peace.â Handel took this verse and composed one of the most beautiful solos in his Messiahâa powerful yet gentle offering of peace and glad tidings to all Godâs people. In the New Testament, a woman anoints Jesusâ feet with precious oil, and it reminds us of his eventual burial. Jesus himself tells his disciples that if they find themselves and their message not welcomed in a town, they should shake the dust from their feet and go on. Interesting images of feetâfeet just like ours.
And then, on this most holy of nights, Jesus âknowing that the Father had given all things into his hands,â as John tells us, laid aside his garments, girded himself with a towel, poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciplesâ feet. He began to wash themâthese feet of his followers whoâd walked many, many miles with himârough, worn feet, aged and young feet, menâs and womenâs feet. He washed themâthis man that the woman at the well just a couple of Sundayâs ago recognized as the Christ, this man knelt to wash the feet of his followers with humility and love and perhaps deep sadness, knowing what probably awaited him in the next hours. Perhaps, as Jesus held those feet, he thought of where these friends has been with him and where their feet would take them in the years to come. These feet would take these disciples into the midst of Godâs people to proclaim the Good News, to offer comfort and healing, to teach and preach, to convict and challenge. This Good News is now ours to share.
How seriously will we take this mission? How willing are we to take this mission and go beyond our comfort zone? Are we willing to go where this liturgy will take us if weâre paying attention? Because this is a liturgy that moves us almost literally from the sharing of a meal and the washing of feet to the naked image of a stripped table, an empty cup and plate, and finally into the still darkness of Gethsemane.
Our liturgy, perhaps even more than our feetâour liturgy tonight so full of ritual action, symbol, and Word can be what propels us and balances us and opens us to the creative ways we can truly be the people of God. We go beyond thinking of feet in a literal way, because this isnât really about feet. For many of us, our physical feet might not get us very far at all. Some of the most vibrant and passionate of Godâs people have no feet at all. We let this liturgy, then, with all its images, help us think about our relationship with God and our relationship with Godâs people and our ministry among them.
As we move into the story of tonightâs liturgy, we might consider the betrayal of one of those disciples. We may wonder what really caused Judas to turn his back even after sharing the bread and wine and after having his own feet washed by Jesus. How have we done the same? We can all probably identify with that movement away from the truth at some time in our lives. Perhaps we moved away from an opportunity to serve, to include, to reconcile.
In contrast, thereâs Jesusâ own movement. He, too, moves toward the darkness, but itâs a very different darkness. The Scriptures focus first on those gathered at the table. A meal shared as many had been shared beforeâuntil Jesus said, âThis is my body. This cup is the new covenant in my blood.â The Paschal mystery begins. Jesus moves from the table to a singular act of servanthood. Taking the feet of each individualâconnecting in an intimate and personal way with each one, Jesus pours the water, cleanses these feetâa very baptismal image, isnât it?
We can also probably identify with Peter. If this baptismal act would bring us into closer relationship with God, then not just our feet, but our hands, our heads, our whole body. Augustine writes that our hearts are restless until they rest in God. We yearn for that connectedness, for that depth of intimacy with God. We move towards that intimacy by paying attention to what Jesus said to those whose feet heâd just washed, âI have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.â Jesus meant far more than the washing of feet. He got their attention by that unique act, but he didnât stop there. He got up, laid aside the towel, and led them to Gethsemane.
He led them into the darkness of the night, into the dark expectation of his pending suffering and death. In this darkness, he will pray. In this darkness, heâll have to trust in Godâs promise. If we take following Jesus seriously, if we accept the role of a servant, we too, at one time or another may move into Gethsemane. James Montgomeryâs Holy Week hymn text tells us exactly what to do: âGo to dark Gethsemane, ye that feel the tempterâs power; your Redeemerâs conflict see, watch with him one bitter hour; turn not from his griefs away, learn of Jesus Christ to pray.â
Our liturgy will leave us here in the darkness. The meal weâll share will have been finished. Our feet will have been washed. The altar will be bare. The light gone. Weâll be left in darkness. But this darkness will not be without hope. It will be a darkness of solitude, of prayer, of remembrance, perhaps of repentance.
Leave your shoes off for a whileâwhatever that means to you. Not just literally, so we can wash each otherâs feet here tonight as part of this liturgy. Leave them off figuratively when you leave, too, so that we can keep washing each otherâs feet, keep being of service to one another, and keep on walking with each other into Gethsemane, to the cross, and into the promise of the resurrection.