Let me tell you about something that happened recently in an affluent community in North Carolina. The story comes originally from Irving R. Stubbs, a consultant in organizational leadership.
There's a big congregation in this community, the sort that's called a "high steeple" church. The lay leaders of that church are also the power brokers in the town. The minister there reached a conclusion: he believed that the church did not adequately challenge these leaders to use their influence in bringing about improvements in the community. He wondered what it would take to get these established leaders to work for change.
Finally, he decided on a dramatic initiative. A meeting of these influential leaders took place, a meeting for which there had been careful preparation. The minister washed the feet of everyone present as a symbolic act of servant-leadership. He then asked them to participate in a retreat that would challenge them to use their leadership opportunities in service to others.
At the retreat, several major needs of the community were identified. The minister asked each leader to be the "champion" to get one of these needs met during the next year. Each leader accepted the challenge. Every one of the identified needs had its champion.
The group scheduled a review meeting for halfway through the year. By that time, 70% of the challenges had been met! Progress on the remaining ones was well under way. The champions brought substantial energy, influence, and resources to bear on the needs they had identified. They used their leadership opportunities to help their community in ways they had not previously considered. These power brokers had taken up their towels to be of service to the people around them.
In a few minutes, each of us will have the opportunity to wash feet and have our feet washed in memory of what Jesus did on the night before he died. Someone facing capital punishment as Jesus did could easily be excused for developing a bad case of tunnel vision the night before. But what preoccupied Jesus on that final night was what had concerned him since he called his first disciples. He spent his time that night teaching them, feeding them, and setting them an example, and he did all this in a way they would never forget and we will never forget.
So Christian memory devotes this night to teaching, to breaking the bread and sharing the cup, and to the washing of feet.
Our situation is more like that of those people in North Carolina than it is different. What's important is not whether we are recognized leaders in the local community. After all, each of us is a leader in our own life. Each of us has plenty of opportunity to do good. What's important is not how many committees we're on, and what doors our names can open. What's important is the use we make of the opportunities we have available.
Christ comes to us tonight washing feet, in the person of our sister, our brother, who kneels there with a towel. Christ asks that we do something more than put our socks and shoes back on. Christ asks that we recognize needs, needs for service here in our world, and that we do what we can to meet them.
The service which is yours to do will depend on your opportunities, your skills, and above all, your willingness. Don't feel you must do someone else's task that demands skills far different from your own. Wash the feet God places before you. That will be enough.
Consider who's waiting for your service. That person may be a familiar face or a total stranger. The person waiting for you may be at your workplace, in your school, at a community center, or even in your home. There's no shortage of people in this world, in this town, dying by inches for lack of love. What they need is someone foolish enough to serve them for the love of the crucified Christ.
Wash the feet God places before you. That will be enough. But something more will happen. You will not only wash feet, but set people free for service of their own. In my view, this foot washing should be counted among the sacraments. It's a visible sign of invisible power. Through it a current of grace continues to flow through space and time making connections to new circuits constantly.
Consider the lineage. Jesus washes the disciples' feet, and the power starts to flow. A North Carolina pastor washes the feet of community leaders, and the power starts to flow. Those of us here tonight wash each others' feet, and the power continues to flow. People who are served see the possibility of their own service. Their vision is wider than it was before, and the power continues to flow into new and unexpected circuits.
The servanthood we see in Jesus frees people from self-centeredness and the need for control. It sets them free from the desire to dominate, and enables them to trust that God is working among them. Opportunities expand, new life opens up, communities change for the better. Each successive example of servanthood sets the power flowing in fresh directions as others recognize the challenge and accept it.
This power gets into our lives, into our world, when Christ's example entices us, and like him, we dare to take the role of a servant.