Sermons That Work

Take off Your Shoes, Maundy Thursday – 2005

March 24, 2005

Take off your shoes! Take—off—your—shoes. No, not literally—figuratively. But think about what that would look like in this place—in this holy space we worship in. All those feet—our feet. Many of us would feel odd—all 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 day’s work.

Feet are amazing things. Even anatomically, they’re small but incredibly complex. They’re our means of propulsion, our means of balance. For dancers, they’re vehicles of art and beauty. They take lots of punishment, and often we don’t think about them until they hurt or are damaged so they can’t hold us anymore.

We find many references to feet in Scripture. “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of those who bring glad tidings of peace.” Handel took this verse and composed one of the most beautiful solos in his Messiah—a powerful yet gentle offering of peace and glad tidings to all God’s people. In the New Testament, a woman anoints Jesus’ 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 feet—feet just like ours.

And then, on this most holy of nights, Jesus “knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands,” as John tells us, laid aside his garments, girded himself with a towel, poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet. He began to wash them—these feet of his followers who’d walked many, many miles with him—rough, worn feet, aged and young feet, men’s and women’s feet. He washed them—this man that the woman at the well just a couple of Sunday’s 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 God’s 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 we’re 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 feet—our 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 isn’t 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 God’s 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 God’s people and our ministry among them.

As we move into the story of tonight’s 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, there’s Jesus’ own movement. He, too, moves toward the darkness, but it’s a very different darkness. The Scriptures focus first on those gathered at the table. A meal shared as many had been shared before—until Jesus said, “This is my body. This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” The Paschal mystery begins. Jesus moves from the table to a singular act of servanthood. Taking the feet of each individual—connecting in an intimate and personal way with each one, Jesus pours the water, cleanses these feet—a very baptismal image, isn’t 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 he’d just washed, “I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” Jesus meant far more than the washing of feet. He got their attention by that unique act, but he didn’t 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, he’ll have to trust in God’s 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 Montgomery’s Holy Week hymn text tells us exactly what to do: “Go to dark Gethsemane, ye that feel the tempter’s power; your Redeemer’s conflict see, watch with him one bitter hour; turn not from his griefs away, learn of Jesus Christ to pray.”

Our liturgy will leave us here in the darkness. The meal we’ll share will have been finished. Our feet will have been washed. The altar will be bare. The light gone. We’ll 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 while—whatever that means to you. Not just literally, so we can wash each other’s feet here tonight as part of this liturgy. Leave them off figuratively when you leave, too, so that we can keep washing each other’s 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.

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Christopher Sikkema


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