A Sermon About Stinky Feet, Vulnerability and Pilgrimage

A Sermon Shared with the People of St. Matthew’s, St. Paul, April 2, 2015
Lisa Wiens-Heinsohn


On Maundy Thursday in Holy Week, Christians come together to honor Jesus instituting the practice of the Lord’s Supper. The first three gospels, Matthew Mark and Luke, all describe Jesus doing this on the night he was betrayed and arrested, and so, on the eve of Good Friday, we remember and reflect on this event. We remember it because the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, is central to Christian faith and life, just as Jesus’ death and resurrection are central to Christian faith and life.

Yet the reading for Maundy Thursday always comes from the fourth gospel, the Gospel of John—and John’s gospel does not describe Jesus instituting the Lord’s Supper on the night he was betrayed and arrested.  What John’s gospel shows Jesus doing on this night instead is to love his disciples, to command them to love one another, and to show them how to love one another—by instituting a different practice, the practice of washing one another’s feet.  Maundy Thursday reminds us that the heart of Christian practice, the Eucharist, is intrinsically linked with something we are less familiar with—washing one another’s feet, which is a particular expression of Jesus’ command that we love one another. So tonight I want to talk about that practice, and what it means for the people of St. Matthews at this point in our communal journey of faith.

In Jesus’ day, washing of feet was a gesture of hospitality.  It was an expected part of having a guest. But interestingly, hosts did not generally wash their guests’ feet. They would provide water and then people would wash their own feet, or if the host was wealthy enough, they could provide a slave to wash the guests’ feet. But the host never washed their guest’s feet.

And why is that? Let’s face the reality right now. Kids, have you ever smelled anyone’s shoes? How do they smell, a lot of the time? STINKY.  It can be a vulnerable thing, and even uncomfortable, to expose our feet or to wash another’s feet.

So what did Jesus mean, when he instituted this practice? It was one of the last things he taught his disciples. He told them that after he left they needed to love one another – and the way he wanted them to love one another was to wash each others’ feet. What do you think he meant?  

One immediate and obvious meaning is that we are to serve one another—that we are to take the posture of humility toward each other.  But I think we can go deeper than that.

Showing our feet involves vulnerability. Most of us don’t have pretty feet.  Jesus is inviting us to love one another past the easy, superficial pleasantries in our communal lives, and instead make space for each others’ vulnerabilities and serve one another in face of them.

Every community of faith is going to have to make sense of this for their time and context. In the context of St. Matthews, there is one way this is resonating for me.  Let me give you some background before I explain. As you know, the people of St. Matthews have become increasingly aware of and distressed about the shameful opportunity gap between people of color and white people in our own Twin Cities. We see the legacy of systemic racism playing out here. So we are in beginning a profound discernment process to learn about this injustice and ask God what we are called to do about it. As part of that process, last Sunday Dr. Karen McKinney came to teach us about race and reconciliation, which is the mission of God entrusted to the church. She shared with us a number of insights from the book that is called Reconciling All Things: A Christian Vision for Justice, Peace and Healing by Emmanuel Katangole and Chris Rice. According to this book, there are three things that prevent Christians in this culture from doing the work of reconciliation: our addiction to speed and quick fixes, our distance from the world’s pain and lament, and our claim of innocence.  Speed, distance, and innocence. According to the insights she shared from the book Reconciling All Things, she said that we can overcome these three obstacles in the following ways. Instead of addiction to speed, we can adopt the willingness to go on pilgrimage—the pilgrimage toward justice that is long, and requires stamina and humility.  Instead of distance from the world’s pain, we need to relocate to places where that pain is acute, and stay there until the pain becomes our own.  And instead of claiming innocence—we were not here when there were slaves, we did not create Jim Crow—we can educate ourselves about the inequities that exist and then publicly confess our complicity and the ways we have benefitted from these injustices, regardless of whether we created them or not.

At this point you may be asking what all this has to do with washing feet.  I submit to you that it has everything to do with it.  Each of the three moves that Dr. McKinney is asking us to make involve vulnerability and risk.  To slow down and get willing to embark on a pilgrimage toward reconciliation, we need to be willing to journey long on tired feet. To be willing to relocate, as Jesus did, we need to be willing to stay with the pain of the world until it becomes our own, just as Jesus did on Good Friday—which involves intense vulnerability and risk.  To be able to move from innocence to public confession involves exposing those parts of our system, including our complicity in them, that are not pretty.

In order to sustain a journey like this, we need through God’s Spirit to support one another in love that goes deeper than superficial emotion or idealism.  We need to be able to be real with each other in the ways that we are struggling.  We are going to need to be able to admit to each other when we have sore feet and aching hearts and real questions and not enough answers, and support each other in love through those times.

A month or two ago, after Don Samuels came and preached to us about his own long pilgrimage in the beauty and pain of North Minneapolis, in which he invited us to go and become his neighbors, I went on a bus tour that his wife’s company, the North Side Achievement Zone, runs in North Minneapolis. The North Side Achievement Zone says on its website that it exists to “permanently close the achievement gap and end generational poverty on the North Side.”  Most of us on the bus tour were white folks from the suburbs or more affluent parts of the metro.  Sondra Samuels, the President and CEO of NAZ, and an African American woman, said this at the beginning of the tour. She said, “As I introduce you to the North Side, I invite your questions. I invite all of your questions, not just the politically correct ones. I want you to be able to be real with me so that you can engage this place authentically, and because I want the chance for real relationships with you. Political correctness kills relationships. So ask your questions, and ask all of them.”

This was an incredibly gracious and kind move on her part. She was indicating a willingness to be present with us in the less pretty, less polished, and possibly even ignorant or offensive parts of ourselves. Why was she willing to do this? Because she knew who she was and where she was going.  She was willing to get real with us, even if it got gritty and uncomfortable, for the sake of her mission. What is it that can possibly give us the power to do anything like this?

I want to point out what gave Jesus the power to wash his disciples’ feet. What does the text say? “And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.” Jesus’ act was grounded in his love for the disciples, and in knowing that he came from God and was returning to God.  We too need to know where we come from and where we are going, for without that we cannot embark on a pilgrimage, but will just be wandering in a hostile wilderness.

Where do we come from? We come precisely from the daily reality of being transformed by the crucified and risen Jesus. Where are we going? In the power of God’s Spirit, we are moving toward God’s new creation, God’s new community—the fifth act of God’s five act play. We are moving toward and within God’s reign, where God is always reconciling people and creation to one another and to God in Christ.

The journey of reconciliation is a long pilgrimage, one that requires stamina and vision and countless small acts of love and generous kindness among ourselves.  Many of us are already on this pilgrimage as individuals. Tina Maynor and her family live in the heart of the North Side, one of the most impoverished sections of town. Valerie Matthews works with homeless preschool children on the North Side.  Charlotte Miller is a social worker in child protection services. Sarah Sannes is a counselor in a high school where all the kids with severe behavioral problems go. Mike Christenson is working to increase education opportunities for homeless students at MCTC. The list goes on and on.  And we are seeking where God is calling us, not just as individuals but as a faith community, to engage God’s mission of reconciliation more deeply.  I know for sure that many times, we are going to have sore feet from the sheer length of the pilgrimage we are on. As we stay in the pain and lament of the world our own hearts are going to ache. As we move from innocence to public confession, we are going to have questions we don’t know how to answer, and we are going to encounter less than pretty parts of ourselves that we don’t know what to do with.

We have already been given that beautiful and nourishing practice of the Eucharist, in which Christ invites us to meet him at his table.  Let us also obey Jesus’ command to love one another by cultivating a culture of footwashing.  We can engage in countless small acts of love and generous kindness toward one another, grounded in God’s love for us, when our hearts ache and our feet are sore and our questions are not pretty. Let us commit ourselves to God’s work of reconciliation in Christ in the Twin Cities in 2015, and 2016, and every year we exist as a faith community, for the long haul—for this is who we are and where we are going. It is worth all that we are and all that we have.  Amen.