Jesus can be so weird. So odd. I don’t mean goofy weird or creepy weird or inscrutably, unexplainably strange. What I mean is that Jesus is just so very different from what we would expect. Different from what society would expect of a respectable and successful person.
Consider this: Jesus is famous. He is a household name. He has a huge franchise. Countless millions want to invoke his name and claim to be his follower. Now the Church – the institution – may be falling out of favor, but not Jesus. Jesus is popular. Jesus is a big success.
How do successful people generally act? How do they behave? What are their goals and aspirations and visions? What is their attitude toward life?
Generally, the instinct is to build empires. To amass wealth. To lead companies, to build bank accounts, to expand spheres of influence, to exert control. Folks usually want to cash in on their popularity and make the most of their opportunities. They take advantage of the symbols of status by driving a luxury vehicle, living in a mansion, flying first class, vacationing in exotic locations and doing it all in style. They don’t have to do dirty or difficult or menial work – they can hire people to do it for them.
Most of us, of course, never manage most of these things but we aspire. In our own way, we can aspire to bigger, better, more powerful, more impressive. And then there is Jesus.
In our scripture for today, Jesus is with his disciples, sharing the meal on Thursday of Passover week. We have been making our way through the gospel of John, and for the next few weeks we will look at scenes from the last week of Jesus’ life. Amazingly, 10 of the 21 chapters in John focus on this one week. The gospel takes place over three years, and if John gave as much attention to every week of those 3 years as he did to this one week, then the gospel of John would contain 1560 chapters (I did the math.) Admittedly, a lot of important things happen in that week, but this is just to say how much John zeroes in on what we have come to call Holy Week. And if we wait until Holy Week to look at the events of Holy Week, we’re going to miss a lot. So here we are.
Jesus is with his disciples, it is just before Passover, and what does he do? He washes their feet. It’s not the image we would expect. This is far from the way we expect a leader, a person of power, a respected person to act. To imagine washing somebody’s feet, you might think that it actually is kind of creepy. The fact is, this was not uncommon in that culture.
To provide for foot washing was a common act of hospitality. Travelers walked hot and dusty roads, and the host often offered water to guests so that they could wash their feet. But the foot washing was generally done by the guests themselves – you washed your own feet. It was self-service. Or there might be a servant who would wash the feet of guests. But here, Jesus combined the roles of host and servant. He wrapped himself with a towel – taking on the uniform of a servant. And then Jesus himself washed his disciples’ feet.
This odd combination of roles is what Peter objects to. Hosts do not wash the feet of guests. Rabbis do not wash the feet of disciples. Leaders do not act as servant to followers. Jesus’ actions offended Peter’s sensibility. And if we are honest, this offends our sensibility. Because we aspire to be a success, we aspire to at least a certain level of social standing, and that does not mean taking the role of a servant.
The conversation that takes place between Peter and Jesus highlights the striking nature of the hospitality that Jesus provides for his disciples. This really is a surprising action.
Some of you may have come from traditions that practice foot-washing. Many Mennonite and Brethren groups practice foot-washing as an ordinance or regular practice, and Christians from a lot of different traditions may from time to time practice foot-washing during Holy Week in remembrance of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.
Martin Copenhaver, who was the president at Andover-Newton Seminary, told about the conversation a parishioner had in a small store near the church. She saw a man who looked vaguely familiar and asked, “Didn’t I wash your feet last Thursday?” The man responded, “I think so, but it was rather dark, so I can’t be sure.”
She went on: “I had never done anything like that before. That’s why I was so nervous.” He said, “Well, it was a first for me, also.”
Then they both became aware that the shopkeeper behind the counter looked both shocked and confused by what she was hearing. Seeing this reaction, the parishioner rushed to reassure the shopkeeper: “It’s not like it sounds. We are both part of Village Church. We do that kind of thing there.” The explanation did not help. The shopkeeper laughed nervously and then abruptly changed the subject.
Well, it is shocking, really, but then, we are following One who consistently shocked others by doing outrageous things - like washing his disciples’ feet, a lowly servant’s task.
It has been customary through the centuries for the Pope to commemorate Jesus washing the feet of his disciples by washing the feet of twelve priests at the Vatican each Holy Thursday. Over time, it wasn’t so shocking anymore, but more like a beloved ritual. But then came Pope Francis, who washes the feet of priests, yes, but also women and Muslims and people with disabilities and prisoners. There are those who have been aghast at what they consider outrageous and inappropriate behavior, but it seems to me that Pope Francis understands what it is about – that with Jesus, leadership means servanthood.
Most of you are probably familiar with Mister Rogers. Fred Rogers had a PBS television program, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, for 31 years. Some of you know that he was an ordained Presbyterian minister. He was commissioned to do ministry with children through his television program.
In Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, there were make-believe characters like King Friday XIII and Lady Elaine Fairchild, and there were also “real” characters like Mr. and Mrs. McFeely and Handyman Negri. A Story Corps interview aired on Natinal Public Radio with one of the cast of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Fred Rogers met François Clemmons in 1968 after hearing him sing at the church they both attended, near Pittsburgh. He was so impressed with his voice that he asked him to join the show.
At the time, François was a graduate student trying to get his singing career going. He was reluctant to accept Fred’s offer. But after realizing he would get paid to appear on the show—enabling him to afford his rent—François accepted. He was the first African American actor to have a recurring role on a children’s television series.
Part of his reluctance was that he was going to play the role of Officer Clemmons. He had personally had negative experiences with police, and had experienced firsthand the violence that civil rights protesters had suffered at the hands of law enforcement. So he really wasn’t sure about this.
But fairly early on, a scene from the show convinced him that he could help make a positive impact on society. In one episode, he had been walking the beat all day, and Mister Rogers invited Officer Clemmons to sit down and rest. Mister Rogers had his feet in a plastic wading pool and invited Officer Clemmons to take off his shoes and rest his feet in the pool. So he does, and then when he gets out of the pool, Mister Rogers takes a towel and helps dry off Officer Clemmons’ feet. Fred Rogers knew exactly what he was doing - it was a picture of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.
This was 1969. There was a thing about mixing races in pools. Martin Luther King had recently been assassinated. But here on this children’s program, there were black and white feet together in the pool, and Mister Rogers drying off Officer Clemmons’ feet. After that episode, Mister Rogers was on the receiving end of outrage and hate mail.
In the Story Corps interview, Francois continued:
I’ll never forget one day I was watching him film a session. And you know how at the end of the program he takes his sneakers off, hangs up his sweater and he says, “You make every day a special day just by being you, and I like you just the way you are?” I was looking at him when he was saying that, and he walks over to where I was standing. And I said, “Fred were you talking to me?” And he said, “Yes, I have been talking to you for years. But you heard me today.” It was like telling me I’m OK as a human being. That was one of the most meaningful experiences I’d ever had.Imagine that Jesus is not just washing the disciples’ feet. Imagine that he is washing your feet. Imagine that Jesus is looking right at you and saying to you, “I like you just the way you are.”
The call to follow Jesus is not a call to glitz and glamor. It is not a call to fame and fortune. It is not a call to popularity. It is not a call to success, as the world defines success. It is a call to service. It is a call to love all of God’s children. It is a call to probably get into some trouble, to probably offend some people somewhere along the line, because we are following One who got into trouble.
At the heart of Christian discipleship is service. Next Saturday, we have a group who will be going on a mission trip to Oklahoma. We will have fun, we will hopefully have some good food, we will enjoy being together, at least I expect that we will. It’s not really a big sacrifice. But it is about service. We will be there to do what needs to be done. Cleaning up the yard, hauling off debris, cleaning out storage areas, painting, doing fairly menial tasks – it’s not glamorous, but when we are serving we are asking, “What needs to be done?” and doing it.
Serving is doing what needs to be done for the sake of others. And I see this over and over again. In our church, I see folks who give of their time and effort, often in ways that go mostly unseen, to do what needs to be done. I know that many of you serve in our community, serve in your neighborhood, make a real difference in the lives of friends and neighbors and family members and students and co-workers because you have hearts of service.
The thing about service is that it is something all of us can do. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Everybody can be great, because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”
The call to follow Jesus is a call to serve. But there is also a flip-side to that. For some of us, service comes fairly easily. We enjoy serving others. But if we have a need – whoa, that’s a different story. We don’t want anyone doing for us. We don’t need help. We can take care of ourselves. We are self-sufficient.
The fact is, we are all self-sufficient – until we’re not. When we are unwilling to be on the receiving end, we are denying someone else the opportunity to serve. And what we are really doing is keeping at arm’s length the possibility of relationship.
Peter was offended by the thought of Jesus washing his feet. But once Jesus set him straight, Peter said, well, then not just my feet but my head and my hands too! And Jesus said, the point is not the cleansing power of water. It is the power of relationship.
The call to follow Jesus is a call to service. But it is also a call to be willing to accept service from others. We are all called to serve one another, and to serve all of God’s children.
We will receive communion this morning. At times, we all come forward for communion, at times we may do it differently, but most often, we pass the plates of bread and trays of juice through the congregation. A deacon may serve you, especially if you are on the end of a pew, but you may be the one to serve the person next to you. The pastor and worship leader serve the deacons, but then a deacon also serves us. You might think it is all just the choreography of the way we do communion, but behind it is this idea of all of us serving one another as we serve Jesus. Amen.