A Sermon Preached on Maundy Thursday 2021
They did not know, as we do now,
though empires rise and fall,
your Kingdom shall not cease to grow
till love embraces all.
The words I just quoted come from the hymn, “To Mock Your Reign, O Dearest Lord.” I wanted to start my sermon with them because I think they tell a story of a love that has teeth.
We often think of love as passive, even quaint, but these lyrics suggest that love is a force to be reckoned with. It is revolutionary, because it will not cease to grow beyond and apart from the social and political world we live in. Like ivy on a building, it covers and transforms every edifice, and every imperfect structure of human creation.
In the act of foot-washing, Jesus shows us how we can participate in this active and growing, revolutionary love.
Under normal circumstances, we would spend this evening participating in the foot washing ritual Jesus began in the Gospel. I have always found this ritual to be one of the strangest and most awkward events of the church year.
As a kid growing up in a tradition that didn’t even do communion every Sunday, I could not for the life of me figure out why we were so committed to sticking our unwashed, sandaled, Florida feet in buckets full of dirty water, while the nearest parishioner delicately took them between their hands. As a shy and germ-conscious preteen, there could be nothing more embarrassing or alarming than such an act.
And to make matters worse, the sermon for the day often honed in on just how dirty those disciples’ feet must have been, seeing how they lived in pedestrian society and walked the dirt roads in sandals all day. It made me squirm in my seat. In fact, I was so weirded out by Maundy Thursday that I refused to participate in foot-washing until I was in my mid-twenties.
On the day of my first foot-washing, I remember feeling a sudden urge to march down from the choir loft and just do it. I couldn’t explain why it suddenly felt possible for me, I just knew the Holy Spirit was calling me to confront my discomfort.
I knelt down by the altar table and washed the stinky feet of a teenage girl who had struggled to untie her Converse high-tops for the occasion. Then, an older choir member who I didn’t have a particularly good relationship with, washed mine.
All that grimy, uncomfortable strangeness! And yet, you know what I felt? I felt free. I wasn’t embarrassed or grossed out. I felt like I belonged in a way I hadn’t experienced for a long time. I found one of the clergy team afterward and remarked to her that something inside me had shifted.
You see, all this time I thought I would lose my pride in having to wash someone else’s feet, but I didn’t realize I was really trying to keep someone from washing mine. I didn’t want to be the one perceived as in need of washing. Until that experience, I had thought that foot washing was just a silly relic of the past.
Suddenly, I realized that Jesus’ remarkable act of washing his disciples’ feet was a living act that continues to teach us how to live and love well. As one commentary notes, that first foot washing revealed that: “Jesus loved them until the end of his life, and he loved them in a way that surpasses all imaginable loving.” When my fellow church member knelt down and washed my feet, I felt that I had been touched by the powerful love of Christ. And I felt a new motivation to act as a member of the Body of Christ.
So let me get back to those hymn lyrics, because I want to think about something for a little bit. If Maundy Thursday’s foot-washing shows us what Christ’s love looks like, a love that is paradoxically both humble and assertive, I wonder what that means for the world.
What it means for those “empires that rise and fall.” Because we know that Jesus’ death on the Cross wasn’t just for our personal salvation and personal transformation. Theologian Walter Rauschenbusch put it this way: “The purpose of all that Jesus said and did and hoped to do was always the social redemption of the entire life of the human race on earth.”
With Jesus’ social mission in mind, I see the equalizing act of foot-washing as an echo of Mary’s words in the Magnificat. When Mary hears that she is pregnant with the Son of God, she sings a very peculiar song:
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
This is not the passive, quaint language of a lullaby. This is revolutionary. Mary has a sudden urge to tell of God’s love by reminding the listener that God’s kingdom is a place of unstoppable growth. Like ivy on a building, it has the power to crush the brick and concrete of injustice.
Her words tell us something about the working of God in the world. And they’re often used politically to suggest that Christians should participate in uprisings and even violence. Mary’s words do sound violent, because we are so used to experiencing social transformation through acts of war.
But if foot-washing is God’s way of telling us what the Kingdom looks like, I think that means that the powerful need their feet washed.
Hear me out, because it takes one to know one. No, I may not be considered powerful in the grand scheme of things, but I know firsthand what it feels like to evade the humbling act of sitting down while someone awkwardly washes my feet.
I know what it feels like to try to puff myself up and isolate myself from others so they can’t see my faults. I know what it looks like to hoard things and count my money, and to focus on earthly power at the cost of losing sight of God’s vision for humanity.
For the rulers of this world, those inclinations must be almost unbearably strong. There’s so much to gain, and so much to lose.
In so many ways, we can find ourselves yearning for the kind of earthly power that would put us on thrones someday, a power that would make us untouchable and unquestioned, away from the prying eyes and hands of others. Whether we like it or not, we are often working to grow empires of power and wealth instead of the unstoppable love of God.
But Jesus tells us what we must do. First, we wash each other’s feet, knowing full well that it means committing ourselves to an extended community of awkward, messy, fallible people.
People we’ve been fighting with. People we hate. People who will betray us. People with stinky feet. We do this in the literal sense when we can, but we also must do it daily, by examining our hearts for resentment and self-righteousness, by asking for both forgiveness and accountability, and by continuing to show up for each other.
In giving up the fortresses we’ve built around ourselves, I think we’ll feel something we didn’t know we had lost. Freedom. Not the freedom of empires, but the wild, unstoppable freedom of Christ’s love. This love topples the mighty by revealing that political power looks like prison in light of the Kingdom of God. It humbles the rich by suggesting that pride is a poison that turns us away from the connection we long for, as people made in the image of God.
Like the act of foot-washing, Christ’s love knows no bounds, and acknowledges no hierarchies. Through each of us, Jesus’ hands reach out into the world and welcome others to a practice that makes us understand our shared humanity, with all its pain and with all its pride.
We are mutually humbled and mutually freed to build communities where all are honored and accounted for. This love requires communication, it demands humility, and it asks all to participate. Most of all, it keeps showing up. It keeps responding. And it covers us all with the sprawling ivy of God’s belonging.
In the vision and practice of foot-washing, we see a model for enacting Jesus’ love. In humility, we step forward and start saying “yes” to full participation in the Body of Christ. Let us keep saying “yes” to God ‘til love embraces all.
 Christianizing the Social Order (1912 ed.), 67