On a Saturday afternoon, when I was a child, a door-to-door evangelist rang our doorbell. My father, who was an ordained minister in the Church of the Brethren, was the one to answer the door that day. I got really uncomfortable when people knocked on our door to try and save us. I still do. I didn’t want to be seen but I wanted to hear how my father would handle it so I leaned up against the wall behind the bookcase where the evangelist couldn’t see me.
When my father revealed that he was a seminary-trained minister the evangelist decided that he must convince my father that if he was going to heaven he needed to confess that the Bible should be read literally. My father said, “So you take the Bible literally?” “Amen, brother. Yes I do,” the man responded. “So do you wash other people’s feet?” “Excuse me?” the man said. My Dad pulled out his Bible and began to read from John 13:
After Jesus had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example that you also should do as I have done to you.
“So,” my Dad said again, “you take the Bible literally. Do you wash other people’s feet?” The man said, “Everyone knows that Jesus was making a symbolic point about how we Christians should behave towards others.” “Hmm,” my Dad said, “So he wasn’t being literal in this case because I actually think he wanted us to literally follow him in this way.”
My non-literalist father out literaled the literalist. I don’t remember the conversation after that because at that point my young brain felt like it was going to explode. Is feetwashing a symbol or a directive? I grew up hearing this scripture over and over again and so I have had years to ponder that question.
In the Church of the Brethren we read this scripture read at least twice a year as the centerpiece of our feetwashing services, we call Love Feast. My parents allowed me to start attending Love Feast only after I was baptized at the age of eleven. I don’t carry too many vivid memories from being eleven but I remember everything about my first Love Feast service. After the scripture from John 13 was read the women were dismissed off to a side room in which we would wash each others’ feet.
We went off to a side room because that was before the revolution of women wearing pants to church. In our dresses we headed off to a room in which we closed the door and all the women I saw on Sunday mornings unhinged their garters and removed their stockings. Of all the rites of passage in my life, that was the moment in which I felt like I was suddenly moving into the realm of adulthood.
Up to that point I felt invisible in the adult world of church. But Ruth, an older woman in the congregation, approached me. I knew Ruth. She sat in the very back pew on Sundays. She brought her quite elderly parents to church every Sunday and I had never seen Ruth smile. I didn’t think she even knew I existed.
But that night Ruth had a towel tied around her waist when she knelt down in front of me. She called me by name and she lovingly talked me through the process of having my feet washed. Then she encouraged me to do for someone else what she had just done for me. I have had people teach me to ride a bike, read, do Algebra, play a musical instrument, preach, make a bed….things practical and intangible….but the older I get the more I realize how pivotal that moment was in my life.
Of all the hours of my life that I have spent at church over my lifetime, it was being welcomed into that room of Christian women to participate in the ritual of feetwashing that made me understand best how to follow Christ. You can read the scripture from John 13 as symbolic and it is powerful that way…but something profound happens when you take it literally. If you take it symbolically you might take your service symbolically. But if you have been shown the fine art of actually kneeling down and washing someone’s feet, I believe you are better equipped to be a person of actual service…a person who is willing to do whatever needs to be done.
Henri Nouwen was a Catholic priest and a very gifted man. He taught at prestigious universities like Notre Dame, Yale and Harvard. He was an author who averaged a book a year, many of which were best sellers. He was a much sought after speaker.
In fact, the demand was so high for him that he suffered from burnt out. So he took six months off and went to work with the poor in South America. But as soon as he returned to the US he jumped back into the busyness of his life. Again he felt over burdened so this time he left and went to France to live in a L’Arche Community. In a L’Arche community those with intellectual disabilities and those without those disabilities live together and create inclusive and intentional communities. Nouwen was so moved by his experience in France that he agreed to become the priest in residence at a L’Arche community in Toronto called Daybreak.
Nouwen continued to do some writing and some speaking but he was always eager to get back home to Daybreak. One of Nouwen’s friends visited him there and saw him serve communion to Adam, the young man for which Nouwen had specific responsibilities. Adam’s disabilities left him unable to walk, talk or dress himself. The friend noticed that Adam did not seem to comprehend at all what was happening as Nouwen gave him communion.
When they were alone, the friend asked Nouwen about Adam. Nouwen told him that it took him nearly two hours to prepare Adam for the day. Bathing and shaving him, brushing his teeth, combing his hair, guiding his hand as he ate his simple breakfast were not tasks to be hurried. The friend was astounded and said, “Is this really the way someone as gifted as you should be spending your days? Couldn’t someone be hired to care for these menial tasks related to Adam?” Nouwen responded instantly, “I am not giving up anything. It is I, not Adam, who gets the main benefit from our friendship.” I think that until you have literally knelt down and washed someone’s feet you may have absolutely no idea what Nouwen is talking about.
Core to the identity of the Church of the Brethren is service. Once a month here we make and serve a meal for about 200 people dealing with homelessness and on another night a meal for college students. We are collecting food for the Inland Valley Hope Partners pantries and for the mobile pantry at ULV. We are sending money to help people rebuild their lives after the fires and helping two young women displaced by violence get an education. People here are trained and ready to go out to do childcare following a natural disaster. We have people going to North Carolina and Puerto Rico to rebuild homes after natural disasters. We are helping with refugee resettlement and visiting people in ICE detention. I could name others but in the midst of all that activity Brethren say, “Why aren’t we doing more?” I believe that strong centerpiece of service comes because we know how to literally kneel down and wash feet.
Today we are going to dedicate our leadership….those people who said yes to serving on a commission or on the board or on a committee or as a deacon here in this local church. These are not roles of prestige and power. They are roles of service. They haven’t been called to sit on advisory boards to tell hired staff how to do their jobs. These are the people who make sure we set the tables for Love Feast; who plan and help set up the Alternative Gift Faire; who call you about your pledge to the church; who dream and do; who kneel down and wash our feet and then give us the towel and the basin and ask us to do for others as they have done for us.
Derwin Gray says, “The disciples wanted a title, and Jesus gave them a towel.” At his last supper, Jesus got up from the table, tied a towel around his waist and washed the feet of his disciples. When he sat down he didn’t say, “Now someone should wash my feet.” He said, “I have set you an example. Now go and do this for others.” Jesus inaugurated a kingdom of foot washers. He said “no” to the idea that leadership is about power. Leadership is about doing the work and then asking others to continue.
In October, I attended the Mission and Ministry Board meetings of our denomination. Money is tight at the denominational level and so the General Secretary had asked all the staff to take on a role while we were there….I would call it a footwashing role. Someone had made a worship center. Another person kept toilet paper stocked in the restroom. And the treasurer of our denomination was in charge of taking out the trash. I was astounded. I almost said something like Nouwen’s friend…. “Is that really the best use of our denominational treasurer?” But he didn’t look put upon in anyway. The look on his face while he gathered up the trash seemed to say, “I’m not giving up anything…just doing what needs to be done while loving my beloved denomination.”
To those of you who have said yes to leadership by towel and not title, I say, “Get ready to role up your sleeves and do what needs to be done. Your work is to model feetwashing for us, literally and symbolically. It isn’t for you to say, ‘Oh, I’m the idea person and I am the smart one who gets to tell others what needs to be done in order for them to implement my ideas.’ This is a role that requires a towel around your waist and a heart for taking out the trash. This is a role of servant leadership. You get to be Ruth teaching young Susan the fine art of leading by towel. You are not only serving in this moment, you are raising up the next generation of servant leaders. Amen.