A Sermon for Maundy Thursday

If I 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.

Each Maundy Thursday we hear this gospel passage, and we do what we can to re-enact it in some symbolic way. Similarly, when ordaining deacons, the bishop instructs them to wash the feet of the people they are called to serve in their ministry.  It’s clear, isn’t it? Wash one another’s feet. Do as I have done to you.

Very simple.

And so, each year at the soup kitchen in my last parish, which conveniently opened on a Thursday, we washed the feet of our unhoused, addicted guests. We took bowls of hot soapy water, fluffy towels, and a stash of new, warm socks, for our guests to take in exchange for whatever they were wearing on their feet. 

On the first year, I set the station up, with the bishop’s chair, right on the chancel steps, and people watched with interest.  They began to wander up, tentatively, to see what was happening and some agreed to have their feet washed.  And as I washed, I explained about Maundy Thursday and that this is when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples.

And then in came Paul.  And I don’t remember seeing Paul before, but he staggered down the aisle in a pretty bad state.  Paul smelt strongly of alcohol, rolling tobacco, and other unpleasant things.  His eyes weren’t focussing too well and his speech was slurred.  He made his way to the chancel steps, and shouted at me to tell him what I was doing.  I told him I was washing feet for Maundy Thursday and giving away new socks and he said he wanted that, so I invited him to sit down. I asked him his name and began to take his shoes and socks off.

Now, for us, who have been in church for holy week before, if we are going to offer to have our feet washed, we might prepare for it, might we?  We come in clean socks, with washed feet, maybe even a pedicure!  Well, it turns out Paul had no such knowledge of this ritual and to say he had done no such preparation is putting it mildly.  His socks were filthy and wet, and his feet were worse. 

I peeled them off and discovered his big toe was badly burned. The night before he had passed out, so drunk, that he hadn’t been aware the gas fire was burning his skin and it was raw and sore. The dressing he had on it needed some attention, but I set about washing his feet as best I could. 

This great idea of foot washing no longer seemed so great.  This charge from Jesus, and the bishop, was certainly not glamorous, nor was it easy.  And as I washed Paul’s feet, I talked to him. 

He told me his partner had left him the night before and fled to a refuge because he had beaten her, so badly.  He was remorseful – a bit – but mostly he was annoyed at being left, and he had drank his feelings, all night, out of anger and hurt.  And I continued to wash, and truthfully, I wanted to squeeze his poorly toe at various things he said. The way he spoke was vile; his opinion of women was gross and his capacity to take any responsibility for the state he was in was nil. Honestly, I was disgusted really, and I was so cross that I was there on my knees in front of him, doing this thing Jesus asks of us. 

Paul didn’t have an amazing conversion experience.  He still came, each week, in various stages of drunkenness, eventually reunited with his partner.  And I sometimes think of him and wonder if he is still alive. I wonder if he remembers having his feet washed; if he remembers how honest he was in that conversation about his anger and his struggles with his violence and his addictions.  I wonder if anyone ever washed his feet before, and told him it was because Jesus had told his followers to do the same, as an act of love. And I wonder if he knows he is worth loving.

As I washed Paul’s feet, and spoke to him each week, my attitude was often so wrong, but Jesus kept on breaking in, as he always does.  And love was somehow there. Sometimes hard to spot and certainly hard to feel, but always there.

Paul is worth loving, worthy of loving, because we have been loved by Christ and have been commanded to pass that on.  And I absolutely know that, in washing the burned and filthy feet of a man who had beaten his partner in an alcohol-fuelled rage, Jesus grew more love inside me and taught me that loving people is sometimes hideously inconvenient; it can smell bad and mess with my head and core values, but it is the command.  And that it was a tangible, outward expression of something beautiful to Paul; something he may have never known before.  And it was from God, because it wasn’t from me.

Wash one another’s feet. Do as I have done to you, Jesus says. And do it out of love for one another; whatever it costs and whatever it takes.  Love indiscriminately and outrageously.  Love when it hurts and when it makes you mad. When it is inconvenient and makes no sense. Love when it gets in the way of what you think is right and wrong. Love like Christ; when it gets you beaten, unfairly tried and killed.  Love when everyone else has stopped.  This is Christ’s commandment; do as I have done to you. Love as I have loved you. 

By this will people know you are my disciples if you have love for one another. Amen.

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