A sermon preached at St Martin in-the-Fields on Maundy Thursday 1 April by Revd Sally Hitchiner.
Over the past week we’ve had some lovely weather. Enough that many have cracked open the shorts and T-shirts. I don’t know if you are a flip flops person but central London is so grimy that even if you start the day with a pedicure and perfectly polished toes, by the evening you wouldn’t want to show your feet anywhere near polite society.
Just walking through ordinary life gathers metaphorical as well as physical dust. The dust of strained relationships, another petty argument. The dust of loneliness, another meal, an evening spent without a conversation. The dust of long, strained, unrelenting hours at work or the anxiety of will I ever find another job. Yet another broken night’s sleep. The dust of worry about health. The hundred tiny blows of the telephone ringing and the uncertainty of whether it could carry bad news. Dust clings to you.
The disciples were dusty. There was the physical dust in a hot agricultural society.
At the end of my undergraduate degree I spent some time in rural morocco. There was no running water and the river had dried up so the only way to wash was in a basin. Eventually when I went back to a hotel before flying home I caught my reflection in a car window for the first time and thought “Oh I’ve got a tan”. I never get a tan unless it’s a bottled one from Boots so I was quite pleased. However all it took was a hot shower to reveal that, no, it was just the fine red dust that covered everything in the Atlas Mountains. The dust had become ground into my skin and changed what I thought I was.
On another level, their whole Jewish nation was dusty. Generation after generation had faced poverty and unrelenting persecution. Life was hand to mouth with ever-present threat of sickness or injury or a run-in with a Roman soldier. The tax man didn’t care if he left you with nothing to feed your children. The weather didn’t care if your crops failed and you starved.
Then there was the religious leaders. Petit Bourgeois trying to regain some control and authority by placing heavier and heavier regulations on those beneath them.
Don’t pick corn on the sabbath even if it means you go hungry.
Don’t come to the temple if you are disabled even if it wasn’t your fault.
Don’t come into the city if you catch a skin disease that might be leprosy.
Don’t, don’t, don’t.
The disciples were particularly dusty. Their hopes of seeing real change had been knocked from one painful rejection to another. Many of those who followed Jesus had deserted and even within their number, something sinister was growing as Judas began to plot.
They had been walking all day on the hot, dry mud roads, trapsing around Jerusalem looking for somewhere to celebrate the Passover early. The lambs slaughtered in the Temple wouldn’t be ready but they had to celebrate early as things were getting tense. The jubilant welcome into Jerusalem was fading fast and they wanted to eat together while they could. Who knows what could kick off in a few days. They had to be under the radar. They had to be on their guard. Living with this was exhausting. Their souls were covered with dust.
It was as if death had been put in a pestle and mortar and ground into a fine powder then spread throughout the whole of Palestine like the radioactive snow that fell in Chernobyl or Hiroshima. This dust of small suffering and sin was a corrosive, slow death but spread finely enough that you could convince yourself that it’s not so bad.
The disciples got a room but when they turned up there no one was there to wash the feet. “Best not make a fuss.”
In Jesus’ day meals were eaten in a circle on a blanket lying on your side resting on your elbow. You reach over to get some bread and dips or olives or vegetables or meat with your other arm. Your knees and, more to the point, your feet are pretty close to the next person’s face. Having your neighbour’s unwashed, dirty, smelly feet in your face would have ruined the meal. It certainly wouldn’t have felt like a celebration.
Washing feet was one of the worst jobs in a first century household. It was typically done by the lowest slave, usually a young teenage girl.
Who would want to squat on the floor, touch and wipe of the cattle dung and dust from between the sweaty toes of a dozen men carrying on their conversations above you or looking away because they don’t want to think about what you’re doing.
Maybe it was because they were all in survival mode, maybe they thought “by this point, when everything was falling apart, what did dirt matter?” Maybe there was an awkward moment when they looked down hoping no one would catch their eye and suggest they did it. Luke’s Gospel tells us that the disciples had been arguing about who was the greatest. Perhaps they were angry that someone else hadn’t assumed the role of the slave girl… the youngest disciple should do it, a disciple who had done it before, the disciple from the most uncultured background. No one of the disciples thinks to take the role themselves.
They all sat down and began lying in place for the meal. It had come to this. They just had to accept it, their lives were covered in dust. It pervaded everything and now because of someone else’s incompetence or lack of humility this would even include meals.
But Jesus gets up. Before they know what he’s doing, Jesus is wrapping a towel around his waist and reaching for the bowl of water and the soap. With all the confidence of a king ascending to a throne, he moves around the circle and bows before one of them, cradling a filthy foot, scooping the warm water onto it and wiping it with his hands so that the dust comes away.
“What is he doing?” The conversation the other side of the table falls silent. “Wait, what?”
Jesus scoops water and moves his fingers between tired toes, dislodging the small stone that had been irritating the flesh, moving the dust into muddy water and guiding it away from skin with more bright clean water, into the bowl. Then he wipes the clean skin dry with the towel and moves to the next disciple.
Perhaps for the first time, the centre of attention in a room was on the act of washing feet. Silence. Shock. Etching itself stroke by stroke on memories.
As they looked back on that scene in the weeks that followed the meaning began to come.
Not long after this they were carried into another kind of shock. Violence and loss swirled around them. Torture and death were surrounding them in the darkness of the greatest night of isolation.
And yet, even as they fled their friends and grasped at self preservation at all costs, in the moments they paused to catch their breath before they kept running something kept catching their eye. Their feet were cleaner they should have been. It was just one day’s worth of dust rather than two.
Back in the room, you can always rely on Peter to open his mouth. Peter had protested at someone of Jesus’ dignity stopping to wash the dung from his feet. It’s often pride that stops us letting Jesus into the dirty parts of our lives. We are willing to serve Jesus but are we willing to be served.
Unable to stop Jesus, Peter demanded that if it had to happen it should be a big event. Jesus had washed him on his baptism when John the Baptist and Jesus were baptising in the river. If there had to be washing, that could be fitting for Jesus but not this. “You don’t need that” Jesus says calmly. “Just let me wash the part of you which is dusty if you’re going to be part of my meal, if you are going to be part of me”
It took a while for the penny to drop how this linked to Jesus being God, until they knew that this was because everything had been put under his feet.
We would imagine the account in John’s Gospel should say “AND YET” – in spite of being Lord of the Universe he got up and washed their feet but the word John uses is “SO”. Because of his divinity Jesus washes their feet. This is not extra to God. This is what God looks like.
They had associated foot washing with lowliness but Jesus makes it about friendship, to be part of Jesus we have to let him wash the worst part of us. Jesus is so intent on sharing a celebratory meal with them that he will stop at nothing, even foot washing… and he’ll make that foot washing into an act of love. Like a mother changing a nappy of her baby, what we see is that God so connected with us, our dirt is something different. Of course it’s still humiliating but this is overcome with the expression of Love.
As the weeks and months unfolded, they realised that this act was also an explanation. It is an explanation of what was about to happen.
At that moment Jesus was about to be totally humiliated – spat at, his humanity made unrecognisable by blows and whips, stripped, exposed for all to see. For Jewish people this was not just embarrassing. They had a religious uncleanness associated with nakedness. They also have a saying “Cursed is he who hangs on a tree.” Cursed by God. The hands that so tenderly held their grimy feet would soon be caked in blood and nailed to a cross.
Strangely, this is now an act we look at with gratitude. We call the Friday on which this happened “Good”.
Jesus’ death is not dust, but a doorway. Because of this Good Friday, death not merely more suffering to weary your soul, this is suffering is also washing, washing humanity at its worst by deifying death. The poet Simon Armatage talks about the thinning of the English language as we have less shared narrative around faith. Wood just means wood it doesn’t mean suffering. If you use the word water in a poem it doesn’t also evoke ideas of baptism. But what Jesus does is expand the meaning of death. Somewhere in death, all death is now also… solidarity. This is the great act, not of dehumanisation, but of friendship, fraternity, union. And now all those who die can discover this secret. Death is not a journey into loss. God is with us in death.
The dust that God used to form humanity is now taken on the disciples feet and held tenderly by Jesus. It is washed, baptised and through Jesus’ death, we are resurrected so that even our feet are as new as the first feet that walked with God in the garden of Eden.
God is so committed to us that Jesus stoops to reside in any amount of dust and dirt to be with us. But he doesn’t leave us there. In preparation for the great feast of the new creation, Jesus washes us and the dust is transformed.
In fact, even in our death, the words that will be said over us are “Earth to Earth, Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust in sure and certain hope of resurrection to Eternal Life”