A Maundy Thursday Sermon: Beautiful are the Feet
I heard a text from Paul’s letter to the Romans this week that reads:
Beautiful are the feet of those who bring Good News.
As a hiker, this passage strikes me as ironic. After all, hikers’ are not exactly known for their beautiful feet. Rather they are known for their bruises, callouses and ever-forming blisters.
“Beautiful are the feet.”
Part of me just wants to say to Paul, who wrote those words, reaaaaaaaally? Have you actually taken the time to look at the human foot? Are you sure that you would to call it beautiful?
What does Paul mean when he says “Beautiful are the feet”?
As I pondered this question, I came across a story about Mother Theresa’s feet. Shane Claiborne, a well-known young adult and Jesus follower, had the privilege of serving with Mother Theresa one summer and he said that one of the first things he noticed about her were her feet. They were deformed. Shane would stare at them each morning … he wondered if she had contracted leprosy but he wasn’t about to ask, “Hey Mother, what’s wrong with your feet?”
One day a sister comes over and says to him, “Have you noticed her feet?” He nodded, curious. The sister said, “Her feet are deformed because we get just enough donated shoes for everyone, and Mother does not want anyone to get stuck with the worst pair, so she digs through and finds them and wears them herself. Years of doing that have deformed her feet.” Years of loving her neighborhood as herself had deformed her feet.
It seems to me that Mother Theresa had beautiful feet.
Yet, even if I could see the beauty of Mother Theresa’s feet, I struggled to see the beauty of my own. I found myself arguing with a friend this week, trying to convince her that perhaps I might be an exception to Paul’s proclamation today by describing my feet in detail. Amidst my protests, my friend turned to me and said, “Yes! That is the point!!! YOUR feet are MORE beautiful BECAUSE they have worked so hard to bring Life!”
All I could was laugh, laugh at the truth, laugh at how, just like that, I could suddenly understand what Paul meant. Paul didn’t say beautiful are the perfectly shaped feet. Or beautiful are the well-groomed feet.
Paul said beautiful are the feet are those who love, who serve, who give.
And those feet get dirty. And calloused. And well-worn.
Paul calls us to proclaim the beauty of each other’s feet. And when we get down to it, isn’t that what Jesus does during the Last Supper? Jesus kneels down to wash the disciples’ feet, a job that a slave normally does. When Jesus gets to Peter, Peter looks down at his mud-caked feet and says, “Oh no, don’t do my feet.” In that moment, Jesus sees something in Peter that Peter can’t see in himself. He can see that of God in Peter, he sees Peter’s loveliness, he sees the lines on Peter’s feet that tell of the roads he had walked and the people he has loved. And so he says, “This is part of being a disciple. Let me wash your feet.”
And Jesus scrubs off the mud and filth until Peter’s feet shone clean.
Go and do likewise, Jesus proclaims.
Yet, sharing the message of lovely feet is no easy task. As Sara Miles, a middle aged woman and lay leader in California discovered.
Sara was new to her church, which was only thirty years old. When Sara met the founder, Rick, although he was warm and welcoming, Sara found herself becoming irritated with him, as she felt defensive about her lack of formal education and official Christian formation. When Sara became a deacon, Rick wanted everything done perfectly and gave Sara an incredibly detailed list of instructions.
So it was quite striking that when Sara served her first Maundy Thursday as deacon, as she grabbed a big bowl of warm soapy water and put it on the table that when she looked next to her, it was Rick who was her partner.
Go and do likewise, Jesus tells us.
As Sara looked at his face, he seemed annoyed. Sara worried that she’d made a mistake with the words of the opening prayers or used the wrong table cloths once again.
She knelt down before him. “Rick,” she said, “May I?” As she unlaced his shoe and slipped his sock off his foot, everything that she had felt for the man rushed through her: admiration, fear, frustration, anger, respect, affection, pity. She cupped Rick’s heel in her hand and splashed the water over him, and then bent over and kissed his foot.
It as if, in this act of foot washing, Sara discovers the truth of Paul’s statement. As she cups Rick’s feet and washing them clean, her eyes are open to their beauty, to Rick’s beauty.
Perhaps that is the call of today’s Scripture … to proclaim the truth of each other’s beauty, even when we can’t see it ourselves … to say to each other, “You have beautiful feet!” Or perhaps, if we are doing a hand washing, you have delightful hands!
Perhaps the call is to be like Sara, to wash the feet of those that we don’t yet know, of those we don’t yet like, until we like Jesus can see their loveliness. Until we can see our own loveliness.
Go and spread the Good News to each other and the world:
Beautiful are your feet.