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Footwashing Holy Week

As I removed my shoes tonight and pressed my feet to the cold tiles in the sanctuary I was taken back. . . .

In my final year of seminary I preached to my peers and friends at Southern Seminary. It was the first (and I suppose the only) time I preached in my seminary community (outside of preaching class anyway). It was Maundy Thursday in 1993. It was something of a renegade service. In the first place it was Maundy Thursday. Most of us had not grown up observing the church calendar in that much detail. Although if I’m honest I’d say that I had already washed feet and had mine washed on at least three other Maundy Thursdays before seminary. My love of ritual was awakened early and exercised often as a teenager.

In the second place, we met for worship not in the bright day light of the seminary chapel, but in the dark evening in the dining hall. In the third place we shared communion that night – a rarity in the seminary in those days. There were rules about the fact that we were not really a church, so the supper was only served in unofficial gatherings.

And then there was the fact that we washed feet. Among Southern Baptists this was the rarest of rare practices. Professor Molly Marshall was somehow behind most of this clandestine worship gathering. Although we must surely have advertised because a large group gathered. But then in those days of conflict and high drama, when Southern was changing hands from moderate to more conservative leaders, students held protests, marches, meetings and vigils that regularly attracted hundreds. So who knows how many were there or why they came. And since Molly long ago lost her job at Southern Seminary, I don’t suppose it hurts to recall her role. My particular memory was that she not only guided part of the service, but she also helped us get the basins for washing feet. Something was critical about the fact that they had to be containers not also used for food prep (makes sense!).

I helped prepare the communion that night as well as a sermon. We had numerous kinds of bread: white sandwich bread, whole grain loaves, pita, and biscuits. Yes, biscuits. We also had white, red and deep concord grape juices all in beautiful clear wine classes. No wine for the service. We were brave, but not stupid. It was still a Southern Baptist seminary for goodness sake. Another truth to tell: I may have been the only T-totaler on the premises that night.

As I removed my shoes that night, I stood for the first time, but not the last, and preached with bare feet. As I faced those gathered, I removed my wedding band and read the inscription: the date of my wedding (handy way not to forget that!) and the inscription: “Jn 13:34-35.” Then I quoted the verses. Jesus was speaking to his friends after supper: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, so you must also love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

The new commandment. Mandatum novum. Mandate. Maunday Thursday. The night Jesus commanded us one thing: love each other. By this one thing will we be recognized as followers of Jesus. Those who practice the Jesus story. By the love we have for each other. That was the reason we chose to place such a bounty on the large round communion table. A spread of tastes and textures. Our little effort to reach around the diversity of who humanity has been created to be. And we welcomed everyone to the table that night. We reminded each other that Jesus welcomes us all.

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As I removed my shoes tonight and dipped my feet into the cool water and had them washed by a new friend, I was taken up into the sweep of my own life, and into the centuries of Christians gathering to eat and wash, celebrate and grieve, live and die together. And it was good not to be alone.

Tonight I was taken back to remember the seminary story, and my place in the larger world, but mostly I was never far from the present moment of this season in which we have practiced grief for Lent.  And we washed each others’ feet and some just sat in the silence and song. Being present was the best they could offer. And it was a lot.

As I removed my shoes tonight and walked forward to receive the bread and the cup from loving hands around a gracious table, I was moved at the holiness of the ground on which I tread.

It has been a hard day. A hard week. A hard season.

For these small gifts . . . bread and juice . . . memory and song . . . passing the peace and keeping silence . . . words spoken and stories told . . . things unspoken and tears . . . I am grateful beyond measure. For in this love I recognize the faces of those who are following Jesus.

As I remove my shoes tonight and go to bed I will breathe thanks until I fall asleep.

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