Monday, June 8, 2009

Footwashing Pastor

Ordination/Installation for Matthew Rose
Peace Lutheran Church, Barrett, MN
June 7, 2009
John 13:12-17, 20

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Of all the ordination services I’ve been part of, this is the first one where the Gospel lesson came from this portion of John 13. I’m struck, and I’m intrigued, Matthew, by why you chose this text for your ordination and installation here at Peace.

What you seem to want us all to know is that you intend to be a “footwashing pastor.” And that bodes well for you and the people you’ll serve. For if you aim to be a footwashing pastor, you will be following in some wonderful footsteps! You’ll be “tracking” your Lord Jesus!

What does it mean to be a footwashing pastor?

First, it means that you’ll offer radical hospitality to all of God’s children. In Jesus’ day, it was standard fare—the normal, expected duty of a host—to provide water so that guests could wash their feet. Footwashing was simply a mark of hospitality.

But a good host, the “founder of the feast” didn’t do the footwashing himself—not by a longshot. Footwashing was such lowly, humble work that a host couldn’t even make his slave do it! Washing smelly, dirty feet was beneath anyone; so you normally washed your own feet in the 1st century.

Why? Because feet were too much in touch with the earth. Feet traveled where animals traveled, where animals left their manure on the road—feet were soiled, unclean, mucked up, dusty, impure.

So it was the lowliest of all forms of personal service, to take a towel, fill a basin and bathe the parched, soiled, malodorous feet of someone else.

Which makes this story so astonishing. There is one person who by all accounts should NEVER have been washing feet in the Upper Room on the first Maundy Thursday. And that was Jesus! But there he was, strapping on a towel, filling the basin, stooping to bathe 24 dusty, filthy feet.

Jesus did not shrink from the stink of other peoples’ feet. Jesus didn’t ignore the mess of their lives. Jesus mucked it up, got drawn into the sorry predicaments of others--and nowhere is that more clear than here in John 13.

If you desire to be a footwashing pastor, brother Matthew, you’ll get involved in the messes people make of their lives. You’ll make contact with the dirt and grime of life—daring to offer a measure of comfort and cleanliness wherever it is needed. You will even come up against the ungrateful and the rebellious—just as Jesus our Lord washed the two feet of Judas Iscariot, moments before he betrayed him.

This is radical hospitality—opening the door widely to all manner of folks, bring all manner of messes into the family of God. A footwashing pastor says: “Welcome! Welcome to God’s presence! Welcome to God’s condescending love and mercy! Welcome to this family of sinners….”

But a footwashing pastor doesn’t just leave folks in their filthiness. Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. Jesus cleansed what was unclean….and in like fashion a foot-washing pastor welcomes sinners into a place where they can get cleaned up and start over, a place of forgiveness, repentance, renewal, new life, and a fresh start—all for the sake of Jesus Christ.

A second thing that a footwashing pastor does is to lead the people of God. This might seem surprising—because we often pit servanthood and leadership against one another. But that was not so with Jesus. In him, servanthood and leadership are blended together in perfect fashion.

To be sure, Jesus stooped as far down as anyone could when he abased himself at the feet of his disciples. But was he merely powerless in this action? Far from it!

Rather: Jesus claimed the most peculiar power of all when he washed those feet. Jesus declared himself free of all conventional measures of “muscle” or authority. Jesus seized power on his own terms—the power of someone who gives himself up for others, setting them free.

A footwashing pastor is a servant-leader. As you become a footwashing pastor today, Matthew, you are launched into a life of lowering yourself, putting yourself at the disposal of others. And even as you embrace that calling, you will invite others deeper into their own experience of servanthood.

In this fashion, you will lead by serving. “15For I have set you an example,” Jesus reminds us, “that you also should do as I have done to you.” Jesus’ act of footwashing in the Upper Room wasn’t a one-time, grandstanding spectacle. It was, rather, the inauguration of a whole new way of leading…leading persons deeper into God’s kingdom, leading by example.

For as long as you serve as a pastor, Matthew, you will use words to convey the Word of God. Pastors put out a tremendous number of words. We treasure syllables, we finesse phrases, we love language. God uses our feeble words to convey God’s own powerful Word—and what a miracle that is!

But here’s the kicker, Matthew. Even though some folks will remember you for your words, most will be struck by your deeds. St. Francis of Assisi once put it this way: “Preach at all times. Use words if necessary.”

This is not to devalue language, sermon or words. But it is to remind us that how we say what we say—and how we live what we say—is the “Bible” that others will notice first, last and always. Your confirmation students, Matthew, won’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.

My prayer for you, Matthew, is that God will produce in your life a congruence between your words and your deeds….and that by so doing God will make of you a servant-leader who winsomely invites others into following Jesus more closely.

Third, a footwashing pastor is a pastor who is always heading toward the cross, leading others to the cross, bearing the cross of Christ.

In the context of Holy Week, Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet was an appetizer, a preview of what was to come for our Lord. Jesus’ act of footwashing was a parable, and it was also prophetic. We might say that in the span of Jesus’ last 24 hours on earth, the washing of his disciples’ feet was his first step toward the cross.

And at the cross, we behold the depth of our Savior’s condescending love for us. The Servant of all is not merely abased by the act of footwashing; no….he goes as far as a servant can go—giving up his life for those he loves.

A footwashing pastor, brother Matthew, always is making tracks toward the Cross. A footwashing pastor points people to the Cross of Jesus, magnifies the Cross and the salvation our Lord procured for us there.

“For I decided to know nothing among you,” the Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians (I Cor. 2:2)…”I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” I have used that verse, Matthew, more than once, as I have begun and concluded ministries in the congregations I have served. And I commend that verse to you on this, your ordination day.

· A footwashing pastor pursues the downward mobility of the way of the Cross.
· A footwashing pastor serves God’s people in the muck and messes of life.
· A footwashing pastor leads as he serves—woos others into following Jesus.
· A footwashing pastor always knows where the road leads—to the Cross, the death that was died for us there….and the new life that sprang forth from the Tomb.

As today you take up your calling, Matthew, to be a foot-washing pastor, you don’t strike out on your own. No—you follow the One who led the way, Jesus our Lord. As you head off into what I hope will be a long and fulfilling time of pastoral ministry, people will notice—they will notice you, to be sure, but even more importantly, they will see Jesus in you. And what could be better than that?

In the name of Jesus. Amen.


  1. I want to again thank you for a wonderful sermon, as well as pastoral presence, at my ordination. This image of being a "footwashing" pastor will definitely become a guiding metaphor for at least my early ministry.

    ~Matthew, Pastor @ Peace Lutheran

  2. What a great sermon Larry!

    Diaconal Ministry is based around this text and so it holds a special place in my own heart but I like how you relate it to Matthew being a "foot-washing" pastor!

    Thanks be to God!