April 5, 2012
William G. Carter
I stopped to visit her at the nursing home. We had a pleasant conversation about God. It seemed like we really connected. I stood and asked if I might conclude our visit with prayer, and she thought that would be splendid. In the presence of a holy God, I offered up our heartfelt concerns, our hopes for good health and the Spirit’s continuing presence. And just when I said, “Amen,” she opened her sparkling eyes and made a request: “Reverend, before you go, could you trim my toenails?”
That was a first. Many matters fall under the category of pastoral care, but no one had ever asked me for a pastoral pedicure. It was not a complicated request. She did not need cuticle cream or a pumice stone. I had a hunch that perhaps she wanted to continue our conversation and was not ready to dismiss me. But then she pulled the nail clippers from a drawer and nodded toward her undressed toes.
I sat down again, pulled up close, and confessed my inexperience. She confessed that she could not reach them, and that the nurse on her floor had no interest in the task. “Oh honey,” she had been told, “I have a lot of other things that I have to do.”
I suppose I had a lot of other things that I could have been doing, too. Places to go, people to see. The list in my head was growing, and trimming her toenails had never even appeared on my daily schedule. It was a simple task, and, from the looks of it, long overdue.
Except for the steady “click click,” the deed was done in silence. Final blessings were exchanged, and I was on my way.
I’ve My calling requires me to do a lot of things. Some of these tasks are topics that I studied in a seminary. Others are matters that I’ve picked up along the way. At the top of the list is an item that simply says: “Interpreting the Faith.” What does it mean to be a Christian? Not merely “what does it mean to believe?” But what does it mean to “be”? To be a Christian? To inhabit the word “Christian”?
If somebody maintains a prioritized list, they may discover items considered “beneath us.” Do you know that phrase, “beneath us”? Items that appear unworthy of our importance.
In my first parish, I lived in the house next to the church. The day that I moved in, I was told by Charlie the custodian that I was never to mow my own lawn. “It’s beneath you,” he said. “The pastor is not supposed to mow the lawn.” One summer, Charlie took a few days to go to the Jersey shore. The lawn was shaggy, so I gassed up the mower and took it for a spin. Charlie returned, saw what I did, and threatened to quit. “I told you it’s not your job. You’re the minister. You are too important.”
I know a lot of people who believe that. I know clergy who believe that. Just deal with the spiritual matters. Lofty matters. Theological matters. Those matters up in the clouds. Don’t ever get your hands dirty doing menial tasks. Have a chain of command for you to bark down orders. There are people who believe that, who live that way. But Jesus Christ was never one of them.
On the very evening when he knew that he was returning to heaven, on the night when he knew that all the authority of God was laid upon his shoulders, he got down on his knees, filled a basin full of water, and began to wash their dirty feet.
- He came to James, began to rinse and wash. James wasn’t so sure that the Lord should be on his knees.
- He came to Bartholomew, began to soak and scrub. Bartholomew felt kind of awkward having the Lord so close.
- He came to Simon Peter, who pushed back: “What are you doing!” Peter, so full of bluster, “You shall never wash my feet!” Jesus shoved him down and said, “If I don’t wash you, you will never have a piece of me.”
- He came to Judas Iscariot, splashed some water on him and began to polish. Jesus said, “All of you are clean for the time being . . . well, maybe not.”
This was the Holy Work of Christ – to soak, to scrub, to cleanse. It is the work that he still does, in power of his Spirit. He can make us clean, if we want to be clean. Do you ever find yourself in need of a good cleansing? That’s what he does. Sometimes without even waiting to be asked!
Simon still says, “What are you doing?” while Judas chooses to keep wearing his guilt like a dirty robe.
The greater point, of course, is that nothing is beneath Jesus. The whole story of our faith is that he comes down from heaven, right down here, and he serves the world. He scours the filthy. He gets down on his knees and gets to work for the benefit of other people. This is the shape of true holiness.
As Jesus prepares to be raised up to heaven, he leaves us this example. Do you love him? Do you wish to follow him? Would you be his disciple? Then give up all pretension and get to work. The way of Christ is the servant way.
So, as we approach the Table tonight, we must pass by this basin. The invitation is to remember how Jesus comes to serve. Touch the water and remember how he washes us. Lift your eyes toward the cross and remember how he takes our sin away. Pause and pray for the courage to do the daily tasks that are set before each of us, and pray that nothing would ever be beneath you. The way of Christ is the way of service. It is the only way through which the world is saved.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.