When I started working at United Way, I experienced culture shock in a number of ways. The move from a North End family centre to an office with a dress code (my son & I spent much time figuring out what business casual might mean). A staff more than twice as large. Enough staff so that I didn’t have to cover marketing, fundraising, staff supervision all by myself.
There’s one aspect that continues to catch my attention and feel like a culture shock. I very quickly learned that working there requires setting one’s ego aside. To put it bluntly, the staff does the work and the volunteers get the spotlight and affirmation. It’s a model of leading from behind. Staff prepare materials and strategies, – and then spend hours preparing volunteers to take the public lead.
It often makes me think of the Christian concept of servant leadership.
That concept has its origin, at least in part, from the time when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. And so when I saw that this was one of the passages for today, I was glad to consider the concept more closely.
As I read the passage over, I wondered what it might have been like to be in the disciples’ shoes.
I wondered how it would have felt to have their leader and mentor ministering to them in such an intimate fashion.
To put myself in a somewhat similar – albeit limited – scenario, I wondered what it would have been like had it been my boss. Someone I look up to as a leader and as a mentor.
And so, as I tend to do, I wrote about what it might have been like. As I read it, you may think of someone that you hold in high regard.
I should be clear that I’m not intending her to compare my boss to Jesus. Its more a bout trying to understand the disciples’ experience.
To do so, I picture myself with a group of my colleagues at a staff retreat. We’re looking forward to a day of team building and planning together.
Our CEO is scheduled to start the day by sharing her vision for the coming months and years. We anticipate being inspired.
She walks in, impeccably dressed as always. Suit jacket, business skirt, business skirt, nylons, heels . . . dressed the way one might expect a respected leader to.
After greeting everyone, she takes off her jacket and slips out of her shoes.
This is unusual. And weird.
As much as we know that she spends a lot of time preparing for her presentations and thinking about how to present – this is hard to understand.
She leaves the board room briefly and when she returns its with a towel wrapped around her waist. She’s carrying a cloth and a bowl filled with sudsy water.
She approaches my colleague and asks him to take off his socks and shoes. He does so and as he rolls up his pants, I can see that he’s very uncomfortable. Too polite – or caught off guard – to say anything. As she kneels before him, he looks around almost desperately, as if begging the rest of us to interrupt what really seems a little off balance. Who am I kidding – a lot off balance.
There’s whispering around me. I hear a couple of people saying that the pressure has finally gotten to her. Perhaps a leave would be in everyone’s best interest. Meanwhile, she slipped Jason’s foot into the bowl and began washing it. After drying it off, she rubbed peppermint foot lotion on – soothing feet that have been cooped up in socks and shoes over the long winter months.
Jason was still squirming as she made her way over to me. I had hoped she would go the other direction – I hadn’t figured out how to get out of it yet.
“Take off your shoes and socks, Heather.”
I don’t think that’s a good idea. My feet are smelly, my heels are cracked, I’ve been postponing cutting my toenails because no one sees them.
Besides, you’re our leader. You should be sharing your vision with us. You should be inspiring us to walk alongside you to make this vision, this new kingdom a reality.
Seriously. This isn’t cool. Watching you on your knees is not inspiring respect. Its not helping us see you as a leader.
“Heather, take off your shoes and socks.”
Okay – I don’t know what kind of crazy game you’re playing but if washing feet is so important to you, let me wash yours. That makes more sense. I’m sure you’re tired and stressed. Let me help you and do this for you.
“No, Heather. You need to let me wash your feet. If not, then you can’t be a part of this team.”
Well, if you put it that way. Weirdest ultimatum ever. Since its that important to you, let’s not stop with my feet. My hands. My face. I don’t understand this but I’m all in.
She looks at me like I’m overreacting. “Just your feet, Heather.”
Feeling uncomfortable because this is so backwards, I slip my feet into the water. As she washes my feet, I feel my shoulders relax. And as she later rubs the lotion into my feet, I breathe deeper than I have for weeks. I feel looked after, cared for.
As she moves on to the next person, I try to make sense of what just happened – and is happening for others. While I’m still uncomfortable that my boss say – and touched – my gnarly feet, that discomfort has become more academic.
Primarily, I’m feeling cared for, protected, loved – even if my feet are the part of my I’ve tried to hide. I feel seen and accepted, despite my cracked heels.
As I look around at my coworkers, I feel closer to them as well. Together we’ve been cared for. Together, we’ve been able to share a part of ourselves that we hide – and have been accepted.
Once she was finished with everyone, she took off the towel and put her jacket back on. She perched on the edge of a table and looked around.
“You confused. You call me your leader and boss– and I am – but that doesn’t compute with what I’ve just done.
“But if I, your leader, have looked after your needs and cared for you, that’s how you need to look after each other. The work is hard but we can’t do it if we’re not caring for one another.
“Just as I’ve seen you for who you are – cracked heels, corns, cracked toenails and all – and cared for you – that’s how you are to treat each other. Together we will be known as people who love each other, regardless of who we are.”
It took me a long time to soak in the message of that day.
The importance of not just accepting each other but authentically looking after each other. Caring. Loving.
Also that while its uncomfortable, sometimes we need to receive that care. I didn’t want to have my feet washed – it didn’t feel right and it was humbling to be on the receiving end.
And that its not about roles, positions, hierarchy. Its about love.
This passage takes me back to my MBBC days in the mid . . . a couple of decades ago.
We talked a lot then about servant leadership. About the upside down kingdom – where the first are last and the leaders wash the feet of those they’ve been called to lead. Where we all have a role to play in looking after each other.
As I thought about this morning, I envisioned a whole sermon on this passage. There’s so much richness in here – about love, service, power, and receiving ministrations.
But then on Saturday morning, as I was about to start writing, I thought I’d read all of today’s passages again.
This is the Scripture we read and that I just focused on – with its reminder (or exhortation) that we are to love each other. That our love for each other should be so real that people recognize it as unique and see Christ in us.
I see our church reflected in that passage – the care and loving that we provide to each other.
We didn’t read this passage, because mid-week when I told Sunnie the passages, I didn’t think I’d focus on it. Nonetheless, you may be familiar with this story.
Peter was in Joppa and was praying. (I always pictured him on a roof, because that’s how it was explained in my childhood Sunday School – but that may not have been the case).
He was in a trance and saw a large sheet lowered from heaven, filled with all manner of unclean animals. A voice said, “Get up Peter – kill and eat.’ Peter probably thought it was a test.
Oh, no. Nothing unclean has ever entered my mouth.
The vision was repeated 3 times. Just as the sheet was being raised the last time, 3 gentiles (considered unclean) arrived at the door. An angel had sent them to fetch Peter.
Meanwhile, Peter received a message at the end of his vision – a message to go with these men, not considering them as unclean or different from himself.
And so Peter did something he had never done before. He entered the home of a gentile, broke bread with them, spoke and prayed with them . . . and eventually baptized them.
I don’t know if we can imagine how shocking that was.
But maybe we can. we live in a world where:
- Indigenous children on reserves are attempting and committing suicide in heartbreaking numbers. Partly because of decades of our society treating their communities as less worthy or deserving
- where a front-running presidential candidate can incite hatred towards a group (or groups) of people based closely on the background or misperceptions of their religion.
- Under the guise of ‘religious liberty’ legislation, a couple of states have passed laws restricting where transgender people can go to the bathroom – and stating that businesses can refuse services to an individual based on their sexual orientation.
All of these, and I’m sure many more, point to groups of people seen by others as being less than, unworthy, our version of unclean.
And yet the Acts passage says that none of us is unclean, we are all equal in God’s sight, all worthy of God’s love.
A new heaven and a new earth.
The new Jerusalem where God lives with us.
All tears wiped from our eyes – death, mourning, crying, and pain no more.
All things new.
And the water of life, available for all who are thirsty.
While the rest of Revelation terrified me growing up (as one who was raised in the time of movies such as Thief in the Night and Left Behind), I remember loving this passage as a child and teen. I provided comfort on those nights after my mom died and I missed her desperately. And during those turbulent teen years when I longed for a time with no tears.
After reading through the passages again, I wondered why the compilers of the lectionary had chosen to group these passages together, on this Sunday during the Easter season.
As I thought about the combination, I wondered if they didn’t encapsulate much of the heart of the gospel.
We are loved.
And are to love each other
– and perhaps to accept love, God’s and each others’
We are to serve each other
I might suggest that the corollary is that we need to accept when others serve us.
We all have value.
There is a place for everyone in God’s Kingdom.
And we are called to accept each other.
Not to simply be tolerant but to go to, to break bread with those we may think are different than us.
We have hope.
Hope for a better tomorrow – and tomorrow’s tomorrow.
A time when our sorrows will be soothed, our aches calmed.
A time where the kingdom of God is realized.
I was asked earlier in the week if I had a focus sentence. I didn’t then, but I’ll close with one now.
Just as Christ loved and served us, we are called to love and serve. Not only each other but also those who seem other than. We do so knowing that someday our tears will be wiped away and we shall see God.
— April 24, 2016 —