Foot washing? Shoe-shining? or something else?

This is the sermon given by Rev Deborah on the evening of Maundy Thursday:

  • Exodus 12:1-4, 11-14
  • 1 Corinthians 11:23-26
  • John 13:1-17, 31b-35

On a harsh, grey summer’s day. Outside La Paz central bus station, Bolivia, a hoodie-clad young man in a black balaclava spots a drowsy backpacker steeping out of a provincial bus. As she looks around trying to work out where she is and where she wants to go, he walks briskly towards her. When he points his stained index finger at her scuffed Timberland boots, she begins to panic, gripping her belongings and looking round for help.

‘Miss, its three bolivianos’, he tells her in broken English, muffled by the black balaclava. Trying to undo the misunderstanding, he points to the tools of his trade – shoe brushes, shoe cream and a piece of yellowish cloth, which he was offering to use on her boots for the equivalent of sixty Australian cents.

‘They need a bit of a clean’, he goes on in Spanish. The shaken backpacker doesn’t answer and clumsily jumps into the first taxi that pulls over.

‘I scared her’, the shoe-shiner says and continues on his way, scouting for less jumpy customers.

His name was Edwin – although it wasn’t of course. After all, the whole point of wearing a balaclava is that you want to hide your identity.

Edwin is one of around a thousand young men – and recently, young women too – who hide their faces while they perform their daily work of shining shoes in La Paz. It is a humiliating job and they have long been socially derided.

In the gritty streets of La Paz, Edwin is one of the people who lubricate the informal economy of the city. That they are young, between six and twenty four, isn’t surprising. Nearly 65% of informal workers, from shoe-shiners to street sellers, are children under fourteen. In 2014 Bolivia became the first country in the world to legalise work for children as young as ten. (the minimum age had previously been fourteen.

Let’s now  flash back to Thursday evening of Passover, the Jewish festival where they remembered their liberation from slavery. In the city, preparations were being made. There was a buzz and excitement in the air.

The heat of the day was subsiding. A cool breeze blowing from the east. The sky was scorched and marbled with streaks of colour. An upper room in a discreet part of the city was book and a Passover meal prepared.

During the meal Jesus got up from the table. He took of his outer robes, tied a large towel round his waist, poured water into a basin and started to wash his disciple’s feet and wipe them with the towel. He did it so unobtrusively, that at first, they hardly even noticed it, thinking perhaps that someone had entered the room and a servant was doing this for them.

But when they saw that it was Jesus, that he was their servant, they looked at him with a kind of dumb belief. Why was he, their master, demeaning himself in this way? But he worked quietly, methodically and thoroughly. And they just let it happen. He was, in those few moments, a still, small voice in their presence, a voice of service that did this simple act of love with simple deliberation.

It shut them up  – for a moment. They received from him and that was never something they were good at. Like most people, they were happier being in control and this was embarrassing.

It is a funny thing having your feet washed. Feet are more private than hands but rarely looked at or love. They are not objects of beauty. They bear the weight and brunt of the day. Often gnarled, with skin that is broken and rough. Perhaps this is the original in ‘social distancing’. Even when  we have our full compliment it is usually a small congregation and there are not many volunteers willing to take of their socks and socks and place their feet into someone else’s hands. When it comes to feet, we tend to keep our distance.

But perhaps Maundy Thursday isn’t necessarily about feet. So, if it is not about foot washing then what is today about? After all, you can see a range of shoes with paraphernalia of shoe cleaning and we started with the story of Edwin, in Bolivia. Perhaps it is not  much the action but the example. The humility, the service, love. And there are some similarities between Jesus’ act of humility in washing his disciples’ feet and in Edwin, doing a humiliating job that is derided by others – a job where his identity is hidden because of the embarrassment of what he does.

Washing feet is a pointer. Polishing shoes is a pointer. Jesus is setting an example which is purely and simply about love. . It matches the new commandment, the mandatum,  that Jesus gives them:

“Just as I have loved you, so are you to love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples: if you have love for one another”.

Jesus undertakes this lowliest of tasks, not because he thinks he ought to, but out of love, because he’s running out of time to show them exactly how he wants them to live. He already knows that Judas will hand him over, that all his friends will desert him in the next few hours, that Peter will deny him three times this same night. Yet he loves them with a love so great that he tenderly washes and dries their feet.

So, what does this love look like?

  • The masked faces of doctors and nurses who continue to show up knowing that they are putting themselves and families at risk. Those are the faces of love.
  • The voice of a different tone, a deeper sincerity, when someone asks ‘Are you OK? Do you need anything?’ and you know they really mean it. That is the voice of love.
  • The social media posts about people at home sewing masks and scrubs at home, delivering groceries to neighbours, volunteers helping in whatever way they can. Everyone of these is an act of love.
  • The essential and often anonymous workers who have kept things going, supermarket self-stackers, utility workers , postal workers. These are acts of love.
  • Smiling at others even when your face is covered by a mask. Love never ends. Even if it is not seen or recognised, it makes a difference.
  • Creation more beautiful, people more precious than ever. Love changes things.

And what about Edwin and others like him. Surely the very fact that today we are polishing shoes enables us to identify with the poor and needy of the world. To recognise the lives behind the statistics and to stand with them. After all, Edwin wears a balaclava to hide his identity and the scorn that he gets because of the humble job he does. Masks/balaclavas are leveller.

Jesus points to the way of love, a new commandment for all of us – whether that be washing feet, polishing shoes or simply being there for someone.

“Just as I have loved you, so are you to love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples: if you have love for one another”.

As we polish these shoes, we are going to listen to ‘Ubi Caritas’ which simply means, ‘where charity and love are, God is there.’


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