Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage* (John 13:1-20) transports me to one of those what-if experiences of life, a watershed moment where I could have been propelled on a very different trajectory of life than the one I have lived. Kim was preparing to graduate from seminary, and we were pondering and praying about our vocational opportunities. We dreamed of some day co-pastoring a church, but given the lay of the land in Baptist life regarding women in ministry, we resigned ourselves to the probability that our dream’s realization was a long way off. In the meantime, we drove down to Decatur, Georgia, to look into a community we had heard about, the Community of Hospitality. It was an intentional Christian community whose primary ministry was with the homeless. A.B. Short, the founder of the community, gave us the grand tour and we spent two or three days participating in community life, praying and discerning whether it was something we felt called and able to do. Of all the pieces of this community’s work – the feeding and the sheltering and the legal aid and the advocacy – the one piece that stood out, and continues to stand out for me, was the ministry of A.B.’s wife and co-founder of the Community of Hospitality, Ann Connor. A nurse practitioner and community health educator, she had discovered her calling in the care of feet. She operated a clinic for homeless persons, where they could come and get all manner of foot care. She talked to us about how bruised and battered the feet of the homeless generally are, given the amount of walking they do and the likelihood that they are wearing poor and ill-fitting shoes. During those two or three days, Ann Connor became the face of Jesus for me, as I thought about the vulnerability and the humility and the dignity involved in holding the feet of the homeless day in and day out. She embodied the love of Christ through the care of these least loveable parts of some of the least loved members of our community.
On the night that Jesus was betrayed, he founded a community of hospitality. He broke down socially prescribed roles and norms and expectations of privilege, taking the towel and basin that was generally reserved for the house slaves. He held the feet of his friends and fellow travelers, feet no doubt battered and bruised from miles of walking in worn-out sandals. He washed off layers of dust and filth, and I can imagine him massaging those feet while drying them with the towel, caring for them as if he were a skilled nurse practitioner. It was an uncomfortable experience for the disciples, but no doubt a memorable object lesson in the ground rules of the new community of hospitality. There would be no hierarchy of power and authority and privilege. There would be no house slaves to do the dirty work. In the beloved community, they would wash one another’s feet. It’s interesting to me that Jesus established this simple, unglamorous practice as he approached the greatest crisis of his life. In the midst of intense upheaval over the possibilities of a Jewish revolt against the imperial Roman occupation, he was about to be betrayed by a friend, seized by the powers, tried by the religious authorities, and executed by the Romans. He knew what was coming. And instead of focusing on the grand narratives of imperial politics and religious power plays swirling all around, he turned his attention to twelve pair of dirty feet, and began washing. A lesson in humility? Yes, but it was so much more. Tending to feet was nothing short of a radical re-orientation of community life.
Kim and I felt very much at home in the community of hospitality, and had a sense that it would be a great place to live and engage in ministry. As fate or providence would have it, though, just as we were making that decision to throw in our lot with theirs, we got a call from a small Baptist church in Stoneville, NC, interested in having co-pastors. The dream was not so far away, after all. And so we went, and spent seven years there pastoring the milltown church. We have had several experiences over the years, there and elsewhere, to participate in foot-washing services, generally during Holy Week. As meaningful as those experiences always are, I keep wondering about Ann Connor’s example. I keep trying to imagine how we can live into that radical re-orientation of life, where taking the bruised and battered feet of bruised and battered people into our hands is more of a daily practice than a yearly liturgical ritual. In the midst of our swirling crises of imperial politics and religious revolts and betrayals of trust, I wonder if our call isn’t to re-focus our daily attention, to put some feet to our prayers with someone whose calloused feet could really use a soaking and a good massage.
How about you? Where does this Primary Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.