Sermon for Maundy Thursday, the day for confession, communion, and washing of feet.
Some of you may remember the name, Francois Clemmons. Francois Clemmons is the Grammy Award-winning opera singer who also had a recurring role as Officer Clemmons on the children’s show, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. In 1968, Fred Rogers heard him sing and invited him to be on the show. But even though Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was getting quite popular, Clemmons was initially reluctant about playing the role. As an African American who grew up in the ghetto, he said, he did not have a positive opinion of police officers. He had seen corruption and officers siccing police dogs and turning water hoses on people, and he had a really hard time putting himself in that role. Eventually, though, he agreed, and he became the one on the show responsible for keeping Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood safe.
There’s a famous episode from 1969 that Clemmons says was especially memorable for him. The scene showed Mr. Rogers resting his feet in a plastic wading pool in his front yard on a hot summer day, and he invited Officer Clemmons to join him, which he did. So then, as they talked and sang together, these two friends sat side by side with their bare feet—brown skin and white skin—refreshed by the same water. It was a simple act but still a meaningful show of support for racial integration, Clemmons believed. And at the end, they even helped one another dry off their feet.
Again, it was a simple scene on a children’s television show, but still the willingness that Mr. Rogers and Mr. Clemmons had to sit together, to take off their shoes and socks, to roll up their pant legs and simply demonstrate their shared humanity—to each other and to the public—is inspiring.
This story makes me wonder, whose feet are in the pool with mine? Even before washing feet, whose feet are simply in the water with mine, maybe splashing and bumping up against my own? This also leads me to ask what would prevent me from sitting and talking with the others who share that water? Am I willing to listen deeply to their experiences and perspectives? Am I willing to be vulnerable and to keep my shoes off for a while?
As Jesus said farewell to his disciples, he wanted them to know that they were connected, that they shared something truly important. Just as they shared the bowl of water to wash their feet, they would each depend on the love and grace of God in all that was to come. They would rely on the compassion showed to them by Jesus as they continued his message and ministry. They would rely on each other, too.
Love one another as I have loved you, Jesus said. A little later he says, “I am the vine and you are the branches. Abide in me, as I abide in you.” Part of the way we are called to love one another is to recognize our interconnectedness. There are differences among us, we have unique gifts and challenges and experiences, but we are nevertheless bound together. That’s simply the reality. But we probably don’t want to always admit that. We keep our shoes on. We guard ourselves. We ignore both what we have to share with others and what we need from others. We forget who we are.
Tonight you are invited to show a sign of compassion both by washing feet and having your feet washed. Now, it’s ok if you’re not able to participate for some reason. But for all of this, still, I hope this footwashing tonight can be a reminder of the compassion of Christ that does fill us and also connect us. As we go from here to love and serve our neighbors we do not do so alone but with the presence of Christ and a Christian community. When we come to God for help and forgiveness and new life, again, we do not do so alone but side by side with one another all in need of that same grace. We are one, with the compassion of Christ at our center.