Some time ago, a Presbyterian colleague of mine by the name of Thom Shuman was leading the children’s time during his worship service. (Many Presbyterian pastors, like many Disciples pastors, among others, wear robes on Sundays, and Thom was wearing his robe that day.) A little boy asked him, “Why do you wear that dress?”
While he waited for the congregation to quit laughing, he quickly considered how he should answer. Was the kid asking for the theological meaning of the robe?
Should he give him the full Reformed understanding of pastoral vestments, or would that go over the kids’ heads—along with the heads of some of the adults, for that matter?
Finally the congregation was quiet, and he answered, “It’s not a dress; it’s a robe. And I wear it to hide my wrinkled shirt.”
That satisfied the kid, and they moved on.
There are actually theological, as well as practical, reasons for pastors to wear a robe. Theologically, the robe signifies that we are set apart for a particular ministry. In our tradition, pastors have the freedom to decide for themselves whether they want to wear a robe. Some of us do, and some of us don’t.
As a practical matter, the robe can indeed hide a wrinkled shirt, or—and this is especially the case with female pastors, unfortunately—eliminate criticism based on what the pastor is wearing. I told you awhile back about a Canadian colleague of mine who got grief about not wearing a robe one Sunday, which upon investigation turned out to be not about the robe but about the accidentally revealing dress she was wearing that day. My friend Ben, who was a Baptist pastor and then moved over to the United Methodist Church, said he wore a robe because he only had one suit and people criticized him for that.
Some of us wear robes with bars on the sleeves, to signify our academic achievement. (Three bars means the person has a doctorate.) That links the robe back to academics, to graduation gowns, and to the day when a professor dressed in a robe when he went forth to teach.
But we’re not professors. We’re pastors, even though some of us wear the “Geneva gown” with all the pleats at the shoulders, which looks a lot like a professor’s gown.
And there are some who might say we ought not to flaunt our education in that way. With that said, once I finish my doctorate, I fully intend to get a robe with three bars on the sleeves to wear, at least now and then. I sort of feel like I will have earned it, just like when I finished my master’s and got ordained, I earned the right to be called “Reverend,” even though few people other than funeral directors have ever called me that. (I’ve been told that if a title, or a collar, or a robe, or whatever opens doors and allows a pastor to go and do ministry in a particular situation, then we should use them. Conversely, if these things present a barrier, it’s probably best to avoid them.)
A robe is the clothing pastors—at least some of us—wear to do our job, just like a cook would wear an apron, a police officer would wear a uniform and badge, or a soldier would wear fatigues. When I put on my robe, I’m immediately identifiable as a pastor. People who know me, of course, know that about me no matter what I’m wearing, but let’s face it: if I’m out in public on any given day, there really isn’t anything about my appearance that screams out, “Pastor.”
But just as baptism is an outward sign of an inward commitment—the decision to follow Jesus—the robe is an outward sign that I have been set apart for the specific ministry of pastor.
Disciples believe that everyone is called to some kind of ministry, inside or outside the church; but being a pastor is a specific ministry to which only some of us have been called. That doesn’t make the pastor better than anyone else in the church, though.
I once heard of a pastor getting all up in his church secretary’s face shaking his finger. “Let’s get one thing straight,” he said. “You have a job. I have a calling.”
He was called to pastoral ministry. She was called to ministry as the church’s secretary, and her ministry as church secretary began long before that pastor arrived and continued long after he left. I filled in for her at one point while she went on vacation—something I actually would encourage all pastors or people seeking to become pastors to do, perhaps to avoid the notion that hers is just a job while ours is something greater.
Of course I, and that pastor, do have a calling—but so do each one of you. You might not be able to do what I do, but that’s okay. I probably couldn’t do what you do, either; and the reality is that God needs all of us to do the ministries to which we have been called.
It is tempting, though, to get a big head about our calling if it’s a public one, something not everyone can do, something we maybe have had specialized education to be able to do. It’s tempting to put that robe on and say, well, I have a calling; these other folks are just laypeople.
Every person has a calling; we might have to do some thinking or praying to figure it out—or ask someone, because we can’t always see in ourselves the gifts others see in us. I just happen to have a calling to be a pastor, but that’s just one among many, and as I said, God wants all of us and all our gifts and abilities to be part of the body of Christ.
But if we are tempted to hold ourselves above others who have other callings, we put on this other bit of vestment—the fancy churchy word for the stuff pastors wear on Sundays that we don’t wear at other times—over our robes. Most of the time our stoles are fancy ones, in liturgical colors, with symbols and all kinds of other decorations on them. I have one my mom made me, one my friend Christy made for me when I was ordained, several that were gifts from other people—including the green one Kathy Bunch made for my installation here—and even a few that I made myself.
Oftentimes our stoles become the closest thing to a fashion statement that a person can make when wearing a plain black robe. So it’s helpful for us, from time to time, to hear the story in which the stole has its roots, the one we just heard read.
So Jesus and his disciples are sitting at the supper table on the night before Passover begins. The Evangelist sets the scene for us.
Jesus knows that his hour has now come. Remember how he said, back in chapter 2 at the wedding in Cana when his mother broadly hinted that he should do something about the lack of wine, that his hour had not yet come? This is what he was talking about: his “hour” is the time for his departure (in Greek, exodus), the time for him to be lifted up, as the Nehushtan—a bronze representation of a snake on a pole—was lifted up in the wilderness back in Numbers 21, to save the people.
John goes a little further, talking about the love Jesus has for his people.
The Fourth Gospel is filled with words that have multiple meanings, where he leaves ambiguity in how he wants those words to be understood. This passage is no exception to that. “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” The last phrase in that verse, in Greek, can mean to the end, or it can mean fully. I think it’s likely John intends for it to mean both of these at the same time.
Then Jesus demonstrates his love to his disciples. He wraps a towel around himself, gets a basin of water, and goes around washing all the disciples’ feet.
I would imagine you’ve heard, at one time or another, someone explain why it was important in that day and age for people to have their feet washed. Palestine is a pretty dry place, and in Jesus’ day if you wanted to get somewhere, unless you were pretty wealthy, you walked. If you had shoes—and I doubt everyone could afford them—they were sandals, which don’t really keep the dust off your feet at all. And given that people and animals all used the same paths, it wasn’t necessarily just dust that got on your feet…if you know what I mean.
When someone got where they were going, their feet were going to be hot and pretty nasty. So it was an act of hospitality for a guest to get their feet washed—or at the very least, for a basin of water to be brought so they could wash their own feet. And because feet were nasty, washing them would have been the job of the host’s lowliest servant, if they had servants.
A lot of churches have foot-washing services on Maundy Thursday, at least. There are a few Christian traditions in which foot-washing has been elevated to a sacrament, alongside baptism and Communion.
But most of us are as uncomfortable with the idea of someone washing our feet as Peter was. Even now, when we’re not walking barefooted or in sandals on dusty, dirty roads, our feet can still be pretty nasty.
I remember a family gathering at my grandparents’ new house, when it was either almost finished or had just been finished, at which I took off my shoes, and after only a few minutes everyone begged me to put them back on. It was early in my adolescence, and my feet stunk. I went through a lot of baking soda and Odor Eaters to try and keep my shoes from holding onto that smell permanently.
When I was in college, living in the dorms, I had a friend who was on the tennis team. Just about every night, if I was sitting in the lounge watching TV, Paul would come in and ask me to rub his feet. (I have no idea if he had an ulterior motive, or if he just thought I was a sucker.) Since he generally had his feet encased in tennis shoes—and had been playing tennis—his feet were sweaty and sticky and they smelled pretty unpleasant. And he wanted me to rub them.
We talked once about doing a foot-washing at a Maundy Thursday service, when I was on the worship committee at Murray Hills, and one of the other committee members said she knew a lot of people—including her teenage son—who would be very uncomfortable with it.
Feet can be nasty—if we have shoes on, they may smell from being confined and sweaty. If we go barefoot (as I do more often than not when it’s warm enough), there’s no telling what we might have stepped in. We may have calluses, cracked skin, hammer toes, bunions, or even toenail fungus.
I don’t even like to get a pedicure—something a great many women do as a way of pampering themselves—because I am mortified at the thought that someone else might have to deal with my feet.
Our feet are probably the least appreciated part of our bodies, and we’re sometimes embarrassed to show them to other people. And you’re going to get down there on your knees and wash my feet?
It’s just not something we want someone we consider to be equal to us—or who might even be above us on some social, religious, or workplace hierarchy—doing for us.
It’s a tradition for the Pope to wash twelve people’s feet on Holy Thursday, as a remembrance and re-enactment of Jesus’ washing his disciples’ feet in our reading for today. Oftentimes those twelve people have been bishops—only a small step down the church hierarchy.
But the first year Francis was Pope, he made news: He decided that instead of washing twelve bishops’ well-shod, well-kept feet, he would go down to a women’s prison and wash the feet of some of the inmates. What really made waves was that one of these prisoners was Muslim.
Most of us pastors who wear vestments on Sunday morning wear stoles. Some of us even wear a stole if we’re not wearing a robe—I’m not one of them, but I’m fine with others doing it. We have pretty ones, interesting ones, unique ones, ones with sentimental value.
At my friend Ben’s memorial service, his mother wore a rainbow-colored stole he had crocheted for her when she was licensed as a lay pastor in the United Methodist Church.
But those stoles, however artistic and pretty they might be, have their roots in the towel Jesus wrapped around himself when he went to wash his disciples’ feet. They’re meant to remind us of what we really are. We’re not members of any nobility. We are not to be called “Lord.” We aren’t the top of the food chain.
We are servants.
We follow one who set aside his claim to equality with God and took the form of a slave. And a servant is not greater than her master; so if the Master would wash feet, we cannot hold ourselves above any act of service.
Once upon a time I worked at a place where there was a pretty rigid hierarchy. The senior staff did senior staff things, like going to meetings and talking to the media and being in charge. The people in the front office made the coffee, typed the minutes and press releases, answered the phone, and did “other duties as assigned,” which was always the last entry in the list of duties in our job descriptions.
Then the fellow in the corner office, the Executive Director, and the Deputy Director both took jobs in New York City.
After they left, things changed in our organization. One thing that changed was that everybody in the office was assigned a week when it was their job to keep the break room, or the kitchen, on their floor tidy. (Previously the front office people had done that.) And everybody meant everybody. But not everybody understood that.
We shared the kitchen on the bottom floor of the building with the other organizations whose offices were in that building. Those others mainly used it if they had meetings in one of the conference rooms down there, while we had offices on that floor and that was where the folks who worked in those offices heated up their lunches or kept their coffee cups.
The other organizations started complaining about dirty dishes piling up in that downstairs kitchen. Because I supervised the person who set up for and cleaned up after any meetings we had in the conference rooms, the Deputy Director came to me first. I checked with Lisa, and she was cleaning up faithfully after our meetings.
So Stephanie looked at the schedule for tidying that downstairs kitchen, and noticed that the weeks we got the most complaints about its condition were the weeks when the Personnel Director was on kitchen duty. Stephanie talked to her, and she said, “I’m not here to do dishes.”
But Stephanie assured her that if it was her assigned week for kitchen duty, yes, she most certainly was here to do dishes. (Stephanie took her turn just like everybody else.)
When we had the cafeteria, my dad was most generally either in his office doing the things that business owners do, or—on Sundays, especially—he was out front greeting folks as they came through the line and enjoyed their meals. Now and then someone would need help carrying their tray, and if the folks who worked on the floor were busy, he would do that. Sometimes as he walked about he’d see someone who needed their coffee or water refilled, and he would do that.
And I’m pretty sure I remember one Sunday morning when the dishwasher on the pot sink—by far the nastiest job in the whole place—went home sick in the middle of his shift. My dad took off his tie, rolled up his sleeves, put on an apron, and washed pots and pans.
What if he had said, “I’m not here to do dishes”? Yes, he was the boss, but if something needed doing and there wasn’t anybody else available to do it, he stepped up.
He set an example for everyone who worked there, that they also should help out where they were needed. The worst thing a person could say to him was, “That’s not my job.”
And now, more than 30 years after the cafeteria closed, I’ve talked to people who once worked there, and they have remembered it as a wonderful place to work and my dad as one of the best bosses—if not the best—they ever had.
We pastors wear stoles that are meant to remind us of the time when our Lord—our Boss—wrapped a towel around himself and crawled around on the floor to wash the disciples’ feet.
But not everybody is called to be a pastor. So am I just talking to myself? They do say that a lot of preachers preach sermons they need to hear.
But no, even though not everyone here is called to be a pastor, everyone here is called to some kind of ministry. Everyone here is a minister. Everyone here is a disciple of Jesus Christ, who loves and serves our Lord by loving and serving our neighbors.
A servant is not greater than their master, and our Master washed our feet.
 This is one of the details in which John differs from the other Gospels, in which the Last Supper is the Passover meal—and because John’s Last Supper doesn’t include that symbolic meal, he can’t include the re-interpretation of the bread and cup that are part of the Passover.