If you don’t know the Bible (or Handel’s Messiah) then this phrase means nothing to you. . . but a lot of us know these words well. “How beautiful upon the mountain are the feet of them who preach the gospel of peace.” This Biblical passage has basically nothing to do with feet themselves – or at least I don’t think it does – but last night the words came to have new meaning for me thanks to a remarkable sermon given at our Maundy Thursday service by Pastor Steve Wohfeil. . . a sermon which included a rather dramatic moment when Pastor Steve plopped himself down on the front steps of the sanctuary and proceeded to taken off his shoes and socks while continuing to talk about the Gospel lesson of the night – the passage in which Jesus tells us of the new commandment which calls us to Love One Another.
Actually, the sermon began with an explanation of what the word Maundy means- and if I ever knew this before, I had forgotten. I guess I thought it probably meant Holy or Reverent or Sorrowful or something like that. . . but it actually comes from the same root as for our word Mandate or Commandment. . . and so it is that occasion when we are given the aforementioned New Commandment. And I had to shake my head in bewilderment that I would attend Maundy Thursday services without fail for the last thirty years and not ever bother to find out what the word Maundy meant. There’s something sort of scary about being that comfortable with our own ignorance!
Anyway, in the heart and soul of Pastor Steve’s sermon, he talked about how this commandment stepped beyond whatever had been commanded before because we were being called not only to love those who love us back – or love those who are lovable – but to love anyone and everyone. And one image he used to demonstrate this was that of Jesus washing the feet of His disciples – and of how when we bare our feet for each other, we are often baring one of the most unattractive parts of our body. It’s true for Pastor Steve, and he rattled off a list of defects in his feet which include bunions, toes pointed in strange angles, and the like. . . but then averred that Jesus would have washed even feet as ugly as these. And I’m sure it got a lot of people thinking about their own unlovely feet. Mine are a mess, thanks to a stubborn case of athlete’s foot plus toenail fungus that looks like something out of a 1950’s sci fi thriller. But Jesus would willingly stoop to wash even my ugly feet.
And then thinking about that got me thinking for the first time in a long time about a dear family friend name Ruth Schwartz. She was a woman who belonged to Luther Valley, my dad’s last parish right outside of Beloit. By the time we moved there in 1980, Ruth was a widow and a truly remarkable part of that congregation. In fact, she gained the distinction while we were there of becoming the very first woman to sit on the church council of that rather conservation congregation . . . and in so many ways she was a splendid blend of gentleness and strength, softness and vigor. She had a strong, leathery speaking voice and carried herself like a basketball coach – but was an absolute angel of compassion. And although she was in many ways as ordinary as the town of Orfordville, Wisconsin in which she lived, she was intelligent and curious and remarkably open-minded . . . and open-hearted. She was truly one of the most beautiful and admirable people I’ve ever known, and the Bergs continue to harbor a very special affection for Ruth, more than two decades after her death.
Anyway, last night’s sermon brought Ruth back to mind because the first time my dad tried to do a foot-washing rite during Maundy Thursday service at Luther Valley, there was only one person from the congregation who was willing to walk to the front, take off their shoes, and have their feet washed by my father. That person was Ruth, and I remember my dad saying that what was especially remarkable about that was that her feet were actually a bit deformed. . . and in a sense, no one would have blamed her one bit for bypassing the new-fangled foot washing ceremony which my father was doing. But Ruth, bless her soul, seemed not to hesitate one bit – and I would like to think that she was an example to others of what matters most in this life. . . Giving Love – and Receiving Love.
pictured above: Pastor Steve in mid-sermon, having already taken off his shoes and socks in full view of the congregation.