This sermon was preached by CCA Director Sarah Ogletree at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Boone, North Carolina on Sunday, August 29th, 2021. The sermon text is John 13: 1-11.
Today, when tragedy strikes, many of us take to our computers where we carefully pen a version of “thoughts and prayers.” Our thoughts and prayers are with you. Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims, the families, those struggling.
I believe we do this because we care. I believe we do this because those suffering in our world are indeed heavy on our hearts and present in our prayers, and because we want those hurting to know that their pain does not go unseen.
And perhaps, we don’t know how else to respond.
But “thoughts and prayers” as a response and refrain has lost much of its intended meaning. Too often the chorus of “thoughts and prayers” feels hollow, because it is not followed by action and because it is short-lived.
“Thoughts and prayers” overwhelm our Facebook feeds momentarily, and then, once we have all proclaimed our sadness, they stop. We move on to the virtual sharing of photos and jokes, our community proclamations of caring enough to stalemate our concern—or at least, offer us the balm we need to return to the busyness of our lives.
I do this.
I recently sat at my laptop and wrote a paragraph about my hurt for the people of Oregan and others choked by wildfires exacerbated by climate change… I wrote about our siblings in Germany carried away by flood waters and those in Turkey experiencing fire and tennis ball sized hail… Just last week, much closer to home, I wrote about the devastating impacts of Tropical Storm Fred in Haywood County, where five lives were lost and people remain missing.
Sometimes, offering up my heartbreak is all I know to do… But it never feels like enough. And so, I’ve been striving for another way. Another way to engage, another way to pray, another way to show solidarity, another way to be present to the world and those who are hurting… And in that striving I remembered a beautiful West African proverb that says “when you pray, move your feet.”
When you pray, move your feet.
Jesus’ ministry was a ministry of walking, of being in community, of feet dusted by Earth and countless towns and mountaintops—feet splashed with salt water, feet calloused, feet aching… Because Jesus’ ministry was a ministry of movement and a ministry of service.
When we pray, we should move our feet. We should follow the way of Jesus. But what does that really mean?
In John 13: 1-11, Jesus gets up from the table bearing the Last Supper, ties a towel around his waist, and pours water into a basin. He then washes the feet of his disciples. He tells Peter that feet are the only part of the body truly in need of washing if one has bathed because feet are the part of the body most exposed to elements, the part of the body where travel becomes most apparent, the part of the body most worn by the day. Jesus washes his disciples’ feet because they have walked with him, at this point, for years. Because they have traveled the roads of his ministry, because their feet, witnesses to all they’ve endured, are dirty.
The first verse in this passage tells us that Jesus washes his disciples feet because “[h]aving loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” This verse feels particularly important to me because it speaks to what it means to be a disciple and a human. It speaks to our social location and where we should be when living out God’s love. We should be “in the world.”
I believe stories of foot washing, and particularly this story, offer us insight into what it means to pray with our feet, because stories of foot washing are stories of the intermingling of soil and water and human flesh. In order for foot washing to occur and have meaning, our feet need to be dirty. They need to have been places. And through that sacrament of soil, the sacrament of washing and acknowledging and serving our community becomes possible.
So, what does it mean to pray with our feet? It means being in community and communion with all of Creation. It means getting our feet dirty. It means being present in the world for the good of the world.
And it doesn’t look like one thing.
There are many ways to pray with our feet. Many ways to be in the world. This morning, I want us to consider what we are being called to. How we are being called out and called in—into soil, into life, into community, into presence with each other and the fullness of Creation. Because friends, though our paths may vary, we are being called.
One path is the path of presence. Earlier today, I mentioned Tropical Storm Fred and its devastating impacts on the people of Haywood County. What I didn’t mention, is that as the storm rolled in, I was preparing for a meeting with congregants in that area and for a speaking engagement at Grace Episcopal Church in the Mountains located in downtown Waynesville. I was sitting on my couch, contemplating the realities of our changing climate while the community I was preparing to spend time with was being rocked by climate change. The power and sadness and heaviness of this was not lost on me.
But what I saw from the communities of Haywood County gave me hope.
Clergy, lay people, families, friends, and community members all banned together. During the storm they invited each other to higher ground—opening their doors to strangers during a global pandemic. When the storm passed, they strapped on their boots and went searching for survivors. They raised money to rebuild, they shared their clothing and their food, they knocked on doors to find out how they could be most helpful, they sorted and dried family photos found in the debris, they offered comfort to those grieving—they showed up, and they got covered in mud. What they did last week, and what they’re still doing today, is the work of praying with their feet.
Another path forward is the path of protest. This summer, I had the privilege and honor of traveling to northern Minnesota where the Anishinaabe are standing in opposition to the Line 3 tar sands pipeline. This pipeline, carrying the dirtiest form of oil known to humanity, will cut through territories under the protection of the Anishinaabe people—poisoning sacred wild rice beds and the water supply of countless communities while contributing to our climate crisis. Standing with them—our indigenous brothers, sisters, and Two-Spirit cousins—was one of the most meaningful moments of my life.
Led by tribal elders and other native leaders, we shut down construction through civil disobedience. We sang songs together. We locked arms. We heard speeches from Winona LaDuke, Tara Houska, and Jane Fonda. Some of us chained ourselves to bulldozers and stayed the night enduring police raids and violence.
Though told to wear boots in case of tear gas, I wore Chacos because it was hot. I walked up and down that site for ten hours in the middle of one of Minnesota’s most substantial droughts. My feet got dirty. Covered in dust from walking and from the rotor washing we endured when a federal border patrol helicopter repeatedly came down at our site—blowing debris in our faces and across our bodies in an attempt to disperse the crowd.
When he marched at Selma with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said that he felt like his legs were praying. That’s how I felt that day. It took an hour to wash my feet that evening… And my heart remains with the more than 800 people—pastors, faith leaders, mothers, fathers, siblings, and friends—who have been arrested this summer protesting Line 3 and standing for justice.
There are so many paths in this work of prayerful feet. The last I want to name is that of taking off your shoes and being “in the world.” It can be easy to become overwhelmed by the work of presence and protest. And that is why being in the world is so important. We must remember why we do what we do and why we are who we are. We must remember why caring for the fullness of God’s Creation is so central to our lives as children of God, and to do that, we have to be filled with the goodness of this world—with the sacrament of soil.
Recently, my husband surprised me with a trip to Mt. Mitchell. I was thrilled, but I didn’t know we were hiking. It was our anniversary, and I’d worn “cute shoes” for lunch—not hiking boots. So, when we arrived at the parking lot, I looked at him. “Just take off your shoes,” he said.
So I did. And it was beautiful.
Walking the trails at Mt. Mitchell without shoes meant I felt the moss and pine needles. The ground was soft from years of decomposing leaves. I felt every piece of them—the dark hummus gathering between my toes. As I moved my feet through those woods, I moved into prayerful meditation… When I think about that experience now, I’m surprised I’d never thought to walk a trail barefoot before.
When I’m at home, I almost never wear shoes. I love to feel the grass beneath my feet, the squish of rain soaked ground, the stones, the mud. It is literally and metaphorically grounding, because God is there. God is here. All around us and within us, if we only allow ourselves to notice. If we only take off our shoes…
There is an incredible poem by Chelan Harkin that speaks to these feelings of God’s closeness and the divinity in all things, and I want to read her words to you this morning. She writes,
The worst thing we ever did
was put God in the sky
out of reach
pulling the divinity
from the leaf,
sifting out the holy from our bones,
insisting God isn’t bursting dazzlement
through everything we’ve made
a hard commitment to see as ordinary,
stripping the sacred from everywhere
to put in a cloud man elsewhere,
prying closeness from your heart.
The worst thing we ever did
was take the dance and the song
out of prayer
made it sit up straight
and cross its legs
removed it of rejoicing
wiped clean its hip sway,
its ecstatic yowl,
The worst thing we ever did is pretend
God isn’t the easiest thing
in this Universe
available to every soul
in every breath.
God is here, friends. In every breath of this expansive, heart wrenching, and wonderful world that we and all God’s creatures call home. That God made and calls good. That we, as stated in John 13:1, belong to.
May we see the divinity in the leaf. May we know God’s closeness and bursting dazzlement. By paying attention, through the work of presence and protest, the work of feet covered in microbes and the life of this world—may we become living testaments to the ministry of movement, the ministry of community, the ministry of walking with, the ministry of Jesus that we are called to.
When we offer our thoughts and prayers, may we also offer our feet. And may our feet be dirty. Amen.