Shoes & Servanthood

“They’ll judge you first by your shoes.” 

That’s from a character, played by Jeff Daniels, in episode one of the Hulu series, “The Looming Tower.” The show was just okay in my mind and I didn’t watch more than a few episodes. And what I watched was now a few years ago, but that quote has suck with me. Prior to that comment, I had not given much thought to the role shoes play socially. 

Consider your shoes at home. How many pairs do you have? I have ten. That’s a lot of shoes. If I wanted to, I could wear each pair only twice in a month, cycling through my shoes to make sure they’re all wearing evenly. 

Except of course, I can’t do that. I have particular shoes for particular occasions or settings. For example, I wouldn’t wear flip flops to preach. I wouldn’t wear my shiny black dress shoes to the beach. Shoes are for occasions and settings. And, sometimes, shoes are for status. 

Shoes are also the object for this week’s devotional and for today’s sermon. Let’s hear about shoes in the gospel of John, from the first chapter, as John the Baptist is speaking to some representatives of the pharisees, the religious authorities of his time. 

Scripture 

Shoes are for status. 

We can relate to what we hear John say in the gospel. There’s something there about status. John says he isn’t even worthy to untie the thong of Jesus’s sandals. Clearly, as far as status in society or religious rankings go, the shoes Jesus wears and the role John says he’s not even worthy to play demonstrate status: Jesus is high and exalted, John is lowly in comparison. 

Shoes demonstrate status for us, too. I remember watching a different TV show, House of Cards, where several women were wearing these heels with the underside painted a bright red. I was curious so I looked up these heels. They are designer shoes, by a French guy whose name I can’t pronounce, and run around $800 for the pair. I couldn’t imagine spending $800 on a pair of shoes! But for those who have them, not only are they apparently comfortable and well-built, they also declare status.

Shoes have a power to dress up or dress down an outfit. I’ve always been amazed at how Dana can wear the same clothes but, paired with heels, the same outfit becomes dressier, more formal. When I come to work, I can wear a collared shirt and khakis but if I pair that same outfit with tennis shoes instead of loafers, I have dressed it down. Shoes have that power to declare purpose, occasion, and status.

Purpose, occasion, and status. Like that day I forgot athletic shoes in high school. I was wearing more formal shoes because I’d had some reason to dress more formally that day in high school. Marching band practice began immediately after school, so there was no option for me to run home and get the correct pair of shoes. On that day, I had to march across a muddy field in the wrong shoes, ruining them in the process. 

Or I remember showing up to hunt for the first time in my life, just a few years ago, wearing athletic shoes. I didn’t own a pair of boots! Justin made merciless fun of me for showing up that way and, sure enough, those shoes got very muddy, my feet very wet, and I sat in the deer stand with very frozen feet. I made the same mistake getting on his boat to go duck hunting for the first time. Eventually, I bought a pair of boots.

Shoes serve a purpose. On Wednesday when it was raining, I looked around at my ten pairs of shoes, wondering which were the best for a rainy day. I knew I’d be outside more that day and wanted shoes that would work well. Turns out, I didn’t really have anything that was made for a rainy day while also looking professional. Because I couldn’t wear my old boots, the ones I purchased after that hunting misadventure, with a blazer and look as professional as I needed to.

That’s because shoes convey purpose and status. If I wore hunting boots with my khakis and blazer, it wouldn’t matter that I was otherwise dressed professionally; they’d judge me first by my shoes. 

Funny how shoes have that power in our lives. Consider your own outfits, your own shoes, how the outfits you wear can change based on the shoes you wear, how you carefully select the right shoes to go with the right outfit for the right occasion, lest they judge you first by your shoes.

So it is for John. He is not worthy to even untie the thong of Jesus’s sandals. He’s judging Jesus first by his shoes, it seems. Why would that be?

Back in Jesus’s day, shoes conveyed status, too, but not quite in the same way they do for us. 

Most people had shoes. Just like today, going around barefoot everywhere conveyed poverty. But, unlike today, most people had the same kinds of sandals they wore just about everywhere.

And those sandals were cheap, easily purchased at markets, and roughly the same for everyone. A thick leather sole with straps attached that ran around the foot and up the ankle, sometimes up the calf, too. These would need to be untied, just like John mentions, when taking the sandals off and on. 

But unlike for us, there weren’t Christian Louboutin sandals with a red underside. There weren’t hunting sandals that couldn’t be worn with a blazer. There weren’t athletic sandals to wear when going to marching band practice. There were just sandals, plain and simple, worn for every occasion. 

Status was conveyed not by the shoes themselves but by who took off your shoes. 

If you were living in Jesus’s time and you came to someone’s home, you’d leave your shoes at the front door. Some of you have homes like that, where shoes are taken off in carports, garages, or just inside the main door to the house. No shoes are worn inside. So it was for the people of Jesus’s day, except that you didn’t take off your own shoes. 

Upon arrival to the house, your feet are nasty. Let’s first remember that people didn’t bathe nearly as often as they do now. So your feet are already not washed. Then, you’ve been walking on dirt roads, not unlike those around Dodge County, in sandals. We know what that’s like; your feet are covered in the grime created by dirt, dust, and sweat. 

So when you get to someone’s house, probably to share a meal together, you’re not going to touch your nasty feet with your own hands, lest you become unclean before the meal. No, a servant or household slave is going to do that for you, taking off your sandals as you arrive at the house. And not just any servant or household slave, but the lowliest servant or the lowliest household slave. They’re going to greet you at the door and take your shoes off, untying the thong of your sandals as John mentions in our scripture. 

Shoes reveal status. In particular, the taking off of shoes revealed status. And it revealed that the person whose shoes were being taken off was of greater station, greater status, than the person removing the sandals. Not only that, but it revealed that the person taking off the shoes was the lowliest of the household servants; the lowliest status in society. 

Consider, then, what John is saying here in the scripture. Jesus is of such high status that John isn’t even worthy to be his lowliest servant. Let that sink in. John isn’t even worthy enough to be Jesus’s lowliest servant. 

Several chapters later in the gospel of John, Jesus is with the disciples in the upper room. As they have finished their meal together, Jesus takes off his outer robe, ties a towel around his waist, and puts water in a basin. He then goes around the table and begins to wash his disciples’ feet. 

The disciples are horrified. Knowing what we now know about the status of taking off shoes and dirty feet in Jesus’s time, we can understand why the disciples are horrified. They’ve left everything behind: families, careers, wealth, to follow this teacher, this prophet, this man. They understand that they are Jesus’s servants, for Jesus is of higher status. By washing the disciples feet, Jesus is not only communicating that he is their servant, but communicating that he is the lowliest of all servants. 

It’s a stunning role reversal. It’s the complete abandonment of status. Jesus washing the disciples feet is so astonishing, it’s hard to imagine a parallel today. Perhaps it would be like a member of the royal family in England picking up litter in St. James Park so you and your family can have a nice picnic. That image gets us a bit closer to the stunning role reversal and the shedding of status that Jesus demonstrates in washing the disciples feet. 

The man John declares to be of such high status that John isn’t worthy enough to be his lowliest servant, that same man makes himself the lowliest of servants. 

Shoes are for status. 

And today, we have the opportunity to see our shoes in a different light, to allow them to remind us of what it means to follow Jesus. 

For we, like Jesus, are to be servants. 

And our shoes, when we put them on, when we see them, when we wear them, can be a reminder of that call to servanthood. 

That’s the call Jesus issues after he’s finished washing the disciples feet. Hear his words from John chapter 13: “After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

Jesus is the human of highest status who ever lived. No one, no member of a royal family, no hero from across history, is of higher status than Jesus because none of them can be called God incarnate. It’s stunning, if we give pause to think of it. The human of highest status who ever lived declaring that he is a servant, and that we, no matter our status in society, are to be servants as well.

That reversal is seen in comparing John chapter 1 to 13. John declares how high and exalted Jesus is. Then Jesus disposes of all pretense, all status, to be servants to his disciples, to set the example. 

So it is for us. We are to be unconcerned with status, with honor we think is due us. But what does that mean? What does that look like in daily life?

To answer that question, consider the story of a woman who inherited a plantation. She was to get married, but that fell through. Around her, she saw abject poverty among the Appalachian poor. An agrarian people who, because of a lack of basic education, got poorer each year as they grew the same crops in the same ground. They knew nothing of crop rotation or proper farming techniques. And this at the turn of the twentieth century, when it should have been common knowledge. This woman set out to change things. 

Taking the sixty or so acres of land she inherited, she plowed roads right across them, to the horror of onlookers in the town. She’d been born of high status, a member of a prominent merchant family. She had gone to the right finishing school, a prominent one that was supposed to make her a lady. And she dressed like one. But she dressed like one, fine shoes and all, to walk down the muddy roads she’d had plowed through the middle of perfectly profitable cotton fields. 

And she did so in order to create a school where she could teach these poor mountain children about proper farming techniques. And as time progressed, that education grew, too. She taught the women how to make and sell textiles, she built a brick-making factory and taught students how to build by having them build the buildings where they would learn. She continued to tear up her inheritance, this land, by building buildings and plowing roads, all the while walking around in her fine shoes, ruining them pair after pair. 

By the time of her death in 1942, she had transformed the part of rural Appalachia near Rome, Georgia, through her efforts. She, a woman of high class, of high status in Rome, had become a servant to the lowliest of status in Rome, Georgia. 

Across the tops of a few buildings is a phrase that became the motto of the college she founded: not to be ministered unto, but to minister. 

Another way of saying that is this: not to be served, but to serve. 

That’s the story of the founding of Berry College by Martha Berry. It’s a timeless story. Within it lies the question we are to ask ourselves when we put on our shoes to begin a new day. Are we seeking to be served? Or to serve? Are we primarily concerned with what others think of us or primarily concerned with how we can help others that day. Are your shoes, when you put them on, a status symbol or a call to go and serve others in the name of Jesus Christ?

If we ask ourselves that question, and then honestly seek to serve rather than be served, we will make such a huge difference for Christ. That’s what it looks like in daily life to be unconcerned with status; to ask ourselves that simple question as we put on our shoes. For our shoes can come to be a sign, like the bread, cross, and coins before them, of our commitment to Christ; particularly, of the call on our lives to be servants, just as Jesus became a servant. 

So, this week, whenever you put on shoes, whether you’re getting ready in the morning, coming home to put on your house shoes, donning athletic shoes to go for a walk or run, putting on a pair of grubby old shoes to garden; whatever shoes you’re wearing, ask yourself if you’re seeking to be served or to serve? 

Then, look for all the ways you can to serve. That’s the example Jesus set in washing the disciples feet. He came not to be served but to serve and to give of his life for many. 

May the same be true of us: we came not to be served, but to serve, and to give of our lives for many. 

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.

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