Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him. John 13:4-6
The late Reverend Dr. Sandy F. Ray who pastored the historic Cornerstone Baptist Church of Brooklyn, New York once preached a sermon entitled, “The Testimony of a Towel.” It was based on the above passage of scripture. While I do not remember his outline, I imagine that it would proceed in this fashion. “Jesus was in the latter throes of his ministry. Before going to the cross, he washed the feet of His disciples. He did so to demonstrate humility, honor, and humanity. He also did so to offer his service, sharing and dedication. However, not only were Jesus and the disciples important to the story, the towel also had an important testimony. The towel had three arguments that depicted his story. The towel said that it was an honor to be touched and used by the Master. The same Master who had touched people and changed their lives was now touching him and changing lives through that touch. Secondly, the towel testified that service was the connector that made real the opportunity for ministry. Thirdly, it was only through wiping up a mess that the towel fulfilled its destiny.”
While towels are inanimate, such an example is powerful for transformative leadership. Leadership can often be messy because constituents are often at odds to achieve what they think of as good ends. In the church, it is not unusual to have combatants on opposite ends of the spectrum and are both quoting Bible verses and claiming to have God as the ultimate defender of their position. Both sides will often tell leadership how wrong they are if they do not agree with the solution de jour that each side supports. Often, the real answer does not lie in edicts, creeds, confessions, resolutions, or even spirited prayer meetings. Common ground might be found on a towel rack so that messes can be wiped away so that people can start over with a clean slate.
I once had a member who had stepped on a nail. This gentleman suffered from diabetes so his foot did not easily heal. In order to irrigate his sore, the doctors, bored a track in his foot. Once that was done, the nurses would squirt saline and betadine in the wound to disinfect it. Because I visited him often during his lengthy hospital visit, I eventually learned to treat his foot. This not only freed the nursing staff but also gave us more time to bond, talk, and pray. I had to literally gird myself with the towel so that I might reach him. When we started the process, I was a new pastor so he had to learn to trust me. However, he did and he eventually healed. I will never forget the joy I had some years later when I washed his feet in a foot washing service. I was able to do it, because we were able to save his foot. He was a tremendous blessing to me and I would like to think that I was a blessing to him as well. For me, leadership meant taking a towel and following after the example of Jesus.
— the Rev. Dr. Sherman R. Tribble is the pastor of Mt. Sinai Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, NC and the Academic Dean and Professor at Hosanna Bible College.