He loved them to the end: A Homily for Maundy Thursday, 2020

 

It’s all so strange and disorienting, isn’t it? There’s a certain familiarity in the fact that most of us are confined to our homes or apartments, places we’ve lived for some time. We’re surrounded by familiar things, the various items that we’ve accumulated over our lifetimes, photos, mementos, and the like. These are all things that tell us who we are and where we’ve been. They help to orient us in the world. The only strange thing is that we are around them all of the time now, or most of the time. And after several weeks of “shelter at home” even the unfamiliar has become familiar. We’ve grown accustomed to working or worshiping on-line. Many of us have overcome our fear of zoom or facebook live, and we are finding new ways to connect with each other.

Still, it doesn’t take much to remind us how strange this all is. Venturing outside, seeing people wearing masks, or noticing the lack of traffic at should be rush hour. The parking lots of stores are empty. I haven’t been inside a store in over 3 weeks. We’re making do with curbside pickup, or deliveries, or mail order.

For me, there’s another level of disorientation, as the grounding I get for my faith by worshiping through Holy Week is missing. I’m floundering a bit, spiritually, religiously. I miss the familiar rituals of Sunday and midweek Eucharist, and now I am experiencing a Holy Week far-removed from the ritual drama of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Vigil of Easter.

But Holy Week it is even in these strange circumstances. Tonight is Maundy Thursday when we the Last Supper when Jesus instituted the Eucharist. We remember, even though we cannot celebrate it ourselves, we cannot eat the bread and wine, Christ’s body and blood, and proclaim his death until he returns.

Similarly, as our gospel reading indicates, we remember Jesus’ great act of love and service when he got up from the table, wrapped a towel around himself, and washed his disciples’ feet. When everything is about social distancing, our ordinary squeamishness at the intimacy and strangeness of footwashing becomes even more unlikely, more offensive as we consider the implications of touching a stranger in that way.

Still here we are, gathered via the miracles of technology, to remember and worship on this Maundy Thursday. Perhaps it’s enough for us to think about what both of these acts symbolize and enact—Christ’s love for us and for the world.

This is such a poignant and powerful story, introduced with language that is at once eloquent and pregnant with meaning. “Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”

            Think about it. Jesus knew what was going to happen—that he would be betrayed, arrested, crucified. Knowing where he had come from and where he was going. With that knowledge as background, the gospel writer continues, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”

Knowing what he knew, loving his own to the end, what did Jesus choose to do? He got up from the table, wrapped a towel around himself, and washed his disciples’ feet.

Think of those feet, dusty, sweaty, from all those miles they walked. Think of all they had been through as his disciples followed and listened to him. Think of Jesus, touching, washing his disciples’ feet, as a few days earlier, Mary of Bethany had anointed Jesus’ feet with costly nard and wiped them with her hair.

It’s something with which we are uncomfortable, even if we admit the potential power of the act; getting on our knees, washing the feet of a friend or a stranger. And for us, now, we can hardly imagine doing such a thing, with social distancing, instructions to wash our hands for twenty seconds, and masks covering our faces when we go outside.

But then, after it’s over; after Judas leaves the gathering of friends to betray Jesus, Jesus has more to say. A new commandment to love one another as Jesus loved his disciples, to love one another as Jesus loves us.

In footwashing, in this intimate, offensive act, we see Christ’s love for us. In the foot washing, an act that transgresses so many boundaries, we see Christ’s love for us. We know that Jesus loves us. We see that love here, and on the cross, drawing us to him, drawing the world to him.

We see that love here, as Jesus stoops down, kneels down to act out that love. And as he does that, he provides us an example of how we are to love, by reaching out to others, by transgressing boundaries. He calls us to kneel before each other, and before the stranger, to wash their feet, to care for them, and love them.

Even now, as we rely on Christ’s love for us, as we yearn for Christ’s love across the chasm of isolation and social distancing, he calls us to reach out in love to others, he challenges us to love our neighbors, and strangers, the homeless and the hungry. As we receive the gift of Christ’s love, may we also offer that gift, our own love, to the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He loved them to the end: A Sermon for Maundy Thursday, 2018

Today we enter what are called the Triduum, Great Three Days, as we remember, re-enact, and participate in the events of the last days of Jesus’ life. Today is Maundy Thursday when we remember the last meal Jesus shared with his disciples. At our services end tonight, we will strip the altar and chancel area of all its decorations in a sort of symbolic gesture to Jesus’ agony in Gethsemane, his arrest and trial. Tomorrow of course is Good Friday when we will remember the crucifixion. The Great three days, the Triduum ends on Saturday night with the Great Vigil, the lighting of new fire, and the Easter proclamation.

Tonight, though our focus is on the Last Supper, and our lessons offer three perspectives on it. The reading from Exodus is the story of the first Passover, including instructions on what the Hebrews were to eat and how they were to prepare for their flight from Egypt. It’s likely that the last supper Jesus had with his disciples was a Passover meal—that’s what the chronology in Matthew, Mark, and Luke offer, although it wasn’t a Seder as is now practiced among our Jewish friends and neighbors—that ritual became fixed only in later centuries as the rabbinic tradition was codified.

In the reading from First Corinthians, we have the earliest New Testament account of what happened at the Last Supper, as Paul reminds his readers of what had been passed on to him and them—the words of institution, the bread and wine—words that are uttered at every celebration of the Eucharist.

And in the gospel reading, we heard John’s very different version of what happened at the Last Supper, the story of Jesus getting up from the table taking up a towel and basin, and washing the feet of his disciples. All of these readings offer ways of approaching the Eucharist and this last night that Jesus spent with his disciples, but by no means do these readings, or our liturgy, exhaust or define the significance of the Last Supper or our retelling of those events in our Eucharistic meal.

As you know, the Gospel of John is fascinating and complex. At times, it is puzzling and its language and imagery can be problematic, strange, even offensive. Its anti-Judaism, especially dominant in the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and execution has left a terrible legacy over the millennia. But at the same time, abiding in John’s gospel, to use one of those common words in the gospel, can illuminate our hearts and lives and lead us deeper into relationship with Jesus Christ.

Few passages have worked more powerfully on me than the verses we just read—not just the footwashing itself, which is a parable, a miracle of Christ’s love and service, a call to imitation, hospitality, service, and love. Equally profound to me are the first verses of this chapter:

“Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.” 

There is so much in these three verses for us to ponder, so much on which to meditate. First of all, that second sentence—it’s one of my favorites in the whole gospel, perhaps in all of the Bible, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. First, there’s that little detail that Jesus loved his disciples; it’s the first time it’s mentioned in the gospel, but of course, we assume it from the very start. More than that, it’s worth pointing out that Jesus loved all of them—even Judas who would betray him, and Peter, who would deny him. Then there’s that last clause—“he loved them to the end.” What might that mean? To this point? To the end of the gospel? Or taking note of the greek word that’s translated here as end, “telos” which can also mean goal or purpose, that adds another range of possible meanings. And we might connect it to Jesus’ final words from the cross, when Jesus uses a verbal form of that same word telos to say, “It is finished.”

I’m also struck by the repetition of the verb “to know.” In the first verse, Jesus knew that his hour had come. Later, it says, knowing that Father had given all things to him and that he had come from God and was going to God. Jesus knew all this.

And how did he act on this knowledge?

He got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around his waist. Knowing all that he knew, that his hour had come, that the Father had given all things into his hand, knowing that he had come from God and was going to God, Jesus performed an act of humble service to his friends. It was a parable enacted, a symbol of love, a giving of himself to his friends and an offering of an example of himself to them and to us.

We don’t know what he was thinking as he performed this simple, humble act. We don’t know what he was thinking as he washed the feet of those who had walked with him those many months, those who he had brought here, to this place, to this city, to this moment. We don’t know what he thought as he washed the feet of the one who would betray him, the one who would deny him.

We know what they were thinking, or at least what Peter was thinking—how inappropriate it was for the master to wash the feet of his disciples, for the host at the meal to lower himself in this way. We can be sure they puzzled over it, wondered what it all meant, especially in the context of this meal.

For us, now there is another set of questions as we reflect on both the meal and the footwashing. “This is my body and my blood,” he said, as he shared the bread and wine with his friends. In John’s gospel the presence of the footwashing hints at how we should think about the Eucharist itself.

Our liturgy encourages us to interpret the Eucharist in light of the cross and resurrection. It uses language of sacrifice, of body broken for us, blood shed for us but when we bring into the equation the humble, tender, loving gestures of footwashing, we are invited to focus on Christ’s love and service, and our response to that love and service by loving and serving Christ and others.

The love of Christ, exemplified, symbolized, enacted in the cross is also exemplified, symbolized, and enacted in footwashing. We have experienced Christ’s love as he embraces us from the cross. Like the disciples, we experience Christ’s love as he kneels down and washes our feet. And so to, like the disciples, we are called to be examples of that love, to embody the love of Christ in our service to others. May this Eucharist, may this Holy Week be a time when through our renewed experience of Christ’s love, we can embody that love to our world.

 

 

Poetry for Maundy Thursday: Descending Theology: The Garden by Mary Karr

Descending Theology: The Garden
Mary Karr
We know he was a man because, once doomed,
he begged for reprieve. See him
grieving on his rock under olive trees,
his companions asleep
on the hard ground around him
wrapped in old hides.
Not one stayed awake as he’d asked.
That went through him like a sword.
He wished with all his being to stay
but gave up
bargaining at the sky. He knew
it was all mercy anyhow,
unearned as breath. The Father couldn’t intervene,
though that gaze was never
not rapt, a mantle around him. This
was our doing, our death.
The dark prince had poured the vial of poison
into the betrayer’s ear,
and it was done. Around the oasis where Jesus wept,
the cracked earth radiated out for miles.
In the green center, Jesus prayed for the pardon
of Judas, who was approaching
with soldiers, glancing up—as Christ was—into
the punctured sky till his neck bones
ached. Here is his tear-riven face come
to press a kiss on his brother.

Poetry for Maundy Thursday: Mary Oliver and Mary Karr

Gethsemane
Mary Oliver
The grass never sleeps.
Or the roses.
Nor does the lily have a secret eye that shuts until morning.
Jesus said, wait with me. But the disciples slept.
The cricket has such splendid fringe on its feet,
and it sings, have you noticed, with its whole body,
and heaven knows if it ever sleeps.
Jesus said, wait with me. And maybe the stars did, maybe
the wind wound itself into a silver tree, and didn’t move,

maybe,the lake far away, where once he walked as on a
blue pavement, lay still and waited, wild awake.

Oh the dear bodies, slumped and eye-shut, that could not
keep that vigil, how they must have wept,
so utterly human, knowing this too
must be a part of the story.
Descending Theology: The Garden
Mary Karr
We know he was a man because, once doomed,
he begged for reprieve. See him
grieving on his rock under olive trees,
his companions asleep
on the hard ground around him
wrapped in old hides.
Not one stayed awake as he’d asked.
That went through him like a sword.
He wished with all his being to stay
but gave up
bargaining at the sky. He knew
it was all mercy anyhow,
unearned as breath. The Father couldn’t intervene,
though that gaze was never
not rapt, a mantle around him. This
was our doing, our death.
The dark prince had poured the vial of poison
into the betrayer’s ear,
and it was done. Around the oasis where Jesus wept,
the cracked earth radiated out for miles.
In the green center, Jesus prayed for the pardon
of Judas, who was approaching
with soldiers, glancing up—as Christ was—into
the punctured sky till his neck bones
ached. Here is his tear-riven face come
to press a kiss on his brother.

Knowing that … he got up from the table, took off his robe: A Sermon for Maundy Thursday

I still remember vividly the first Episcopal Maundy Thursday service I attended. It was probably in 1992. I had begun attending an Episcopal Church in a city north of Boston earlier that year and for whatever reason I decided to check out the service that Thursday. I’m glad I did. Together with the Great Vigil of Easter that I attended two nights later, that experience of Holy Week made me an Episcopalian. Continue reading

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Albrecht Dürer, Christ taken Captive (The Large Passion)

The Collect

Almghty Father, whose dear Son, on the night before he suffered, instituted the Sacrament of his Body and Blood: Mercifully grant that we may receive it thankfully in remembrance of Jesus Christ our Lord, who in these holy mysteries gives us a pledge of eternal life; and who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Thursday in Holy Week

Is not this, then, why Jesus give us some very specific things to do in order to “re-member” our dark past into his future of love, to re-educate even the flesh beyond the distortions of competition and conquest? And so, before he goes out into the dark to confront his own unspeakable pain and agony and loneliness, the authentic marks of his humanity, Jesus first opens the door to the mystery of how transformed memory and love can, in him, coincide with perfection; how, through the love commandment that he gives us, and the special act of memory he demands of us in foot-washing and bread and wine, we may find our way back into the vineyard of love that we have repeatedly despoiled but long to re-enter.

–Sarah Coakley (more here)