Thursday, March 20, 2008

Sermon Maundy Thursday 2008

“So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”

May only God’s word be spoken, and may only God’s word be heard. Amen.

At the beginning of any Seder meal, the ceremonial meal eaten in remembrance of the Passover, the youngest person in the room is to ask this question: “Why is this night different from all others?” Tonight we hear God’s direction to the slaves in Egypt for the eating of the Passover over meal, the last supper in bondage. While it is eaten in captivity it is also food for the journey. The paschal lamb is to be completely consumed by person or fire. It’s not like thanksgiving dinner. There are not leftovers for lunch the next day, because they, the people should be gone by then. The meal is to be eaten hurriedly with staff in hand and dressed for travel.

As I mentioned, the meal was instituted on the last night of captivity of the people of Israel in Egypt. It is the night where Pharaoh’s will is broken by the tenth and final plague of death. But it is not just a meal to remember the past. Verse 14 of our Exodus reading says that this meal will be a “festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.” The past is connected today. Be it Egypt or Babylon, Rome or the Third Reich, Iraq or Darfur, Serbia or Gaza, the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, City Hall, or even the Church…whatever institutions and regimes claim power over people’s bodies and souls, this meal is to be eaten as a remembrance of God’s liberation from those forces.

Now we are Christians not Jews, but it is no coincidence that the story of the first Passover is paired this night with our Gospel Story this night of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, what has come to be known in our tradition as the Christian Passover. This last meal, that took place under the oppressive reign of the Roman Empire, is also the first meal in the liberated Kingdom of God. And so, we are given the opportunity to ask the question: why is this night different from all others?
First, it is different because it is a Thursday night and we are here at church instead of strapped to the couch watching “Must See TV” or the NCAA tournament as our dominant culture instructs us to be doing. By our presence here tonight we have consciously decided that worshiping God is more important than anything else and are willing to physically live out this conscious decision.

Second, several of us gathered earlier to eat a meal similar to the meal Jesus shared with his disciples and near the end of that meal we knelt and washed each others feet. Priests and lay folk, adults and children, corporate executives and minimum wage workers we all got on our knees and washed another’s feet. This is not done in day to day society. Feet—even in this day of hygiene and cleanliness—are considered dirty, smelly, and not the topic of polite discussion. You certainly would not show up to a movie theater, ball game, or concert, and expect to see the theater owner, the ball coach, or the rock star washing peoples feet. I seriously doubt Bo Polini will wash the feet of his players this fall.

Thirdly, we gather to celebrate the Eucharist, this first meal of the Kingdom of God to re-member, to put together once again our true allegiance to God alone, in overt defiance to how the powers and principalities of this world have conditioned us. We find hope and salvation in broken bread and poured wine when our society teaches us to find salvation in the gated communities, material wealth, secure borders and military dominance.

Tonight we not only ask “why is this night different from all others”, but we ask why do we do these subversive and peculiar acts? We do them because Jesus did them first and because Jesus commands us to do like wise. We have heard this story a million times, of Jesus removing his outer garment and wrapping a towel around himself. Then he knells before his disciples, washes their feet, and dries them with the towel.

What may go unnoticed to us is that these are the attire and actions of a slave in Jesus’ day. Jesus, God incarnate, becomes a slave, property, an object with no rights or privileges of his own to show us how power is exercised in the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ display of power stands in sharp contrast to the imperial power of Rome under which they lived. While this contrast may not be obvious to us it would have been blatant to his disciples. They had grown up seeing the images of Roman power: the standards and banners, the body armor and plumed helmets, the spears and shields, the horns and processions. They had also experienced Rome’s peace through victory, which was peace through the conquest and domination of other peoples to increase their tax base.

Jesus does not act as a Lord, as a ruler, in any manner that the disciples could understand. Jesus does not act as a Lord, as a ruler, in any manner that we can understand. He has no army, no weapons, no force with which to be reckoned. He is not standing tall with muscles flexed and minions cowering. He is not in an Armani Suit with a Windsor knotted tie and mirror shined wing tips. He is not quarterbacking a fourth quarter comeback in the national championship game. And he is not traveling the countryside in a custom bus plastered with his face and a slogan on the side. Any image of power and effectiveness that we might have experienced, Jesus stands, no Jesus kneels in direct opposition to it. He leads from his knees, and begs his disciples, his followers then and now, to do the same.

We, today, do not do a good job of this, and neither did the apostles in the upper room. Before this night is over they will betray, abandon, and deny even knowing Christ. But herein lays the beauty of our approaching Easter. While the leaders of this world would be offended by our disloyalty and abandonment, Jesus prays God forgive them for they know not what they do. While the powers of this world would avenge our denial of knowing them and therefore denying their power, the Resurrected Jesus asks Peter and us, “Do you love me?” Jesus reinstates Peter and us in the resurrected life that we can be a part of here and now.

So, my brothers and sisters, I ask, seek, and implore us to come to this altar tonight, not upright in worldly power, but humbly kneeling before our broken and poured out Lord. I pray we come to this table not only to receive the last meal under bondage, but also the first meal of the kingdom of God, not only the food of remembrance but also substance for the journey. I pray we come and receive the body and blood of Christ so that we may be the Body and Blood of Christ in the world. Amen!

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