Thursday, April 2, 2015

Sermon for Maundy Thursday: A Love Story

(Preached at The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion on Maundy Thursday, 2015, 6:30 pm)

A table. A robe. A towel. A basin.
Water. A cup of wine. A loaf of bread.

Blessing. Thanksgiving. Service. Love.

These are the images that flash before me tonight.

I picture myself in that room. The dust from the triumphant march through the crowded festal streets of Jerusalem still clings to the disciples’ feet, as we remembered on Palm Sunday.

As the disciples lean back, they can probably still hear echoes of the crowd’s “Hosannas!” ricocheting off the stone walls around Jerusalem.

And now they have shared a meal with their teacher, their brother,
their Messiah. The disciples are gathered around a table where everyone is loved. Where every one is loved.

Tonight is the night for a love story.

The first sentence that jumps out to me is this one:  “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” Jesus is getting ready to leave his disciples—and he wants to show them what true love is.

There is just one lesson left to impart. There is just one commandment left to give.

The lesson is service. The commandment is love.

Love is thanksgiving. Love is sacrifice. Love sometimes includes heartbreak.

On this night we dwell between the two poles of our existence- the agony of loss and the call of love. Earlier this week I was sitting in class with Dr. Clint McCann, who is a renowned scholar of the psalms. We were discussing psalms of lamentation, especially the ones that are quoted in the Passion Narrative this week. Dr. McCann noted that the gospel writers could not understand the story of Jesus during Holy Week without the lamentation psalms, psalms in which the psalmist asks for help when feeling abandoned, and laments being turned upon even by his closest friends.

Yet Dr. McCann also pointed out that every one of those lamentation psalms quoted in the story of Jesus’s passion turns to praise at the end. And that’s often how it is in our lives, too. Our lives are shot through with both sorrow and joy.

Yet it is love that remains at the end.

The central act in our story tonight is Jesus washing his apostles’ feet—even Judas’s, whose act of betrayal gets omitted in the middle of our gospel reading. In the verses omitted here tonight, Jesus quotes Psalm 41:9- Even my dear friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted his heel against me.”

I wish they had included the quote from psalm 41, for, in our reading tonight, we see Jesus taking that same heel of his betrayer and washing it. In washing Judas’s feet alongside the others’, Jesus declares not just his love but his forgiveness for Judas’s betrayal. This is what Jesus means by love. He loved his own until the end—even Judas.

Tonight is the night for a love story.

What is the act Jesus chooses to demonstrate his love for his disciples? Something so humbling that no one would have expected it. Jesus kneels before each one of his disciples, and takes their feet into his hands to wash them. Now, this was not just an act of hospitality. Washing the feet of a guest was the job of a slave. Jesus kneels down, and washes the dust from their victory march from their feet, because washing feet is also a sign of welcome, a sign of thankfulness that our guests have arrived to break bread with us.

In the other three gospels, the Eucharist is the main point of the story of this night. John’s gospel, as it so often does, tells that same story in a different way. John talks about the details of the Eucharist much earlier. In John 6, Jesus states that “I am the bread of life.” He reminds us that the way to life is through the gift of love that Christ has for us.

John places words from the Eucharist earlier because he wants to make clear that Holy Communion is something Jesus does throughout his life on earth, rather than just at the end. John’s gospel doesn’t highlight the Eucharist tonight—because John’s gospel is shot through with Eucharistic imagery.

John is making an excellent point here. By eating of the bread of life,
and drinking of the cup of salvation, we share in all of Jesus’s life—and Jesus’s life is a life of love for all.

We share in the living reminder that we are to love one another—even in the face of difficulties, differences, even in the face of anger. The word “love” appears six times in this passage, and appears in the first sentence as well as the last. Love that roots itself in our very being and transforms us.

And we are still in need of that transformation, centuries later. Last week the governor of Indiana signed a bill purporting to be about religious freedom. Its stated purpose is to grant businesses the right to deny service to anyone—and in the name of “religious liberty.”

Laws like this attempt to draw lines and boundaries around not only who we think should be able to love each other, but around whom WE ourselves will love and serve.

And let’s not kid ourselves- laws similar to Indiana’s exist right here in our own state. Those who defend this law rest their defense on the example of Jesus.

But our gospel insists otherwise.

The commandment Jesus left us with—not an easy commandment certainly—was to love one another through our actions, and to serve each other, humbly and thankfully.

Laws like this attempt to place exceptions to Jesus’s command to love each other. It ironically attempts to allow people to refuse to serve others—and to refuse to serve others in the name of that same Christ who calls us to serve each other tonight in the most humble way possible. Jesus drew no lines. The love of Jesus doesn’t draw lines—it permeates everyone and everything. Love literally surrounds the story we hear in our gospel.

It is LOVE that marks us to the world as followers and disciples of Jesus. Love for each other. Love that is tied up in ACTION, not in sentiment or mere warm feelings, but love that calls us to truly serve each other—love wrapped up in justice, in welcome, and in forgiveness.

And that love extends to everyone. Everyone.

It is not only Jesus’s love for the disciples that glorifies God—it is by the disciples’ love for each other that everyone in the world will know the name of Jesus.

That’s why we are going to gather in a few minutes and wash each others’ feet. I know that makes many of us anxious, and self-conscious.

How do I know that? I know because my Facebook feed has been filled with pedicure pictures, including mine, that’s how. And in the midst of those pictures there was a meme of a sign that said “If you hate anyone because of your faith, you’re doing it wrong.”

Jesus reminds us that to love and serve each other is a blessing, yes, but also that we bless others in allowing them to serve us. That’s also a hard thing for many of us to do, myself included. On this one night, we remember that service goes both ways, and that both to serve and to be served are acts of love, and acts of faith.

And after the foot washing, there will be the thanksgiving. We will remember and give thanks for the love that binds us all together, when we are joined around the altar across age, time, and circumstances to partake in Holy Communion. Our readings tonight tie together Paul’s description of the institution of the Eucharist with John’s story about the last hours Jesus spends with his apostles, and reminds us that he spends those last few hours serving his followers and urging love-- all at a time when war could all too easily erupt in our hearts.

This is when the movement toward the cross becomes inexorable. And yet, this is the night we also celebrate the institution of the Eucharist, for which our parish is named. This is the night we are reminded that, no matter what happens, Jesus loves us, and we are to love each other, serve each other, and give thanks. Now, I noticed, and I hope you did too, that tonight’s psalm is NOT a lamentation psalm, but a psalm of thanksgiving. Our psalm tonight asks, “How shall I repay the Lord for all the good things done for me?” And the answer is this: “I will lift up the cup of salvation and call upon the Name of the Lord. I will offer you the sacrifice of thanksgiving.” And soon, we will do just that, in joy and love and peace. In our church, all are welcome at the altar! If that’s not a source of joy and blessing, I don’t know what is!

Tonight, we bring together the footwashing, and the forgiveness, and the thanksgiving, and most of all the love. That’s what Holy Communion is all about.

As we consider over these next days the paths that lead through the dark wilderness of betrayal and sacrifice, how can our own hearts not break a little?

Yet, let our hearts break.

Let them crack open, so that the light of Christ can shine through the cracks and illuminate our inmost selves. Let that light in and illuminate all the hurts, all the betrayals, all the losses we still hold within those broken hearts.

Let us bring our broken hearts to the altar where we re-enact every time we gather the ongoing healing and cleansing that washes over us through the love of our Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ.

Let’s let our hearts break open, for only when they are open can they be filled.

Then healed, renewed, let us fill those same hearts with joy, and peace, and thanksgiving for Christ’s love for each and every one of us, and for the love we have for each other.

As we raise our open hands let us raise our open hearts, healed and renewed by the power of love, to receive the Body and Blood of our Savior, who did not die to save us long ago, but lives today in you and me and in all of us, who is with us at this altar right now, loving everyone around this table.

Let us receive Jesus Christ, who continues to save us and love us during every minute of our lives and beyond, bringing us to new life filled with love and service and thanksgiving for each other.

Tonight is the night for a love story.

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