One of the many talents of my friend Doug was his ability to sound like an FM Radio Announcer. He would drop his voice down half an octave and, somehow, broadening and richening it, before declaring:
Welcome to the drive at Five. We’ve got three hours of hits for you.
Sometimes, when Doug was in the mood, he would make his Radio Announcer lascivious or lecherous or unduly confessional, so that the Drive at Five would feature tearful confessions or angry accusations or other personal sharings with his audience that probably didn’t belong on the air. I remember one occasion when Doug and I were loading a show into a theatre (in those days, he and I were stagehands) and Doug started doing the Announcer Voice. And he got into that mysterious and wonderful territory that people who like telling jokes call “being on a roll,” so that absolutely everything Doug broadcast over his imaginary radio was uproariously funny. That day, the Drive at Five was brilliant.
Doug got on that roll near the end of a long day, sometime partway through the evening, a time when everyone was tired and short-tempered, closing in on exhaustion. As a consequence, the laughter that Doug’s Announcer brought into the room was so welcome. It was energizing and joyous and freeing. I was probably 34 years old at the time, more than a couple of decades too old to shout out, “Do it again!” or “More, more!” but I sure wanted to shout those things. Doug gave me the energy to make it to the day’s end. I went home smiling, looking forward to hearing the Drive at Five Announcer again.
Except I never did. At age 56, with little or no warning, Doug had a massive heart attack, one of those coronary disasters that lands in your life like a bomb. That heart attack stopped the blood that was moving around Doug’s body, well, in a heartbeat. The paramedics worked on him for more than an hour. But my guess is that Doug was dead before his body even hit the floor.
In the wake of his death I remember thinking, I want to hear the Radio Announcer voice one more time. Just once more. Or, if I can’t have that, I at least want the chance to go back and say, “thank you.” Thank you, Doug, for the laughter. I didn’t acknowledge it at the time, but it was a big deal.
Our lives are full of Last Suppers. Of final moments with the people we love, final moments in the places that we love. Most of the time, these moments come and go and we don’t even notice. Nobody tells us that we are at the end of the story.
When I spoke to Doug for the last time, it didn’t so much as occur to me that I wouldn’t see him again in this life. The same is true for a dozen or more friends. For every friend who goes into a really obvious decline, whose dying is predictable and indisputable, there are another four, like Doug, whose death catches us of guard. The last time that I said goodbye or goodnight to Al or Cathy or Tom or Dusty or Mrs. Henderson or Zaida or John or Mrs. Edy, our farewells were so everyday, so offhand, so rushed; I yelled a quick “see you later,” and I ran out the door. Why didn’t someone tell me that I wouldn’t see them later? That, this time around, “later” wasn’t coming? I would have stopped. I would have said something more. I would have named the moment, honoured the moment. I would have honoured them.
Last Suppers are not confined to something as absolute as the end of a life. They appear in other endings as well, in other kinds of death. I was remembering recently, for instance, when each of our three children were infants and Phoebe and I would bathe them in a tiny basin or even in the kitchen sink. It was a wondrous, beautiful time. A child in a sink – well, that’s a kind of miracle. And I’ll be darned if I can remember the last occasion when Phoebe and I bathed any of the kids in that fashion, if I can remember the moment when we noticed that the child in question was about to outgrow the sink. I suppose I was just too sleep-deprived, too stunned by the exhaustion of parenthood to notice. Part of me – a big part – wishes that I could go back and pay attention and say thanks.
What about other Last Suppers? What about the last time that my high school friends and I gathered at the neighbourhood field to play touch football, the joyous, youthful freedom of running together? What about the last time that I went on a big hike into the wilderness, the last time before my knees started hurting too much to allow me to go deep into the mountains? What about the last afternoon in my childhood friend’s basement, a basement in which I had spent more happy afternoons than I can count, pretending to be characters from Star Wars?
And what about you? When were your Last Suppers? The last time that you took a favourite walk along the beach or through the woods before, unexpectedly, your life shifted and you moved away. The last cup of coffee with a friend. The last time that you held a cherished pet in your lap. The last time that you and your spouse lay in bed together before the changes of life brought that to an end.
How many of your Last Suppers were you aware of at the time that they happened? How many of them were you able to name and, therefore, to celebrate and to mourn? How many Last Suppers are taking place in your life right now?
Maybe these are sad or unwelcome questions, questions that evoke melancholy or guilt or anxiety or regret. But I hope that they are also questions that invite you and me into freedom. Because as Jesus shows us today, naming that you are at a Last Supper can be an uncommon gift, both to yourself and to the people whom you love. A Last Supper is a rare and special opportunity to say thank you. It is a rare and special opportunity to say I love you. It is a rare and special opportunity to say: This is what I want you to hear, this is what I want you to see, this is what I want you to know before we are parted.
Jesus kneels before his friends. It won’t be long now before the soldiers will come for him. And he washes their feet.
Here’s the challenge. Most of us don’t name our Last Suppers not just because they tend to be unexpected but because we try pretty actively to deny or ignore them. I suspect that there is more than one thing going on in Peter’s head when he blurts out his refusal to Jesus, when he says You will never wash my feet! and then awkwardly tries to salvage the conversation, the way that we do sometimes, by saying Wash all of me! But I bet that one of the reasons that he tries to cut Jesus off is that permitting his teacher and his friend to wash his feet, to engage in this prophetic action, to give this embodied last will and testament, is to admit that Jesus’ death is coming soon. And so, much like you and I when we shut down an elderly relative who wants to talk about her funeral plans – O Mom! Don’t be silly. You’ll outlive us all! – Peter tries to stop Jesus from naming the moment.
But Jesus, being Jesus, won’t let Peter do that.
Name your Last Suppers. The Last Suppers that are in your life right now. Name even the possible Last Suppers, the people whom you love who may or may not be near the end of their lives. The moments in your lives that may or may not be near their conclusion. And then say the things that you need and want to say, do the things that you need and want to do. Seize the fleeting gift that is our time together.
We are here but for a moment. And then we are gone. Gone like Doug and his masterful radio voice. Gone like an infant, now too large to be washed in a sink. Gone like Jesus, pulled away from his friends by the soldiers.
Gone. Gone. Gone.
But that is still a few hours away. Right now, Jesus is here. Here, washing Peter’s feet. Here, washing our feet. As he kneels before us, Jesus says:
This is the end. This is the Last Supper. There is a beginning that will follow it. But the end has to happen first. So let’s name that. As I wash you, as the warm water wraps around your feet, as the dirt and the old skin of the day that is gone falls away, let’s name that ending. Let’s name that we are together. Let’s name that this adventure, this thing that I call the Kingdom, was always about friendship, always about service, always about transformation. Let’s name that we love one another.
We have shared so many meals. This is the last one. But here is the good news: from now on I will be with you always. I will be with you in prayer. I will be with you in love and compassion and justice. I will be with you in bread and in wine.
This is the Last Supper. But it is also the first.