At The Liturgy of the Word
Genesis 1:1-2:4a [The Story of Creation]
Genesis 7:1-5, 11-18, 8:6-18, 9:8-13 [The Flood]
Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21 [Israel’s deliverance at the Red Sea]
Ezekiel 37:1-14 [The valley of dry bones]
Zephaniah 3:14-20 [The gathering of God’s people]
At The Eucharist
Yesterday morning, a song from my early adulthood abruptly resurfaced in my head. I don’t understand what is happening when memory works this way, when one of our neural bookkeepers makes the decision to open an old and dusty file cabinet deep in a corner of the brain. But I do know that yesterday my synapses made a connection and I began to hear R.E.M.’s 1992 hit Everybody Hurts.
Everybody Hurts is an unusual song within the R.E.M. canon, both because of the lyrics are pretty straightforward and because they are entirely intelligible – R.E.M.’s lead singer, Michael Stipe, made poor diction and enigmatic ideas into an art form. But on this song Stipe sings simply and directly and clearly:
Take comfort in your friends.
You’re not alone.
Maybe this song showed up in my head because, a quarter of a century after its release, it occurred to me yesterday that it is a song for the Triduum. It is a song for this service that extends over three days, this service that ends today with the discovery of the empty tomb and the proclamation:
Alleluia, Christ is Risen!
This service is all about pain and about friendship and about not being alone. We proclaim these hard and beautiful realities through the use of symbols: dew or no occasions in the church year are as heavily laden with symbol as these three days.
All of these symbols are, in some way, about touch.
We began on Thursday with Jesus sharing a festive, final meal with his friends. Here is touch found in the washing of one another’s feet, in the embodiment of Jesus’ command to love and serve one another as he loves and serves us. Sometimes folks will complain that the foot washing is goofy or awkward or even icky. To which I can only reply: Yes. Yes, you’re right. It is goofy and awkward and icky. To wash one another’s feet, to touch and be touched in such a fashion, is to engage in act of deep mutual vulnerability.
And if the tender intensity of the foot washing is not enough, here is the removal of the sacrament to the high altar, to the garden, and the stripping and the washing of the altar. On Maundy Thursday, I have the privilege of touching the altar on your behalf. And this year I was startled as I did so, I was startled to find myself transported as I first washed and then dried the altar. As I touched the wood of the table, I abruptly found myself touching my father-in-law’s coffin, my hand upon its wood as it rested in the church at his funeral.
Yesterday, on Good Friday, all of us rested our hands upon wood, this time the hard wood of the cross. Somehow, this simple action of devotion holds all of the loneliness and all of the love and all of the pain and all of the longing that there is. Everything is there in the cross. The wood is rough and filled with the story of life and death.
And then there is today. A walk or a journey is an ancient part of this service: scholars tell us that the first days of the church, the Easter Vigil made multiple stops, each stop taking the worshipper ever nearer to Jerusalem. Tonight, we began around the fire, touched by its warmth. And then we walked, our feet in touching the holiness of the earth, our feet in communion with the ground. Like the cross, this walk is somehow also everything. It is the journey through the Red Sea and into freedom. It is the journey from life into death or death into life.
In not so long, we will touch one last symbol, one last sacrament, the Eucharist. While this symbol is more familiar to us than the washing of feet – we engage in it every Sunday – in many ways it is just as goofy and awkward and icky as the washing of feet. We come to the altar with this amazingly childlike gesture, palms open before us:
What could be more vulnerable, more filled with longing, than that?
What could be more wondrous than the promise that, in bread and in wine, we touch Jesus, and Jesus touches us?
One of the difficult privileges of my work is sitting with people in loss and in grief. And what I’ve come to understand is that everyone, everyone is carrying big hurt. We sometimes imagine that we are alone in our woundedness. But what I have come to know is that, when we create a safe space with one or more other people, a space in which we can hear and tell the truth, we learn that woundedness is universal and shared.
Everyone has a story of suffering to tell: the story of the marriage ravaged by addiction or infidelity, ravaged by promises abandoned; the story of the diagnosis, of the news that the doctor has run out of treatments; the story of cruel words that, even though it is sticks and stones that may break our bones, have unmistakably hurt us; the story of the unexpected and heartbreaking phone call;; the story of the loss of the job and, with it, the loss not just of income but of identity.
The Triduum, these three holy days, embodies the promise that we do not suffer by ourselves. There is a community that loves us and cares for us that is with us always. There is a God who loves and cares for us who is with us always.
We reach out in our lostsness and searching. And we touch – we are touched – by love.
You are not alone.
May the Holy Spirit guide us ever further into the wisdom and love revealed in Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
Dear friends in Christ, tonight we find ourselves, once again, on the familiar and well-marked path of Jesus’ final days on his journey to the cross and resurrection. As grateful followers in the Way of Christ we hope to glean some new kernel of insight to renew and sustain us on our own journey to the God who has called each of us from beyond time to this time and place.
In the sacred days of this Holy Week we have already marked the passage of Jesus and the disciples on Palm Sunday into the crucible of Jerusalem under Roman rule and Jewish intrigue. Monday echoed with the uproar and clatter of the money-changers tables overturning in the Temple. Wednesday Jesus was anointed in Bethany and Judas agreed to betray him to those “looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him…” And so with these and a multitude of other memories and hopes and fears swirling around in their heads the disciples gathered with their Lord and Teacher for what Jesus knew would be their Last Supper together on this night.
In that respect, John’s Gospel account initially presents a familiar narrative. But have you noticed that in agreement with the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Paul’s epistle refers to the Institution of the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Eucharist, “on the night before Jesus suffered” while John’s gospel makes no mention of the event at all?
This shift in the narratives focus cannot be an accident or unintentional omission. John’s gospel was the last of the gospels to be composed and the Eucharist had already been received as a fundamental tradition of the church. Neither does it imply a departure from or a rejection of that tradition. It does imply, however, that the author of John’s gospel was careful to record, and perhaps recover another event of that last meal together- namely the washing of the disciples feet- that he evidently considered as essential and fundamental to the authentic life of the church as the Bread and Wine came to be. One wonders what the church might be today if the foot washing were received not only as an example of humble service rendered to each other but as a sacrament- “an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace”- by which we receive a blessing for what is done in Christ’s name with each other.
Fred Craddock, a wonderful man and influential preacher has commented that John did not accentuate the Passover meal because for him Jesus was the Passover, the paschal lamb of God whose blood was shed once and for all and by whom the Holy Spirit might “Passover” the sins of “his own who were in the world” to lead them out of slavery to sin and death and into the freedom of eternal life in the spirit.
For John only what we learn from Jesus through the Cross and the Resurrection can exceed what Jesus taught as he “got up from the table, took off his outer robe, tied a towel around himself, poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciple’s feet and wipe them with the towel.”
There is something so simple, so direct, and so intimate about these gestures that we cannot be too surprised when a certain amount of discomfort arises when and if we are ever exposed to such an event. This is especially true if we lack familiarity or understanding of the intended purpose. It is more than a symbol or a sign. It is a relationship-and there are so many physical, emotional and psychological elements intertwined that one only moves into it with great care and sensitivity.
Let us explore then some of these elements that reveal themselves within the broad framework of Jesus’ life and work as they pertain to his example for us.
First, I should think is the basic fact of our need for human touch. As embodied souls we are free to fulfill that need for good or for ill in any manner that we choose but we see in the life of Jesus that the higher calling is for the touch that heals. In a culture that severely limited contact between the pure and impure Jesus touched everyone and everyone whom Jesus touched was healed. As Henri Nouwen has expressed it “touch…speaks the wordless words of love…in friendship, touch often gives more life than words. A friend’s hand stroking our back, a friends arm resting on our shoulder, a friend’s fingers wiping away tears-these bring true consolation. These moments of touch are truly sacred. They restore, they reconcile, they reassure, they forgive, they heal. ..When we are touched with free, non-possessive love, it is God’s incarnate love that touches us and God’s power that heals us.”
One might think that as witnesses of so many healings the disciples would have welcomed Jesus’ touch for themselves, and perhaps some of them did, but not all. The problem is that to receive what Jesus is offering we have to make room for it somehow…to set aside or look through or beyond our expectations…the ones that we may have learned from experience or been told to expect…that touch is dangerous, invasive, sexual, aggressive, or inappropriate…all of which can be true but none of which apply to the touch that Jesus offered. No doubt some of the disciples thought it was inappropriate for Jesus to wash their feet. It would have made sense to them to wash his feet as a sign of respect both as the host of the meal and as their Teacher but this wasn’t about social convention or spiritual rank. So what was it about?
The obvious answer is that it is about hospitality that a host would offer to his guests who had traveled some distance on dusty roads, most commonly on foot, as a sign of welcome, comfort and respect. This service would ordinarily be rendered by a servant or a slave…which is the role that Jesus appeared to be assuming to the disciple’s great shock and consternation.
One can only imagine what a slave may have been thinking under compulsion as he or she washed the feet of their master and the privileged guests but we know Jesus had something else in mind …something grander, deeper, freer. Peter may have felt that it was beneath Christ’s dignity to be seen as a slave but what Peter couldn’t understand was that Jesus was free in every circumstance to offer himself in a love which Peter could not yet receive because Peter was still enslaved to his own way of thinking and feeling and acting, still bound by the norms and conditions of his society and experience.
So, at best the obvious answer is only a partial answer. As everyone can attest for themselves any service rendered with even the purist intention can quickly deteriorate into pride or manipulation or resentment if it is not rooted in a deep humility and gratitude for what is also received in the giving. As C.S. Lewis once famously said “humility results not so much from thinking less of ourselves but of thinking of ourselves less.” It is a fine point and everything turns on it.
In a wonderful reflection on the life and person of Jesus, the Rev. James Martin speaks of the foot-washing as “an invitation to equality” and a recognition of the inherent God-given dignity of every human being. He quotes the New Testament scholar Sandra Schneider’s perception of Peter’s resistance as requiring of him “a radical reinterpretation of his own life-world, a genuine conversion of some kind which he was not prepared to undergo.”
Schneider believes “that in John’s Gospel the Foot Washing is more about the mutual service of friendship” than about “humble service”. “The message is not so much that the master has become the slave, but that all are on the same level. After Jesus has washed the disciple’s feet, he challenges them to do the same for each other and to see that all are equal friends in the kingdom; no one is above or below in any way.” As Jesus foretold-the day came when Peter understood and so, perhaps, shall we.
However you choose to participate tonight I hope you will have an eye and an ear for whatever circumstances that may arise in your life that call you to cross the threshold of discomfort to love and serve each other as Jesus loved and served us for that is how the disciples of Jesus are known.
Jerusalem – in the 1st century – a city built on a hill looking out over the Jordan Desert with a distant view of the Dead Sea. A fabulous location. Thousands of pilgrims flocking to the city for religious reasons and to honor the role of the temple in the religious life of the Jewish people. It was Passover and the remembrances of the escape from slavery in Egypt.
The city was run by two factions. The religious authorities that maintained the temple and the sacrificial systems and the Roman authorities that had conquered the area over 70 years before and held a tight and brutal grip on the people.
Who was in charge? Obviously, the military power of Rome.
Immediately outside the city gates was a rock quarry that had been used recently to dig deep into the earth to cut stones for the building of the temple under the leadership of Herod and to add to the walls that surrounded the city. The quarry had been used up and was no longer in use. It had been turned into a recreational site for the people of Jerusalem. On one side of the park was a rock hill that grew from the bottom of the quarry to about 50 or 60 feet high. It was a portion of the quarry that had large cracks in it and had not been available to cut up and use for building stones. Thus, as the quarry was dug deeper the stone hill grew higher. It became known as Golgotha, the Place of the Skull, the place where crucifixions were carried out regularly by the Romans who maintained a brutal occupation of the people.
This site was discovered in about the Year 325 when Helena, the mother of Constantine came to the region to discover the Holy sites. Constantine had made Christianity the official religion of the empire and Pilgrims were beginning to go to Jerusalem. The site of Golgotha was underneath a pagan temple. The memories of the Christians in the 4th Century pointed out the site and the pagan temple was destroyed and the excavation led to the discovery of Golgotha. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built in 335, is on the site today in the old city of Jerusalem.
In the 1st Century, crucifixions were for public entertainment. Crowds would gather and enjoy watching the condemned criminals placed on wood planks and then raised up on the rock hill. They would eventually die of asphyxiation, heat, and torture. The crowds loved it. It was public entertainment and gambling would take place as to how long a person could live. Death penalty still remains a public entertainment for many countries including our own.
Jesus was among those being crucified. A common criminal according to Jewish law and the Romans had gone along with the religious authorities in order to get rid of a troublesome upstart who had disrupted the people, disrupted the money changers in the temple and although he appeared to be innocent of any crime, he was seen to be a danger to society with his outspokenness.
Crucify him, crucify him – the cries still ringing in the ears of those who watched him be led to the cross.
What happened at this point in time holds a significance that can never be dismissed. Over the years, the followers of Jesus came to understand that they had been visited in the flesh by the very person of God incarnate in the life, death and resurrection of the man Jesus.
In fact, Jesus took on the role of giving himself up to death in order to open the doors of each person to know their own humanity. To hold on to the meaning of life and death as the ultimate gift of the one who has loved us into existence, created all of us for the purposes of the God of Creation.
It was as if the voice of God was in our midst in the person of Jesus and not recognized.
I look at the sky at night and wonder about the vastness of the universe. The vastness and the silence of that which lies beyond us as we live on our island home. It is beyond my imagination and can only begin to wonder at the imagination of the God who has created all that we know and do not know.
And this same creator came to our island home in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
And it is unbelievable for so many.
Some of you are old enough to remember the series of moon shots that put our astronauts on the moon. I was here at Grace Memorial on a Christmas Eve in 1968 when an Apollo Mission was to circle the moon without landing. It had to go around the dark side of the moon and was out of communication for some time. We all waited breathlessly for its reappearance. And then we heard a crackling voice, “Hello Houston”. We can see you—our tiny, distant, teeming, planet filled with people. A voice in the vastness of space coming to us and coming back to us. To me, it was symbolic of God’s reaching out from the vastness of the universe to open for us the way of life, the light of the world, the meaning of our individual and God given freedom to chose life or death, good or evil.
Jesus died to give us so much.
To be encircled by his arms that are outstretched on the cross. Outstretched to include all of suffering humanity in its embrace.
His words: Father Forgive them for they know not what they do.
Forgiveness at the time of death.
Out of the vastness of the universe – the silence of the universe.
The word became flesh and was crucified.
And the word continues in the flesh of each of us gathered. To know our significance in a world more willing to crucify than to embrace the love of God. We all face into that love and offer it to others. To bring light out of darkness. Life out of death.
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.