Friday, April 15, 2022

Maundy Thursday & Good Friday Sermons


Maundy Thursday

As you go home after tonight’s service, if you happen to pass by a fast-food restaurant (especially Chick-fil-a), check out the line of cars in the drive-thru.  It will be long and littered with SUV’s – a sure sign many American families are not gathering around a dinner table this evening for a meal.  I read recently fast-food establishments are transforming their in-person dining facilities.  Many are cutting down dramatically the size of their seating areas in favor of expanding curbside and drive-thru capacity.  What does this tell you about the current status of the American dinner experience?  I noted – with some amusement – KFC is a part of this trend.  My two reactions to this news were these: 1) I don’t eat ‘food’ from KFC, and 2) if I did, I certainly wouldn’t sit in their lobby to do it!

At the center of tonight’s service is a meal; a meal which has been given a memorable moniker – “the Last Supper” – and has been depicted by artists thousands of times over, perhaps most famously by da Vinci.  The customs and practices around meals will tell you a lot about the culture of time.  Just as the drive-thru reveals much about our day, meals in Jesus’ day expressed the social, symbolic, and spiritual values of its time. 

Think about the meals mentioned in the gospels and the stories Jesus tells centered around the sharing of food.  They are (or should be) expressions of hospitality, affirmations of kinship, friendship, and status, and settings for peaceful interactions.  Meals fell into one of three categories: ordinary, festive, and sacred and all three were understood to be spiritual occasions.  Ordinary meals might include bread, grains, olives and olive oil, and bean stews, as well various fruits, cheeses, and fish.  Festive and sacred meals added different kinds of meat to the menu.     

Meals were served indoors or in places shaded from the sun.  Typically, food was served on a low table or on mat or simply in bowls passed around among the diners.  Those eating either knelt on the floor or sat cross-legged.  Reclining by resting your head close to the chest of the person next to you was a common practice at festive and sacred meals, leading to the expression ‘bosom buddies.’  Tables with chairs, as we think of them, were reserved for royalty and the well-to-do.

Because bread was an indispensable staple at most meals it became synonymous with the meal itself.  We still hold on to the expression “breaking bread” because bread was torn off from the loaf by hand, not cut. 

Most food was passed among guests and eaten by hand directly from the dish, bowl or plate on which was served.  This led to some elaborate pre-meal practices around personal hygiene, which included washing of hands and feet as well as the use of perfume or oil.  Over time, what once served as a practical consideration (cleaning up before eating) evolved into religious obligation concerned with ritual purity.  It was customary to recite short prayers at the beginning of a meal and longer prayers of thanksgiving after the conclusion.

Various specific directions set forth etiquette for Hebrew meals; all practical, some humorous:

·    You should not talk with food in your mouth, for it can prove dangerous should it go down the windpipe.  Even saying “bless you” to person who has sneezed should be avoided.  However, if you push the food to the side of his mouth, there is no concern about talking.

·    When you distribute pieces of bread to those eating with you, you should not throw the bread to the recipient nor hand it to him directly.  Rather, it should be placed before the person on a plate or in a bowl.

·    It is improper to eat or drink while standing.

·    It is not proper to wipe your plate clean while eating so that nothing is left on it.  Some food, even a small amount, should remain.  

·    It is also improper to lick your fingers.

·    If you are a guest in a home, do not demand food to eat, rather, wait until food is offered.

·    If two people are eating together from the same plate (say, sharing olives from a common bowl) and one person stops eating in order to drink or to do another minor act, the other person needs to stop eating from the bowl and wait until his friend is ready to resume.  If, however, three people are eating from the same plate or bowl and one person interrupts his eating, it is not necessary for the other two to pause.

All of these cultural expectations serve to highlight a distinctive aspect of the first Passover meal described in tonight’s reading from the Book of Exodus:

This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. 

It is the modern day equivalent of having your child in her soccer uniform and cleats as you hit the drive thru on the way to practice.  The Passover is anything but a leisurely meal typical of the culture at the time.  It is eating on the run.  It stands out because it is the exception, not the rule.  In our time, dining is the exception.  Rushing is the norm.

The early Church soon discovered when they gathered for a communal meal – observing all the norms and customs of the day, but also remembering the last meal they shared with Jesus – the Risen Lord became known to them.  Early on, there was a physical presence.  After the Ascension, the presence was spiritual.  We experience this in our day when we gather in this place around its table and do what we do in remembrance of Christ. 

We also experience it in our homes and with our friends as we sit down for a meal where we have time truly to be present to one another.  At occasions like these, which are becoming rare in our society, God’s Spirit moves in and through the gathering in ways that refresh and restore us while bonding and binding us to one another in love. 

I miss our Agape Meal tonight because of the way it brings together the sacred and the social.  It starts with the preparation – food and decoration – continues through the meal, and lingers even into the clean-up.  It has a powerful way of connecting us to one another and of connecting us to the One who is our Host.  God willing, next year we will gather at table in the Parish Hall once again and dine with one another.  Tonight we give thanks for the opportunity to gather in this sacred meal and moment at the Lord’s Table.

Good Friday

Jesus said, “Woman, behold thy son.”

The Greek philosopher Herodotus is remembered for noting the major difference between times of peace and times of war is during peace children bury their parents and during war parents bury their children.  Whatever the political climate is, every parent carries a secret fear someday he or she will lose a child.  Without question, the most grief-filled memorial services are those where a parent has to bury a child, no matter if the child is two or thirty-two. 

What must be going through the mind of Mary, the holy mother, as she watches her son die on the Cross?

As a young girl, perhaps no older than fourteen, she is visited by an angel whose puzzling message proclaims she will conceive through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and give birth to a son.  We find the angel’s words in Luke 1:32:

“He will be great,

and will be called the Son of the Most High;

   and the Lord God will give to him

   the throne of his father David,

and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever;

   and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

The fear-filled little girl responds, “Let it be to me according to your word.” 

Surely this is one of the memories flooding Mary’s mind as she watches her flesh and blood hang on the tree.

In the months following the angel’s visit, Mary must have endured great shame being pregnant and unwed.  Yet she is still able to make this proclamation to her cousin Elizabeth:

“My soul magnifies the Lord,

And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

   for He has regarded

   the low estate of his handmaiden.

For behold,

henceforth all generations will call me blessed;

   for He has done great things for me

   and holy is his Name…”

Does Mary remember these words as she grieves at Calvary?  Surely she does not perceive herself as blessed among all people on that terrible Friday afternoon.

Think of all the unusual events associated with the birth of Jesus.  Luke records on the night of Jesus’ birth shepherds come to the manger telling a story of angelic visions and choruses.  Matthew records the visit of Magi who follow a star to the place where the child can be found.  Luke also records the declarations of Simeon and Anna at Jesus’ dedication in the Temple eight days after his birth.  While these events leave others confused, the Scriptures tells us Mary ponders them while keeping them in her heart. 

Imagine how great her hopes and expectations for her son must have been.  How many days must she have held her child to her breast dreaming of what he might become?   How many nights must she have put him to sleep with a prayer entrusting him into God’s care?  How many times does she catch a glimmer of the Divine growing in her boy and how often does she wonder what glorious things God will do through him, as she has been promised? 

Can anyone at the foot of the Cross be more dissolutioned?  Can anyone be more confused?  Can anyone be more grieved than Mary?

In the midst of great physical and emotional agony Jesus is aware of his mother and her anguish.  Scholars are somewhat puzzled by his words to her, “Woman, behold thy son” and to the disciple, “Behold, thy mother.”  Mary has several other children by Joseph who are capable of caring for her.  In fact, one son – James – becomes the leader of the church in Jerusalem, so it is not clear to experts why Jesus has to entrust her to one outside the family.  But this much we do know, the disciple takes the mother of our Lord into his care from this moment on. 

From this I deduce even in the throes of his suffering Jesus has compassion for us and for our needs.  He is ever-concerned for us as evidenced by his concern for his mother.  Given this, how much more is he able to care for us now in his glory?

I also believe family lines are redrawn not as a way to deal with loss and grief, but as a foreshadowing of what life in the resurrection will be like.  In a few short days Jesus will rise from the dead and appear to his followers in triumph.  When this happens realities such as biological relations will seem trivial in light of the bonds created among believers who experience the resurrection.

Just as those who wait at the foot of the Cross are bound together by their common experience, we are united in this place at this time because we come to observe Good Friday together.  Come Sunday we will be related by more than the fact we gather together in the same place.  We will be brothers and sisters in Christ based on the power of the resurrection in our lives.  For followers of Christ there is no stronger tie than the faith uniting us in Christ.  We rejoice together.  We weep together.  Let no one make a charge against one of the elect for we are family in Christ.  As it was at the foot of the Cross between Mary and the disciple, let it be for us.

Monday, April 11, 2022

The Passion as a Mirror


The Passion of our Lord according to Luke

Year C

It is perhaps the most troubling, most upsetting thing we are asked to do in liturgical worship.  Once each year we are required to become part of a mob witnessing the rigged trial of a person who brought peace into the world, modeled forgiveness, loved the unlovable, and criticized the hypocrisy of the elite, be they political, religious, or the indifferent well-to-do.  And with the mob we are forced to render a verdict. 

“Crucify him!  Crucify him!” 

The words which rang out in the courtyard in front of Pilate’s residence centuries ago become our words echoing throughout this space – this space where we come to be married, to baptize our children, to receive the sacrament, to ask God’s care and keep before we bury a loved one.  “Crucify him!” seems so out of step with everything else this place is for us, and yet it is here on this day we are directed to say these words; words which in some way link us to the original throng and make us culpable with them.

It has been well chronicled crucifixion is one of the cruelest, most painful forms of execution ever devised.  Mel Gibson’s 2004 movie The Passion of Christ was criticized for its extreme, graphic depiction, but (at least to my way of thinking), it was probably far tamer than the real thing.  I have heard numerous sermons and talks describing in detail the exact nature of the suffering crucifixion inflicts.  I will spare you the details. 

Typically, the point of such preaching is to impress upon the listener the pain and punishment Jesus took upon himself to pay the penalty for our sins.  The whole point of Passion Sunday, then, is to impose a quilt trip which will drive us to our knees in remorse.  This then motivates us to amend our lives moving forward in grateful acknowledgement of all Christ has won for us through his suffering on our behalf.  When accompanied by an extreme emotional response, it becomes what is known as a “conversion experience.”

This process is known as the atonement theory of the Crucifixion:

9    We are all sinners.

9    Sin demands punishment.

9    The punishment is death.

9    It is a cost too great for us to pay.

9    Christ, being sinless, pays the price (or atones) on our behalf. 

It is a nice, tidy theology, certainly with biblical roots and support from the ancient Hebrew sacrificial system.  But I wonder if we are missing something when the complex events of this day become as describable as a recipe for baking chocolate chip cookies.

In 1972, a French writer by the name of Rene Girard authored an influential and somewhat dense book titled Violence and the Sacred in which he explored the ritual role of sacrifice in diverse religious and cultural systems.  His work has been hailed by many for analyzing how socially sanctioned violence (like crucifixion) has been played out in many different cultures and ages. 

Girard sees in the Cross a kind of mirror which forces us to look at ourselves and at our society.  And what we see when we look at ourselves is our most violent tendencies, from political institutions to personal encounters.  In the Cross we see our tendency to scapegoat the weak and marginalized in order to absolve and unify the whole.  When we shout “Crucify him!”, it is not because we want redemption for telling petty lies or sneaking a second helping of dessert.  We are proclaiming Jesus must die because he threatens the status quo by calling into question fundamental aspects of our society and ways we benefit from them at the expense of others.

It takes a brave person to engage the news in our day and time: shootings in downtown Suffolk and a killing in northern part of our city; gunshots at McArthur Mall and Virginia Beach; gang shootings in Sacramento’s entertainment district, unspeakable, inhumane acts in the Ukraine; multiple states enacting legislation designed to marginalize the most vulnerable and misunderstood members of our society.  Ours is a violent world and the human race is a violent people.  In some way, shape, or form, every act of violence is a statement proclaiming I will get what I want at your expense, or I will make secure what I value by rendering you harmless.  This is the message mirrored back to us from the Cross.  This is what we seek when we say, “Crucify him!”  We want our lives to be better by making someone else’s worse.

The word ‘atonement’ was created by William Tyndale, the first person to translate the bible into English from original Hebrew and Greek texts.  It literally means “at-one-ment”, the bringing together of that which has been separated.  Tyndale used this word as a translation for several different biblical words which mean ‘reconciliation.’  Like so many before him, he saw in the Cross a work meant to unite God to a world estranged from God – at-one-ment – and to bridge the chasm between peoples so deeply divided against one another.  Does Jesus accomplish this by transferring the unpayable balance of our sins into his own account or did he make it possible by holding before us the worst of our behavior and calling us to repent? 

A rocket strike at a railroad station kills dozens of innocents, injuring scores more, all attempting to flee the destruction of their homeland.  Before the soldiers fired the weapon they took the time to paint on it a message: “For the Children.”  I ask you this: did Jesus die on the Cross so the sins of these perpetrators would be forgiven (the atonement theory) or to hold up to us a mirror which forces us to look at our darkest tendencies and calls us to repentance and change?

Well, either way, this much is certain: as individuals, as a people, as a society, as the human family, we desperately need God’s Spirit to fall upon us to transform us in ways we desire but cannot achieve through our own initiatives and merits.  Through the observance of Holy Week, we are invited to do more than shout “Crucify him.”  We are invited to walk with Jesus, to ponder the meaning of a symbolic foot washing, to share in the institution of his sacred meal, to stand in silence at Golgotha, to die with him, and (ultimately) to rise with him in newness of life.  It is a journey from “Crucify him” to “Create in me a new, clean heart.”  I invite you to join me on this pilgrimage of dying and new birth.