A Pattern of Love – Maundy Thursday

One of the great gifts we have here at Christ Church is the front desk ministry.  In two-hour shifts, sixteen faithful volunteers and a handful of fill-ins, make sure that guests are welcomed, the phone is answered, and sundry administrative details are handled.  Having those things dealt with is nice, but the best part of it is the relationships.  I’ve learned so much about our front desk volunteers over the past few years.  I’ve heard stories of children and grandchildren.  I’ve listened to great tales of business trips and family vacations.  We’ve shared prayer concerns and laughs, all around the front desk in moments of brief exchange.  I’ve also learned of some of the neat hobbies that people have.  Richard Greer is a car guy.  Maryanne Ringo makes dog clothing.  Paula Maier is gifted in needlepoint.

I don’t have the skill nor the patience for needlepoint, but in watching Paula work meticulously on gifts months and months in advance, I’ve come to understand how important it is to work from a good pattern.  The pattern is always there, reminding you of the right path to follow in order to produce the finished product you desire.  It shows you where the outline turns.  It helps you to determine what to fill in with red and what is actually a lighter shade of pink.  The pattern is dependable.  Never failing.

On Maundy Thursday, the church gathers to mark an ending and a beginning.  The meal that Jesus and his disciples shared this night is commonly called the Last Supper.  It was the final opportunity for Jesus to share what was of utmost importance with his closest friends.  They engaged in the traditional Jewish practices of breaking bread and sharing from a common cup.  Jesus reminded them of what they would need to remember after the chaos of the 24 hours that were to come.  He gave them a new mandate for life in the Kingdom of Heaven – that they love one another.

Maundy Thursday is about the story of the Last Supper, but the Last Supper included more than just the bread and the cup.  Our liturgy isn’t simply another recitation of the Eucharist.  On this night we take part in one other activity that was modeled by Jesus on that most holy night.  We will wash on another’s feet.  You’ve just heard the story.  We know how in the middle of dinner, Jesus got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and took on the dress of a table slave.  He bent down and did the most demeaning thing anyone could do, he washed the dirty, dusty, stinky feet of his disciples.

After he finished, he put his robe back on, symbolic of his role as a Rabbi, and began to teach them about what he had just done.  Almost every English translation of the Bible has Jesus telling his disciples, “I have set an example for you, that you should also do as I have done to you,” but that’s not the entirety of what he was saying to them.  No, the Greek word that gets translated as “example” can also mean “pattern.”  Whereas an example is a thing you do once to show somebody how to do a thing, a pattern is about an ongoing standard of behavior.  Jesus didn’t wash his disciples’ feet as a one-off example that they too should wash feet, although once a year we brush off that example.  Rather, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet to offer them a pattern of sacrificial love.  He established for them what he hoped would be a life-long commitment to loving service.  In so doing, Jesus assured them that he, and by extension the Holy Spirit, would be an ever-present pattern for them to follow, especially when the going got tough.

Tonight, you, like me, may want to having nothing to do with this whole foot washing exercise.  Or, you might be feeling a bit timid about it.  Perhaps you are giving thanks that the Church chose to repeat the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup rather than the foot washing thing each week.  Maybe this is your favorite service of whole church year.  I don’t know, you might be strange like that.  No matter if you are dying to wash someone’s feet or would rather die than do it, it isn’t the example of foot washing that is important.  Maundy Thursday, which comes from the Latin for Christ’s mandate to love, is about the pattern of love that the example foot washing enacts. It is about the reality that Jesus’ whole life can serve as a pattern for our lives as his disciples.  It is about the promise that the Holy Spirit is here among us to help us follow the pattern, to show us where the outline turns and where the red might need to fade to a lighter shade of pink.  It is about the patterns of behavior that bring about the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.  Amen.

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Spy Wednesday Cliché

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When I was a freshman in college, instead of doing my homework, I watched all of the Bond movies back to back, as they playing on TNT, or some equivalent cable network.  I love spy movies.  I love the action.  I love the intrigue.  Above all, I love the tropes that one expects to see fulfilled in any good spy movie.  Perhaps the best cliché in a spy movie is the stupidity that surrounds the spy.  Usually taking the form of the villain that takes extra time to spell out the intricacies of his evil plan, giving the spy an opportunity to escape the trap in which she in snared, the comic relief in most spy movies is just how dumb the people around the story can act.

On this Spy Wednesday, all twelve disciples have the chance to fulfill their destiny as spy story clichés.  In Matthew, Judas has his starring role at the table.  Jesus predicts that one of them will betray him, and Judas says, “Surely not I, Rabbi,” which is, of course, the title used by Jesus’ adversaries in Matthew’s Gospel.  Our appointed lesson for Spy Wednesday comes from John’s Gospel, and it is the other eleven who get to look foolish in John’s account.

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After Jesus tells them that one of the group will betray him, Peter and John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, undertake a clandestine mission to figure out who it will be.  John, who had the seat next to Jesus at their table for 26, point blank asks Jesus, “Who is it going to be?”  Jesus, in perhaps the only example we have of him actually answering a question, says, “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread.”  Then, when he hands Judas the piece of bread and says, “Do quickly what you are going to do,” nobody understands what is happening.

It is comedic gold, set amidst the intrigue that is Jesus’ final few days.  I love how, after three years of traveling with Jesus, listening to his teaching, witnessing his miracles, and even sharing in his ministry, the disciples can still prove to be so very dense.  It means there is hope for us all in the Kingdom of God.  The life of discipleship is, as the title of a great book by Tony Campolo and Brian McLaren says so perfectly, a series of Adventures in Missing the Point. We all tend to not quite understand what God is up to in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  We all fail to accurately interpret what the Spirit is calling us to do.  At any given moment, any one of us is the comedic foil in the ongoing saga of missio dei.  But God is full of compassion, slow to anger, and of great kindness.  Jesus, despite the foolishness of the 11, went through with the difficult end game, knowing that the rain falls on the smart and the stupid alike.  The Spirit continues to gift us, knowing that we’ll likely misunderstand what those gifts are to be used for.  We are all, from time to time, a Spy Wednesday Cliché, but thanks be to God for the grace that overcomes our foolishness.

Drawn in in love – Tuesday in Holy Week

On my way to Meijer to purchase ice cream salt and rubbing alcohol for the new fire at the Great Vigil, I passed by one of our local Pentecostal churches.  Because it is a) Pentecostal and b) on the main thoroughfare, they have one of those fancy LED marquees that announces things like opening in their pre-school or special services.  As I passed by this morning, the first ad I saw on the screen was for their Good Friday service, which is a thing I’m noticing more and more in non-liturgical traditions, and something maybe for a later post.  The ad featured a black background with a silverish cross in foreground along with the service name and time.  As the image switched to announce the Easter services, the cross changed from silver to white.  The background from black to a bright blue sky hovering above an August National-type green grass hill.

In that moment, I realized something about myself.  I think there is a part of me, way back in the recesses of my soul, that thinks the tradition of veiling crosses in Lent is backwards.  Instead, I wonder if we shouldn’t remove all the crosses from our naves during the Great 50 Days of Easter.  I know that this is a dangerously triumphalist thought, but I think it stems from too many experiences in which the fast of Good Friday and the feast of Easter Day have been conflated into a cross with purple sashing sitting below a white banner the Alleluia in gold lettering.

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I can’t even with this

There is no Easter without Good Friday, and Good Friday isn’t good without Easter Day, but they are meant to be honored as separate events, or maybe better said, two distinct features of a greater whole.

One of my favorite prayers in the Daily Office was written by Charles Henry Brent, the late bishop of the Philippines and later, Western New York.  It goes like this,

Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: so clothe us with your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name.

The Gospel lesson appointed for Tuesday in Holy Week is a typically Johannine text, in which Jesus is clear that it is through his being lifted up [on a cross] that Jesus will draw all people to himself.  There is, as the old hymn says, power in the blood of Jesus.  There is redemption in Jesus stretching out his own arms in loving act of laying down his life.  This even is worth contemplating deeply during the week leading up to and including Good Friday.  In the act of laying down his life, Jesus draws us all in to himself in love.  And then, it seems to me, something different happens come Sunday morning.  Rather than shifting our focus from a gray cross on a dark background to an empty wooden cross on a happier background, our focus should turn entirely away from the hill called Golgotha to the stone that has been rolled away from the empty tomb.  There is a whole lot more to think and say about this than 600 words will allow, but suffice to say, I think it is important to consider how the events of Good Friday and Easter are different, even as together, they help to bring us all into the knowledge and love of Jesus.

Endings are difficult – Good Friday 2018

Endings are difficult, there is no doubt about it.  I’ve never known anything to end without some kind of pain.  Relationships come to an end, and it hurts.  A job ends, and it is sad.  Your favorite television show comes to an end, and tears are shed.  Life comes to an end, and those who are left behind grieve.  Vacations come to an end, and you immediately need another one.  Endings are difficult, and so we often do the best we can to avoid them, hoping that the need for yet another end might somehow go away.

Of course, we all know that endings cannot be avoided.  It is an inevitability of time that things will come to their culmination.  Despite our natural discomfort with endings, every year, the Church invites us to pause for a few moments to remember one ending in particular.  On this Friday we call Good, we gather to mark the end of the life of Jesus Christ.  It hasn’t been all that long since we gathered to celebrate his birth.  It was just a few short months ago when we gave thanks for his baptism and the beginning of his ministry.  Over the past dozen or so Sundays, we’ve heard, with growing excitement and anticipation, Mark’s account of Jesus’ expanding ministry of healing, exorcism, preaching, and teaching.

Like the disciples, it would be easy for us to hope that the work of Jesus might go on forever.  I know I have those days where I’m certain that everything would be a whole lot better if Jesus was still walking among us.  Ultimately, however, Jesus didn’t come to preach or to heal, but he came to save, and today, as we remember the end of his life, we also celebrate the beginning of our salvation.  Without the cross, without Jesus’ death, without the blood and water poured out, there would be no reason to call this day Good, but it is precisely in the ending that eternal life begins.

Without the ending that happens on Good Friday, there is no new beginning on Easter Day.  It is a natural human reaction to want to skip ahead, to pass over Good Friday and jump right to Easter, but that would be unwise.  Without death, there is no resurrection.  Without contemplating on these mighty acts, the empty tomb makes no sense.  Without a body to prepare for burial, there is no reason for the women to rise early on Sunday morning and encounter the risen Lord.  And so, we must take a moment to pause and to reflect on the gift that was given to us in this ending.  We mourn the role we have played in making it happen.  We repent and ask God to help us make a new beginning.  And, above all, we wait.  We wait and watch as during these three days, God took the work of salvation from a specific time and a specific place and wrote it across all of history.  In the death of Jesus, the bonds of sin were broken, not just for his disciples, but for all humanity throughout all ages.  It was the perfect ending, which brings about the perfect beginning of grace poured out for all.

During these next few days, I invite you to take some time to give thanks for the endings that bring about new beginnings.  Give thanks for moments of sorrow that bring about opportunities for joy.  Give thanks for the death of Jesus, in which we are raised to life eternal.  Amen.

The Power of Lazarus – Monday in Holy Week

There are any number of reasons why the religious powers-that-be wanted, and felt they needed, to get rid of Jesus.  He was preaching an apocalyptic message that the Kingdom of God was at hand.  Given the political pressure cooker that was Roman occupied Jerusalem during the Passover Festival at the start of the Common Era, the Pharisees were certainly not thrilled to have an apocalyptic messianic figure roaming around town.  He was challenging the status quo by healing on the sabbath, preaching a stringent ethic, and suggesting the Temple system was corrupt.  Nobody likes having their authority questioned, no least, religious leaders.  Perhaps most importantly, Jesus was drawing huge crowds – larger even than John the Baptist had – and popularity is a dangerous thing.

John tells us that despite all of these yellow flags, it wasn’t until a fateful day in Bethany that the Pharisees ultimately decided that Jesus had to go.  Lazarus, who had been dead four days, was brought back to life.  Not with laying on of hands or even really through prayer, but simply by way of three words, “Lazarus, come out.”  As a result of this miracle, many put their faith in Jesus.  Suddenly, all the yellow flags became red.  In their distress, the Pharisees exclaimed, “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come destroy both our holy place and our nation.”

Thus was the power of Lazarus’ healing, which is why it is so important that in John, Holy Week begins at the home of Lazarus and his sisters, Martha and Mary.  This family, with whom Jesus had a long and beloved relationship, which had likely bank rolled much of his ministry, and which was often home base during his trips to Jerusalem, was so powerful that the raising of Lazarus from the dead couldn’t be explained away like Jesus’ other life-giving miracles.  No, this one was different.  This one required the death of not just Jesus, but of Lazarus [again], as well.

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It is the raising of Lazarus from the dead that makes Mary’s anointing of Jesus so powerful.  All of the love that had been shared between Jesus and this family was poured out in 300 denarii worth of pure nard.  )If you’ve ever smelled spike nard, you’ll know that its aroma is strong, and not very pleasant to the modern olfactory senses, so that I feel comfortable saying the following.)  Not only that, but all the fear, misunderstanding, and anger that existed between the Pharisees and Jesus was poured out as well.

The Gospel lesson for today ends with these ominous words, “So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.”  By way of Lazarus’ resurrection, the tide had turned.  There was no going back to Jesus being a small-time Rabbi from a sleepy little fishing village.  He was the it thing – and it was out of fear of his popularity that the final plans went into motion.

It is finished…

One of my spiritual disciplines during Holy Week each year is to read John’s Passion narrative out loud at least once.  There is something about reading a text out loud that makes it real in a way that isn’t possible when it just rattles around in your head.  As I prepare for that reading, I take time to slowly and carefully study the text, looking for words or phrases that might be taking on new meaning this year; words or phrases that might need special attention.  This year, that phrase was “It is finished.”  While meditating on those words, I began to see them as a crystal, that as I turned, took on vastly different characteristics.  I began to see how, depending on where one stood in proximity to the cross, the words, “It is finished,” took on very different meanings.

For the soldiers who crucified Jesus, “it is finished” meant their day’s work was nearly over.  Surely, it hadn’t been an easy day, but it was work.  They had crucified thousands in a day before, so today wasn’t all that bad.  Still, this day was a little crazier than most.  The crowds were larger.  The angst seemed greater.  It all revolved around this guy in the middle, who had “the King of the Jews” on a sign nailed above his head.  They probably hadn’t killed a king before, but he couldn’t possibly be that anyway.  Nah, surely, he was just another in the long line of Messiah figures who had met their inevitable doom.  “It is finished” meant that life would go on as normal tomorrow.

For the Chief Priests, Scribes, and Pharisees, “it is finished” meant that yet again victory was theirs.  Jesus had been meddling in their affairs for entirely too long.  His following had grown way too large.  His teaching had challenged them to the core, and as a result, they had to get rid of him.  He was a Messiah figure.  They had seen plenty of them before, and they knew how to handle them.  Still, this Jesus character was a little different.  He spoke with such conviction.  He taught with such authority.  Even some in their midst had started to wonder if Jesus was who he said he was.  Now, their anxiety could ease.  Jesus was dead.  The only thing left to worry about was if his disciples would try to steal his body and fake his resurrection.  They had one last task: to make sure the tomb was guarded.  They hoped “it is finished” was actually true.

For the crowd, whipped into a frenzy by a week of confrontation between Jesus and the powers-that-be, “it is finished” meant it was time to make their way to the Passover Feast.  Some of them had toyed with the idea of following Jesus.  Others might have listened to his teaching for a while.  A few might have even been healed by him.  Like it did every year, the Passover week brought with it expectation and hope.  Sure, it would have been nice if Jesus had really been the Messiah, but they’d been burned too many times to really care.  Was the next Moses going to rise up and save them from the oppressive rule of Caesar?  “It is finished” meant the answer was no, not this year.

For John, James, Peter, and the rest of the disciples, most of whom had long since fled in fear, “it is finished” were words of frustration.  For three years, they had given their life to this man.  For three years, they had put their hope in him.  For three years, they had followed him around the countryside, studied at his feet, and watched in awe as he performed miracle after miracle.  For three years, they had expected that Jesus was going to bring them to Jerusalem, not to die on a cross, but to restore the hope of all Israel, and today, after all that anticipation, their hopes were frustrated when he didn’t come down from the cross, he didn’t stand up for himself before Pilate, and he didn’t call his followers to fight.  Instead, he willfully handed himself over to death.  “It is finished” meant that everything they had thought was true for the last three years was ultimately a lie.

For Mary, standing near her son, having endured the trauma of that dreadful day, “it is finished” were words of hopelessness.  Her son, her first born, her beloved child had been wrongfully convicted, hastily executed, and now hung lifeless on a cross between two common criminals.  These words were the culmination of a prophecy some thirty-three years earlier.  When Jesus was just eight days old, the devout and righteous Simeon blessed the child and his parents, but warned Mary, that one day a sword would pierce her own heart.  Today, it came to be.  “It is finished” meant that her heart was not just pierced, but cut in two by the sharp knife of hate, violence, and misunderstanding.

For Jesus, however, “it is finished” came with an ellipsis.  The physical suffering was indeed over, but his work had just really begun.  Over the next three days, hell was to be vanquished and the power of death would come to an end.  “It is finished” is a cry of victory, a statement of mission, and a call to action.  It is finished, but it is not over.[1]  Amen.

[1] I struggled with this sentence for quite a while and am grateful to Stanley Hauerwas for his article on ChristianityToday.com  http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2005/marchweb-only/42.0c.html

Maundy Thursday 2017 – The Church’s Petrine Moment

Before I get too deep here – a joke for you to keep in mind as you read this post.  What’s the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist?

You can negotiate with a terrorist.

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Peter gives Jesus a pass on the foot stuff

“You will never wash my feet.”

How long must those words have hung in the air?  Peter, Jesus’ most petulant disciple, again springs into the limelight on Maundy Thursday as once more he directly challenges the will of his teacher and friend.  The first disciple to name Jesus as the Messiah, you would think he might be more willing to go along with what Jesus asks of him, but for whatever reason, Peter is constantly fighting with Jesus like my four year-old fights with me.

Jesus is undeterred.  Here is the line in the sand.  “Foot washing is a part of this discipleship thing, and unless I wash your feet, you will have no part with me.”  This is, to be very clear, a non-negotiable.  Jesus is modeling for his disciples, which includes us, what it means to be a servant leader.  “I have given you an example to follow.  Do as I have done to you.”

“I don’t really like washing feet.”

“It doesn’t mean what it did in the first century.”

Of late, some clergy have taken on the role of Peter when it comes to Maundy Thursday, choosing to skip the foot washing (n.b. I know it is an optional rite) or somewhat inexplicably choosing to wash hands instead of feet (Honestly, just take the rubrically allowed path and don’t do it at all).  As I reflect on my own discomfort with feet, with touching feet, and with slathering on hand sanitizer, but still feeling like I’m celebrating the Eucharist with feet covered hands, I know, in my heart of hearts, that I’d rather not do it.  Like Peter, I’d like to say, “I’ll never wash feet,” but Jesus didn’t let Peter get away with it, and I doubt if he’ll let me either.

The very fact that the washing of feet is so awkward and strange is the reason we should do it.  Ignoring for a moment that Jesus said, “do as I have done for you,” every Episcopal Church in the land should be washing feet tonight because it is a part of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.  Discipleship calls us out of our comfort zones, it asks us to talk to our neighbors about Jesus, to get up early on Sunday and come to worship, to donate time during the week to serve our neighbors, to give sacrificially of our money for the Kingdom, and it is all summed up in one terrifically uncomfortable act on Maundy Thursday.  When we wash feet, we take our part with Jesus who shows us what it means to walk the hard road to redemption.