Passing over from a stuck, narrow place

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“Servant of All” from the Life of Christ window at All Souls by Katherine Lamb Tait, 1937.

A homily for MaundyThursday, April 17, 2014.  The lectionary readings are Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14, Psalm 116:1, 10-17, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, and John 13:1-17, 31b-35.

After I had been a few years out of seminary, I was able to join other alums and some of our professors on a trip to Israel. Most of us had studied some biblical Hebrew in school and we were especially curious how this knowledge might help us (or not) in modern Israel. A few of our group did really well, but I kept getting stuck, especially with proper names. I would look at a sign and sound out the letters: qof, ok, a K stound. Kok, with an aleph, coca… and then there’s a lamed. Coca coler, coca colu….OH, Coca Cola!

I shouldn’t have been too surprised, since I did the same thing in class. Even when I spotted the name of a person or place, I would enjoy trying to figure out the meaning of the name, and many times there might be a real depth in that meaning. Jonathan means “Yahweh has given,” or “gift of God.” Bethlehem means “house of bread.” And so on.

I was reminded of my limited Hebrew and the mysteries therein when I read a recent article that mentioned the word, Mitzrayim, the word we usually translate as “Egypt.”

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield points out that the word we translate as Egypt, also means a “narrow place.” And so, to be in Egypt, he says, is to be in Mitzrayim, it “is the paradigmatic experience of being stuck between a rock and a hard place.” He goes on,

Passover reminds all people that while getting jammed up can, and likely will, happen to each of us, there is always the possibility of redemption and release. Whoever you are, and whatever faith you follow, Passover invites us to take stock of where we are stuck, and seek the help we need to get un-stuck.  That we will ultimately be successful is the eternal promise of Passover. (Fourteen Things to Know for Passover 2014)

Hirschfield should know a little something about the Passover experience. He used to be an activist in the West Bank, working for a reconstitution of the State of Israel using biblical boundaries. But he has moved to a new place. He’s gotten out of the narrow place and into a much more expansive place. Today, he teaches inclusiveness, promotes diversity, and encourages peace.

When Jesus shares supper with his friends and disciples, he inaugurates a new Passover with them. It begins with the foot washing. He turns things upside down, as the leader becomes the servant; the greater moves to be the lesser, in those beautiful words of the Palm Sunday Epistle, “Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself….” (Philippians 2:6-8a)

When we’re stuck in a narrow place, stuck between a rock and a hard place, there are several things we can do.

We can pray.
We can offer ourselves in service.
We can allow others to help us.
We can join others at the table.

Tonight’s Gospel is like a close-up of things that matter most in life—a friend to help us, a friend to help, and a table where we can share a meal. It’s no surprise to me that Jesus chose that setting as the highpoint of his last days with the disciples. It’s there—in that upper room that God is present in an immediate way. What happens afterwards—the crucifixion, the death, the burial, and the resurrection—are all along the way to regaining that place of fellowship and nurture, the table already set in heaven, where angels and archangels, saints and martyrs are rejoicing already.

The invitation is for us to step out of the narrow places, the stuck places, and the places where no light has been allowed. To take Christ’s hand, to take the hand of another, and to help others find their way to the Table.

The dramatic, larger-than-life, grand-themed Exodus is still part of God’s plan and intention. But often that story is so much larger than our immediate context that it can feel remote, “out there,” and as though it doesn’t really include us. But whether we’re in an Egypt of dessert and desolation, or an Egypt of a narrow, tight place, Christ extends his hand (and the hands of others). I give you a new commandment. I give you an example: “lift one another up and love.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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