A sermon for Maundy Thursday, April 18, 2019. The scripture 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.
Listen to the sermon HERE.
Yesterday, I wandered into Eli’s Market on Third Avenue, looking for Easter candy. As I passed the prepared foods section, I stopped. There, in front of me, perfectly wrapped and ready for purchase, was a take-out Seder meal. Complete with hard-boiled egg, shank bone, horseradish, haroset, and a parsley bouquet, it’s just what one needs to observe a simple Seder meal and begin Passover. As most of you know, the Seder includes symbolic foods that help to remember God’s saving the people of Israel, then, now, and always; the same story pointed to in our Exodus reading. I love the image of that take-out Seder meal in the market because it’s a good example of how Moses explains it should be.
In Exodus, Moses puts it bluntly, “Eat [the meal] with your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. You shall eat it hurriedly.” Moses rushes the people through their meal because God is busy rushing through Egypt and making a way for the people to go forward, a way of freedom and new life.
When Jesus and his disciples gathered in an upper room to celebrate the Passover meal, they knew the tradition from Exodus, but I think Jesus chose this place and this time not to have a hurried meal. Instead, I think he chose this time and place in order to slow down. Biblical scholars argue about whether Jesus knew exactly what the next few days would bring, or whether he just sensed things were leading in a certain direction. But whatever the case, in the midst of confusion, uncertainty, worry, fear, perhaps some doubt—Jesus chose this supper as a chance to be with his friends and to savor ever minute. To taste the bread. To chew the olives. To smell the wine. To pray with eyes open wide.
Jesus speaks with them very gently. He talks about what might be ahead. When they become anxious, he offers calm. He shows them faith. He tries to prepare them spiritually, and as a symbol of servant hood and of cleaning away the old to make room for the new, Jesus washes their feet.
Simon Peter is uncomfortable with the idea. Probably for different reasons than we might be, but the reluctance, the vulnerability, the hesitation to yield to another, to allow another to touch, and wash, and offer— some of us might be in the same place as Simon Peter, and we might be uncomfortable.
And yet, just like Jesus tries to show Simon Peter that service involves not only giving, not only “doing unto;” but it also involves receiving, and allowing other to do, so Jesus offers us a way of service that makes for communion.
This act of washing feet not only recalls the service Jesus showed his disciples, but it also reminds us of where we are. We’re not back in First Century Palestine. We’re here, in New York. We don’t (all of us) have stylized, beautiful feet like in paintings or frescoes, we have what we have. And we have one another.
If you look around, you’ll see a sight that will never be repeated again: Each of these people, sitting where he or she is sitting, looking the way they do. This particular configuration of people, in this space, with the light just as it is—will never happen exactly like this again. Water, bread, wine, bodies, emotions…. they are all rare and endangered—endangered by the worries of tomorrow, by the regrets of yesterday, by the distractions of today ….
And so, God invites us to be present in this evening. To be present now.
For many, this season of Lent has been especially challenging for keeping any kind of focus. The political and cultural questions of our day keep us anxious and on the defensive for what used to be normal, basic values. Tax season has brought new worries and challenges for many, especially in our area and our parish. Health concerns confront us, random violence in the city disturbs us, and few of us work in jobs that feel steady or secure. And then, on Monday, we watch as Notre Dame burns—reminding many of us of other occasions of fire and chaos: 9/11, the fire in November 2011 at our own cathedral—and reminding us all of the impermanence of buildings, of people, of life.
Among the many lessons Jesus models in the Upper Room is the practice of presence. He is fully present—not worried about the past; not worried about the future, but in the now. In his book, The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle explains, ““Time isn’t precious at all, because it is an illusion. What you perceive as precious is not time but the one point that is out of time: the Now. That is precious indeed. The more you are focused on time—past and future—the more you miss the Now, the most precious thing there is.” (The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment).
We have a song in our hymnal that sums up this ministry of prayerful presence, hymn simply called, “Now.” It sings,
Now the silence, now the peace,
Now the empty hands uplifted;
Now the kneeling, now the plea,
Now the Father’s arms in welcome;
Now the hearing, now the power,
Now the vessel brimmed for pouring;
Now the body, now the blood,
Now the joyful celebration;
Now the wedding, now the songs,
Now the heart forgiven, leaping;
Now the Spirit’s visitation,
Now the Son’s epiphany;
Now the Father’s blessing,
Now, now, now.
(The Hymnal, no. 333, words by Jaroslav Vajda, 1919-2008)
Just as Jesus used the Upper Room as a time to be with his friends, so this night provides us an opportunity to be present. A lot has gone before us. The days ahead will bring their challenges, but we are here, in this place. And God is here, in this place, now.