spirit of the heartland

Spirit of theHeartland

A Sermon for Maundy Thursday
The Rev. Linda Maloney

Exodus 12:1-14a
1 Corinthians 11:23-26(27-32)
John 13:1-15
or Luke 22:14-30
Psalm 78:14-20,23-25

"Don't forget me, now"

A friend of mine who teaches Bible at every level, from Ph.D. candidates to adult ed and teens, told me that one of her young students came to her in tears, halfway through a class on the Gospels. The story was coming out all wrong. Jesus died! That wasn't supposed to happen! You can imagine my friend was a little bit surprised. But she consoled the student, telling her to keep reading; it would turn out okay.

We find that story a little funny, and touching, because we already know how the story ends-in fact, we have staked our lives on the faith that there is something beyond Jesus' death, that Easter will follow Good Friday. But it made me think about what it means to look at the story from the other end, not knowing how it turns out. That, after all, is how Jesus and his friends had to live through it. On Thursday night they didn't know what would happen on Friday, or Saturday, or Sunday. No, not even Jesus knew. Sometimes we tell ourselves that it wasn't so bad for Jesus, after all, because he knew God would raise him up. Uh uh. If he had known everything, he wouldn't have been like us, wouldn't have been really one of us; and if he hadn't really been one of us, we would have no hope. The hope we live on is the hope he lived on, too: that God is faithful, no matter what. He staked his life on that, and so must we.

The ending to the story isn't exactly a happy ending in the usual sense, either. "They lived happily ever after?" Well, yes and no. Their lives were changed absolutely. None of them-not Jesus, not his friends-ever got back to the kind of life they lived together before. But that part of the story comes later in the week. Tonight we are at the beginning of the end, so to speak. We need to be with Jesus where he is in this feast, in this space-saying farewell to his friends and at the same time planting in them the hope that what is about to happen will transform their lives forever.

A friend in New Zealand sent me his Lenten meditation a couple of weeks ago. John wrote about how we too often go through this season complacently, secure in our faith-"as long as we don't look too closely at the foundations we have, personally, based that faith on. We glide smoothly ahead, not even considering hope as part of our spiritual day to day life. We don't need it, we believe: we go to Church, we do our Christian duty, and God is in His heaven." But when things go wrong, when security disappears, are we standing on a rug that is easily yanked from under our feet, or on a carpet securely nailed down: a hope like that of Jesus, a confidence in God's faithfulness, even when we are screaming "Why?" Looking at Holy Week from this end should remind us that the best-laid plans not only may but in the end almost certainly will go awry. And then what?

A few years ago I had the honor of celebrating the Eucharist with a great man. His name was Father Lawrence Jencoe, and he had been a hostage in Beirut, Lebanon, for several years. When he celebrated the Eucharist, when he came to the point where the priest repeats Jesus' request to his disciples: "Do this in remembrance of me," Father Jencoe said, instead: "Don't forget me, now."

"Don't forget me, now." How many times must he have wondered, in his dark prison, whether anyone in the outside world remembered that he even existed. In those long years this good man was taken up into the heart of Jesus, as Jesus, too, was about to be seized and tortured. He knew that Jesus, too, was afraid that his whole life would be for nothing: that he would be forgotten. He had good reason to think so: didn't he predict that even his closest friends would run away when he was arrested? And they did!

"Don't forget me, now." Ever since that day, whenever I celebrate the Eucharist, I hear Jesus saying that to me: "Don't forget me." It's so easy to forget. Our lives are so busy. The world is so much with us. But this is all that Jesus asks of us: that we remember him.

When we celebrate the Eucharist we remember Jesus-Jesus, Son of God and human like us, one of us. If you never hear or remember anything else in your life, remember this: our God became one of us. That is what remembering Jesus means: coming face to face with this tremendous mystery of God's love: that God became one of us in Jesus Christ. It's one thing to do kind things for people who are despised, who are down and out. It's quite another thing to join their ranks, to take on their misery, including the taunts and jeers that are hurled at them by unfeeling people. Even if Father Jencoe's friends didn't forget him in his prison, they wouldn't have wanted to go in and be locked up with him. But that, dear friends, is just what our God has done for us.

In becoming a human being, we believe, God became like us "in all things but sin." But even if Jesus did no sin, he still suffered, for our sake, all the consequences of sin-including being accused and put down by people who thought they were better than he was! They called him "a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners." As they say down South where I come from: "If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas." That was certainly what people thought about Jesus. He was accused of the worst kinds of sins, including blaspheming God, and that was the charge on which they finally brought him to his death. If "the wages of sin is death," Jesus paid the full price.

Jesus paid the price of being fully human, just like you and me. He surrendered himself completely to his Father in life and death. He gave up everything, as we all must. He asked only one thing of us: that we remember him. And if that were all the story, it would have been enough for us.

But it is not the whole story, for Jesus' passage through death to life means that Jesus goes on being one of us forever, though released from our limitations of time and space; it means that our humanity is forever caught up in God; it means that we share Jesus' triumph (often in spite of ourselves), that we become, in fact, as Paul says, "the very holiness, the very righteousness of God."

It means that wherever people are suffering and striving, Jesus is present there. It means that whenever we try to stamp out troublesome people by killing them-I mean even people we think are very bad, people we think the world would be better off without-Jesus is right there, too, and because he has trampled down death by death, it means that our attempts to banish the spirit of any person or thing from the world by killing it will never work. We are going to have to find some other way to deal with each other than by killing, because Christ has destroyed death as a solution; because he is the one on the receiving end of every blow we strike.

And it means that in this Supper, today and every day, we do not just remember Jesus. We encounter Jesus, dead and risen, here in this church, here on this altar, here in this food and drink prepared for us. Jesus, because he surrendered himself fully and completely to suffering and death-just as we all must-could not promise us anything: all that he had, he gave. But God, the Father of Jesus, received Jesus' gift and returned it abundantly: by God's gift the risen Jesus is not just a memory for us; he is present in our midst, on our altar.

When we come to the altar, remembering Jesus, we should look around and see him present, not only in the bread and wine, but in the family he gathers at this altar, the family born of his blood and his love. We see the risen and victorious Jesus in the bread and wine, and in the body, the church, that shares the loaf and the cup. We see the happy ending of the story, whether we recognize it or not. My friend's student wanted a story in which the hero lived happily ever after, but that's not what she got. She was shaken. I'm not sure she was altogether consoled by the way it turned out. It's not the plot we would have planned-or maybe I should say it is just exactly the plot we always plan: the troublesome character gets rubbed out. Only the ending is different. Thanks be to God.


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