This year there are a few more dramatic changes to the core of this homily than in years' past.
I am indebted to the influences of such voices as John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg in framing the central thesis.Today I am taken by the reality that this is the last Maundy Thursday homily I will preach as the pastor of Saint John's. I feel the weight of that today.
What, then, at the beginning of the Great Triduum and at the triumphant end at Easter, will I want to leave with these folks?
Here it is.
There are moments in life when the actions we take, the engagement of our lives with the world around us reveal something about us, whether we’re conscious of it or not. We can talk all day about who we are and what we believe – but there’s nothing more revealing or indicting than action or inaction.
Conscious awareness of our role, place and motivation in life, and the relationships that ebb and flow in the slipstream of our existence is best defined as “mindfulness.” Taken from wisdom of the Eastern religions, it is that capacity for us to know that wherever we go, there we are - -and thanks to John Kabat Zinn the western world is the beneficiary in our understanding of a spiritual state that belongs to all people of faith.
In times of greatest moment – to act or not to act - - “to be or not to be - that is the question.”
Act with haste, that is, without prayerful discernment seeking guidance from trusted voices, and action becomes an end in itself. Those who yearn to be seen as the hero who sweeps in and saves the day act hastily.
Ask anyone who has been caught up in the aftershock of another’s hasty pursuit of hero worship and they’ll tell you such action may look good on the surface, but there is collateral damage aplenty.
Is there compassion or consideration in the face of collateral damage, or, willingness to put aside being the hero for the common good? No. Inevitably, collateral damage, in whatever form it comes, is considered an acceptable loss, and the price of doing business. The end always justifies the means.
Others live with perpetual inaction.
Able to articulate and argue relevant points of whatever their issue is with passion – they fail to act. They feed so much on the energy generated by the problem itself so that their motivation to enact a remedy, is muted by the fear that if the problem is solved, the “stuff” that feeds their lives is gone.
They know the issue.
They know the problem.
But they are crippled to do anything about it.
A vicious cycle, that.
Those who refuse to forgive a wrong because to do so would extinguish the rage that fuels the hellish fire of their every day – choose perpetual inaction. Like the hostage who begins to side with very one who has held them bondage and would do them harm, we, who choose inaction to make right a wrong, or to forgive, suffer from a Stockholm Syndrome of the soul - - loving our pain and anger because it’s what we know. Being liberated from it scares us to death.
“Repent, and believe in the Gospel,” Jesus would say.
Take up your cross and follow.
It’s the difference between saying you’re a Christian and actually being a companion of Jesus wherever that leads.
Action and inaction. The transcendent truth of either approach to life is self defining and a prophecy perpetually self-fulfilling.
Maundy Thursday is one of those days when the abstract and absolute, the flesh and the spirit, the universal and the particular collide. It is one of those occasions where “the rubber hits the road.” Here, at the end of Lent and the start of the Triduum, the great three days, it reveals through action the character of the One who draws us into this worship space tonight. It confronts us with the real life, real time implications of what a life made sacred looks like. It makes us look at Jesus’ life and consider what we’re doing with our own.
Is life made sacred because it just is…or is life made sacred by what one does with it?
So, action, these actions give meaning to what Jesus has taught. They give meaning to what we believe. They make all this Jesus business real – incarnate.
On this night we focus on an action of Jesus found only in the 4th gospel. The Synoptics don’t have it. John, historically considered the last of the canonical gospels written, has a particular agenda – the writer has a bias, and his bias is always for Jesus – his life, his teaching, and the nature of the Christ that has always been.
Only John has this text – Jesus, at Passover, after sharing table fellowship, takes upon himself an action that will be self-defining hereon, as it will be for all of us who carry his name.
He, the one called, Rabbi, Teacher, Lord, Messiah, Christ – comes now to assume the role of the menial laborer – literal dirty work is not beneath him – he embraces it.
It defines him. He takes a towel, a basin and a pitcher – and washes his disciples feet.
Rarely in our observance of Christian liturgy do you find something so profoundly intimate as the washing of feet. Maybe that’s why it’s not a sacrament (which it should be), there’s really no way to observe this liturgy with integrity without literally touching someone. It’s too close, too intimate. It’s not “churchy.” Getting on our knees and taking off shoes, using water, towels and basins, it’s beneath the dignity of our erudite gathering.
To which I say, “right.” It is.
But it is supremely of Christ.
And if we are going to be “of Christ,” with integrity, then tonight, our action or inaction is, guess what? Dare I say it again? Self-Defining.
And maybe that’s what all this dramatic fuss is about this Holy Thursday night and there following into the Great Three Days. If nothing else, we observe integrity at work. That’s an awe inspiring thing. For to live with integrity is joyful, because in it we are complete. We are fully what we’ve been created to become.
Don’t forget, though, that just because we live with integrity, even joyfully, does not mean our work is pleasant, or that we’re giddy about it.
To do so was not a choice absent other options. Think of those presented to Jesus in the wilderness temptations, – No, this was a matter of integrity. He did this thing, both in the upper room with his disciples, as well as walk the Via Dolorosa because that’s who he is.
To have done anything other than to be a servant, than to identify with the suffering of humankind by embracing the cross, would have been to have missed his moment – the moment when his action defined who he was. This is what a life made sacred looks like.
12 ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. John 15.12-17
Another way of seeing this night might be this. Jesus did not miss his moment and he’s imploring us not to miss ours. That our lives are gifts, to be sure, but they are only made sacred when we enact self-giving love as the measure of every moment.
Look. Ministry is hard.
Giving yourself away is hard. Following Jesus to where ministry leads you is hard.
It is counterintuitive to everything innately a part of our being.
Placing yourself in the role of servant and not hero is tough. Doing ultimate good without lusting for credit is extraordinarily difficult. If it were easy, wouldn’t more folks be doing it? Instead, too many of us play at Church, play at following Jesus, use our religious pursuits as a contrivance of convenience rather than a covenantal commitment.
Listen, people. To live with integrity or not is far more in our control that we'd care to admit.
It’s in your grasp, sisters and brothers – right here, right now. Jesus gathers with us in this room, as he has done with his companions for millennia and says, “here’s who I am, here’s what I’m prepared to do, here are the depths I’m prepared to plunge – for you.”
How far are you willing to go? Could it be that tonight it is at least to declare that “no greater love have I” than to give myself away because of love?
What we do tonight, through bread and cup, is a liturgy you have repeated many, many times. May it be, however, that tonight you see beyond your own action of getting up and coming down here and partaking Eucharist.
Consider and embrace the life made sacred because of what he did…made his life sacred, for you.