Maundy Thursday April 5, 2012
The Rev. Kate Ekrem
Here we come to it, the center of all we do and who we are. On the night before he died, Jesus did two things: he gave his friends bread and wine, saying, this is my body, and this is my blood, and he washed their feet. Then he told them, do this in remembrance of me, you also should do as I have done to you. It’s all right there, in this, tonight, as we remember this event of the Last Supper.
Just as our Jewish sisters and brothers remember the seminal, core event of the Passover this week, we also remember this pivotal, seminal moment, this core event of our faith.As Paul says, in words much simpler and plainer than he usually uses, “I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. “ In the same way he took the cup also, saying “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this in remembrance of me.”
We know these words by heart. And we know, intellectually, that they connect Jesus with that Passover lamb whose blood was put on the lintels to mark the people of God, and with the temple sacrifices. We read from Exodus the old covenant: “the blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you.” Jesus says he is the new covenant.
But I learned these words in a new way this Lent. My son Peter’s Rite 13 ceremony happened to coincide with the bar mitzvah of his best friend. For a bar or bat mitvah a young person has to learn the torah portion, the scripture reading, for that day so they can read it out loud to the congregation – I pointed out to Peter that they did it in Hebrew, and also had to give a teaching or sermon on it. The torah portions for that day were about temple sacrifice. All of the young men and women who spoke that day talked about how their first reaction to their passage, was “that’s gross!” And it is gross, all about meat being burned, how the blood was supposed to be handled.
Our mind skitters away from the idea that Jesus’s flesh and blood are in any way related to what we do each Sunday at this altar. Prepackaged wafers are much more sanitary than cows slaughtered on an altar or even lamb’s blood on the doorways of our homes. And even that is less gross than thinking about how Jesus really did die. Thank God we are beyond all those primitive forms of religion and are more civilized and less violent. The world is less violent than it used to be, but have you been following the news about Trayvon Martin, another black young man shot for no apparent reason? Or the trial of Seargant Robert Bales, another traumatized solider who killed more than a dozen Afghani civilians? I’m not sure we really do know how to fix the problem of violence or control our own violent tendencies.
I also learned these words, this is my Body, this is my Blood, in a new way this Lent hearing Bill Fortier’s Lenten talks. Bill reminded us why this is gross. Because we’re gross. He even had to explain some bits in Latin as they were too gross to say in English. And! we also have extreme dignity, immeasurable value and worth as human beings created by God. Dignity that Jesus recognized and reinforced when he tenderly washed the feet of his disciples.
Bill taught us that Christianity is full of extreme combinations, the King of Kings doing the slave’s work of washing dirty feet, the blood and flesh of sacrifice made into the beautiful harmony of a shared meal. To show us, perhaps, that really nothing is too gross for God. No matter how gross we get, God will still go there, God still is there. God is with Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman who killed him and Robert Bales and the people of Afganistan, God does not turn away from those places, God goes to them, God does not turn away from us when we’re gross, or unkind, or proud, or greedy. God puts his flesh and blood right there. Jesus washed all their feet, even Judas’.
It doesn’t make sense. That’s the other helpful thing Bill reminded us this Lent. These extreme combinations, how or why the bread and wine is or isn’t for us the body and blood of Christ is not something we can explain, we just know Jesus is really present here, tonight, when we break the bread, when we share the cup. Jesus is really present in us when we share this meal. It doesn’t make sense, but it does make hope.
Some years ago I had a
seminarian intern named Deirdre working with me at another church. As part of her internship she came with me as I visited and brought Communion to the sick and homebound. I remember especially her reaction to visiting one couple, let’s call them Joe and Sally. Sally had MS, and spent most of her time in one of those adjustable recliners, as she couldn’t walk. Joe was retired from the building trades, but had macular degeneration so while he was the cook and housekeeper in the family, he couldn’t really see well, so the house was, well, pretty dirty. At this parish someone had donated a very fancy Communion kit, so when we packed up the blessed bread and wine to bring to them, we put it in this ebony wooden box, with a cup and plate that were sterling silver on the outside and gold plate on the inside, with the nice linens the altar gild had starched and ironed. We took this fancy box to them, and unpacked it, and set it up on the TV tray in front of Sally’s recliner, and prayed, as Sally always did, for a cure for MS, and for her children, and shared Communion. And Sally cried, at the end of the service, she always did, and then she said, thank you so much, that’s so great. Deirdre was clearly taken aback by the unclean house and the torn couch she was sitting on, and asked Sally, do you need any help, how can we help? Sally said, no, Meals on Wheels comes every day, and Hessco senior services sends someone to help Joe do the shopping, we’re really fine. Deirdre said, is there something we can do? And Sally said, You. Can. Bring. Me. Communion.
Deirdre later told me about the total sense of dissonance, the extreme combination of this sterling silver Communion set in this somewhat squalid house. It really disturbed her, as perhaps it should. But we wondered together, should we have brought the Communion on cheap paper napkins and plastic plates? Or was it ok to bring Sally the most precious thing we had in the most reverent way we could? Frankly, I’m not sure. But Sally’s answer was pretty clear, while she was waiting for a cure for MS, she wanted Jesus. She wanted to remember with us that Jesus said, this is my body, given for you. Wanted to know that however gross her life was, Jesus was right there with her, and that she had dignity and worth as a beloved child of God.
People like Sally help me remember, that I need Jesus, too, just as much. I need to feel his healing touch, to be fed with the very essence of his self-giving love. Tonight is not about what we need to do to fix or save the world, we’ll get to that on Sunday, but tonight is about just accepting, receiving the fact that no matter how gross we are, we are God’s beloved children, Jesus would do anything for us. We can’t be Jesus, if we could then we wouldn’t need Jesus. And we do need Jesus.