Thursday, April 4, 2013

Sermon for Maundy Thursday by Bill Fortier

Maundy Thursday
Bill Fortier

Jesus, feed your hungry and hurting sheep, dear shepherd of souls. Amen
So let's start with two stories about hand-me-downs, one from my mother and one from my beloved wife, Barbara.

First story: I'm just about to start the police academy and doing what every unmarried Catholic boy does: I'm living with my mother and father. My mother is so proud of me. This is, for her, the blue collar Irish version of Yale, a patrolman!

My mother is also really proud of herself here: She has made my bedroom look all grown up, painted it. It still had the grotesque crucifix of Jesus with multiple red wounds, all over it, dead center over the headboard, like a scarecrow. The crucifix is placed there to ensure that the only two things I'd ever, ever think about in bed were sleep and an awful death. Thanks mom.
She finally shows the closet, the pinnacle of pride. The closet is completely empty, awaiting all my police gear and paraphernalia, which exists only in both of our imaginations at this point. I look down and notice that a row of cardboard boxes are missing, boxes which hold my whole collection of comic books. I had the first three issues of the Green Hornet, Spider-Man-number-three, several Batman comics from the nineteen forties, all in mint condition. The closet is completely empty all the way down to the bare, terrifying floor.

With a painted smile, I ask my lovely mother, Catherine Mary Francis, where she put the boxes. She tells me, in a very matter of fact and innocent tone, that she threw the dusty old things in the trash. Picture here the cartoons where the hero keeps the painted smile after being hit with a frying pan. My teeth fall out, like chiclets, one-by-one, with a ticklish piano medley in the background. Hand-me-down hell.

Now here's a better story: my wife Babs took meticulous care of my oldest son Joshua's clothes, at each growth stage. Beautifully folded, wrapped, boxed and stored. My beloved Luke, sitting right here tonight, has been the direct beneficiary of these clothes, right down to today. He and they look terrific, hand-me-down love.

So let's look at the second reading tonight, from the eleventh chapter of Paul's First letter to the folks in Corinth. Paul hands down the tradition that has been handed down to him. This ceremony comes from Jesus and passes, student to student, through Paul and the students in Greece, right down to us, tonight in Lexington.

This tradition or custom, which reaches all the way back to Jesus, has morphed and changed, over and over again, like the old game telephone: no two ceremonies look alike and I think this is a very, very cool thing.

Let's touch back into biology peeps, variety is very adaptive. The more ways we have to do something means we'll a much better chance to do stuff in different settings. The more, the better. Our goal is to fit anytime, anywhere. And contradiction, once again, is a very good marker. Contradiction tells us that our tool chest is filled with instruments for every purpose. We want an all-purpose tool chest, an all terrain vehicle. This is another good reason to be an Episcopalian. We're an all-terrain-Jesus-school. Let's stay loud and proud.

And we also have many, many views of what Jesus meant, when he started this table ceremony ages and ages past, and what Jesus means tonight, meeting me and you. This is another good adaptive sign: our theologies of the Eucharist come in every size, shape, feel and color. This gives us a very good chance that someone will be on our theological team in an Episcopal church.

Even if you change teams over seasons and years, and even of you change your mind every fifteen minutes, you'll have some Episcopal teammate. The Episcopal tent is big and very sturdy, another cause for celebration tonight. So one of the first things I'm celebrating tonight is the Episcopal stewardship of the Eucharist, Jesus' most intimate gift to his followers.

And yes, Jesus' students have been having food fights about the ceremony and it's meaning since forever. Even though Bill Maher, who I find wickedly funny, rolls his eyes here, I don't think this makes us petty, stupid, ridiculous Neanderthals who can barely squeeze our melon heads inside the church doors, while dragging our knuckles along the tiles. Our fights mean we have brains: we dig into our ideas and our customs because that's what human brains do.

So one lesson for us tonight, on the anniversary of the Eucharist, is that it's really good to have a big variety of customs. The second lesson: it's really good to have lots of different ideas.

So tonight we have a twofer: (1) we have a Eucharist, just like very Sunday. (2) we celebrate the bazillionth anniversary of passing along our best ceremonial custom.

So now let's zoom in on Paul in eleventh chapter of First Corinthians once again. Paul tells the story which was told to him: he hands down the tradition which began with Jesus. Remember, Jesus' whole school is falling apart, Judas has stabbed him in the back and he'll get roped up, locked up, beaten up and hanged, in that grand ole Roman fashion. It's a murderous race to the bottom and it's all over, quite unceremoniously before you can say Pax Romana three times fast.

Now just as this car crash is picking up speed, and everyone's cracking under the pressure, Jesus gives his rickety companions a gift: his body, his blood, his last bit of life and his fast approaching death. That's the gift. Wow.

So let's digress for just a second: sometimes I give my springer spaniels, the two buoyant savages who trash my house each day, their periodic medicine; I squish cheese around the pills. I have to pay for these live-in vandals! The vet taught me how to open their jaws and put the pills way in the back of their throats, hold their muzzles tight and then massage their necks until the swallowing reflex does its instinctual thing. I tried gator wrestling a few times but switched to cheese cubes. It's way easier on everyone's nerves. Even when the dogs suspect there's something up with the cheese, they can't resist.

Well Jesus wrapped his medicine up in flour and wine. He gave his students and friends the only stuff he had left: himself. Then Paul adds a very short commentary to the story: we we eat this bread and drink this cup, we announce the death of our Lord, until he comes.

O great. Now we have another set of muddy words to sift through for twenty centuries. So let's announce: here comes dead Jesus! Dead Jesus is in the house! Get your dead Jesus here! Step right up! He-e-e-e-e-re's dead Jesus! With a few sample announcements on the table, let's think into the death of Jesus and the gift of Jesus, dead as Caesar.

Did I ever tell you about the first time I saw an undecorated dead body? Well, gather round the campfire Redeemer peeps and let me tell you: I enlisted in the Navy and I was told that I would be a corpsman. It had a sturdy and macho ring to it: a man for the core you know. I found out quickly and rudely that a corpsman was a medic and I had to perform all kinds of nasty things I really, really didn't like one bit. I also learned that the Marines don't have their own medics and so certain corpsman are plucked from their sailor suits and dropped into that den of macho-on-steroids. That was a real treat too. But, wait there's more! Corpsmen also embalm for the navy and the marines. Wee!

Let me first tell you that, while I did some very nasty jobs as corpsman, I was mercifully spared this assignment but I was indeed singled out and trained, just in case they ran out of other things to snap my mental spine.

So one day, me and the other naval-corps-stooges march down the hall because we marched everywhere, even indoors, until we come to this room where a short and plump chief petty officer was waiting for us. He ushered us into this room and right in front of me was this young, very dead, buck naked sailor-or-marine-dude on the stainless steel embalming table. I mean he was lying there an inch or two away from my waist.

Everything got very quiet in my head and I saw all-tunnel-like. I was transfixed, horrified and stony silent. You might say I was dead quiet. I didn't hear one thing the instructor said. Not a thing.

I just stared at this ghastly dead kid at my waist while the embalming table occasionally moved. I think this is our first clue to Jesus' gift of himself and Paul's very strange assembly of words: death, right under our noses, shuts us up and stops our mental baloney makers, dead in their tracks. Jesus is the truth who comes to us in this seizing form: dead, all wrapped in a flour and wine.

Remember Yosemite Sam? He's standing below Granny's window catching all of the massive stuff that Bugs, disguised as Granny, throws down at him and on him. A rabbit in drag: it never gets old. So Sam's getting all wobbly, woozy and tattered, slosh-talking like Foster Brooks, under the weight of Bug's household bombs. Well, Jesus drops an eighteen wheeler right on top of you and me, squishing our religious fairy tales and airy stories. Jesus is strapped around the wrecking ball of reality and he crashes right through our spiritual concrete walls and steel barriers.

OK Jesus, you've broken my glasses, snapped all my pencils and you've ripped my homework into little pieces: what's the point, throwing a hand grenade on the way out? Why Jesus?

You've given me a lot of different answers, dear Lord, over our years together, but tonight I think you're telling me that my barriers and protections from you and your ideas are so thick that only your dead body will silence my frantic noise, the booming racket in my head and heart, designed to drown you out. You fall dead right in front of me and I'm frozen silent: you finally have my attention.

So I'm a slow learner: I usually wait until my strategy has failed, over-and-over-again, and all my tools have been pried from my clutching fists. Even closer to the truth, I wait until my fingers have been blown off, I'm covered in charcoal and facial egg: both whites and yokes. Only then, with but a few cracked teeth hanging on like bloody silk threads, can I wheeze out the question: do you have a better idea, Jesus?

The answer, I tell you with mighty reluctance and deep reservation, is always yes. Jesus has a better idea. Since I follow the two-by-four method of spirituality, where I only try Jesus' ideas when I'm singed, crispy as a briquette, and empty handed, I admit - under duress - that Jesus has a better idea than me. Jesus has a better idea and he lobs a spiritual grenade at me and you each Sunday when were at the communion rail.

Bombs away, Lord Jesus: woozy, wobbly, tattered and covered in charcoal I submit: teach me Jesus, having burnt through every other option. Teach me your ways, O Lord.

Communion has a lot of angles to it but tonight, this evening, my heart tells me that Jesus is giving me his inescapable truth, sandwiched in his death. Jesus is giving me a pattern to know what is real and true, from his sacred heart and hands. Let's spell out this pattern, penned in Jesus' awful ink, made from his own flesh and blood.

First, turn the sound off on your mental TV and watch the screen. Watch, watch, watch and watch the screen some more, especially when your flinching, squirming and want to turn the set off. Just like me, watching this dead sailor dude, watch the TV of your life. Turn off the sound of your explanations: you're reasons why you still do it and did it. Turn off all the reasons why you're right. Turn off all the spin.

Second, let the images and actions weigh on you, until they're as heavy as wet blankets, as heavy as a dead guy, as heavy as dead weight. Feel the truth before your eyes.

Let yourself be pressed under the weight, until the realities of your life are as solid and silencing as a dead dude, right under your nose. Wait until the the poundage of truth is so heavy that everything you've wished for, hoped for, everything you've dreamed of and everything you've taken pride in is crushed. Wait until it's all shattered.

Maybe this will help: picture me dragging myself along the floor, using the wall as my guide because my eyes, ears and legs don't do what I want them to do anymore, even though I'm railing, and tantruming and insisting that they will. They still don't though. See, right there when I'm squished like a bug under the shoe of reality, then I can hear Jesus tell me to follow him: don't follow you, Bill, follow me.

So, once again from the bottom of Jesus' grave, here's the map: (1) let the facts in your face weigh you down until your squished and your heart spits open, finally open to Jesus and his word. (2) Let your minds and hearts be silenced by the booming and arresting truth, as forceful as death. Wait until the heavy truth of you and your life is so inescapable that you're crying uncle, uncle Jesus.

Dear Jesus, on this anniversary where you send us your truth, and on this commemoration where we start to listen to you; this night when we start to follow your instructions, because you're really our boss: guide us home to you. I'm still gagging on your truth, Jesus, but I'm starting to swallow, even though it still looks and smells like nasty feet to me, but you clearly know, dear Lord, and I surely don't. At your feet, hanging from the cross, I surrender. Amen.

Happy Anniversary, my beloved Redeemer dudes and dudettes. I dearly love you, my classmates in Jesus school.

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