Thursday, March 24, 2016

Outward and Visible Signs

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
March 24, 2016

Maundy Thursday
Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14
Psalm 116:1, 10-17
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Outward and Visible Signs
            Here at St. Paul’s, we had a beautiful Lent.
            Our Sunday services were well-attended and our book study was prayerful and thought-provoking.
            Each Thursday evening, a good number of us walked the way of the cross, making the journey around our old church stopping at each station and remembering the journey of Jesus to the cross and the tomb.
            Some of us took part in the Liturgical Churches Union Lenten worship series and heard some great music and fine preaching.
            But, you know, believe it or not, I think my favorite part of Lent was our confirmation classes, both the youth and adult classes.
            It’s such an honor to help prepare our fellow parishioners to make this big step of publicly coming out as a Christian, taking ownership of the faith that was entrusted to them in baptism, in most cases when they were infants and, obviously, had absolutely no say one way or the other!
            I run both classes as more or less a discussion rather than teaching like a formal class.
            In the old days, though, confirmation class meant a lot of memorization – memorization so that the confirmands would be ready in case the bishop sprang a pop quiz on them right there in church in front of everybody.
            Maybe some of you remember being terrified that the bishop would single you out and ask you a question!
            Many, including maybe some of you, had to memorize things, memorize things like the definition of a sacrament: “An outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”
            “An outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”
            Remember that?
            And, often confirmands were required to memorize the number of sacraments: Two. Or, seven, depending on who was doing the counting.
            Today, on Maundy Thursday (“Maundy” from the Latin word mandatum, command), we gather with the disciples for one last meal with Jesus.
            All along, Jesus had been warning his friends, predicting the rejection and the death that awaited him.
            But, you know how it is. Like many of us, the disciples preferred to tune out the bad news, to ignore the sadness – to tune it out and to ignore it until that was no longer possible.
            But, now, gathered with Jesus at the table, the hard truth is sinking in: Jesus, the one for whom they had dropped everything to follow, the one they called teacher and Lord, the one who had healed and taught and fed, the one who had confused, inspired, and challenged them – Jesus - was going to die.
            So, now that he finally has their attention, Jesus offers some teaching that he wants them – wants uscommands us - to not just memorize, but take into our hearts and live by.
            Jesus took the bread and the wine and said, “This is my body. This is my blood. Do this in remembrance of me.”
            And, from the start and over all these many centuries, the Church has done a pretty good job remembering this teaching. We’ve done a pretty good job of following this command.
            About two decades after Jesus’ earthly lifetime, Paul writes to the church in Corinth and not only does he know about the Lord’s Supper, he’s handed on this teaching, this mystery, this command, to the Corinthians and many others, and all the way down to us.
            Each Sunday we remember Jesus’ teaching that this bread and wine is his body and his blood. Each Sunday we follow Jesus’ command to do this in remembrance of him.
            If you put the consecrated bread and the wine under a microscope you’ll find it’s still just plain old bread and wine but, somehow, Jesus is really present in this plain old bread and wine.
            Somehow, Jesus is really present when we gather at the table, kneeling or standing at the rail, right there beside people we’ve known for many years, or, even  all our lives, and beside people we’ve never seen before, all of us with our hands outstretched, taking the Body and Blood of Jesus into our bodies and our hearts, giving us the strength, the grace, we need to face life’s many challenges.
            And, I don’t have to memorize that, because I’ve seen it.
            I see it all the time. And you’ve seen it, too.
            An outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.
            And then there’s Jesus’ second teaching, a teaching done with few words and impossible for the disciples to forget.
            We’re told that Jesus got up from the table, took of his robe, and tied a towel around himself, poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet.
            After Peter overcomes his shock and resistance, Jesus explains, commands, that the disciples – we – must follow his example and wash one another’s feet.
            But, to be honest, we haven’t always done such a great job of following this teaching, of obeying Jesus’ command.
            It’s not easy to offer this kind of loving, generous, even intimate, service to others. Usually we’ll do it for our own, of course. So many of us here have washed children and grandchildren. And, some of us have washed parents, grandparents, and even, sometimes, spouses who have grown ill, weak, or confused.
            Oh, yes, we take care of our own, making sure, as best we can, that they’re clean, housed, and fed.
            Very, very beautiful, but we’re called to – commanded  - to way more generosity than that.            
            We are commanded to pour out even more water and wash away the filth that clings to so many people both in here and out there – the filth of shame, rejection, and regret; the filth of hunger, loneliness, and despair; the filth of feeling unimportant, ugly, and unlovable. 
            Each time we give away food as good as what we eat ourselves and feed those we love, we wash the feet of another.
            Each time we listen to someone in pain and offer a shoulder to cry on, we wash the feet of another.
            Each time we visit someone in prison, maybe literally incarcerated or spiritually imprisoned by guilt, addiction, or fear, we wash the feet of another.
            Each time we resist the strong temptation to judge or ridicule or stereotype, but instead treat every single person as a beloved child of God, we wash the feet of another.
            And, when we wash the feet of another, or even just try, you know what, Jesus is really present right then and there, present in us and the person we’re loving, present in the gift that we’re giving, present in the “water” that’s being poured out.
            The foot-washing, this powerful symbol of our loving service to one another, especially the poorest and the most despised, is a sacrament.
            And, I don’t have to memorize that, either, because I’ve seen it.
            I see it all the time. And you’ve seen it, too.
            An outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.
            So, tonight, we remember Jesus saying farewell to his friends by teaching them – commanding them – to remember him in the bread and the wine – teaching us – commanding us – to wash one another’s feet – to love one another as he has loved us – promising to be present with us in the bread and the wine, present in the love that we share.
            Jesus teaches us to receive sacraments and to be sacraments for one another – to be sacraments for one another, way more than two sacraments or seven sacraments, but countless sacraments in a hungry and filthy world – all of us, countless sacraments: outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace.
            May it be so.