Sermon preached Holy Thursday, March 24, 2016
Texts: Luke 22:14-27; John 13:1-17, 34-35
When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. A meal is happening here, a holiday meal. “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.”
If the internet is any guide, holiday meals can be their own kind of suffering. I typed “How To Survive a Family Dinner” into an internet search, and found some fascinating results. Many centered on Thanksgiving, but the advice might apply to Easter meals, too. I came across a photo, part of a billboard for a liquor store: “If your family is coming over Thursday you’re going to need some booze.” Probably not really good advice for surviving family holiday dinners. There was some better: avoid controversial subjects, accept criticism gracefully, seat people strategically, leave early – that’s a lot easier if you are not hosting the dinner, give challenging relatives an assignment, invite buffers – though I am not sure people would appreciate knowing they were being invited as “buffers” - - - they might begin to act out, defeating the whole purpose of having them present as “buffers.”
Holiday dinners can be difficult. This last dinner with the disciples takes place under the shadow of conflict in Jerusalem, and the threat of death (22:2). Earlier in Luke, chapter 22, we read, “Then Satan entered Judas.” That’s rather ominous for a dinner companion. Later in that same chapter, just after Jesus shares bread and wine, the disciples dispute about who might be the greatest. Sometimes the disciples are not the sharpest tools in the shed. Right after that, Jesus tells Peter that he will betray him. This is the table around which Jesus gathers for Passover. Talk about your potentially dysfunctional holiday gatherings.
But in the midst of all this, Jesus does something special. In Luke, as in Matthew and Mark, Jesus, following the meal, takes bread – blesses it, breaks it, shares it as symbolic of his own life. He takes a cup – blesses it, shares it as symbolic of his own life. In John, something different happens. In John, Jesus last meal is not a Passover meal, but occurs in the days of preparation for Passover. Here he takes a basin and washes the feet of his disciples. He brings it all together with simple, yet powerful and memorable words. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another. By this will everyone know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
The people Jesus brings together are ordinary people, people like you and me. We might have the ability to be difficult meal guests sometimes. We have our issues and struggles. Yet we find our unity in sharing simple gifts of bread and water and wine. In these simple gifts, our souls and spirits are nourished and nurtured, for we find Jesus in the sharing. In sharing bread together, and in feeding others, Jesus becomes more real to us. In sharing water together, in caring for basic needs, in offering refreshment, Jesus becomes more real to us. In celebrating together with the wine of joy when there is healing, new life, redemption, Jesus becomes more real to us.
Jesus works with us and in us, and brings us together to do some work as well. The quality of our community life together says something deep and real about the quality of our spirituality. By this will everyone know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. In many ways, that is what this night is all about, simple gifts, shared together, and the creation of a more loving community, in the name and spirit of Jesus. It is about making Jesus more real in our lives and in our world.
One of the most helpful stories about being the kind of community Jesus invites us to be is a story I first heard in a Scott Peck book. I’ve told the story before, but it is a story worth hearing again, “The Rabbi’s Gift.” (The Different Drum, adapted)
The story concerns a monastery that had fallen upon hard times. It was once a great order, but because of persecution or neglect or disinterest, all its branch houses were lost and there were only five monks left in the decaying central house: the abbot and four others, all over seventy in age. Clearly it was a dying order.
In the deep woods surrounding the monastery there was a little hut that a rabbi occasionally used for a hermitage. The old monks had become a bit psychic, so they could always sense when the rabbi was in his hermitage. "The rabbi is in the woods, the rabbi is in the woods" they would whisper. It occurred to the abbot that a visit the rabbi might result in some advice to save his monastery.
The rabbi welcomed the abbot to his hut. But when the abbot explained his visit, the rabbi could say, "I know how it is". "The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore." So the old abbot and the old rabbi wept together. Then they read parts of the Torah and spoke of deep things. When the abbot had to leave, they embraced each other. "It has been a wonderful that we should meet after all these years," the abbot said, "but I have failed in my purpose for coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me that would help me save my dying order?" "No, I am sorry," the rabbi responded. "I have no advice to give. But, I can tell you that the Messiah is one of you."
When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, "Well what did the rabbi say?" “The rabbi said something very mysterious, it was something cryptic. He said that the Messiah is one of us. I don't know what he meant?"
In the time that followed, the old monks wondered whether there was significance to the rabbi's words. The Messiah is one of us? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks? If so, which one?
Do you suppose he meant the abbot? Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant Father Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation. On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas. Certainly Brother Thomas is a holy man. Everyone knows that Thomas is a man of light. Certainly he could not have meant Brother Elred! Elred gets crotchety at times. But come to think of it, even though he is a thorn in people's sides, when you look back on it, Elred is virtually always right. Often very right. Maybe the rabbi did mean Brother Elred. But surely not Brother Phillip. Phillip is so passive, a real nobody. But then, almost mysteriously, he has a gift for always being there when you need him. He just magically appears. Maybe Phillip is the Messiah.
Of course the rabbi didn't mean me. He couldn't possibly have meant me. I'm just an ordinary person. Yet supposing he did? Suppose I am the Messiah? O God, not me. I couldn't be that much for You, could I?
As they contemplated, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the chance that one among them might be the Messiah. And they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.
People still occasionally came to visit the monastery in its beautiful forest to picnic on its tiny lawn, to wander along some of its paths, even to meditate in the dilapidated chapel. As they did so, they sensed the aura of extraordinary respect that began to surround the five old monks and seemed to radiate out from them and permeate the atmosphere of the place. There was something strangely compelling, about it. Hardly knowing why, they began to come back to the monastery to picnic, to play, to pray. They brought their friends to this special place. And their friends brought their friends.
Then some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks. After a while one asked if he could join them. Then another, and another. So within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order and, thanks to the rabbi's gift, a vibrant center of light and spirituality.
God’s love in Jesus is for each of us. The offer of Jesus own life and spirit is to each of us. God’s love in Jesus is also for all of us together. The quality of our community says something deep and real about the quality, the health and well-being, of our spirituality. By our love will people know that we are disciples of Jesus, and that love is meant to be open. There is always room for more in the community of Jesus, at the table of Jesus. This community is an “all y’all” community, and the quality of our life together says something deep and real about the quality, the health and well-being, of our spirituality.
A few years ago a new worship song was written that expresses this all so well. I want to end by sharing a few of the words of that song with you.
For everyone born, a place at the table, for everyone born, clean water and bread, a shelter, a space, a safe space for growing, for everyone born, a star overhead. For everyone born, a place at the table, live without fear, and simply to be, to work to speak out, to witness and worship, for everyone born, the right to be free. And the chorus rings out: And God will delight when we are creators of justice and joy, yes, God will delight when we are creators of justice, justice and joy!
Something happened that night – bread, wine, water, the beginning of a community where everyone might visible and valued and respected, where everyone might have a place at the table, a community of love, of justice and joy. May something happen tonight – in bread, wine and water, the continuing of a community where everyone is visible and valued and respected, where everyone has a place at the table, a community of love, of justice and joy. Amen.