Thursday, April 21, 2011

Sermon -- 21 April 2011 -- Maundy Thursday

MAUNDY THURSDAY — 21 April 2011
Trinity, Iowa City — 7:00 p.m.

Ex 12:1-4 (5-10) 11-14
Ps 116:1, 10-17
1 Cor 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35

“Do this in remembrance of me.” [1 Cor 11:24]
“I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” [John 13:15]

Liturgically speaking, Holy Week is a very busy week!

But you already knew that! (After all, you’re here tonight!)

This past Sunday, as you recall, we celebrated Palm Sunday, which is what we have always called it for short, but you may have noticed, whether in previous years or just this year, that the full name of the day is “The Sunday of the Passion Colon Space Space Palm Sunday.” That’s because there are in fact two liturgical services that take place that morning: First, there is the Liturgy of the Palms, at which we read the Gospel of the Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem and bless palm branches and parade around singing psalms and hymns, and then there is the Eucharist of the Lord’s Passion (his suffering, culminating in his crucifixion), which is very very different in its tone. (In fact, old guys like me remember when the clergy types used to stop, take off their festive red vestments, and put on somber purple vestments at the seguĂ© into the Eucharist.) But now we scrunch these two services right up together, apparently mostly for the sake of saving time, and so we may not notice how very different these two liturgical “moments” are.

Well, today, Maundy Thursday, is kind of like that. Except that we aren’t celebrating two different services right in a row (well, right at the end we sort of do), we are celebrating two different themes at the same time. The word “Maundy,” you may recall, is what the Brits did to the Latin word mandatum, “commandment,” from Jesus’ words in tonight’s Gospel reading, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” [John 13:34] And in this context this has been applied particularly to the footwashing, which we observed ritually just now, in remembrance of how, according to St. John’s Gospel, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper. The footwashing may make some of us uncomfortable, because we find it culturally bizarre. We Don’t Do That Kind Of Thing. Well, Simon Peter and the other disciples found it culturally bizarre too — they didn’t do that kind of thing either. Yes, it was usual in those days to provide your dinner guests with a basin of water when they arrived so they could wash their dusty sandaled feet — on one occasion Jesus chides a Pharisee who is hosting him for neglecting to do so— but usually people washed their own feet, or maybe a slave might actually assist with washing the guests’ feet, But certainly the host would never do anything so menial, nor would a guest ever allow the host to do so. (As usual, good ol’ Simon Peter Just Doesn’t Get It, but at least he shows he has good manners!) And what Jesus says is, “Yes! This is not only bizarre, it is completely counter-cultural! Get Over It!”

So that’s one of the things (one of the many things!) that’s going on in the upper room tonight.

The other thing that’s going on — or at least another thing — is what for many of us may be what most comes to mind when we think about the celebration of Maundy Thursday, and that’s what we refer to as the Institution of the Holy Eucharist — when Jesus took bread and wine, said, “This is my Body — this is my Blood — Do this for the remembrance of me.” And we have been “doing this” ever since. (As the Anglican Benedictine Dom Gregory Dix famously put it, “Was ever another command so obeyed?” And then Dom Gregory goes on for a long paragraph listing some of the myriad ways and contexts in which we have “done this” over the centuries. [The Shape of the Liturgy, page 744])

You may have noticed this evening that the account of this first Eucharist does not occur in the Gospel reading, but rather in the Epistle, from First Corinthians 11. I might note that this is the earliest written account of “the Lord’s Supper” (as we sometimes call it) that we have; pretty much the same account occurs in St. Mark’s Gospel and from there also in St. Matthew and St. Luke. Not to say that they got the story from St. Paul — there’s no evidence that they, even St. Luke, had ever read Paul’s letters — but they are all reciting a narrative from the earliest tradition. St. John, however, does not tell that story in connection with Jesus’ final meal with his disciples. (John does talk about the Eucharist, as we would put it, but in another context; John relates it to the Feeding of the Five Thousand.) At the Last Supper, St. John wants to focus on his own story of the washing of the disciples’ feet, and then to follow up with his long account of Jesus’ farewell discourse.

Related to this is the fact that in the synoptic Gospels, and arguably in Paul, the Last Supper is explicitly a Passover Seder. In John it is explicitly not the Passover, but takes place the previous evening. In John’s Gospel the Passover lambs are sacrificed in the Temple on Friday while Jesus is hanging on the cross outside the city, and that’s the point John wants to make.

So which Last Supper version is more historically, chronologically accurate? Was this a Passover Seder, or not? Biblical scholars and historians have been having a field day with this question for generations. There are good arguments on both sides. (I’ll have to ask Jesus about this when I see him. And Jesus will say to me, “And just why is it that you think it’s important that you know this?”)

“Do this for the remembrance of me.” And here “remembrance” does not just mean, “Oh, yes, I recall how, way back then…”
Remembrance is not an exercise in nostalgia. The Greek word anamnesis that we translate as “remembrance” means welcoming Jesus as living and active into our present and as setting our course into our future.

But, “to do what for the remembrance of him”? To share his Body, so that we may be his Body in the world? To share his Blood, that we may be quickened by his life in the world? So that he may dwell in us, and we in him? Yes.

To follow his example, that we should do as he has done to us — to love one another as he has loved us? Yes.

All this “in remembrance, in re-membrance, of him.”

Homily -- 20 April 2011 -- Wed in Holy Week

Trinity – 5:30 p.m.

Isaiah 50:4-9a | Psalm 70 | John 13:21-32

After receiving the piece of bread, [Judas] immediately went out. And it was night.

Judas Iscariot has become a byword for treachery. He is "The Traitor" - not so much in the political sense as in the personal -- the betrayer, the breaker of trust. Even in the Gospels themselves Judas becomes something of a stock villain.

What about Judas? Why did he do it? It's interesting to speculate, so long as we remember that there really isn't very much evidence, and what there is comes from what we might describe as hostile witnesses. Did he do it for the money? Only Matthew mentions the thirty pieces of silver, which was more than pocket change, but hardly a huge fortune and not really a convincing motive (it’s really a reference to the book of the prophet Zechariah [11:12-13]). John explains that Satan had entered into Judas, which may be true enough, but it isn’t very specific.

So why? Why this primordial, archetypal act of betrayal, from one who had presumably accompanied Jesus as disciple and companion for months, perhaps years? If Judas had simply become convinced that Jesus was wrong, why not just walk away? If Judas had decided that Jesus was a dangerous fraud, why not just publicly denounce him, and abandon him? Why this nasty, underhanded piece of treachery?

One speculation — and it's just a speculation, there's no evidence for this, but it's not contrary to the evidence — is that Judas had not given up the idea that Jesus was — or could become — the Messiah, the deliverer of Israel, but he thought that Jesus was dinking around. After that splendid beginning with the royal parade on Sunday, now Jesus was about to let it all slip away. He needed a little help, a little prompting, a little management. Jesus needed an occasion to rise to, a crisis to bring out the best in him. Perhaps Judas thought that if Jesus' hand were forced, he really would call on God for twelve legions of angels, and finally get on with driving out the Roman goyim and restore the kingdom to Israel. And only when it was too late did Judas realize what a horrible mistake he had made. But he had too little faith and too much pride for true repentance. So, says St. Matthew, he threw the money at the feet of the priests in the temple and went out and hanged himself in despair.

Well. Perhaps.


We commonly see ourselves in the disciples, in the disciples in their weaknesses and frailties and sinfulnesses, and well we should: in Peter, engaging mouth before the brain is in gear, much bluster but not much spine; in James and John, squabbling for the best seats in the kingdom; in Thomas, not quite daring to believe. But not in Judas. Judas is outside the pale. We would never do that. Deny Jesus out of fear, like Peter? Yes, sadly, perhaps. Sell Jesus out, out of greed? I don’t think so.

But try to force God's hand? Try to engineer a divine complicity with our own agenda? Invoke the divine sanction upon our own kingdom? Make God be the kind of God we want God to be? Repackage God for more effective marketing?

Oh, yes, Judas is us.

"If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from the pinnacle of the temple; for it is written, `The angels will bear you up...'"

"Greetings, Rabbi!" and he kissed him. "Will you not now finally appeal to your Father for twelve legions of angels?"

"Do not put the Lord your God to the test."

Satan had indeed entered into Judas Iscariot.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Sermon -- 3 April 2011 -- Lent 4

4TH SUNDAY IN LENT — 3 April 2011
St. Paul’s, Durant — 9:00 a.m.

1 Samuel 16:1-13 | Psalm 23 | Ephesians 5:8-14 | John 9:1-41

Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

Last Sunday over at Trinity in Iowa City, Fr. Schlachter began his sermon on the Gospel reading — which, as you recall, was the story of the Samaritan woman at the well — by noting that that Gospel reading was the longest Gospel reading of the year (not counting the Passion-Gospels on Palm Sunday and Good Friday). St. John tends to tell very long stories in his Gospel, as you may have noticed just now!

Well, I sat there in the pew and thought, “Oh, I’m not so sure about that!” (You may have noticed over the years that I’m not too good about taking people’s words for things! Especially when I’m sitting in the pew!) So I checked when I got home. My basis was counting the number of lines in the Nestle edition of the Greek New Testament. Sure enough, the longest Gospel reading of the year (not counting the Passion-Gospels) is the reading today, about the healing of the man born blind. The second longest is the reading next week, the raising of Lazarus. (I’m not trying to scare you off from church next week!) The Samaritan woman at the well is only number three!

There now! If anyone asks you if you learned anything in the sermon this morning, you can say Yes! (And does this enrich your spiritual life? No!)

There is a point to this bit of introductory silliness, however, I think. It reminds us of something that we all know, but maybe haven’t really paid much attention to: The Gospel of John contains a lot of long stories. Not stories that Jesus himself tells, like the parables in the first three Gospels, but narratives, some of them quite substantial, about things Jesus does and says. In one case, of course, as you recall, in what we usually call the Farewell Discourse at the Last Supper in John’s Gospel, Jesus goes on for over four chapters!

What I’m trying to get at is that the four Gospels are not simply four variants on the Jesus story. As I think we all know, the first three Gospels — Matthew, Mark, and Luke — are very similar in many ways. First of all, Mark is the initial framework for all three of them. Matthew and Luke then add further material, some of which, mostly sayings of Jesus, they share between themselves, and then some other sayings and episodes that are unique to each of them. Even with all they have in common, each of these three Gospels has its own distinct “flavor.” But you can line them up side by side and compare them, you can look at them together, and so (because we never use an English word when a Greek one will do!) we call them the Synoptic Gospels — syn-optic, from the Greek words for “see together.” (In fact, you can buy a book that does just that — go to the Amazon website and search for “synoptic gospels” or “gospel parallels.”)

But the Gospel of John really is very different. And because all the Gospels are so familiar to us, we may not always notice how different the Fourth Gospel really is.

First of all, none of the Gospels are news stories that were written at the time of the events. Nobody was taking notes. The three synoptic Gospels especially drew on the memories of the communities of the followers who had been with Jesus during his ministry and in the first years following. I don’t suggest that these memories were not reliable — people then were generally at least basically literate, but they did not have notepads, much less iPads, and they had to be able to remember things, a skill that most of us have lost. But the way they told their recollections about Jesus was shaped by who they were and where they lived.

I think the stories in the Fourth Gospel, St. John, are based upon real events in the ministry of Jesus. But John, whose Gospel was the last of the four to be written, is not primarily interested in just telling stories about Jesus. By his time everyone already knew the stories. (There is no evidence that John knows the actual written texts of any of the synoptic Gospels, but his community already had long known the stories and traditions on which those Gospels were also based.) John’s purpose is telling what these stories mean and who Jesus really is — after decades of praying and reflecting on the stories themselves, those same stories that we know primarily through the synoptic Gospels. And, as you no doubt have long since noticed, what John does with these stories is very sophisticated from a literary point of view, and he operates on multiple levels. And we see that very much going on in this story of the healing of the man born blind.

Well, since we all would like to be home before lunch, I won’t work through all of the stuff that’s going on in the Gospel reading today, but it would take that long, or longer. It starts with the healing of the man (which presumably is a genuine story; Jesus was well-known for healing, including of blind people, and there are several instances in the synoptic Gospels), but then John starts to spin out the implications he sees in this event. To start right up front, Jesus is asked, “Being born blind is a terrible curse, obviously a punishment for sin: So who do we blame for this, the man himself? Or maybe his parents?” And Jesus says, “You people obviously Just Don’t Get It. Haven’t you read the Book of Job? (Although to be candid, that really doesn’t help very much; the author weasels out at the end!) Afflictions like this are not God’s punishment for sin” (— do we really Get This? Even today, among good Christian folks, there is still this notion that Bad Stuff happens to us because somehow we Deserve It) — “Afflictions are not God’s punishment for sin, but they may be an occasion in which the grace and power of God may be revealed.” Okay, there’s the beginning point. And Jesus now goes on to talk about light and darkness, and how he himself is the Light of the World (a statement which he has made before [John 8:12] and will make again [John 12:46; see also 1:4-9]). There’s another sermon for another time! And then Jesus spits on the ground and makes a clay of the earth (there’s another sermon in that), anoints the man’s eyes (still another sermon), and instructs him to go wash in the water of the Pool of Siloam (at least two more sermons; the Fathers saw this as a baptismal theme).

The story then goes on with a series of interviews between the Pharisees and the man (and his parents), in which the man by stages comes to realize who Jesus really is and what has been given to him (and there’s yet another sermon in that). The story then closes with Jesus addressing some Pharisees with the concluding point: if we confess our blindness we can seek the opening of our eyes and be empowered to walk in the light; but if we insist that we can see, we admit our blindness and remain in darkness.

And there are some more sermons!
But not today!