Abigail and I preach Maundy Thursday Unitarian Universalist style!
As we come together in worship, we want to honor the significance of this day. Maundy Thursday represents a time of crisis in the early Christian community, on this night when Jesus shared the Last Supper with his disciples before he was betrayed.
As Unitarian Universalists, Jaimie and I want to honor the solemnity of this time, while drawing out the hope implicit in the scripture. As we make the journey of Holy Week–through the darkness and into the light–we hold dear the love, sacrifice, and service that Jesus modeled for us in his life and works.
Abigail: John 13:34
Jaimie: Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.
One of the most beautiful things about Christianity is that Jesus not only preached a prophetic message of love and tolerance, but he taught it by the example of his words and his deeds. The Gospels are filled with accounts of Jesus’s love. In one story Jesus, miraculously fed 5000 hungry people. In another story, he returned vision to a man who had been blind. As he traveled around, spreading his teachings he blessed the people he came in contact with. His blessings showed the people of his endless love for them. And he didn’t just talk about love; he lived love out in his life. The tone of his life was love, and through his living he taught others how to love.
Jesus has set before us a high calling. To make love the tone of our lives is not an easy task. To carry out this love and be faithful to it is even harder yet.
In his poem Rainer Maria Rilke says that “For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been given to us, the ultimate, the final problem and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation.” And now Jesus is calling on us to love all people. This love, that binds us to others, that Jesus teaches us to profess, is by no means easy. Not all of the neighbors we are called to love seem particularly loveable. And as the Christian narrative teaches us tomorrow on Good Friday, not everyone Jesus loved loves him back. Yet, Jesus loves the world to the end.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus explains, “Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Even as Jesus explains to his disciples that soon he will be betrayed to his enemies and taken away, he teaches them to love one another. He holds onto his love for all people even till the end.
And he teaches us to push that love out into the world. The love we hold within us is sacred. As we share it with others, we in turn are filled by the love that others are pouring out towards us. Sometimes this love is fiery and bright, filling us up and holding us easily. At other times this love is harder to feel. At times we can lose sight of the love around us, it can feel dark and lonely. At these times when we are sinking down, we are caught again by love. We may ask ourselves ‘what wondrous love is this’ that pulls us back up as we are sinking, but this love is the divine love that lives within each of us.
We must be grateful for this divine love that holds onto us even as we feel like we are sinking. And it is by loving our neighbor and making love the tone of our lives that we show our gratitude for this blessing.
Jaimie: Psalm 116:12
Abigail: What shall I return to the LORD for all his bounty to me?
We have been blessed. We are alive, we are here tonight, and we can breathe the sweet air of the world and come together in community. God has indeed given us bounty beyond imagining. Have you all been watching the revival of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, this new one hosted by astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson? If you haven’t, you should–it’s incredible. If you have, you–like me–must have been struck by the vast grandeur of the universe, sweeping and infinite. And perhaps you, like me, were also struck with wonder and thankfulness that here, on this tiny blue dot suspended in the heavens, God chose to breathe life into us.
In other words, it’s pretty incredible that we’re all sitting here getting to experience the magnificent gift of life. But, of course, it’s not enough to just sit here.
As the Psalmist asks, What shall we return to God for all of God’s bounty to us?
Later in the Psalm, he gives an answer, saying, “I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice.” This is what we, too, can offer. “A sacrifice?” you’re thinking. “We don’t do that here.” And it’s true–we don’t offer sacrificial lambs at the altar here at Marsh Chapel.
But let’s reimagine sacrifice. It can be something you do. Jesus is the ultimate example. He lived out his teachings about radical love, and was willing to die for them rather than to give them up. Can we do the same–living out the legacy of love that Jesus taught us, even when the going gets tough? Even when people judge you or criticize you or threaten you?
Jesus did–and he did it out of love. In John 13, we get one of my most treasured lines in the whole Bible: “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”
Every time I hear that line, it reminds me of one of the final scenes from the Harry Potter novels. Harry, before his final battle with the villain Voldemort, is able to see the spirits of all those who have died while protecting him–his parents, his godfather, his teacher–through a magical stone.
He’s scared, trembling. He’s found out–it’s a long story–that the only way to defeat Voldemort is to let himself be killed. The only way that Harry can end the reign of terror that Voldemort and his Death-Eaters have created is to die. And so here he is. Going to his death. Afraid, as so many of us are, about pain and death and being alone. But he has this stone, which has allowed him to speak to his long-dead parents and the others he has lost.
They surround him, wispy shades he cannot touch, and he asks them, “You’ll stay with me?” His father, one of those who died out of love in order to save Harry, replies, “Until the end.”
Until the end. To the end.
No one else can see Harry’s companions as he goes to meet Voldemort. But they are there with him and do not leave, even in his last moments. Like the scripture’s “great cloud of witnesses,” the love they had for Harry surrounds him, keeping him from being alone.
In these scenes, JK Rowling gives us a valuable metaphor for love. When we make love the tone of our lives, even unto death, the love that we created and fostered in the world lives on. Harry’s parents’ love for him strengthened him long after they had been killed. Jesus’ love for the world continues to strengthen us and to transform the planet to this day.
Back at that long-ago Last Supper, Jesus knew he was on the brink of death on the cross. But he knew that if his disciples remembered him and his legacy of love, his sacrifice would be worth it. And so that his sacrifice would never be forgotten, he created a way for us to always remember–together, as a community.
He took the bread and he took the wine and he said, “Do this in remembrance of me.”
For Jaimie and I, as Unitarian Universalists, this is the most beautiful aspect of Communion. It is a time for us to come together, as a community, and–in partaking of the bread and wine–to remember Jesus’ legacy of love, and the sacrifice that he made so that this legacy of his teachings would live on.
As we come together for Communion later in the service, remember that. Remember Jesus saying, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” That line is immensely moving, isn’t it? “This is my body that is for you.” Jesus was willing to give all of himself, even to the end. In all he did, he was teaching us to give ourselves to others–to be servants.
Abigail: John 13:14
Jaimie: So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.
Before breaking bread and sharing wine with his disciples at the Last Supper, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. Though they protested, because at this time only the lowest servants would wash people’s feet, Jesus insisted on washing them. After he had finished washing his disciples’ feet, he told them that they ‘ought to wash one another’s feet.’ With this Jesus established a precedent for Christian service to others. Jesus had humbled himself, and taught his disciples the value of humility.
The foot washing ritual that we will take part in together later in this service, has been done by Christians all over the world for hundreds and hundreds of years. Each year on Maundy Thursday within the Catholic Church, the Pope ritually washes twelve people’s feet in memory of the twelve disciples. Last year, Pope Francis made waves when he broke from the traditional Papal practice of washing twelve cardinals feet, by washing the feet of twelve juvenile detainees at Casa del Marmo in Rome. Even more shocking was the assortment of youth whose feet he washed. Unlike the traditional group of exclusively male high-ranking church officials, Pope Francis washed the feet of young imprisoned men and women from varying ethnic and religious backgrounds including an Orthodox Christian and a Muslim. Though he faced significant criticism, Pope Francis embodied Jesus’s message of humble service, by lowering himself to bless people from very different walks of life.
When the Psalmist said, ‘I will pay my vows to the LORD in the presence of all his people’ she may not have envisioned a Pope washing the feet of young detainees, however this sort of humble service, paid to all people, is exactly what Jesus was trying to teach his disciples.
Jesus’s message of service to others extends far past ritual foot washing. His message is a call to action to people of faith to promote social justice work in the world. As religious people, aware of suffering and injustice in our world, we must take action to mitigate that suffering. Whether this is in small actions, by volunteering at a soup kitchen or shelter for people who are homeless, or larger actions that work to breakdown the legal and systematic forms of oppression inherent in our society, this is service work.
Here at Boston University we like to bring up our most famous alumnus Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King, whose commitment to social change during the Civil Rights Movement fully embodied the Christian commitment to service, perfectly connects the ideas of service and sacrifice in the following quotation.
“I choose to identify with the underprivileged. I choose to identify with the poor. I choose to give my life for the hungry. I choose to live for those who find themselves seeing life as a long desolate corridor with no exit signs. This is the way I’m going. If it means suffering a little bit, I’m going that way. If it means dying for them, I’m going that way. Because I heard the voice saying: do something for others.”
I’m here to tell you that the voice of conscience, the divine voice within is calling us all to ‘Do something for others.’
In his quotation, King answers the question, ‘Who do you choose to live for?’ The answer to this question reveals where an individual’s values lie. For King, like for Jesus, his values lie in serving the oppressed. Further, they both recognize that sacrifice is implicit in service. King readily admits that he has chosen to stay the path toward justice and service. ‘This is the way I’m going. If it means suffering a little bit, or dying for them, I’m going that way.’ As we approach spring and Easter, times of earthly and spiritual renewal, let us reflect on our own call to service. Who do you choose to live for? Are you listening to the voice telling you to do something for others? Let it be our prayer of hope for the coming season that we do more for others.
As we have heard both through King and through Jesus, we are called to be servants to our neighbors. This task is not going to always be easy. We are being asked to love our neighbors, to sacrifice for others, and to serve the world. These are challenging endeavors. They require our best selves. We must be courageous and willing to make sacrifices for the good of other people. This is how we love our neighbors; we make sacrifices in order to serve all the children of the world.
Jaimie: John 13:35
Abigail: By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
Beloved community, when you go from here, how will people know you are God’s disciples? It will be through your service, through your sacrifice, through your love. This how we honor the divine spark within all of us, and it is this divine spark which sustains us through the darkness of this week and into the light of Easter. For the scripture says that having loved the people of this world, Jesus loved them to the end. To the end, my friends. Let us go together.
Jaimie: Blessed Be!!!