Introduction (Nico Romeijn-Stout):
Three days before Life triumphed over sin and death, Jesus, knowing what was about to happen, took the time to gather with his closest community to celebrate a ritual meal. His disciples thought that they were present to celebrate the Passover, but the evening did not unfold as any of them had imagined. Instead their time together in the Upper Room was full of new experiences, of new rituals.
Here tonight we will embody three ancient Christian traditions associated with Maundy Thursday: foot washing, communion, and the stripping of the sanctuary. This worship service can become a bit overwhelming with so many rituals back to back. We challenge you, as we navigate this service together, to be mindful of the reasons for the rituals.
As we hear in today’s Gospel lesson, during the meal Jesus got up, took off his outer robe, and washed his disciples’ feet. The Teacher and Lord humbled himself in service to his disciples. Jesus set for them and for us an example, a pattern of service which we should emulate.
In that same meal, Jesus also set for us an example of how we should eat as a community. In the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup, Jesus gave us a pattern by which to remember him. When we eat the bread and drink the cup, we are reminded of the Life and Covenant through Jesus Christ.
Tonight we also follow in ancient Christian tradition by stripping our sanctuary of all decorative and liturgical objects as a reminder of both the barrenness of a world without Christ, and also to make room for the new Life we find in the resurrection of Easter.
Jesus, who is the path to Life Eternal, recognized that we would need nourishment in order to thrive. And so he gave us Life-giving rituals to sustain us. Tonight we remember those rituals.
Stripping (Caitlin White):
Stripping of the altar is an ancient tradition that Christian communities celebrate in many different ways. Some, like Marsh Chapel, believe that this is a time of reflection on the weighty emotions and issues of the passion and resurrection. Here at Marsh Chapel, we strip our sanctuary of liturgical decorations to reflect the barrenness of a world without Christ. We make the space to reflect on the worst of human deeds on Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Ours is a theological position that allows people to embrace whatever truths they might find in their own reflection- whatever personal narratives relate for them, whatever view of sin and redemption they understand, whatever beauty or disgust they behold in the crucifixion- it makes room for the truths of many people.
Many communities with a similar understanding of the ritual also strip the sanctuary of everything but leave a single cross shrouded in dark cloth, a symbol of the spiritual weight and mourning of the season.
Many Christian communities are much more fixed upon the notion of atonement- the idea that Jesus had to suffer and die for us to be forgiven. Many strip the altar to remember how Jesus was stripped of dignity, clothes, and finally his life, but that may not be a theology that all of us embrace. At least, that might only be one aspect of all that the cross can be for you.
As Dean Hill reminded us in his meditation on the Passion this past Sunday, “Easter defines Holy Week, and not the other way around. The resurrection follows but does not replace the cross. The cross precedes but does not overshadow the resurrection. It is Life that has the last word.”
My challenge therefore to those who hold an atoning, sacrificial way of thinking about this ritual is not that I necessary disagree, but that Christians in our culture (myself included) have a poor understanding of sacrifice, of waiting and of loss. How can we? In a world of fast food, fad diets, and disposable everything, we have forgotten patience and the seasons of life.
Perhaps the question for us today should be: What are you being stripped of? Why did we just do Lenten reflections? Why give up chocolate – is it just a way to not gain weight in time for spring break and the beginning of summer, or is there something more there? I often think we get caught up in the altar mentality- we give up things because it is hard, not because they are wiser left behind.
Any good gardener knows that the first thing you must do in the spring is pull up all the weeds that have taken over your soil. If anything good and intentional is to take root, it can’t be bumping into other forces, other agendas that rob it of the resources to survive.
The purpose of our ritual should be to root out what distracts us, those noisy things that rob us of positivity, purpose, and connectedness to God, ourselves, and one another. We need to give our time, resources, and communal creativity to something that feeds our spiritual growth and brings more light into the world.
An incredibly intelligent 9 year-old named Becca, in order to be allowed to recieve communion, explained it like this: Jesus knew that his friends would miss him. He also knew they had to eat every day. So, he told them to remember him when they ate and that they should eat together. That way they’d be able to be friends and get through anything.”
The communion liturgy I am most familiar draws upon 1 Corinthians 10:17 in which Paul writes “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” Elsewhere in 1 Corinthians, Paul chastises members of the community for the way in which they are eating their communal meals – a practice probably tied closely to practices of communion. What was happening was that some members of the community were beginning to eat before others had even arrived, causing a rift in the body.
You see, from Paul’s first-century pen to Becca’s twenty-first century lips, Christian understandings of communion have always been founded upon community. When we gather at the table, we are united in this meal. When we break bread, we are one body. This is a meal to cast off divisions, to cast off hierarchies and inequalities and simply to come, in unity as one body.
In the tradition of Marsh Chapel the communion table is open. All are welcome to come forward and receive communion. But the question we must ask is not so much who is welcome, but who is invited? And that question must begin to be asked not in the middle of a service of worship, but rather after the service, when we leave the sanctuary, go into the streets of Boston, into our neighborhoods. It is a question we must carry with us as we prepare to gather again every Sunday for ordered worship. It is a question which must dwell as much with pew-dwellers as with pulpit-dwellers.
The ritual of Holy Communion is a life-giving ritual. It is a meal in which we may be physically and spiritually fed. Jesus gave us this ritual of community, a ritual to sustain the lives of his followers. Given its life-sustaining nature, perhaps we should interpret communion in light of the example-giving life Jesus led. In his life, Jesus gave us the example by which we should be in community, by which we should feed ourselves and others. In his life, Jesus gave us the example by which we should live, and by which we should serve.
Foot washing – service (Caitlin):
The service of foot washing- that moment you have all been waiting for, grooming for, wondering how many days your neighbor has recycled those heavy wool socks for. It isn’t a very common spiritual practice for many people and I will be the first to admit that it can be awkward. I will also tell you that it can be thought provoking and spiritually enriching as well- precisely because it is uncomfortable. So why of all the ways to display service did Jesus chose this strange ritual? Why did Jesus choose a ritual at all?
Psychologist, speaker, and activist, Staci Haines might have some insights for my questions. In 2011, I attended a Calling Congregations conference offered by the Fund for Theological Education where she spoke to a crowd of both clergy and laity who seek to renew the church particularly by involving and equipping its young people. She challenged them with the findings of psychology that in recent years has begun to understand that our memories are really in our muscles. The body, in time of panic and adversity, will bypass logic and emotionalism and shortcut to whatever patterns we have trained our muscles for. Aristotle was right- we are what we habitually do. Our problem in the church, she observed, is that our vision- our ideals- our mission statements do not sync up with our practices. We want to put an end to suffering and hunger but we treat service like an event, not a life style. We want to throw our doors open to everyone with love but we haven’t gotten to know anyone who doesn’t look, act, and live like us in so long we’ve forgotten how. We have to retrain our practices to look more like our hopes.
Perhaps, Jesus also understood that rituals can retrain our bodies and our practices. So he took this last chance to serve his disciples.
In tonight’s service, we sing hymns, read lessons, and receive communion, all before foot washing. Honestly, that is because we think it is gross to touch feet and then food. However, in the Jewish custom of Jesus’ time, foot washing would have been the first event of the evening. Ritual cleaning is how you prepared for a meal, for Jesus’ breaking of the bread, to hear his message… Jesus started the evening with service. In times of danger and doubt, serving others was his first reflex, his instinctive response. And he asked them to imitate their Lord- to learn to serve one another in the same humbling way.
Of all the things Jesus could have saved to say for that moment- that last meal- he said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another… Just as I have loved you.” At least that is how the writer of John reports it to us. But was it really a new commandment? Didn’t that whole love other people concept show up a few times by then? I’m not convinced that it was all that groundbreaking for Jesus. I suspect that this has a lot more to do with our human tendency to need reminding. And given how absentminded the disciples are portrayed throughout the gospels, I’d guess that they were no exception to the rule. Jesus knew that we need practices that Remind us that love was the way of Christ- Remove us from old habits to try-try again until service is our first instinct- AND Reform our vision for the future so that we might live into it more fully.
(Nico) In removing us from our old habits of living in isolation from our neighbors, isolation even from those who sit at the table with us; in reforming our vision so that we may see a future in which we are all more fully alive, Jesus has shown us the way.
(Caitlin) In showing us the way, Jesus last teaching to his community was love – and so it should be ours as well.
(Nico) We walk in the footsteps of Jesus when we… Love others.
(Caitlin) We walk in the footsteps of Jesus when we… Serve others.
(Nico) We walk in the footsteps of Jesus when we…Break bread with community.
(Caitlin) As we are stripping the sanctuary, we are stripping it of things, not of people. As we prepare to remember the death of Christ, let’s not strip Jesus’ message of Life. It is Life that has the last word – and that word is Love.
~Nico Romeijn-Stout and Caitlin White, Ministry Associates