Thursday, April 17, 2014

Three ingredients to Christ's new commandment on Maundy Thursday....

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for tonight's worship gathering @ 7 pm.
There are three commitments for living into the “new law of Christ’s love” we are asked to grow into on Maundy Thursday:  a) Eucharistic living as symbolized by the bread of Holy Communion; b) Servanthood living as shown to us the ceremony of foot-washing; c) and living in the mystery of the Cross that invites us to have our suffering turned into greater compassion.  Now I don’t believe that any of us will consistently embrace these commitments with identical verve over the course of our lives – this is a life-long learning commitment – but I am equally certain that if we don’t consciously choose to make these commitments the core of our spirituality, the BEST we’ll be able to say about our faith is that we were faking it.

+  Passing for followers of Jesus rather than practicing the way of the Lord – acting as casual observers of Christ and his Cross rather than disciples – because anything less than these three commitment is cheap grace.

+  And I don’t say this lightly:  look, I know most of us will stumble from time to time and take the easy way out when we can.  Human nature being what it is, I know that dying to self takes forever – it is not something we can grasp and then put into practice all at once – it is clear that learning the way of Jesus requires our whole time on earth.

So getting it wrong and trying again and again, falling down in sin but getting up over and over by grace, doing your best while regularly lifting up honest prayers of confession is the organic rhythm of sacred living.  Making mistakes is how we learn; getting it wrong is part of the practice of Christianity, so that is NOT what I am talking about with the words “cheap grace.” 

No, cheap grace is the perverted and self-centered notion that simply thinking lofty, spiritual or loving thoughts is the same as doing them.  It is the ancient heresy of separating word from deed – living as if what we think and say is more important than how we act – behaving as if our bodies and the things we can physically touch are of lesser value than our noble, abstract ideas.  It is a spirituality thoroughly rejected by Jesus and his Jewish tradition, but one that has been all too popular throughout the whole history of Christianity – and is sadly all too prevalent in our generation.

·   Think of the New Age gurus who teach that all disease and suffering is the result of what we think. They call it the law of attraction – if we hurt, we’ve brought it on ourselves – and if we thrive, the same thing. For them ideas are more sacred and true than our physical realities.

·   The same would be true of the anti-Semite who last week opened fire on innocent people at a Jewish community center in Kansas City.  This man’s IDEAS about faith and real life were more important to him than the living flesh of people he hated, so he was able to convince himself that murder was of the Lord.

Over and over we see the same thing in suicide bombers or so-called pro-life warriors who attack abortion clinics in the name of God’s love. These children of God have elevated their thoughts to such a sacred height that they are completely divorced from whatever happens in the realm of the living. And let’s be clear that most of these people are not mentally diseased or suffering from PTSD:  they genuinely believe that their thoughts are more holy than their actions so when all hell breaks loose and innocent blood is spilled, who cares?

Maundy Thursday stands in quiet opposition to all such selfish, ugly manipulation of God’s love – and we are given three practices to help us stay grounded in what is real.  First, we’re asked to make a commitment to Eucharistic living by practicing Holy Communion in community. 

At the communion table, the bread is REAL – the wine is REAL – and there are no virtual images present.  We can touch the elements and taste them; we can smell what is set before us and see them as we pass them around in our flesh and blood hands to one another. There is NOTHING abstract to the Eucharist:  the ordinary is recognized as sacred, the extraordinary and holy is honored in the midst of our humanity and God’s blessing is experienced by sharing rather than hording.
So how do apply or live into the commitments of communion?  How do we embrace a spirituality of Eucharistic living?  Well, there are four steps – or ingredients – and we learn them from the bread we bless and share.

·   First the bread is taken:  just as God offers life to us as a gift, we, too, are asked to take and receive the totality of life as a gift – the celebrations and the suffering  are all sacred – and all we can do is simply hold them and honor them.

·   Second, the bread is blessed:  what is ordinary and mundane is prayed over and cherished for this is the way God’s nourishment becomes real for us; not by magic, but by blessing and awareness.

·   Third, the bread is broken:  it is torn – it is wounded – it becomes part of our real life experience.  This is the step most people hate but it is also built into the fabric of creation. We are going to fail – and sin – but our failures and sins can lead to forgiveness and greater wisdom.  We are broken.

·    And fourth the broken, blessed and taken bread is shared:  it is given away as food for the body and the soul. It is not horded or treated as private property – it is not a special gift kept only for the wise or privileged or the members of this or that tribe – it is shared freely and joyfully.

Do you know these four ingredients:  taken, blessed, broken and shared? They are one of the spiritual practices that God asks us of us on Maundy Thursday. They are one of the ways we become disciples of Jesus as Christ.

·   So think about that:  your life, like the bread, is taken – by God – it is NOT fully yours. It is a gift – a gift that is then blessed and cherished – a gift that is also broken by real life – a gift that can become a blessing for others when our brokenness is honored and transformed and shared. 

·   All of this – our bank statements and our shopping lists, our TV habits and the way we care for our bodies – are involved in a spirituality that is both intimate and earthy.  It is physical and incarnational and there is NOTHING abstract or idealized about Eucharistic living.  Is that clear?  Do you have any thoughts or questions?

The second commitment or spiritual practice of Maundy Thursday is servanthood as documented in the way Jesus washed the feet of all his disciples.  It too is fully earthy and radically inclusive because Jesus didn’t just wash the feet of those he liked – his favorites – he washed them all – and that’s one of the reasons why so many people are uncomfortable with even holding a foot-washing ceremony in worship.  What if I have to wash the feet of that knuckle-head who always complains about me?  What if I have to hold the foot of a person I’ve never met? Or worse, the foot of someone I know all too well?

And it only gets worse because foot-washing is not just about the idea of serving somebody else, but actually getting down on our knees and holding someone else’s foot in your hands, right?  So over the years I’ve come to realize that this ancient ritual is SUPPOSED to make us uncomfortable.  It is supposed to teach us about humility and trust, about the sacredness of our bodies and how much God loves us, about servanthood and loving what we often hide away and neglect.  And there are a few steps here, too:

·   First, for the person who is going to have his/her foot washed, you have to get up and come forward.  You have to consciously choose to be a part of this ritual – not as a spectator – but as a participant.

·   Second, you have to take off your shoe and some of us don’t like our feet. We think they are ugly – or rough – or stinky.  And while all of that may be true, so what? They are part of our bodies – part of the gift given to us by the Lord – and they are to be honored and cherished – like Eucharistic bread, right? But we still are ashamed or embarrassed by them; so by choosing to come forward and expose your foot, you are practicing loving yourself as God loves you – and that’s really hard for most of us.

·   And third, you are literally practicing humility as you let another serve you. It is incredibly humbling to look down at someone from church that you have worked on projects with – or built Habitat houses with – or served on church council and choir with – and see them holding your worn out old foot. And it gets worse still - and better – because that person isn’t just looking at your foot; they are holding it tenderly, pouring warm water over it and drying it with care and affection. 

Having your foot washed is one of the ways we can feel what it is like to be a child again – dependent and loved, powerless and connected – it is practicing the way of the servanthood of Jesus in a very embodied and sensual way.  Same is true for the one who does the foot washing. They practice a different type of humility by kneeling and touching, by caressing and cleansing another’s foot with respect and awe – by voluntarily taking the lesser role of a servant. 

·   The whole ritual, you see, is about consciously choosing to place your life into the hands of Christ – that’s what the physical ceremony symbolizes – it is an exercise in trust.  Small wonder so many feel uncomfortable and want to avoid it, right?

·   What’s more, after you’ve had your foot washed by another – or washed another’s foot – you can never treat them with disdain or disregard again. You may not LIKE them, but you can’t neglect them because a profound and humbling connection has been created that can never be erased. It is the bond of servanthood.

So first we’re called into Eucharistic living.  Second we’re invited into servanthood living.  And third we’re asked to live into the way of the Cross, a commitment to hold within us our pain and suffering – offering it to the Lord – so that we don’t pass it on to others and wound them.  The mystery of the Cross is that it trains us in the way of compassion, not complaining causing us to hold our suffering within rather than pass it on to others. 

This is part of what Jesus did in the garden on Maundy Thursday when he prayed:  Father, thy will be done, not my will. Remember this prayer takes place after the foot-washing and the Passover meal. 

·   It is as if he were saying:  Lord, help me take all the fear I know inside me – and all the pain being directed towards me – and hold it.  Not push it away or dump it on another – but hold it within.

·   And over the course of Thursday night and into Friday, that’s just what he did:  he held that fear and pain within himself and refused to give it back to any of those who hurt him.

In an extended quote, Fr. Richard Rohr put it like this: When you hold your pain consciously and trust fully, you are in a very special liminal space. This is a great teaching moment where you have the possibility of breaking through to a deeper level of faith and consciousness. Hold the pain of being human until God transforms you through it. For then you will be an instrument of transformation for others. As an example of holding the pain, picture Mary standing at the foot of the cross. Standing would not be the normal posture of a Jewish woman who is supposed to wail and lament and show pain externally.  But she’s holding the pain within; Mary is in complete solidarity with the mystery of life and death. She’s trying to say, “There’s something deeper happening here. So how can I absorb it just as Jesus is absorbing it, instead of returning it in kind?” You see, until you find a way to be a transformer, you will pass the pain onto others.

Jesus on the cross and Mary standing by the cross are images of transformative religion. They are never transmitting the pain to others. All the hostility that had been directed toward them—the hatred, the accusations, the malice—none of it is returned. They hold the suffering until it becomes resurrection! That’s the core mystery. And it takes our whole life to comprehend this… Unfortunately, we have the natural instinct to fix our pain, to control it or even, foolishly, to try to understand it. The ego always insists on understanding. That’s why Jesus praises a certain quality even more than love – something he calls it faith. It is the ability to stand on the threshold, to hold the contraries, until you move to a deeper level where it all eventually makes sense in the great scheme of God and grace.

This holding our pain and fear in God’s love takes practice – our words and ideas must become flesh – for without it, we will keep on wounding one another and never grow closer to God’s grace.

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