This was my sermon for Maundy Thursday. The text was 1 Corinthians 11:23-26:
In her autobiography, Wait Till Next Year, Doris Kearns Goodwin recounts how growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950’s she and her friends acted out the hearings being conducted by Senator Joe McCarthy. “We had begun by transforming our living rooms into a counterpart of the Senate chamber,” she said. “We set up a table facing a single chair in the middle of the room. The person designated as the accused sat in the chair while the rest of us asked questions and made charges from behind the table. As our accused fidgeted uneasily on the stand, we grew increasingly hostile, interrupting explanations with points of order, claiming we had documents and proof to back up our accusations. We shouted and argued just as we had seen the counsel do on television,” she said.
“Day after day we played this treacherous game, even though one of us usually ended up running from the room in tears. We accused one another of being poor sports, of cheating at games. We exposed statements of the ‘accused’ which denigrated others. Marilyn… accused Elaine of saying that the new girl on the block, Natalie, was fat; Elaine accused Marilyn of saying that Eileen was a crybaby… Eddie accused Eileen of complaining that Elaine was too bossy. Often these charges were true. We did, indeed, talk behind one another’s backs, but we had never imagined that our slurring words, bad mouthed comments, and hurtful language would be made known to others….
“As the games progressed, they became even more vicious and mean-spirited. Marilyn said she knew the truth about my family, that my real mother had died when I was born, and that my mother was really my grandmother. Stung by the attack, I lashed back: ‘How can you say such a thing? Your name isn’t even Greene. It’s Greenberg. You’re the one who’s hiding things, not me.’
“Our games created rifts between us,” she says, “dividing us into rival camps, until we finally grew tired, and a little afraid, of the anxiety and the nastiness. One day, as we sat in our circle trying to decide whose turn it was to be the accused, we chose instead not to play anymore. It was as if a terrible fever had gripped us, and now it was broken. We moved the chair and table back to their proper places and never again conducted our mock trials.”
Of course we don’t really have to go back to the height McCarthyism in order find similar behavior taking place, not necessarily amongst children, but in society in general especially during this election year. How often have we heard that someone is not American enough, not conservative enough, not liberal enough, not black enough or not white enough? Not sufficiently pro-capitalism, or not Christian enough, not masculine enough or not feminine enough? Of people are too of anything of these things.
These are attacks that surround us on an almost daily basis, and somehow, like Doris Kearns Goodwin’s story they show us something fundamental about who we are as humans, about the ugly side of our nature. We try and make ourselves look good, try and protect our own identity and beliefs, try and do everything we can to feel better about ourselves, by attacking others. Sometimes we do this verbally and sometimes it’s done physically. Sometimes it’s done merely out of spitefulness and sometimes it’s done under the guise of defending and protecting the law, especially if it’s one that we can proclaim was handed down by God. If God said it then it must be carried out, or at least as long as it’s a law we support, since we like to ignore vast numbers of other laws found in the Bible.
In one of the most famous scenes in the New Testament, which is found in the Gospel of John, some scribes and Pharisees bring Jesus a woman who they claim was caught in adultery and they want to stone her as required by the law. The first question that comes to mind is where is the man, as it does take two to commit adultery, and by the rule laid down in Deuteronomy (Deut. 22:23-24) says both are to be killed, but regardless of where the man is, what does Jesus do? He says let the person without sin be the first one to cast the stone. And then one by one the people drop their stones and leave until it is only Jesus and the woman left. Then Jesus looks at her and says “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” and she answers, “No one sir.” And then Jesus says “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way and from now on do not sin again.” (John 8:1-11) He does not cast the stone as we are so want to do.
Tonight is Maundy Thursday, the night we remember Jesus’ last meal with his disciples, and then his betrayal and arrest. The word Maundy comes from the Latin word mandatum, which means commandment, and comes from John’s version of last night in which Jesus says “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” That is the new commandment, that we love one another, and why? Because Jesus has loved us. The world wants to bring out stones and create division and discord, it wants to spew hate and dissensions, to create divisions based on what we look like or what we think or what we do, but Jesus says, “Love one another as I have loved you. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples.”
For me what makes the stories of this night so amazing is that Jesus could have played the role of judge and jury. He could have attacked the disciples, and he could have been like the children playing prosecutor and divulging all of the dirty secrets that they knew about each other, he could have offered them all stones for their transgressions, and worse for the transgressions that they were about to undertake. But what does he do instead? Jesus washes their feet. This is the role normally relegated to servants, and not just to any servant, but to the lowliest of the servants, and yet there is Jesus, getting down on his hands and knees washing their feet, washing all of their feet, washing the feet of Judas, who is to betray him, washing the feet of Peter who is to deny him, and washing the feet of the other ten who will all abandon him. Love each other as I have loved you, Jesus says.
Rather than condemning the disciples, rather than picking up a stone, instead Jesus gathers with them at the table and offers them bread and wine. Even though Jesus knows what is about to happen, he breaks bread with all of them. He knows that Judas is about to betray him, and yet Judas is still there, still eating with Jesus, and because we are told that Judas dips his bread into Jesus’ cup we know that he is seated at the most important seat at the table. By sitting next to Jesus, who is the host, he is sitting in the place reserved for the most honored guest. Judas, the man who is about to do the unthinkable, is sitting in the highest place of honor at the table. And Peter, who Jesus also knows will abandon him and deny him three times, is also there, sharing in the breaking of the bread and in drinking from the cup. They are all there. Jesus could have offered them stones, but instead he gives them bread. He could have broken disciples apart, but instead he brings them together and he gives them himself.
Jesus did not deny the meal to anyone, instead he invites all the disciples, and he invites us, to bring our whole lives to the feast, to bring our biggest weaknesses, or biggest sins, or biggest doubts, to bring everything to the table and to gather with him in fellowship. In the passage we just heard from 1 Corinthians, Paul is not telling this information to the Corinthians because they are doing such a good job in celebrating communion, instead he is chastising them. Rather than having communion bringing them all together, it is instead breaking them apart, and they are casting metaphorical stones at one another. Rather than gathering as one body of Christ and destroying the barriers that keep them apart so that they might be united in covenantal community with one another and with Christ; instead they are creating boundaries and barriers that are keeping them apart and destroying the very thing that Jesus sought to create. Do this as often as you gather in remembrance of me, Jesus says. We remember, so that we may re-member, that we might come back together as one community, as one people, as one body of Christ, united in our differences, united in our brokenness, united as one people sharing a meal together.
As Jesus begins his ministry, he is led into the wilderness to be tempted for forty days, a time we remember during these forty days of lent, and the devil said to him, “if you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread,” and Jesus said “It is written ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matt. 4:3-4). Surely if Jesus could have transformed stones into bread, he could have also transformed bread into stones, which is what we would have wanted to do on that last night, to turn the bread into stones and to cast them at those who are about to betray, to turn the bread into stones and to cast them at those deny, to turn the bread into stones and to cast them at those about to abandon us, to turn the bread into stones and to cast them at those who are about to arrest and try us.
But Jesus does not offer the disciples stones, he offers them bread and a new commandment, “love one another as I have loved you,” and he offers it to all of them, he offers it to Judas and to Peter, and to James and John, and to Matthew and Simon, and all the other disciples, and he offers it to us. Because of Christ, because Christ first loved us, we are invited to his table, to eat at his meal, to come together as one body, for we all partake of the one loaf, to remember as we are re-membered. Jesus does not do as we would like to do, he does not do as the world does. He does not pick up stones and cast them, he does not even condemn those that the world wants so desperately to condemn, instead he offers peace and forgiveness, healing and reconciliation, understanding and compassion, he offers us bread and the fruit of the vine.
Jesus gives of himself and invites us to his table in fellowship, in oneness, in unity. Love each other, Jesus commands, as I have loved you. And how do we do this? As Jesus did, by being a servant and offering bread instead of stones. May we do likewise my sisters and brothers. Amen.