From time to time I feel I must explain, gentle readers, that I did in fact pass 5th grade grammar. My homilies, as they are posted here, would not appear to support this claim...they are written, of course, to be read aloud, and so I use what grammar and punctuation I need to serve as cues for when I will stand in the pulpit and preach... This particular homily is especially filled with grammatical indulgences...if you are an English major, please be kind...
Exodus 2:1-14; Psalm 116:1, 10-17; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35
"That's the effect of living backwards," the Queen said kindly. "It always makes one a little giddy at first -"
"Living backwards!" Alice interrupted in astonishment. "I've never heard of such a thing!"
"- but there's one great advantage," the Queen finished, "in that one's memory works both ways."
"I'm sure [my memory] only works one way," Alice remarked. "I can't remember things before they happen."
"It's a poor sort of memory that only works backwards," the Queen remarked.
And then Alice ventured to ask, "What sort of things do you remember best?"
What sort of things do you remember best? How might the people of Israel answered as they gathered around the table once again, not in Wonderland but in the Promised Land, marking the beginning of months, the day of remembrance, the Passover of the Lord. What sort of things do you remember best?
They had seen and heard and experienced so much out there, in the wilderness, on their journey. Do you remember, someone might have said as they all took their places around the table, when Moses went up the storm- and fire-clad mountain and returned with God's commandments? Do you remember, another might have said, pouring the wine in each cup, when we were so hungry, and manna covered the ground like snow? Do you remember when we were so thirsty, and water flowed from a rock? Do you remember... And memory by memory, story by story, they return to that time, or that time returns to them - memory works both ways - and God is saving not their ancestors only but they themselves and all who would gather to remember between and before and after.
Do you remember? We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, they say around that table as their great thanksgiving begins. And the Lord our God took us out from there with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm... They will say with the psalmist, I love the Lord, because he has heard the voice of my supplication, because he has inclined his ear to me...I will lift up the cup of salvation...I will offer you the sacrifice of thanksgiving...
What sort of things do you remember best? How might his disciples and friends have answered as they gathered around the table for what only Jesus knew would be a last supper, a day of remembrance, in anticipation of his Passover? What sort of things do you remember best?
They had seen and heard and experienced so much out there with Jesus, on the streets, in the hills, on the sea, in the Temple, on the margins. Do you remember, one of them might have said as they all took their places around the table, when Jesus went up on the storm- and fire-clad mountain and we also saw Moses and Elijah? Do you remember, another might have said, lighting the candles one by one, all the times he touched blind eyes and deaf ears and commanded them to be open? Do you remember when he came to us walking on the water and calmed our storms? Do you remember...
Dinner tables are often filled with memories and stories...of people no longer present, of recipes handed down, of all that has been seen and heard and experienced in a day or a year or a lifetime. Meals, muses the Rev. Dr. Janet Hunt, are meeting-places of origins and hopes, of vulnerability and identity, and rarely is it only the body that is served and fed at the table, but the mind and spirit also.
So it was around the table with Jesus that night, the night that seems to us as dark and ominous as the night blood was smeared on lintels and doorposts and a lamb was consumed hurriedly and the Lord passed over to fiercely and decidedly save. That night with Jesus - this night, this table, this meal - seems to us dark and ominous because we remember what the disciples did not yet know, we remember what will happen tomorrow - memory works both ways. But around the table in the Upper Room, it seemed just like any other meal, filled with memories and stories, recipes and friends, and all that they had seen and heard and experienced. Until Jesus asked them, asked us, to remember something new.
On the night before he died for us, this is my body, he said. This cup is the new covenant in my blood. With these words Jesus took and blessed and broke open the story of salvation, the memory of God's love for God's people, by offering himself as the Passover lamb. Do this in remembrance of me, he commanded.
John's account of that night contains a different memory, a different meal, a different story. On the night before he died for us, our Lord Jesus Christ...washed his friends' feet. What did he remember gst, I wonder, as he held their feet in his hands, as he washed and dried them tenderly, wiping away the grime and dust of the roads they had traveled together...what sort of things did he remember best? Did he think about when he called each one? Did he remember conversations they had and questions they asked? Did he recall their individual doubts and fears and faith? What sort of things did he remember best?
It seems quite clear from John's account what was foremost in Jesus' thoughts, in his troubled heart and spirit, that night...this night: Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. It is what he remembered best, and it is what he wanted them - what he wanted us - to remember best, too. All the miracles, all the signs, all the healing, all the parables, all the teaching, all the preaching, all the walking along dusty roads and across stormy seas, it all came down to love.
But not love that was about sentimentality, any more than remembering was about nostalgia. This was love that was active and participatory, love that was fearless and wide open, love that poured itself out, love that nourished and strengthened, love that served, love that fiercely and decidedly and over and over and over again saved. Jesus remembered the commandments given by God, and had once summarized them saying, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. But that night...this night...Jesus wanted us to remember something new: love one another.
Our love was to be the same kind as his. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another, just as I have loved you. I have set you an example. Everything I have done has been an example. Tonight has been an example. Remember...
But of course they wouldn't. We wouldn't. We don't. It's so easy to forget our origins and hopes, our vulnerability and identity, what our hands and feet are made for. We get busy. We get distracted. We are easily tempted. It's so easy to forget. We grumble in the wilderness. We want something for ourselves. We are fearful of giving too much away, of pouring out too much. We deny. We betray. We fall asleep. We run away. And not just eventually, but immediately. Remember? Judas got up from that very table, his feet still damp, bread crumbs falling from his lap. They all ran away from the garden. Peter, who wished Jesus to wash not only his feet but his hands and his head, would say three times before daybreak that he did not know who Jesus was.
And so Jesus showed them, knowing that they would forget, knowing that we would forget... Jesus showed us all around that table not only how to love but how to remember as well. Familiar things were chosen to remind us of all the good things God has done for us, all the times God has saved, all the ways God has loved. Bread. Wine. Water. A table. A towel. Bare feet. Outstretched hands. They are symbols, sacraments, signs, memories of a story not that was but that is, for God still loves and saves, God is loving and saving now, and God will love and save again. Year after year, the people of Israel return to their Passover table to remember and give thanks. Week after week, we return to ours to remember and give thanks, so that day after day we can be the hands and feet and heart and soul and mind and strength of Christ's love on the dusty streets and stormy seas of life. I have set you an example...do this in remembrance of me...
If I, like Alice, may venture to ask, what sort of things will you remember best this night...that night...the night before he died for us? Perhaps it has made us a little giddy, all these stories so filled with living and loving, moving backwards and forwards in the story of our faith - memory works both ways. What sort of things will you remember best? The taste of the bread? The smell of the wine? The warmth of the water? The touch of a towel? The tenderness of someone else's hands, or of your own? The sight of a bare, darkened church? The silence of forgetting? Let us remember best what Christ did...having loved his own who were in the world, he loved us to the end. Amen.
Artwork: "The Last Supper," by Mica Joiner; "Bread and Wine," by Glynis; "Footwashing," by Fr. Bob Gilroy.