We Gather to Eat and Remember

Maundy Thursday, March 24th, 2016

Exodus 12:1-14, Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Meals are important.  And I don’t just mean in the literal “if you don’t eat you’ll starve to death” sense.  Meals are important on a psychological level, too, and on a social level.  Meals bring us together.  There’s a reason that pretty much every holiday is accompanied by a special, traditional meal.  Christmas?  It’s a religious holiday, but there are a lot of people (even a lot of Christians!) for whom Christmas dinner is more important than going to worship.  Easter?  Yup.  Thanksgiving?  That one is all about the meal.  Fourth of July?  It’s just not the same without a barbecue.  Birthdays?  Even if you don’t have a special birthday dinner, you gotta have cake and ice cream.  And it’s not just about the food itself.  While a wonderful holiday dinner with friends and family can be a joy and a heart-warming event you’ll remember for years to come, eating the same food by yourself can be just depressing.  We eat when we come together, but it’s not just about the food: it’s about the community, the family, the relationships that are built around that meal.

Those relationships are built partly through the act of eating together, and partly through memories.  The memories that get shared again and again—I’m sure there are some stories your family tells repeatedly at holiday dinners.  The time your brother fell asleep at his own birthday party.  The time your uncles got into a fight and everyone went home mad.  The great aunt who always brings that dish everyone hates.  The time your mom and dad got each other the same present.  There are some holiday stories that happened before I was born, that I know because they got told so often.  And those stories shape us!  They tell us “this is who we are, as a family; this is how we get along (or don’t get along); this is where we came from; these are the things that make us a family and not just a collection of people who happen to share genetics.”  The food brings us together, the food helps us remember our stories by giving us a tangible reminder of times past—smells, tastes, sights—all working together to help make the memories real and relevant to our current experiences.

Tonight we have heard two stories about meals in our readings.  Meals that were remembered.  Meals that were celebrated.  Meals that brought people together and built up relationships.  The first was the story of the first Passover meal, eaten on the last night the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt.  This is the night that changed things.  This is the night where God finally convinced Pharaoh to let his people go.  This is the night when they truly became his people, the night that was the foundation for all the rest of their experiences.  This is the night when they passed from slavery to freedom, from death to life.  This is the night when they learned that their God was a God who saves people, a God who frees people from bondage, a God who brings new life and new possibilities.  This meal, this Passover, which God told them to share every year together, is to reinforce those memories. It’s a night to remember who they are and where they come from.  A night to remember who God is, and what God has done.  A night to imagine, a night to contemplate what that means for their lives.  It’s not just about the past.  It’s about what that means for the future.

In the three thousand years since that first Passover, the Jews have faithfully gathered for a Passover meal and to remember God’s saving actions every year.  Two thousand years ago, a thousand years after the first Passover, Jesus and his disciples gathered to celebrate Passover and share a meal.  They told the story.  They remembered how God saved them from slavery and death.  They remembered what kind of a God they worshipped.  And then Jesus did something different—something that would, as time passed, become a new treasured memory for those Jews and Gentiles who followed him.  A memory that they—we—would tell and retell, that we would re-enact and think about, that would tell us what it means to follow Jesus.

He put on a towel and went to wash his disciples’ feet.  Now, that was a bold statement.  It’s not something a lord would do, or an ordinary citizen—it’s something that a slave would do.  Washing someone means serving them, and it’s an intimate form of service.  If you’re not doing it because it’s your job, you do it out of love, like a parent giving their child a bath or a friend coming over to take care of you when you’re weak and sick from chemo.  This is what it means to be a follower of God, Jesus says.  This is what should guide your life: love.  I love you, and I’ve put that love into action, so you, too, should love others, and put that love into action.

Then he returned to the meal.  And as they shared the Passover wine and bread, he added a new layer of meaning: this bread, the bread of affliction and freedom, is Jesus’ body.  Jesus’ body, that will be broken for us so that we might be freed from slavery and death.  This wine, the wine of God’s promise, is Jesus’ blood.  Jesus’ blood, which will be poured out for us and for all people to fulfill God’s promise of salvation.

The first Passover celebrated God’s saving work.  It taught them that their God was a God of salvation, a God who brought people from slavery into freedom, from death into life, from pain into joy.  It taught them what kind of a God they worshipped, and who they were as God’s people.  And that was a lesson they learned every time they shared that meal and told those storied.  When Jesus celebrated it with his disciples on the night before he was betrayed, before he was handed over to sin and death, it was a potent reminder to them: the God who saved their ancestors, who brought them out of slavery and death, was still saving people.  God was saving people from slavery to sin and death of body and soul.  And it wasn’t something that happened to other people, a long time ago, far away.  It was something that was happening right there and then.  Because saving people is God’s nature.  It’s what God does.  When God sees people in bondage, whether physical or mental, God acts to free them.  Sometimes it’s big showy acts, sometimes it’s little things, and often it’s through other people.  God saves people.

And God does it out of love.  That’s what Jesus washing their feet symbolized.  God loves people—even smelly, dirty, weak, sinful humans.  And that’s not just an abstract feeling; God acts that love out in many and various ways.  God loves people, and so God helps them, and saves them.  That’s who God is.  That’s what God does.  And that means that if we’re going to be God’s people, we can’t ever forget that.  We need to remember who God is, and what God calls us to do.  We need to look for the love and salvation and freedom that God gives us every day, and we need to let that love shape us and form us as God’s people.

That’s why we remember this night, every time we celebrate Communion and especially once a year on Maundy Thursday.  We remember who God is and what God has done.  And we know that God is present with us, here, now, giving us his love and salvation and strengthening us to be God’s people, to do God’s work in the world.  Because when Jesus said the bread and wine was his body and blood, he wasn’t being metaphorical.  Whenever we eat this bread and drink this wine, we proclaim his death until he comes again.  We know that he died for us, but that death was not the end of the story.  We know that he is here, with us, that in this bread and wine we can touch and taste and see and smell him, that in this bread and wine he is strengthening us and forming us as his people.  We remember, but we know there is more to this meal than memory.  It’s about who God is—the one who saves, the one who loves—and who we are as God’s people: the ones who are called to put that love into word and deed and action.  Even when it’s difficult.  Even when it’s smelly or unpleasant, like washing feet.  Even in the midst of betrayal like Judas’ betrayal, and anger like the Elders’ anger, and even when it’s in the middle of pain and sorrow and suffering.  Even when love seems like the hardest thing in the world.  We worship a God of salvation and freedom and love.  And so we love, as God first loved us.

May these memories, shared around this meal, form us as God’s people and help us to truly know God’s love and salvation, and follow his command to share that love with all the world.

Amen.

In the Breaking of the Bread

Third Sunday of Easter, (Year A), May 4, 2014

Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19
Peter 1:17-23
Luke 24:13-35

 Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

The thing that gets me, in all these post-Resurrection appearances, is that nobody recognizes Jesus. The women at the tomb don’t; they mistake Jesus for a gardener, or a guard. The eleven don’t, until they see his wounds. In our Gospel reading today, the two disciples walking to Emmaus don’t recognize him, either. They spend several hours in his company—walking the seven miles to Emmaus through mountainous terrain, talking about his life and death the whole time, then inviting him in to sit down and take a meal with them. Yet they don’t recognize their own beloved friend and teacher. He’s right there the whole time, and they don’t see him. They’re mourning his death, they are trying to figure out what it all means, and the whole time, he’s walking beside them. It wasn’t until later, after it’s all over, that they realize what happened, who was with them on the road.

Have you ever had times like that? Times when you thought you had been abandoned by God, only to look back later and realize, wow, God was helping me that whole time and I didn’t even recognize him? I have. Usually when I’m going through a really rough time. I’m hurt, upset, and I feel lost. I feel like I’m alone. And it’s hard to pray, because it feels like no one is listening. I look around me, and ask where God is, because I can’t see him. It’s only later, when I’m looking back on it, that I can see all the ways in which God was with me even when I couldn’t see him—the people he sent to comfort or help me, the coincidences that weren’t coincidences at all, times when I found courage or rest when I hadn’t been looking for them. I look back, and I go, “Man, that was really obvious. Why couldn’t I see it at the time, when I most needed to know God was with me?” And then I feel stupid, for missing the obvious. I feel like Cleopas and his friend must have felt when they finally realized that the guy they’d been talking to was Jesus, and their hearts had been burning within them the whole time. Like, duh, obviously, what the heck was keeping me from seeing the things that were right in front of my nose? Have you ever felt like that?

I wonder what it is that keeps us from recognizing God when he’s right in front of us. I wonder if, for Cleopas and his friend, it was because they weren’t looking. You’ve heard the old phrase, “seeing is believing,” right? But for Cleopas and the other disciple, it was the other way around. Believing was seeing. They saw Jesus, but they didn’t recognize him, at first. They’d been told about the resurrection; they’d been told that Jesus was alive again, and had appeared to the women. But they didn’t believe it. They didn’t believe that Jesus was God’s chosen one, the Messiah, the Christ. They had been looking for God to send a political leader to fix Israel’s problems, a king like David had been. Instead, they got a teacher who challenged many of their interpretations of Scripture and then was executed because of it. And then they got a wild story about that teacher, their friend on whom they’d pinned their hopes, rising from the dead. And they couldn’t believe it. That wasn’t the way God was supposed to save the world. That wasn’t the way things were supposed to work. So they saw Jesus Christ risen from the dead, and they didn’t believe. He was right in front of them—they saw him, they spent hours in his company talking with him, they ate with him—and they didn’t recognize him because they didn’t believe it was possible.

But Jesus doesn’t get angry at them. He doesn’t just write them off and go talk to somebody who would be easier to get through to. He spent time with them, even though they didn’t recognize him. He talked with them. He listened to their hopes and fears—and you know, as important as those hopes and fears seemed to them, they were actually pretty silly, when you get right down to it. Not their grief for their dead friend, but what they’d hoped Jesus was going to do. They were so wrapped up in what they thought he should be doing that they hadn’t been able to see what he’d actually been doing. And their fears—they’d been told Jesus was alive, but they hadn’t believed. He was right there, and they couldn’t see him. But as off-base as they are, as wrong and stupid as their hopes and fears are, Jesus listens to them. He asks questions, and lets them pour out their hearts to him. Then he begins to teach them, asking questions and bringing up things they hadn’t thought of, helping them to open up their hearts and minds to see what God was actually doing. He helped them to look beyond their assumptions about God and what was happening around them to see the truth.

And then he ate with them. He shared a meal. He blessed the bread, broke it, and gave it to them to eat. If the phrasing here sounds familiar, it should, because we say something similar every time we take Communion. “In the night in which he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus took bread, gave thanks, and gave it for all to eat.” In Emmaus, Jesus gave thanks, broke the bread, and gave it to them to eat, just like he had a week earlier in the last supper he shared with them. And it isn’t until that moment that they recognize him. They hadn’t been looking for Jesus; they didn’t think it was possible that he could be with them in their grief and confusion. But he found them anyway. He sought them out. He supported them, and he fed them, and he reminded them that he fed them with his own body and blood. And that’s when they realized who Jesus was. He gave them the bread, and their eyes were opened.

Jesus was with them in the breaking of the bread. That’s when they started to see who he was, really and truly. That’s when they looked back at their day and realized that he’d been there all along, even if they hadn’t recognized him at the time, even if they hadn’t been looking for him, even if they’d been wrong about what all Jesus was doing his entire time they’d known him. He was there. And this was huge! It rearranged their whole way of thinking! Jesus wasn’t dead, he was alive! He was raised from the dead, and God had been working in and through him the whole time, even when they hadn’t been able to see it. They were so excited, they got up and walked the seven miles back to Jerusalem that evening to tell everyone that Jesus was there, and they had known him in the breaking of the bread.

We are more like Cleopas and his friend than we would like to admit. Like them, we have preconceived notions about God that get in the way of seeing what God is actually doing. Like them, we get so caught up in our grief and fear and problems that we sometimes miss the fact that God is walking beside us. Like them, our eyes and hearts are too often closed to the mystery and wonder of God who loves us and will never let us suffer alone. So even when we’re looking for God, we may not always see him, even when he’s right there beside us. But, like Cleopas and his friend, there’s one place that we do see God. A place where we can see Jesus, feel him, smell him, taste him. A place where Jesus is made known to us: the breaking of the bread.

In the night in which he was betrayed, Jesus took the bread and told his disciples quite plainly: “This is my body, broken for you and for all people.” And he took the wine and told his disciples quite plainly: “This is my blood, shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sin.” The bread and wine aren’t just a memorial of Jesus’ last supper; they are a sacrament in which Jesus is truly present in the bread and wine. He’s here, in the breaking of the bread. If you go to a Catholic church, sometimes they’ll ring a little bell after the priest give thanks and says the words about Jesus’ body and blood. That little bell is a sign, a symbol, to remind people to pay attention. God is here! Yes, he’s always here. But in this bread and wine, he’s physically present. This is the body and blood that were shed to save us. This is Jesus, who feeds us with his own body and blood. This is the Christ, the Messiah, who calls us by name, who came to earth and became truly human, who lived and taught and healed and died to save us, who keeps on coming to us no matter how often we turn away, whether or not we can see or feel him. He’s here, now, with us. He is the host who invites us to the table and he is the meal that nourishes our souls.

Whether our eyes are closed or open, whether our hearts are happy or sad or burning within us or still, Jesus meets us hear in this feast. He calls us by name, he reminds us of his love for us and what he has done for us. He gives his life that we, too, may live. Thanks be to God.

The Love Mandate

Maundy Thursday, (Year A), April 16, 2014

Exodus 12:1-4, 11-14, Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, John 13:1-17, 31-35

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

“This is my commandment, that you love one another, that your joy may be full.” I learned that song in Sunday School as a child. It’s taken from John’s Gospel, not very long after our text. The Gospel of John devotes several chapters to Jesus’ last teaching for this disciples. And the command to love one another is repeated over and over throughout. In fact, the name for tonight’s service, “Maundy” Thursday, is taken from an old Latin word for command: “Mandatum,” from which we get the word “mandate.” Jesus’ last command, his last mandate, was to love one another as he has loved us. On the night before he died, in the last meal he shared with his disciples, the theme was love.

Of course, the theme for all of Holy Week is love, when you get right down to it: everything happens because of love. God so loved the world that he sent Jesus to save us. Jesus loved us so much that he died for us. That’s the greatest kind of love there is. Being willing to sacrifice for the sake of someone else. And that’s the kind of love Jesus wants us to have for one another.

Sometimes we think of love as something selfish. Think of someone who is jealous that their boyfriend or girlfriend has other friends. Or a dog who doesn’t like you paying attention to someone else, and so shoves his nose in between the two of you. Sometimes, for some people love drives them to hurt the ones they claim to love. There are a lot of abusers who use love as an excuse for their actions. And there are a lot of people who talk a lot about love without ever showing that love in their actions. But these are all examples of a love that is twisted and broken by sin and the powers of this world. Yes, even love can be twisted by sin. The kind of love Jesus was talking about is just the opposite.

Jesus’ love is all about service. That’s what the foot-washing is all about. Jesus shows his love for his disciples by doing something for them that’s a little bit icky. Jesus’ love is not about himself. It’s not selfish in any way, shape, or form. Jesus’ love inspires him to consider other peoples’ needs. In Jesus’ day, they walked everywhere, and they wore sandals instead of shoes. So peoples’ feet got really dirty and smelly, even when you were trying your best to stay clean. So in a rich household, a good host would send a slave to wash his guest’s feet. The host wouldn’t wash the feet himself—washing peoples’ feet is kind of gross. But he’d send a slave to do it. Jesus didn’t send a slave, he did it himself. Why? Because he loved them, and he was willing to do something uncomfortable and gross to help those he loved.

Think about what parents do for their children. There’s a lot of things parents do for their children that are not fun at all. Changing messy diapers, taking care of them when they’re sick, cleaning up all kinds of really nasty messes, tending wounds and fishing toys out of toilets—these aren’t fun, but they need to be done. Nobody does them because they like doing those things. And most parents do them out of love. They love their children, so they are willing to do messy, icky things that otherwise they would never do. That love isn’t just words. That love is shown in everything parents do for their children.

That’s the kind of love that Jesus showed when he washed his disciples’ feet, the kind of love that is willing to sacrifice to benefit others. It’s a love that is shown in actions. It’s not just talking the talk, Jesus’ love walks the walk. And washing his disciples’ feet is just the beginning. Jesus is going to show his love for the entire world by dying. He loves us all—every last, sinful, one of us. And because he loves us, he’s willing to die for us. Not because it’s fun, not because sacrifice is good on its own merits, because we need it. It’s something we can’t do on our own, something we would die without. And Jesus loves us, and he can save us, so he does. Even if it means his own death.

But even dying for us, to save us from our sins, isn’t the only thing Jesus’ love means. Jesus doesn’t just want to free us from sin and death. That’s huge, but Jesus’ goal is bigger than that. Jesus’ goal isn’t just to change what happens to us when we die; Jesus’ goal is to also change how we live. Jesus loves us, and he wants us to be happy. He wants us to be healthy. And in order for us to be healthy and happy, we have to love one another. We have to live lives filled with joy, with relationships that build us up and spread God’s love to every corner of the globe. We have to be willing to open ourselves up to the kind of love that is bigger and more powerful than sin, the kind of love that is more powerful than selfishness, more powerful than hate, more powerful than jealousy, more powerful than fear. In order to live the kind of life God wants for us, we have to love God and one another deeply and truly. So Jesus spent his last night before his death teaching us about love.

It wasn’t the only time Jesus talked about love, or showed what love meant. Jesus talked about love a lot. And he spent his life acting on that love. For Jesus, love was stronger than anything. Love was stronger than politics, stronger than proper behavior. Love was stronger than religious rules, stronger than gender or race. Love was stronger than money, stronger than fear. If there was a chance to show love for someone, Jesus took it. Whether that was healing them, eating with them, accepting them, forgiving them, Jesus always chose to love people. No matter who they were or what they had done. That was actually a lot of the reason the authorities didn’t like him: he showed love to people they believed to be unworthy of it. If Jesus saw someone who needed help, he showed them his love by helping them. Even when it was messy. Even when it broke the rules. Even when they didn’t deserve it. Even when it would cost Jesus.

The disciples had seen this, but they hadn’t really understood it. Jesus had one last night to teach them, to teach us, about what it means to love people as God loves us. So he wrapped a towel around his waist and washed his disciples feet, and commanded them to love one another as Jesus had loved them. “This is my commandment,” Jesus said, “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.”

We talk about what it means to be a disciple, what it looks like to follow Jesus. Well, Jesus tells us quite clearly here what the core of a disciple’s life is, and it’s love. The kind of love Jesus has for us. The kind of love that doesn’t ask “are you worthy?” but rather “how can I help?” The core of discipleship isn’t memorizing scripture, and it isn’t perfect morality, and it isn’t worship or any of the common things we think of. Don’t get me wrong, scripture reading and worship and how we live are important parts of the life of a disciple. But they support a life of discipleship, they’re not the core. The core is love. If we love one another as Jesus loved us, we are truly his disciples.

If we love one another, we are closer to the kind of life God wants for us. We live in a world broken by sin and death, a world of extreme poverty and extreme riches, a world of hate and violence and fear. We live in a world where most people would rather turn a blind eye to the injustice and abuse around them than lift a finger to help. We’d rather point fingers than fix things. As Paul put it, we have all sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God. And the only way that’s ever going to be healed is through love. Through the love of God, poured out through Jesus on the cross. And through our love for God and one another, poured out in our words and our actions.

So Jesus commanded his disciples, commanded us, to love one another. He showed what that meant through washing their feet, and he showed what that meant again by dying for us all, to save us and redeem us and heal us. Unlike the disciples two thousand years ago, Jesus is not going to walk into the room to teach us this lesson and show us what love is. But Jesus is still with us here and now. Because washing feet and talking about love isn’t the only thing Jesus did that night.

The other thing Jesus did was to share a meal with his disciples. He took the bread, and blessed it, and gave it to all to eat. And the wine, also, he gave them. And he told them it was his body and blood, given to save sinners, and that he would always be present in it. When we eat the bread and wine, we eat and drink Jesus’ body and blood. We hold in our hands a tangible proof of how much Jesus loves us, we smell it and taste it and feel it. Jesus’ love fills us, and inspires us. May we let Jesus show us how to love one another as he has loved us.

Treasure in clay jars: Baptism and Communion

I talked last week about the fellowship of believers and the body of Christ. Important as it is, however, this fellowship is not the only reason for attending worship services.

God is present in many things every day, great and small. Some we may find easy to attribute to God—the beauty of forest, the grandeur of a mountain, the love of those around us. Some escape our notice—the little grace notes that lighten our day. A stranger’s smile, a break in the clouds, a chance remark that sparks an idea. All are examples of God present in our lives, in both good times and bad. It’s important to notice these things, but so often we get caught up in our busy lives and forget to pay attention, or credit them instead to our own skill and luck. God’s presence can be so intangible, so easily ignored, that we need something concrete and physical to demonstrate it, something we can see, hear, touch, smell, taste, and know God is present in it.

In the Lutheran understanding, a “sacrament” is the combination of the Word of God with a visible sign (something we can see and touch), as ordered by Christ. We recognize two sacraments, Baptism and Communion. Jesus commanded us to do both of the sacraments as signs of his presence with us. God takes every-day, ordinary things (water, oil, wine, bread) and makes them into extraordinary signs of God’s love and grace.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20.)

In our baptisms we are initiated into the Christian life as disciples and members of the fellowship of believers. We are “sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” This is not fire insurance for Christians; it is not a “get out of Hell free card.” Baptism is God reaching out to us and promising us that God will always be there for us, claiming and reclaiming God’s identity as Emmanuel. There’s a reason baptism is traditionally done during the worship service, and there’s a reason that the congregation makes promises of support and solidarity with the person being baptized. God’s presence sometimes manifests itself through the companionship of our fellow members of the body of Christ, so it’s important that our fellow members are there when God promises to be with us. But beyond that, the baptism of each new member, child or adult, is a reminder that God has claimed us as God’s own through our own baptisms. It’s a reminder that baptism is not a once-in-a-lifetime event, but the beginning of an ongoing life of dying to sin and rising to new life in Christ Jesus our Lord. It’s also a reminder that Christ is present with us, not in theory but in fact. God’s presence is as real and tangible as the water and the oil.

“While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:26-28).

There’s been a lot of debate over these words over the centuries. Some say they’re meant to be symbolic, some have argued for arcane philosophical justifications for the turning of bread into flesh and wine into blood, some have other ideas. But the important thing is that Christ is promising to be truly present in the bread and the wine. Whatever you think it is, Christ is present in it. In this bread and wine, God’s covenant—God’s promised relationship with us—is made into a form we can feel and taste. God’s promise to forgive our sins, renew us, and make us whole is real even when we’re so overwhelmed with life that we can’t see it any other way.

This is why going to church is important. God is present in many ways every day, whether we go to church or not. But it’s only in worship with our fellow believers that we receive these two sacraments, these two physical assurances of God’s grace.

If you have any questions about this or any questions you would like interested in next week’s entry, please comment.