Monday, April 26, 2010

C: Easter IV

John 10:22-30

Revelation 7:9-17

Even the strongest and most faithful believers in God, as God is understood by traditional Christianity, have moments of doubt. None of us is immune. I hope that doesn’t come as a shock to anyone, and that it might even come as a relief to some. In my own experience, and as I have spoken with others, the seeds of doubt often come in the form of the passing thought, “What if we’re just making all this stuff up? What if all religions, Christianity included, are just various forms of wishful thinking, crutches we lean on because we’re unwilling to face the cold, hard, realities of life?”

When we look at the history of human religious thought and behavior, we might be forgiven for entertaining such moments of doubt, such attitudes of skepticism. Our earliest ancestors had no reasonable explanation for such simple natural occurrences as sunrise and sunset and inclement weather and the change of seasons, so they imagined gods—powerful beings that they couldn’t see, who lived in the heavens, but who were able to affect what happened on the surface of the earth. This is what we might call “god of the gaps” theology—in other words, whenever there’s a gap between something that happens and our understanding of why it happens, we plug God—or a god, as the case may be—into that gap. There’s a thunderstorm? The gods must be bowling. It’s snowing? The gods must be having a pillow fight.

A natural outgrowth and development of “god of the gaps” theology is a view that might be labeled, “the gods must be angry.” Your neighbor gets sick? He must have done something to offend God—or a god. The corn crop fails? We must be praying to the wrong god, or praying to the right god the wrong way, or something. This is where the idea of sacrifice comes from. If we’ve somehow gotten ourselves on God’s bad side, then we need to do something to appease him. This response ranges from tossing a coin or two into the temple offering box to tossing a virgin or two into an erupting volcano. It’s the same concept, carried out in different ways.

About 300 years ago, as modern experimental science was beginning to come into its own, several of the “gaps” that God had previously been required to fill began to close on their own, as rational and scientific explanations appeared for phenomena that had previously been mysteries. So, in an attempt to salvage some dignity for God, to find a way to keep him on the payroll, so to speak, since he had served so well for so long, a kind of theology known as Deism developed. For a Deist, God is sort of like an engineer or inventor, who designs and constructs something, and then steps back and lets it run, without ever interfering or intervening. God is out there somewhere, but he’s an absentee landlord, and not all that interested in what’s going on in the world he made.

As scientific inquiry has progressed, more and more “gaps” have been filled, and it appears at times that even the God of Deism may actually be unemployed. People like Stephen Hawking and the late Carl Sagan and, more recently, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, have popularized a sort of scientific atheism. With the “big bang” theory, God isn’t even strictly necessary to construct the universe before he abandons it, although one could argue that Somebody has to be around to pull the trigger on the Big Bang; apparently there’s still a teeny bit of a “gap” left. But I recently saw a science fiction movie on TV where one of the characters had traveled back in time from the future. When someone asked him in anyone in the future believed in God, he said, “No, that all ended in the year 2030, when scientists isolated the ‘religion gene’.” Let’s see, 2030 is what—20 years from now? Fortunately, I’ll be long retired by then.

But even though God may be laid off at the moment, there is still quite a bit of nostalgic attachment to the idea, at least, of God. So, a great many people who are neither atheistic science geeks nor particularly religious in a traditional sense, indulge in a sort of theology that I like to call “sentimental pantheism.” It’s what keeps the greeting card industry profitable—not much of particular substance, but a lot of sincere emotion, a lot of feeling good about feeling religious, but without too much content that might give offense to anyone. God is everywhere and in everything and in everyone. God is whatever and whoever we want God to be. My “God” may not work for you, and your “God” may not work for me, but—hey—as long as we both have a God that “works” for us, what more could we want?

And alongside this sentimental pantheism is a strong current of apathetic agnosticism, made up of people who are just too consumed with partying or making a lot of money or drifting down the stream of life doing whatever it is they do to give very much concentrated thought to the deep questions of why we’re here and what comes next and what does it all mean. They’re not religious, not even out of nostalgia or sentiment, but neither are they atheists or otherwise hostile to people of faith.

We all know people in each of the categories I’ve described. At various times, we’ve been in those categories ourselves. But at this moment, we’re in this place, as part of a community that has some specific convictions about God, and stands in a very particular tradition.

We are Christians. We proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ to all who will listen. And the essential claim of the gospel is this: Jesus—the man who was born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth and who died in Jerusalem, the Christ of the scriptures and creeds, who is the eternal Word of God the Father, who was with God at the moment of creation; who, if anyone pulled the switch on the Big Bang, it was him; the one who was raised from the dead and returned to the nearer presence of the Father and who will return to judge the living and the dead—this Jesus, is the sacrament, the outward sign, the visible human face of God. The essential claim of the gospel is that God has a body; God has a face. When we see Jesus, we see God. When St John’s gospel tells us that Jesus said, I and the Father are one”, this is what he meant. Later on, the Church would develop all sorts of doctrinal fine points about the relationship between the divine and the human in Jesus, and those fine points are not at all unimportant or to be dismissed. But at the level we’re dealing with as we look at the pages of the New Testament, it’s not all that sophisticated. What Jesus is saying is as simple as this: “When you’ve seen me, you’ve seen God. I speak God’s words through my teaching and in my interacting with people and as I pronounce God’s forgiveness and bestow God’s peace. I do God’s deeds as I heal the sick and advocate for the poor and the marginalized. God cares for you through me; I am the conduit of God’s loving care. He has entrusted you to me as sheep to a shepherd. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand. In short, I give you full access to God; when you’ve got me, you’ve got God.” This is the first claim of the gospel: Christ is the human face of God.

The next claim of the gospel is this: the Church is the sacrament of Christ. The Church is that wonderful body of which Christ is the head and all baptized persons are members. It is the whole community of those in every generation and in every nation who have come in faith to the waters of new birth. It is the community of those who live out their common life and mission in ordered relationships, as instituted by Christ himself. According to tradition, the same St John who was an apostle of Jesus also gave us the Fourth Gospel and the Apocalypse, the Book of Revelation. In our passage this morning from chapter seven, we see a vivid word picture of the Church, described as “a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands.” The Church is the extension of the incarnation. The ministry of the incarnate Christ was limited to Palestine for a brief period nearly twenty centuries ago. But through the Church, that ministry continues. As Christ speaks and acts for God, so the Church speaks and acts for Christ—forgiving sins, healing the sick, bestowing peace, advocating for the poor and marginalized, announcing the good news that the Kingdom of God is near. We would do well to train ourselves to think of Christian congregations, including our own, as “embassies” of Heaven on earth. You know how embassies work, right? The U.S. embassy in Nairobi, for instance, is a bit of sovereign American soil in Kenya, just as the Kenyan embassy in Washington is a bit of sovereign Kenyan soil in America. When we come to the Church—including a consecrated church building, to be sure, but, more significantly, the worshipping community that inhabits the building—when we come to the Church, when anyone comes to us as the Church, we know we are on heavenly soil, holy ground, a piece of “home” away from home. As the Word is preached and taught, as the sacraments are administered, we know that we are meeting the living Christ in all the power of his ministry and all the tenderness of his pastoral care. And as we see Jesus as we see the Church, we are seeing the glory of God himself—not the God of human invention, the God of the gaps, the capricious and vengeful God of our own imagination, not the absent God of Deism or the harmless God of sentimental pantheism, but the God who has shown himself to us in Jesus. Alleluia and Amen.

Monday, April 19, 2010

C: Easter III

             John 21:1-19

My tastes in music are a little out of the mainstream. Programs like iTunes really don’t know what to do with me. They have categories like Rock, R&B, Country, Hip-Hop, Oldies, and, at the bottom of the list, Classical. But if you were to look at my CD collection, you would see sections for Concertos, Symphonies, Opera, Piano, Organ, Choral, and … non-Classical, which is the smallest section, and includes everything from Jazz to Barbra Streisand to Simon & Garfunkel. I like classical music, and the people I’m most likely to become good friends with will know something about classical music. Call me a snob if you want, but the same is probably true for you even if your favorite music is Country, or Classic Rock, or Big Band. It’s just the way human beings behave.

Left to our natural inclinations, most of us are going to made decisions that we feel give us more strength and stability and security. This means that we will tend to hang out with others who are like us in some way. Family members are like us in that we share a gene pool, so the bond that family members experience is usually quite strong. I have a bunch of cousins I’m now friends with on Facebook. I don’t really know them very well, or even at all, but I’m still interested in them and their lives simply because they are my cousins; we share a common set of grandparents.

Human communities invariably self-select into groups that share some sort of affinity. We divide ourselves into groups based on race and ethnicity. After decades of forced integration in public schools, walk into the lunchroom of an urban school and you’ll still usually see Asian kids and Latino kids and Caucasian kids and African-American kids hanging out with others who look like them. We divide ourselves into groups based on culture; like I said, my very best friends are going to be people who would get excited about going to the Fort Wayne Philharmonic and not know what to do with free tickets to a Jimmy Buffett concert except try to sell them. We segregate ourselves into groups of similar economic status. This is pretty much done for us involuntarily. People of similar economic means, whether rich, poor, or in between, are essentially forced to live in the same neighborhoods with one another; the market just takes care of that for us. We certainly divide ourselves into groups of the politically like-minded. Who do you want to sit in a bar and have a drink with? Probably somebody who votes the way you do. And among those who profess and call themselves Christians, we seek out those with whom we are most theologically like-minded. Did you know that in the Warsaw Yellow Pages, which covers all of Kosciusko County, there are 51 distinct “brand names” of churches? Not just 51 churches, but 51 kinds of churches—and that counts all Baptists in one category, and all Brethren in one category, and the same with Presbyterians and Methodists and Lutherans, and you know the variations within those groups, and Kosciusko County isn’t exactly all that diverse religiously. 51!

And then, after we’ve sorted ourselves out in all those ways, we sub-divide even further into enclaves of like-mindedness within enclaves of like-mindedness: Conservative Episcopalians who prefer traditional music and conservative Episcopalians who prefer contemporary music, liberal Episcopalians who prefer Rite One, and liberal Episcopalians who prefer Rite Two, or perhaps one of the authorized experimental liturgies. Very often, these divisions and sub-divisions lead to chronic conflict within church communities. Fortunately, over the last few centuries, Christians have learned to live with conflict without resorting to actual physical violence, so nobody has been drawn and quartered or burned at the stake for heresy in recent memory. Nonetheless, when our conflicts make news, it hardly advances the cause of the gospel, does it?

So, it is in this environment of constant conflict based on our irresistible propensity to divide ourselves into affinity groups that we encounter this incident, recorded for us in John’s gospel, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, between Jesus and his disciples. The disciples are in a boat, about a hundred yards offshore, trying to catch fish, but coming up empty. A mysterious figure on the beach tells them to throw their nets on the other side of the boat. They figure they haven’t got anything to lose by trying, so they throw their net on the other side of the boat, and it immediately fills with so many fish that the net is in danger of breaking. It is at this point that they recognize the mysterious figure on the shore as Jesus—Jesus risen from the dead, to be precise. Peter gets so excited that he jumps into the water and swims to shore, leaving his colleagues with the hard work of dragging their miraculous catch of fish to shore. And it was indeed miraculous, both in the size of the fish and the number of fish, so extraordinary that they actually counted them. There were 153. This is kind of an odd detail to find in a gospel story, which leads to the question, why? Why are we told this? This is a mystery to which there is no ready and widely agreed-upon answer. But strongest speculation is that it represents the number of distinct national groups in the world as it was then known to Greek and Roman society. It is therefore a sign of comprehensiveness, of universality, of diversity.

In Matthew’s gospel, there is a similar incident on the same lakeshore, very early in our Lord’s public ministry, when he is still gathering his followers. There, as here, the activity of catching fish is clearly a metaphor for evangelism, for spreading the gospel, for Jesus’ followers casting their nets by telling others about him, and having those “nets” filled with those who respond to the Good News of Christ. So this incident reminds us that Christ captures us in one unbroken net. He captures all “153” of us—that is, even in our apparently incoherent diversity. Jesus captures us in our ethnic diversity and makes us one with those who don’t look like us. Jesus captures us in our economic diversity and makes us one with those who don’t live in our neighborhood. Jesus captures us in our cultural diversity and makes us one with those whose record collections and iTunes playlists look much different than our own. Jesus captures us in our political diversity, and makes us one with those whose perception of what public policies are best for our society is radically at odds with ours. Jesus captures us even in our theological diversity and makes us one with those whose understanding of scripture and the demands of discipleship take them down different paths than we believe ourselves called to follow.

We are captured by Christ in our baptism. Peter jumping into the water when he recognizes the risen Jesus is a sign of this. We are captured by Christ as we follow him on the path of discipleship, day in and day out, over the course of a lifetime. The disciples who were on that boat and on that lakeshore were people who had followed Jesus, and would follow him again. Inasmuch as we are disciples ourselves, we are present with them on that beach, witnessing that miraculous sign of 153 fish, a sign of God’s intention to bless the mission of his then young Church. We are captured by Christ in the Eucharist. How did the disciples fully recognize the presence of Jesus with them? By sharing a meal, which is clearly, in this context, meant to be a sign of the Eucharistic banquet—the same banquet we are about to share at this very altar. And we are captured by Christ as we engage in mission. When the disciples were discouraged at the beginning of this narrative, Peter said, “I’m going fishing,” and the others said, “We’ll come with you.” Later, in a private conversation, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me more than these.” Perhaps he pointed at the fish nets and the boats as he said “these.” Jesus was taking the symbols of Peter’s former mission—which was to catch fish—and giving them a new meaning, as signs of his new mission of making more new disciples of Jesus, or, in other words, to grow the Church.

And the fruit of this mission to which the risen Jesus was calling his refreshed and rededicated followers is the creation of nothing less than a distinctive culture and community that stands as an alternative to the fractured and divided and segregated affinity groups into which we naturally select ourselves. To the extent that the Church is faithful in her mission, she is a shining neon sign that says, “There is a better way. Unity can overcome estrangement. The divisions of ethnicity, culture, economics, and politics melt away in the heat of the unity given us by Christ in baptism, in eucharist, in discipleship, and in mission.” Praised be the risen Christ. Alleluia and Amen.

Sunday, April 4, 2010


I’ve sometimes wondered what it would be like to celebrate Easter in the southern hemisphere: South America, Australia, southern Africa. It would come right about the time summer turns into autumn. The days would be getting noticeably shorter, at really southern latitudes the leaves might be getting ready to turn, and there would be a chill in the air, a harbinger of the approaching winter. Wouldn’t that be strange?! It would feel strange to us because of all the associations we make between Easter and springtime: New beginnings for caterpillars turned into butterflies, new life for baby chicks, the amazing reproductive fecundity of rabbits.

All of these symbols which our culture associates with Easter speak loudly of the sheer persistence of birth and life in the face of death and decay. It leads us to an understanding of Easter that sees it as about death being survived—survived, but not particularly defeated, challenged but not necessarily conquered. The lengthening days we are enjoying will, around the twenty-third of June, start to get shorter again. There will be another winter. The baby chick that gives us an Easter feeling will end up on somebody's dinner table, and that Easter bunny in the backyard will become a meal for a hungry barn owl with a family to feed. These realities push us to re-interpret Easter in terms that are less than fully concrete: “It’s a spiritual reality”, “Grandpa will live on in our memories”, “Aunt Betty is alive in our hearts”, “When something dies, it is absorbed into the cosmic life principle”, or some such. The sheer unlikelihood— in terms of our ordinary experience, that is—the sheer unlikelihood of real resurrection causes us to water down the meaning of Easter. We have, after all, never seen water flow uphill. The sun has never risen in the west. And dead people don't come back to life.

Now, if all we had to go on, in terms of written accounts of the resurrection, were the appearances of Jesus to his friends and disciples in the forty days following his crucifixion, we could be forgiven for our attempts to “spiritualize” Easter. Jesus does come across as somewhat ghost-like—walking through walls and on top of water, suddenly appearing and disappearing, sort of recognizable but sort of strange-looking at the same time. But these stories are not all we have. We still have to deal—somehow —with the empty tomb, with the experience of those women who came to anoint the body of Jesus early on Easter morning and found that it was not there. In Luke’s account—and in Matthew’s and Mark’s as well, they were told by an angel that he was not there precisely because he was risen! In John’s account, Simon Peter sees the discarded graveclothes in the empty tomb, and Mary Magdalene actually encounters the risen Jesus. This is not a spiritual event we're talking about here. The same flesh and blood that was nailed to a cross, breathed its last, and was laid in a tomb, got up and walked out of that tomb.

The witness of the empty tomb is that Christ's resurrection is not about “surviving” death, spiritually or otherwise. It is not about living on in somebody’s memory, or in somebody’s descendants, or about being absorbed as a drop in the great sea of life. The resurrection of Christ is about the annihilation of death, the defeat of death, the conquest of death. And not just any particular death—not just my death or your death, but the very underlying principle of death, the notion of death, the idea of death.

I want to share with you some lines from a poem by the fairly recently deceased novelist and poet John Updike:

Make no mistake: if he rose at all

it was as his body;

if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse,

the molecules reknit, the amino acids rekindle,

the church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,

each soft spring recurrent;

it was not as his spirit

in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the eleven apostles;

it was as his flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,

the same valved heart

that—pierced—died, withered, paused,

and then regathered out of enduring might

new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,

analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;

making of the event a parable,

a sign painted in the faded credulity of earlier ages:

let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not paper-mache,

not a stone in a story, but the vast rock of materiality

that in the slow grinding of time

will eclipse for each of us

the wide light of day.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,

for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,

lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour,

we are embarrassed by the miracle,

and crushed by remonstrance.

My friends, our Easter hope is as concrete as the lives we live and the bodies we live in. Our Easter hope is not that anyone whom death has separated from us, will live on in our memories or in our hearts. Our Easter hope is that we will once again embrace them in our bodies—bodies, yes, that are more glorious and incorruptible than we can contemplate, but bodies which are, nevertheless, still bodies, which can be seen and touched and recognized. Christ is risen—we are risen. Death is swallowed up in victory. Christ is risen from the death, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tomb bestowing life. Amen and alleluia!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Good Friday

Jesus’ final “word from the cross” in the passion narrative from John’s gospel is simple and declarative: “it is finished.” We can understand that statement in two ways. “Finished” can mean concluded, ended, over with, gotten through. It can also mean completed, accomplished, done, consummated. The first meaning is, of course, literally true at the moment of Jesus’ death. His agony and shame are over with and gotten through. But I strongly suspect that it’s the second meaning he had in mind. It was if to say, “I’ll be leaving now. My work here is done, my mission accomplished.”

The substance of what we observe on this day, the “work” that Jesus accomplishes on the cross, is so essential, so critical for our lives as Christians, that it can best be understood by getting back to the basics, the naked realities of the human condition.

We’ve got a problem, as human beings, and our problem is this: God is, by definition, holy—absolute purity, total perfection. We, on the other hand, are not. We are created in God’s image, but that image is corrupt. It is distorted. We are bent. God’s holiness and our sinfulness are like oil and water—they don’t mix. We are all at odds with God, and that’s not a very desirable state to be in.

Yet, this God in whose image we are created, and from whom we are separated by sin, loves us—unconditionally and infinitely. So he determined early on to “do something” about the fact of our being at odds with him. The Paschal Triduum, these three sacred days which we are in the absolute middle of at this moment, celebrates God’s “doing something” about our separation. This is the work which is “finished” —accomplished, done, fulfilled, consummated—as Jesus exhales his last breath.

But there was first an interim measure, a stopgap, a band-aid, which God had ordained and which had been in effect for several hundred years prior to   the original Good Friday. It was the Hebrew system of priesthood and  temple worship and animal sacrifices which is described so elaborately in the Old Testament books of Exodus and Leviticus. It was divinely-ordained, but was also intuitively provisional and inadequate—like the temporary checks you get when you first open an account, or the loaner car the dealer sometimes gives you when yours is in the shop, or an “interim” rector or company president. It works; it gets the job done for the time being, but it’s not a permanent solution. Day by day, month by month, year by year, the priests of Judaism had to offer the same sacrifices, because the people, human beings that they were, kept on sinning. So the priests had to keep on sacrificing. They had to persevere in the ritual slaughter of various sorts of animals. And once a year, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the High Priest alone entered the Holy of Holies with the blood of a goat and pleaded with that blood for the forgiveness of God on behalf of the people.

Jesus is himself the permanent solution, the faithful high priest who would offer the sacrifice to end all sacrifices, who would offer not the blood of a goat for the forgiveness of mankind, but his own blood. Jesus’ self-offering is not a band-aid, not a patch, but the real thing, the once-for-all fix to our problem of alienation from God. His death “accomplishes” our reconciliation with God by providing the basis for the forgiveness of our sins—namely, the perfect self-offering of a human being, not an animal—to the all-holy God. In Luke’s account of the passion, which we read last Sunday, the veil of the Holy of Holies in the temple in Jerusalem is torn asunder during an earthquake in the moments before Jesus’ death. This is a sign that the true and permanent high priest has entered the heavenly Holy of Holies, of which the one in the temple is a mere copy, and offered his own blood, which alone can dissolve the oil of human sin in the water of God’s holiness. Quite an accomplishment!

It means that we don't have to live in morbid fear of the consequences of the sins which, despite our best efforts and intentions, we continue to commit. The provision for our forgiveness is already in place. Jesus said, “It .. is finished.” Never has a two-letter word like “it” carried such a weight of meaning. Christ our passover is sacrificed for us.
It’s not quite time for us to keep the feast yet; that comes tomorrow night. But the basis for our Easter celebration is laid in the agony of the cross. That’s why they call it Good Friday. 

Friday, April 2, 2010

Maundy Thursday

Some years ago, Time magazine ran a cover story concerning animal intelligence, and how many animals are smarter than scientists have traditionally given them credit for. Some say that animals even have feelings and emotions of the same sort that human beings experience. The logical end of this line of thinking is that we should not only not be using animals for scientific research and experimentation, but that we should also not be using them for food, or for labor, or as residents of a zoo, or even as pets—unless, presumably, they sign a release saying its OK.

I don't know. There may be a certain plausibility in all this, but I remain, I'm afraid, an enthusiastic carnivore. I love to eat meat, and I like it fixed all different ways, from barbecued brisket to lamb shish kabob to stir-fried pork tenderloin to Cajun-blackened catfish. Makes my mouth water just talking about it. But as far as I'm concerned, meat starts out in a refrigerated display case at Marsh or Owen’s, and is then packed in nice clean butcher paper. There’s a part of me, of course, that knows that the barbecued pork ribs I ate three days ago were not always free-standing, and that they recently belonged to a real live snorting mud-wallowing pig—a pig that, at a certain age, could very probably have been described as “cute”, a pig that, if actually able to contemplate its vocation to be slow-cooked over charcoal and basted with barbecue sauce, would have said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” In order for me to enjoy my pork rib dinner, a surprised and squealing pig was grabbed by the throat against its will.

One time, when I was eleven years old, I witnessed the slaughter of a chicken. It didn't make me like fried chicken any less, but it did make me grateful for supermarkets and fast food restaurants. I much prefer encountering my fresh meat in that form, rather than looking it in the eye as I reach for its neck.

Now, I realize that these gruesome facts of life drive some people to become vegetarians. I may not wish to join them, but neither do I wish to ridicule them or question their sincerity. Nor do I totally lack empathy with their position. I’m just, as you know, not that fond of vegetables. But, I wonder . . . if we’re really going to sharpen the points of our moral pencils: Is not the natural purpose of an apple to protect the seeds that are necessary for the propagation of more apple trees? And is not the natural purpose of a grain of wheat to fall into the ground and soak up rain water and sprout and grow into another wheat plant? Are we not violently interrupting the natural order and rhythm of life when we snatch a bunch of grapes off a vine before it ripens and falls on its own? Are we not violently interrupting the natural order and rhythm of life when we take a steel blade to a stalk of corn? The fact is, even vegetable matter is grabbed by the throat and killed—well in advance of its natural life span. Those who retreat into vegetarianism for ethical reasons soon discover the meaning of the proverb, “You can run but you can't hide.”

The inescapable bottom line of human existence is that, in order for us to live, something else has to die, whether it’s an animal or a plant. The life of one living thing is sustained only by the death of another. And it’s not even death with dignity. Just ask all the rabbits who have become victims of McGee and Molly, the owl couple whose webcam many of you have been glued to over the last several days! The steer in the slaughterhouse has its head clubbed and its throat slit unceremoniously in a few seconds. It really is rather humiliating. A few grapes make it to silver bowls in the middle of tables with their natural beauty intact, but most are crushed —in some cultures still, beneath human feet—until the juice is separated from the pulp. We may romanticize the pastoral joys of stomping grapes, but there’s nothing romantic about it from the grape’s perspective. It’s humiliating.

When the people of Israel groaned under the yoke of slavery in Egypt, the Lord heard their cry of distress and called Moses to lead them out of bondage into the freedom of the Promised Land. On the night before their departure, they were instructed—each household—to take an unblemished lamb—not a fully-grown ornery old sheep with grey wool, but a young lamb, with fleece as white as snow—they were commanded to look this cute little lamb in the eye and grab it by the throat and kill it. Then they were to take its blood and smear it over the doorways of their homes, so that when the angel of death visited Egypt to slay every firstborn creature in the land, it would “pass over” the homes which displayed the blood of the Paschal Lamb.

And so we receive the name of this solemn three-day observance: Passover. The life of Moses’ own firstborn brother, Aaron, depended on a cute little lamb being gripped around the neck and humiliated, both in the moments before its death and in what was done to it afterward. The original Passover, of course, is a foreshadowing of the Christian Passover, and in the Christian Passover, the Paschal Lamb is Jesus the Messiah, the very Son of the Living God.

First he is humiliated. But, unlike the grape crushed in a vat or a grain of wheat ground at the mill, or a steer whose throat is slit in a slaughterhouse, Jesus is the active agent in his humiliation. He who was in the likeness of God did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant. Servanthood was not forced on him; he voluntarily took it. He almost had to force his disciples to allow him to serve them. “Take off your shoes; I am going to wash your feet!” One of the linchpins of the church’s liturgy on this day is the re-enactment of this action wherein the Lord of all accepted the humiliation of becoming the servant of all.

In the same upper room where he washed his disciples’ feet, Jesus foreshadowed his ultimate humiliation: His arrest, torture, and death on the cross. Only in his body being broken and his blood being poured out, and then only in their eating his flesh and drinking his blood, could their lives be sustained against the onslaught of evil and death. Judas Iscariot looked Jesus in the eye and Pontius Pilate grabbed him by the throat and you and I are about to gather at a table at which their victim is our main course. Home-baked bread and not quite homemade wine (though soon it may be) administered from a fine pottery chalice function like styrofoam and plastic wrap and butcher paper—they seek to insulate us from the violent origins of this evening’s menu—but in the depths of our hearts we know that the meal which sustains our lives this night, while served from an altar between two candlesticks, originated on a cross between two thieves.

From the upper room where Jesus presided at the Passover meal, re-interpreted as participation in his own body and blood, Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane, and from there he was arrested, tried, and condemned. Before he was nailed to the cross, he was stripped of his garments. In most artistic representations of the crucifixion, Jesus is depicted wearing a loincloth of sorts. In reality, it is more likely that he was stark naked. The shame and humiliation of that sort of exposure was considered an integral part of the punishment of crucifixion. It was never intended as death with dignity. When we strip the altar and the surrounding area as we adjourn this first part of the Triduum tonight, it will be in specific remembrance of this aspect of Jesus’ humiliating death.

In order for me to enjoy eating meat, I manage to repress my awareness of just how that meat finds its way to my plate. But the liturgy of Maundy Thursday will not allow me to repress my awareness of how I participate and share in the life of Jesus, the son of God. His body and blood are part of my body and blood, enabling and sustaining my relationship with the source of my being. The main course—the only course—at tonight’s banquet is also the host. He allowed himself to be grabbed around the neck and led like a lamb to the slaughter.

What wondrous love is this, O my soul ... that caused the Lord of bliss ... to lay aside his crown for my soul, for my soul.