Orientation, Disorientation, Reorientation – A Maundy Thursday Sermon

This sermon was written and preached for Church of the Apostles, Kansas City where I serve as Theologian in Residence. You can watch the whole Maundy Thursday liturgy, including the sermon, here.

Everything is different. 

There is no other way to describe our present reality: overarching, overwhelming, overactive change. We have had to change the way we shop for groceries; the way we work Monday thru Friday; the way we “do” Church; tragically, we have even changed the way we interact with our fellow humans. 

Tonight is no exception.

Typically, Maundy Thursday is a very hands on liturgy. As you probably remember, Maundy Thursday’s liturgy normally mirrors Sunday worship but adds a foot washing. It is a powerful experience, often with many smiles and many more tears. Then we come to the altar as we remember the Last Supper which Jesus shared with his friends; we drink the wine and eat the bread; we experience, taste, touch, and smell the body and blood of Jesus in a poignantly palpable way. Finally, the altar is stripped and washed. We watch as the sacramental vessels, the candles, and the liturgical accoutrement are silently removed, the lights dimmed, and the cross draped.  

All of this is thick with meaning and beauty…and yet this year is different.

What does it look like for the church to celebrate Maundy Thursday when she is separated, scattered, and dispersed? How do we enact and embody Jesus’ command to love one another and to “do this” in remembrance of him when we are under order to “stay-at-home”? We are separated by time in addition to distance because I am recording this sermon on Wednesday which means you are watching it a day later…

Everything is different.

And yet…it is all the same. It is all very much the same.

It would be so easy to sit amid the changing landscape of human history and modern society and throw our hands up in the air, exasperated, and proclaim, “Things will never again be the same!” You would be right on one hand…many things won’t ever be the same. There are so many variables at play, and we’re still so in the midst of this situation, that we really don’t know what our world will look like when this is over. 

Friends, we are disoriented.

But disorientation is never an isolated event when things are changing. Change involves the same progression over and over: orientation, disorientation, and reorientation. 

We all know just how often things change in our lives, and just how much we typically hate it. However, and this is an important however, there are some things which are always the same; some things do not change; in some things we can place our trust or perhaps even the entirety of our lives and know that they are secure…

…and this is precisely what we encounter on Maundy Thursday.

In the Exodus story we find Israel on the very cusp of a change–a change which would affect her identity and her memory forever. Israel had been enslaved in Egypt for hundreds of years and in our text we find YHWH giving instructions for a meal that would become the ritual which defined Israel more than any other, even to this day. YHWH tells his chosen people to take a lamb and slaughter it at twilight. The people were then to take some of the blood and mark the doorposts of their houses before eating the lamb hurriedly, with girded loins, sandaled feet, and staff in hand. Why? Because this is the night that YHWH would pass over the houses of Israel and strike down the firstborn in Egypt. This is the night when YHWH would secure the release of his people so that they could worship him in the desert. YHWH finishes by saying: This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.

The remembrance was always the same because the event that they were commemorating was always the same. When Jews celebrate Passover during times of peace or times of trial, she always remembers the Passover when YHWH redeemed his people. Throughout Jewish history, though, we know that the Jewish people had vastly different circumstances year to year. From wars, global dispersion, and persecution, the faithful celebrate the never-changing ritual of Passover even when life looks radically different. 

During the Passover celebration, the youngest child asks, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” This is a question we should be asking ourselves tonight. Ask yourself or look to the person next to you and ask, “Why is this night different from all other nights?

This night is different because tonight we remember the last night before everything changed forever. Passover was the calm before the storm; so too was the Last Supper. Passover was the meal before YHWH struck down the first born and Israel’s redemption from the hands of Pharaoh; the Last Supper was the meal before the crucifixion and resurrection. 

Both the Passover and the Last Supper were rituals given to carry people through disorientation.

Jesus gives his disciples not one, but two, ritualistic remembrances. The first is the washing of feet. This was the most powerful symbolic act demonstrating love, a pouring out of divine love, for one another. Jesus said that the world would know his disciples by their love; he revealed to them what that love would look like: it was the master taking on the form of a servant. 

The second was the institution of the Lord’s Supper. Jesus broke bread and poured wine for his followers during the Passover celebration because he was the Paschal lamb; he would be the blood on the doorposts allowing God to “pass over.” The Lord’s Supper is the festal remembrance, the perpetual ordinance which we have been given. 

Notice that Peter did not want Jesus to wash his feet at first because he knew just how lowly it was for Jesus to do the job of a servant. Clearly he did not see it as humility but as humiliation. When he finally understood, Peter wanted his entire body washed! Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, even Judas’ feet when he knew he was about to betray him. Would we consider washing the feet of our enemies? How about those we disagree with theologically? How about those from whom we are estranged? Forget washing, would we even pray for them? 

In washing each others’ feet we are invited into the unending love of the Trinity extended to all of creation. We open ourselves to the overwhelming love of God.

Holy Week allows us to enter into the full disorientation of the crucifixion and the resurrection; we see the Son of Man glorified and lifted high, we see God being glorified in Christ crucified, we see Christ enthroned upon the cross. All of this forms our remembrance when we celebrate Holy Eucharist. Paul tells us that as often as we eat and drink the bread and wine we are proclaiming Christ’s death until he comes. 

The same ritual which carried us through disorientation is the very fabric of our reorientation. 

Tonight is different, not just because it’s Maundy Thursday, and it’s “different than all the other nights.” That’s already baked into the liturgical cake. Tonight is different because we’re at home. One of the very rituals given to us that we normally celebrate tonight, the Eucharist, we can’t because we’re separated. We’re dispersed. We’re disoriented. 

We may not have the visible symbols and tangible experiences in front of us this Maundy Thursday the way that we have in the past, but God has not changed; the Passion of Christ has not changed; the command to love one another and to share in Jesus’ meal has not changed. As we worship in “a foreign setting” I want you to hold on to the fact that Eucharist is still part of our re-orientation; the very absence we feel tonight because we lack Holy Communion is evidence that every Eucharist we have celebrated before–flowing directly from the Last Supper–is an action which still affects and directs our reorientation toward God.

The symbols and signs of Holy Week remain true whether we’re dealing with a global pandemic or “life as we remember it.” Despite everything else going on around us, we remain tethered to the God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. I leave you with an invitation and a promise: enter into the most powerful three day period in the liturgical calendar with the assured knowledge that the changes occuring in the world around us can do nothing to mitigate, mute, or muffle the cosmic victory of Christ’s Passion. These rituals, then, keep us rooted in who we are as God’s people. They keep us rightly reoriented toward God despite the disorientation we are presently experiencing. May your Holy Week disorient and then reorient you toward Almighty God.

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