Simplicity

Sermon offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer on Maundy Thursday, 2015.

In January of 1929, Rube Goldberg, an artist and former engineering student, began contributing satirical cartoons to Collier’s magazine. These cartoons depicted everyday tasks being accomplished through the most complicated means imaginable. You’ve probably seen these drawings: they are commentaries on America’s seemingly boundless faith in technology. Since its first publication, Goldberg’s work has become a cultural touchstone. As early as the 1930s, Merriam-Webster added “Rube Goldberg” to the dictionary, defining it as “accomplishing something simple through complicated means.” Since 1989, engineers have competed in the Rube Goldberg Machine Contest, in which contestants must build a machine that accomplishes a simple task in at least 20 steps. I wonder, however, how Rube Goldberg would feel about his cultural ubiquity. His cartoons were shaped by an implicit sense that life had become too complicated, that the labor saving devices on which we were becoming increasingly dependent actually prevented us from experiencing the fullness that life has to offer. Goldberg’s drawings exposed the artifice of modern life: the false assumption that our life has meaning because of what we possess.

This evening, we commemorate two acts of Jesus that, unlike the designs of Rube Goldberg, are striking for their simplicity. Indeed, when juxtaposed with the careful Passover instructions articulated in the book of Exodus, the footwashing and the institution of the imagesLord’s Supper are almost laughably straightforward. In both acts, Jesus uses the most basic element imaginable: a pitcher of water, a loaf of bread, a cup of wine. Paul and the other witnesses don’t tell us that there was anything special about these; in fact, the evangelists imply that Jesus used the bread and wine that happened to be left over at the end of dinner. And as Jesus shares the simple elements of bread and wine and water with those gathered around the table, his instructions are equally uncomplicated: “do as I have done for you”; “do this in remembrance of me.” The simplicity is almost comic, and might lead us to wonder why these simple gestures have any power at all.

The narrative context for these two rituals reveals that their simplicity is deceptive. John tells us that Jesus washes the feet of his disciples knowing “that his hour had come to depart from this world.” Paul reminds the Corinthians, as we are reminded every Sunday, that Jesus shared bread and wine with his disciples “on the night when he was betrayed.” Both the footwashing and the institution of the Eucharist, in other words, are colored by the fact that Jesus is about to be handed over to suffering and death. More significantly, Jesus shares this simple meal with and washes the feet of the very people who betray, deny, and abandon him. The simplicity of the acts performed by Jesus exposes the artifice of those gathered around the table: the shrewd patience that keeps Judas at the table until the appointed time, the disquiet that leads the disciples to say, “Surely not I, Lord?” when Jesus predicts his betrayal, and perhaps most damning of all, the false confidence that leads Peter to protest, “Even though all become deserters, I will not.” Jesus spends his last night on earth with a group of people who will fail him at every turn.

It is this context of betrayal and infidelity that gives Jesus’ acts on that last night their true power. Even though Jesus knew that those gathered around the table would soon behave as enemies, Jesus calls them “friends.” When he washes the feet of his disciples, Jesus adopts the role of a servant to those who are not worthy of being served. When he says, “this is my Body,” Jesus gives himself to those who would soon betray, deny, and abandon him. Before his disciples can hand him over to the evil powers of this world, Jesus hands himself over in the forms of bread and wine, and nullifies their betrayal. “By his surrender into the passive forms of food and drink,” writes Rowan Williams, “[Jesus] makes void and powerless the impending betrayal, and, more, makes the betrayers his guests and debtors, making with them the promise of divine fidelity…that cannot be negated by their unfaithfulness.” Jesus affirms that in spite of what they are about to do, the disciples are still part of his family. Even as everything falls apart around him, Jesus reaffirms the enduring faithfulness of God. In the Eucharist, the simple act of sharing a meal becomes an eloquent articulation of God’s love, a love that cannot be overcome by the darkness of human infidelity and violence.

From our historical vantage, it is easy to hear these stories assuming that we would never abandon Jesus during his final hours. We assume that we would stand at the foot of the cross, weeping with his mother and the beloved disciple. Or we would stand with the women of Jerusalem at a respectful distance. We certainly would not betray Jesus into the hands of sinners or deny that we ever knew him. But I wonder: when things start to fall apart in our own lives, when we are faced the loss of everything we possess and hold dear, when we lose our sense that we are in control our lives, are we really able to trust that God’s faithfulness will endure?imgres I’d be willing to wager that there are moments in each of our lives that we have turned away from God: perhaps for convenience, or apathy, or fear, or uncertainty, or perhaps for a thousand other reasons. And yet, we put our trust in a God who gives himself to us in spite of our infidelity. We put our trust in a God whose love cannot be negated by our failure. We put our trust in a God who affirms that our life has meaning even when everything we hold dear has been stripped away. Tonight, we affirm a fundamental truth of the Christian faith: that even when things fall apart, the God made known to us in the bread and wine continues to call us family.

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Stories

Forrest Gump was on television the other day.

forrest-4For those of you who don’t remember, Forrest Gump chronicles the life of a man from Alabama who manages to be present for every significant event of the 1960s and 70s.  He serves in the Vietnam War, participates in the Olympics, and is responsible for catching the burglars at the Watergate Hotel.  Forrest narrates these events as he sits at a bus stop in Savannah, and he shares the stories of his life with his fellow passengers in the most matter-of-fact way possible.  It gradually becomes clear that these stories shape the way that Forrest looks at the world and define his relationships with his mother, his friends, and his beloved Jenny.  He derives meaning from these stories because they remind him who he is.

In a similar way, the Jewish Sabbath always begins with the telling of stories.  Every Sabbath includes the same words: “Hear, O Israel the Lord your God, the Lord your God is one.”  The people gathered around that table tell the story of their relationship with God.  They tell the story of God’s faithfulness to their people in ages past and remind themselves that God is faithful to them through the changes and chances of their own lives.

This is why the gospels tell us that the disciples are in such a hurry to entomb the body of Jesus.  According to John, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus place Jesus in a nearby tomb simply because it is conveniently located.  They do this so that they can return to their homes in time to observe the Sabbath, so that they can return to their homes to tell the story of God’s faithfulness, so that they can be reminded that God is faithful even through the changes and chances of their lives.  There is something very powerful about this.  Even though Jesus Christ had been betrayed, abandoned, and rejected, his disciples reminded themselves that God had been faithful to them in ages past.  Even though their world had been shaken to its core, the disciples renewed their trust in the faithfulness of God.

There are times that all of us feel betrayed, abandoned, and rejected.  There are times that all of us doubt the presence of God among us.  But this Holy Saturday reminds us that even in the face of these challenges, we are called to tell the story of our relationship with God.  We are called to renew our trust in the God who is faithful to us even when our whole world has collapsed around us.  We are called to be faithful to a God who is faithful to us even to the point of death.

Family

Freedom_from_want_1943-Norman_RockwellAt the beginning of the Second World War, Norman Rockwell created a series of illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post called “The Four Freedoms.”  Three of the original four images are no longer particularly recognizable, but one has stood the test of time.  Though originally created to  support the American war effort, the illustration called “Freedom from Want” has transcended its original purpose and has become an idealized image of American family life.  The illustration depicts a smiling family gathered at a Thanksgiving table and filled with gleeful anticipation as the matriarch sets an absurdly large turkey at the head of the table.  Everyone seems to be happy and there is no evidence of any animosity among the people seated at the table.  Anyone who has ever eaten Thanksgiving dinner with one’s family, however, knows that Norman Rockwell’s idealized depiction of that meal is far from accurate.  When families get together, the dynamics can be downright destructive.  Family gatherings can be filled with petty jealousies, old grudges, remembered betrayals, and heartbreak.  They can make us wish that we were part of a different family, yet the vast majority of us eventually embrace the fact that we are irrevocably connected to our families.  Our family meals become reminders that our connection to one another transcends all of the jealousies, grudges, and betrayals that break our hearts.

Tonight Christians around the world will observe Maundy Thursday.  It is the night that we remember the example of Jesus’ humility by washing each other’s feet.  It is the night when we recall and celebrate the institution of the Lord’s supper, when Jesus surrendered himself into the bread and wine before he was handed over.  It is the night that we prepare ourselves for the remembrance of Jesus’ passion and death.  Towards the conclusion of tonight’s service, we will hear this prayer:

Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

The implications of this prayer are profound.  Remember that Jesus’ own disciples run away when he is arrested and brought before the authorities.  It is one of Jesus’ own disciples who denies ever knowing him.  It is one of Jesus’ own disciples who hands him over to death.  These were the people who were closest to Jesus, those who could be considered his family, and yet they betrayed him, handed him over to sinners, and allowed him to suffer death upon the cross.  The extraordinary thing is that they remained his family, that Jesus was willing to experience their betrayal, and offered them a forgiving love that passes understanding.

As we participate in the Eucharist this evening, we will participate in a family meal.  It is not the idealized gathering portrayed by Norman Rockwell, but a gathering of sinners, betrayers, and deniers.  It is a gathering of people who harbor petty jealousies and cling to old grudges.  It is a gathering that would break God’s heart.  And yet, we affirm that we are still a part of God’s family, that we are still irrevocably connected to a God who was willing to be betrayed for the sake of those who betrayed him.

Shadows

When I was growing up, the television network Nickelodeon had a Saturday evening line-up for pre-teens and teens called “SNICK.”  Though most of Nickelodeon’s programming included cartoons and game shows that involved many gallons of green slime, SNICK featured slightly more sophisticated fare, including a sitcom featuring an omniscient narrator called Clarissa Explains It All, a quasi soap opera about a girl who could turn into a puddle of silver goo called The Secret World of Alex Mack, and a Saturday Night Live style sketch show called All That.  I was a devotee of Nickelodeon’s Saturday night lineup, which was surprisingly high quality; many SNICK veterans have gone on to success in movies and on other television programs, including Saturday Night Live.

titleOne show in the Saturday night lineup that I refused to watch, however, was a program called Are You Afraid of the Dark?  As far as I can tell (I never actually watched a whole episode), Are You Afraid of the Dark? featured a group of teenagers who called themselves “The Midnight Society” (even though the show was on at 9:30) and met in a secret location every week.  Gathered around a campfire, one member of the group would tell a scary story, which would be depicted by actors for the television audience.  Most of the stories were adaptations of fairy tales or urban legends and probably weren’t all that scary, but the very idea of the show terrified me.  I couldn’t understand why any group of sane people would get together and try to frighten one another.  The show’s title asked whether I was afraid of the dark; my answer was an unequivocal “yes.”  I was afraid of the dark and everything that could potentially happen in the dark.

One of the services traditionally associated with the Wednesday in Holy Week is Tenebrae, which comes from the Latin word for “shadows.”  It’s one of the more unusual services of the Church, and features readings from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, the letter to the Hebrews, and a treatise on the Psalms written by Saint Augustine.  The most conspicuous feature of the service is the gradual extinguishing of candles and other lights in the church until only one candle remains.  As we prepare our hearts for the final days of Holy Week, the church is gradually shrouded in darkness and shadow.  This process is symbolic of the gathering darkness, the fact that forces are beginning to conspire to put Jesus to death.  Tenebrae seems to say that if ever there was a time to be afraid of the dark, it would be now.  And yet, even at the end of the service, when the entire church is covered in darkness and we are anticipating Jesus’ betrayal and death, a single candle burns.  I’m always amazed how much light that single candle casts; it illuminates the faces of those who have gathered to face the darkness and steels their resolve.  That single candle reminds us that even when we feel that all hope is lost, even as Jesus gasps for life on the cross, there is hope.  That single candle reminds us that even when our world seems to be crashing down around us, the faintest glimmer of hope can give us courage and sustain us.  Even in the despairing final days of Holy Week, there is a whisper that reminds us we can hope for new life and transformation.