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 Lord’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? 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.