Thursday, March 28, 2013

Missing the Point --- Again!

Missing the Point --- Again!

RCL Maundy Thursday
28 March 2013

Saint Augustine’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

Exodus 12.1-14; Psalm 116.1, 10-17; 1 Corinthians 11.23-26; John 13.1-17, 31b-35
            Missing the point seems to be a frequent occurrence for people of religious faith.  Let’s take Judas, for example.  Now Judas is one of the more mysterious figures in the New Testament.  He is vilified as a thief.  He stands condemned as a traitor.  Biblical scholars still debate why Judas did what he did.  In today’s gospel Jesus’ words to him only add to the mystery:  ‘Do quickly what you are going to do.’ (John 13.27)

            I have often pondered who Judas was.  On this final night before the crucifixion Matthew, Mark and Luke tell us Judas shared in the bread and the wine that symbolize the new covenant that Jesus makes between his disciples and the living God.  On this final night before the crucifixion Jesus washes Judas’ feet and, before he departs, Judas hears Jesus say, ‘For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.’ (John 13.15)

            But poor, old Judas, fed with the bread of new life, quenched with the wine of forgiveness, washed with the water of servanthood, misses the point.  Whether he acts out of jealousy or political opportunism or pure evil or whatever motive we may name, he misses the point that God is making in the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.

            A little over a year ago I had the privilege of being part of a tour of Israel and the West Bank sponsored by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the primary association of Reform rabbis in North America.  Our tour was the first-ever inter-faith tour sponsored by the Conference with eight Jewish rabbis from all over North America bringing one or more of their Christian colleagues along. 

            Two weeks before Rabbi Philip Bregman of Temple Sholom and I left Vancouver for Tel Aviv, along with my Lutheran colleague, Paul Schmidt, and my United Church colleague, Gary Gaudin, a brawl broke out in the Church of the Holy Nativity in Bethlehem.  The church is maintained by three Christian communities:  the Armenian Orthodox, the Greek Orthodox and the Roman Catholics.  They have very precise rules about who does what in the church and those rules include who cleans what portion of the church and when.

            It seems that two of the communities, the Armenians and the Greeks, were cleaning the church in preparation for the celebration of Orthodox Christmas on the 6th of January.  Some monk, whether Armenian or Greek, we don’t know, started cleaning the wrong section of the floor.  Brooms and mops began to fly until the Palestinian police were called in to keep the peace and to keep the two communities apart.  If you check the internet, you can see a picture of a cordon of police separating two groups of monks as they clean the floors.

            Once again Christians seemed to miss the point of the Gospel --- and the world had a field day.

            While we were in Israel, we spend a day and a half in Jerusalem, barely time to scratch the surface of the surface of this place sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims.  Early on a Saturday we began a walking tour on the Mount of Olives, following a steep road that was likely built on top of the ancient highway from the Mount and into the City itself.  After winding our way by the Pool of Bethsaida and other sites, we found ourselves on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

            On the roof Ethiopian monks live in ramshackle shacks that are frequent targets of objects thrown by Syrian monks who live higher up in an adjoining building.  From the roof we made our way through tiny passageways and down narrow stairways until we came to the courtyard of the Church itself.  I can tell you that I was overwhelmed by all the sights and all the emotions of being in this place.

            We were given some time to visit the church.  I paused by a stone slab thought by some to be the stone upon which the body of Jesus was anointed and wrapped before his hasty burial in the tomb.  I knelt and I wept.

            As I joined the queue to enter into the tomb itself, the sounds of the Franciscan friars singing vespers filled the church.  I found myself being carried forward by the crowd and caressed by the music.

            Suddenly the sound of new voices, strong voices, assertive voices, began to drown out the sounds of the Franciscans.  A choir of Armenian monks led a priest to the tomb.  Those waiting to enter the tomb were firmly pushed aside by Russian monks whose job seemed primarily to be one of crowd control.  The Western chants of the Franciscans competed with the Eastern chants of the Armenians in a cacophony of sacred song that shattered any peace I had been experiencing.

            Finally the Armenians and the Franciscans were finished.  The queue moved forward and I entered the tomb.  Russian pilgrims, forbidden for so many years from visiting Jerusalem, bring hundreds of long, slender candles which they lay on the tomb and take home to friends and relatives.  I waited in the tiny chamber before the tomb itself, a spiritual challenge for a claustrophobe like me, while two Russian women laid their candles on the slab where Jesus is supposed to have lain.  They prayed and I quietly waited my turn.  ‘Bistro!  Bistro!  Bistro!’ shouted an Orthodox monk behind me, ‘Hurry up!  Hurry up!  Hurry up!’

            I knelt at the slab.  I calmed my thoughts and said, ‘Well, we’ve missed the point again, haven’t we, Lord!?’

            Tonight we gather for rituals that the church has celebrated for more than a thousand years.  Feet will be washed; bread and wine will be shared ‘remembering the Lord’s death until he comes’.  The church will darken and our vigil until the resurrection will begin.  And the question will hang over us and over all the churches that celebrate this festival:  Will we miss the point?

            The bad news is that we will miss the point.  We all have our better days and our worse days, days when the fire of the Gospel is warm within us and days when not even a hurricane will cause the embers of the Gospel within us to blaze into a fire that beckons others to its warmth.

            But the good news is this:  God never abandons us.  God never gives up hoping in us and through us.  Jesus knew that Judas was about to betray him, but that did not prevent Jesus from offering Judas his body and blood, did not prevent Jesus from washing Judas’ feet as a sign of God’s self-giving love.  Despite the clashes between Christians of different traditions in Israel and the West Bank, they continue to be a witness to the love of Christ in a troubled part of our world.  Our failures, our tepidness in commending the faith that is within us, cannot dampen God’s passion for this world and for all its creatures, human and non-human alike.

            So, as we wash the feet of sisters and brothers tonight, let us remember the point:  that our Lord washed the feet of those who were courageous and those who were cowardly, those who were faithful and those who were unfaithful, and loved them all with unfailing love and compassion.  As we eat the bread and drink the cup, let us remember the point:  that as our Lord gives himself to us in the bread and the wine, so we, who are his body and blood in the world, are called to give ourselves to each other and to all who are seeking what we have found in this family of Christ.

            For tonight at least, let us not miss the point.  Amen.


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