Bishop Russell's Sermon for Maundy Thursday, April 9, 2020
THE GIFT OF HEAVEN BEFORE WE GET THERE
Maundy Thursday is my favorite service of the church year. I know that may come as a surprise. You might think I would or should say Easter or Christmas is my favorite time, but there is something about this night--the intensity of it---the intimacy of it---the involvement of the people in it---that makes it a liturgy like no other. I have attended quite a few Maundy Thursday services. While there are common practices, I am always amazed by the peculiarities and local customs that make each service uniquely wondrous. Though the night is not yet here, I can already feel the grief growing inside me. I am already missing Maundy Thursday before I get there. I will miss much, and I will especially miss the stripping of the altar which is our annual ritual of stripping away all the appointments, hangings, and in some places, even the furniture that adorns the sanctuary near the altar. In some places I’ve been, it is an annual honor reserved for the altar guild. In other places it is done by the priest alone. Then again, there are some churches where everyone gets involved: acolytes, ushers, and chalice bearers, which presents its own challenges. No matter how it is done, this ritual never seems to go as planned. It never goes perfectly. I’ve seen acolytes drop hymnals, and I know of priests who forgot their microphone was still on. And a very long time ago, as a young acolyte, I dropped the American flag to the ground. My mother gasped aloud. In and through all of it, every time I have witnessed and sensed the sights and sounds of grace. People are doing the best they can, and the best they can….is what pleases God. And then there is Jane. In a church I once served, it was custom that after everything else was stripped away, the lights were dimmed to just one spotlight on the altar. The white fair linen was folded by our deacon. Then it was given to Jane. She would bow to the cross, and then she would turn and walk the cloth out of the nave. She moved so slowly and carefully; she never even looked down to the chancel steps. Jane would process that cloth right down the middle aisle in a way that made it feel as if she was carrying the very body of Jesus. I will miss all of this. What will you miss in these next three days? Maybe you will miss singing a certain hymn, or is it the flowering of the cross? It’s okay if you will miss the Easter egg hunt, I will miss that too. I know a bunch of people who will miss the chocolate feast after the Easter Vigil. Some of you will miss the all-night prayer vigil; some will miss washing feet; for others it will be the passion narrative or stations of the cross. Still others will miss the mysterious chants of the Easter Vigil, or the ringing of bells. What will you miss? I think it’s important to lean into that absence, to name what we ache for. It is called grief. It is a part of the reality we are living this year. It is very real. And it is very normal. But now let’s go a bit deeper into the magic of these three days. For while so much is stripped away and so much is missing, maybe it is in that emptiness we may come to find that there is one thing that cannot be stripped away. So let’s lean into that too. Card-carrying Episcopalians and church nerds know that the definition of a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. This year so much of what we know as the outward and visible signs are stripped away or radically simplified. However, what is not stripped away is the inward and spiritual grace that rests not in us, or anything, or anything about us. Grace rests in the heart of God. And it is this grace that is the bedrock of the gifts given to us on Maundy Thursday. It’s the night before Jesus dies. He is about to be stripped away from his friends, so he sits them down and tells them what is most important. At least according to John, Jesus goes on for some four chapters, but at the heart of it, Jesus tells them, “Love one another. Love is the way, the truth, and the life, and love is stronger than anything that appears to be stripped away. Love is forever.” Seeming to know they needed more than words, Jesus got down on the floor with them and gave them two gifts---the meal and the washing of feet. We could say much about them, but what I want to say is this, that these gifts are a foretaste of heaven---which is grace. A foretaste of heaven. I find that a curious proposition. Pardon my snarkiness, but if this little tasteless piece of bread and sip of port wine is a foretaste of heaven, then we might like an upgrade. But remember the definition “inward grace,” That is where the foretaste of heaven lies. It’s not so much in the food as it is in the company we keep. Remember that night. As far as I can tell from my reading of the Bible, Jesus feeds everyone, including Judas who will betray him, Peter who will deny him, and the rest of the gang who will run away and lock themselves up in a room until it’s all over. Knowing all of that, Jesus feeds them. And Jesus feeds us. “To you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid.” That is what we say at the beginning of every Eucharist. Jesus knows us, and knowing what Jesus knows, he still feeds us. He feeds us with grace. He feeds everyone and anyone who stretches out their hands and opens their hearts to the gift of grace. That is the foretaste of heaven. Grace. Mercy. Love. And even when the bread and wine is stripped away, we are fed. To underscore the point, Jesus gets down on the floor, and Jesus washes their feet. Again, he gives this gift to everyone. Imagine the kind of love that can do that. In my imagination, I have come to believe that this too is a foretaste of heaven. What I mean is that a lot of images about heaven paint a picture of pearly golden gates and a big record book packed full of all your rights and wrongs. What if it is not like that at all? What if when you awake, you find yourself not standing at a gate, but sitting in a simple wooden chair? Kneeling on the floor before you is Jesus, who lifts your feet into his hands and begins to wash them. Then he looks up to you and says, “well done, well done good and faithful servant. Welcome home.” Why is this my favorite service of the year? Because here then is the gift of heaven before we ever get there. The very gift of grace. Welcome to the sacred three days. I encourage you to try to keep some semblance of these services. In addition to what your own churches are doing, there are liturgies for use in your home on our diocesan website. Wash your own feet. Share a meal on the floor. Read the words. Say the prayers. And as you do, lean into all that will be missed. And remember. Remember all that is stripped away, but also remember what is eternal and absolute. Remember the inward and spiritual gift of grace that holds us and carries us, tonight, every night, and forever.