Rituals have figured strongly in my ministry the past few days. It took me a bit of time reflecting today (Thursday) to figure out that fact. It began with my kids griping that there would be no seder this evening when I picked them up from school. There was lots of groaning and whining and offers to do what needed to be done when I mentioned the fatigue and malaise expressed by many of us. As I reflected on their response, however, it dawned on me that ritual had had a positive role on Wednesday, when I watched AA celebrate the 30 year of sobriety with one of their own. Now, of course, we are come upon the events of Maundy Thursday. This is that night that we remember and celebrate Christ’s commandment that we serve one another and the world in His name. And, if we think about it, His command that we celebrate the Eucharist is steeped in the foot washing ritual we are about to experience. You and I should really never be able to celebrate the Eucharist without reminding ourselves that Christ first served us. The ritual of the foot washing reminds us that He acted as a slave to us, and His death on the cross reminds us of the love He bore us. In between is this command that we eat and drink as part of our ritual reminder of who He was and what He did for us. How does ritual do this?
I speak of ritual as a bit of a one-time outsider. Most of you know that I was raised in a denomination that did not place much emphasis upon ritual. There was much testimony given about personal salvation, but there were very little efforts to breed familiarity the way that ritual does. When Karen and I were going through pre-marital discussions and counseling, this nearly became a reason for us not to get married. She had been raised to accept the ritual as a way that one is marinated in the faith, to use a cooking term. Week in and week out, she had participated in a weekly celebration of the Eucharist. In a way that is hard to explain to those outside liturgical churches, the Eucharist became part of her consciousness and sub consciousness and, truth be told, a strong influence in her life. To an outsider like me, it looked a lot like going through the motions. Wasn’t it better to take communion once or twice a year, so as not to cheapen the experience or its significance, than it was to receive communion each and every day that the congregation gathered in worship?
Our reading from Exodus tonight, however, reminds us that ritual is not a bad thing. Often, ritual can be used as a formative influence on individuals, particularly our youth. Over and over again, the Old Testament exhorts Israel to teach their youth the wonderful things God has done. Why? God wanted the children of Israel to know that He loved them, that He was guiding them, and that He would always be there for them? The parents in Israel were to tell their children constantly all of the saving deeds that God had done in an effort to form them into His people. The Passover meal about which we read in Exodus tonight, of course, was the ritual. The Passover was the signature act of God which reminded Israel of His power and of His love towards them. They were to eat certain foods prepared a certain way, dressed in a certain manner, seated in a particular way around the table to help form their consciousness about the event, to help remind them that they were related to those who had experienced the events in time and space.
Flash forward to our Gospel lesson. What does Jesus do? He takes the Passover and supplants it. He kneels down, washes their feet like a slave, and proceeds to tell then how to eat this new meal and hints at its new significance. “This is My body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of Me. Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” You and I and all disciples in all places and in all times are commanded, not suggested, not asked, commanded to eat and drink in memory of Him, until the day of His return. Why? So that you and I will be steeped in the events of this week. How can we face the trials and tribulations of the world, if we lack the consciousness of Easter in the forefront of our minds? How can we truly experience suffering with hope, unless we remind ourselves that the events of Holy Week led to Calvary and to that wonderful Easter morning? How can we face our own death, the death of a loved one, or even the death of stranger without the stark reality of the cross and the blessed assurance of the empty tomb ever in the forefront of our minds!
What was happening to my children was a kind of unhitching of ritual. The activities were being separated from the events they signified. For Robbie and those younger, they had no corporate memory of this night without the seder. For them, this night was that one night when we united ourselves to all those, like Sarah and Abraham and Noah and Ruth and Moses and Rebecca and whoever else we might name, who came before us, who shared these struggles of life with us, and who ultimately turned to God for salvation. Yes, Jesus significantly changed the ritual when He instituted His Supper. But they had been raised to see the Exodus event and the work and person of Christ with the eyes of salvation history. Now, in a way, because of the events of life in a parish, these two events were being disconnected. No wonder they were upset. No wonder they were concerned.
I spoke earlier of a positive ritual and its impact. Yesterday, a woman walked into AA with a pretty butterfly cake made out of individual cupcakes. You may have seen the cake on my facebook page. As it turns out, this lady was celebrating 30 years of sobriety. What surprised me was that I had never met her. I thought I knew all the “old guard,” yet here was this lady telling me she had much about me, thanking me for the use of the space, receiving gifts and cards from the “old guard” I knew. As each of them entered, they had a card or gift and a kiss of congratulations. I asked how they knew she would be there. I was told it was an important day of remembrance. One of the men, who has been sober more than 25 years, told me how important the day was to him. When I asked why, he responded that he knew he could make it that many more years because she was further down the road of recovery. It was an attitude echoed by those who sobriety numbers impressed me before I met her. No resentment (she only comes once a year); only joy and hope!
Still, I had a question: Why didn’t she come every day like most? When I finally asked her, she told me she was no longer addicted. Even when dealing with the difficult death of a loved one, she had no desire to drink. God had blessed her with sobriety. So why do you return at all? Capturing that positive understanding of ritual, she said that she was paying back all those who set the example of hope for her. When she started, three decades ago, there were people who were years ahead of her. Their sobriety gave her hope when she had hit rock bottom and lost all hope. The least she could do as a thank you to them for all of their work was to do the same for all of these, as she gestured around the room.
You and I gather this evening to once again immerse ourselves into these rituals of God. Though Christ significantly altered the meal of the Passover (and let’s face it, His offering far surpassed that of the lamb in the Passover feast), He left ritual intact. You and I gather each around this table each time we gather to worship God, cognizant of the reality that we, and all His Church, have been released from slavery. But we do this not as observers. Remember the root word of liturgy. This gathering is our work. How we worship is our work. Our rituals are our work. You and I, in a way not understood entirely on this side of the grave, are active participants in God’s Exodus event. We remember His death. We proclaim His resurrection. We await His coming in glory. We repeat those words, service after service. We repeat these actions, Maundy Thursday after Maundy Thursday. And the repeated become familiar. It becomes familiar to us. It becomes familiar to those who journey to the New Jerusalem with us. It was familiar to those who journeyed ahead of us and will be familiar to those who journey behind us.
Do you remember our first foot washing liturgy? I do. Do you remember how many of you came forward? Thankfully my wife and children did, or this would have been a weird service, indeed. I think Robin and Charlie might have come forward only out of fear that I might start preaching again. I remember picking up the phone on Good Friday in 2007 and telling Bryan “I’ve got a bunch of Peters from verse 8.” Flash forward five years. How do you incorporate the fact that Jesus washed you clean as a slave washes clean the feet of masters into your everyday life? Human Trafficking. Community Meal. Winnie’s Place and Winnie’s Wishes. Intercessing. Lay Reading. Chalice Bearing. Healing. Work with prisoners. World of Warcraft. Work with other churches for different needs. Serving on boards of ecumenical groups. Discipling. How do you explain that pouring out of ourselves?
Were we not steeped in His service of us, such a change would be difficult to explain. But you and I can point to the events of this night, you and I can say “beginning on Maundy Thursday of Holy Week I began to understand what He was saying.” We serve Him because He first served us. We love Him because He first loved us. We love others because He loved us first and commanded us to love others in His name. We thankfully participate in these rituals because, just as rituals give significance to events, His rituals give significance to our lives! By participating in this meal and mysteriously having your feet washed by our Lord, you begin to see the meaning He has given to all that He did. And just as the rituals are important in the life of the Body of Christ, the significance of the events included in those rituals are life-giving to each one of us who participate. We can look at those who are a bit disjointed this evening by the unlatching of the meals and realize their willingness to be a slave to the wider parish body and a slave to those whom we serve next week at Community Meal and to their sister who’s husband’s funeral we will celebrate next week with thankful eyes and realize they gave up something intensely personal this week. And we can also reflect on the ritual of a three-decade sobriety celebration and remind ourselves that we do these rituals, we tell these tales, so that the generations that follow will know how much God loved them.
The Lord Jesus, after He had supped with his disciples and had washed their feet, said to them, “Do you know what I, your Lord and Master, have done to you? I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done.” I bid those who would once again immerse themselves in the work of Maundy Thursday, to come forward at this time, that your feet might once again be made clean, that you might be renewed to go back out into the world to be a slave to all for His honor and His glory . . .