Maundy Thursday begins the Triduum, the Great 3 Days of Jesus death and resurrection. The liturgy is a remembrance of the night before Jesus died when he gathered with his faltering friends for a meal that tasted of freedom. He washed their feet, told them to love one another and instituted the Eucharist. “This is my body given for you, my blood shed for you for the forgiveness of sin. Do this in remembrance of me.”
We gathered outside in the courtyard, and sang Will You Let Me Be Your Servant then I preached.
In a moment we will all individually receive absolution for our sins for the first time since Lent began. In this day and age I’m not sure how many people believe that God is holding a big grudge against them for being bad. Sure some believe that in heaven there is a list of good behaviors and a list of bad behaviors and God is happy with you when you do things on the good list and mad at you when you do things on the bad list and therefore to know that God forgives your sin is to know that God had erased the column of check marks against you in the bad column and therefore is no longer mad which means he won’t punish you.
Which is fine, but what about people who don’t buy that? I mean, why should I care if some God I may or may not really believe in has erased the check marks against me for things I may or may even think are so called “sins”?
I’m just not sure that sins are some heavenly list of bad things we should avoid doing so we don’t get God too angry at us. Because honestly I’m much more tortured by my secrets that eat away my insides than I am concerned about God being mad at me. I’m more haunted by how what I’ve said and the things I’ve done have caused harm to myself and others than I am worried that God will punish me for being bad. Because in the end, we aren’t really punished for our sins nearly as much as we are punished by our sins.
Because sin is just the state of human brokenness in which what we say and do causes these sometimes tiny and sometimes monstrous fractures in our relationships and in our earth and in our selves and in strangers and in those we love and sometimes even in our own bodies. Sin is the self curved in on the self. And it’s not something we can avoid entirely. Which is devastating.
And forgiveness of sins was just too close to the heart of Jesus for me to think it’s about some divine eraser in the sky letting me off the hook for being bad. I think forgiveness of sins is more about how Jesus saw the ugly truth of those around him and loved them in a way they could never love themselves.
See, the night before Jesus was betrayed by his friends and denied by his friends and abandoned by his friends he sat and washed the feet of his friends. With the towel of a servant, he washed their feet and said that unless you let him wash you, you have no share with him. To have a share with Jesus is to receive forgiveness. So you can pretend your feet don’t smell, you can try and keep them covered, you can go get a pedicure first and wear new socks but in the end we all have dirty feet and Jesus knows that and he says let me wash you with my love and you will be clean indeed. And you will know how to love each other.
And then later that night he took, broke, blessed and gave bread and wine to them saying this is my body and blood given for you for forgiveness of sins do it in remembrance of me. We can pretend we aren’t hungry, we can try and mask the growling of our stomachs and we can even show up with our own food thank you very much, but in the end we all hunger and thirst for that which only God can provide.
And when, just a few hours later, it all went down…. when they handed him over and denied they knew him and they hightailed it out and he suffered and died without those whom he loved, the thing to remember is that in no way was he like “Man! I can’t believe I washed those guys feet and this is how they treat me”. He knew. He knew whose feet he held in his hands that night – these were the same hands in which God had given all things. He knew. And yet even as his heart and body were breaking he proclaimed forgiveness.
So as we enter the great 3 days of Holy Week let us know what this forgiveness of sins means. yes, it means that God does not see us through the lens of what mistakes we’ve made and thanks be to God for that. But forgiveness of sins is also about what God can do. It is about the fact that there is a divine source of reconciliation and healing. It means that, even if we can’t always see it, God is forever redeeming our crap – managing to somehow bring redemption out of even the biggest messes we make. I’ve made some doozys in my life and somehow the fractures and lacerations caused by my selfishness or anger or my sharp tongue are never the final thing. God’s redemptive work in the world is the final thing. It’s like God has a spiritual suture kit.
Forgiveness of sins means that your mistakes and addictions and misspoken words and selfishness are simply not final. God’s love is final. Your sins are not ultimate in the way that God’s grace and forgiveness and mercy is ultimate. You’re sin is never bigger than God’s ability to redeem you. And all the things you do to try and be a person of value will simply not endure. Because you are simply not the sum total of all your mistakes. You are who God says you are. Your virtues will go to the grave with you but the forgiving, gracious terrifying love of God in Christ will redeem you to the grave and yes, even redeem you from the grave.
At the end of Lutheran funeral liturgies when the pastor commends the dead to God they say
Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant.
Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold,
a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming.
Even at your funeral you are a sinner, but you are a sinner of God’s own redeeming. You belong to a God who makes all things new. Jesus wanted you to know that and went to some rather extraordinary lengths to communicate it. Nothing you have done is more powerful than God’s ability to redeem. So come, receive that forgiveness as a gift from God for that is what it is and that is who you are. Amen.
We then did a corporate confession. Then everyone came forward for individual absolution. Then we washed one another’s feet.
As we sang Take, O Take Me As I Am we also assembled bleach kits for the needle exchange in Denver. This is an act of love. It says that Jesus meets us while our feet are still dirty, not just after we’ve managed to clean them up ourselves. God loves you now, not just after you start making better decisions.
We then sang Jesus Remember Me When You Come Into Your Kingdom as we entered the parish hall which had been set up like a big dinner party, the altar overflowing with various kinds of bread and wine.
I presided at the Eucharist, people came forward to bring loaves of bread and bottles of wine back to their tables where they communed each other. We put on some Jonny Cash, ate, drank, laughed and talked until the bells rang.
Maundy Thursday ends with the stripping of the altar, but we had made the whole room an altar, so the cantor chanted Psalm 88 and in silence we all put everything away until we stood together in a quiet empty room. Then on the way out the door, the only sound we heard was that of 30 pieces of silver (people were told to bring coins with them) being cast into a basin. That money was collected and will be given to those who have been betrayed (in this case, a local Native American community)
Tomorrow the Triduum continues with Good Friday.
(all photos by the fabulous Amy Clifford)