An Unsettling Liturgy for an Unsettling Faith

Holy Thursday, Year B
April 9, 2009
Exodus 12:1-14; John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Unsettling.  Tonight’s liturgy is unsettling.
For we who regularly attend, who are settled in our ways of worship,
this liturgy is unsettling in that it has a somewhat different form 
than that to which we are accustomed:
the individual declaration of forgiveness at the beginning;
the footwashing that will take place in a few moments;
the stripping of the altar that will turn this space of sacred meal and ritual 
into a barren hull while Psalm 88 is solemnly intoned;
the silent departure without postlude music, recessional hymn, 
or even the usual words of dismissal: Go in peace.  Serve the Lord.
No, on this night we refrain from joyously shouting, Thanks be to God!
and turn, instead, to the solemnity of the cross,
its cruelty, suffering, and death.
We will end in silence – unsettling silence.

Our first reading is part of the unsettling fabric of tonight’s worship.
This reading is the story of the Passover, a story of deliverance from slavery and oppression.
For sure, freedom is an occasion to shout with joy Thanks be to God! . . .
but did you catch some of the details?
Liberation might be joyful, but the path to it is quite unsettling.
After describing how to prepare the lamb, with whom to share it, 
and how to mark the doors of their houses with the blood of the lamb 
so that the wrath of God might pass over them, 
The LORD says (in vs. 11): “This is how you shall eat it:
your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; 
and you shall eat it hurriedly.  It is the Passover of the LORD.”
Some feast!  Loins girded, sandals on your feet, staff in your hand . . .
be ready to leave, to hit the road in an instant, in other words.  
And as if that message weren’t clear enough by the directions for what to wear,
the LORD adds these words of clarity: you shall eat it hurriedly.
Not quite the grand family Easter dinners of my childhood years, that’s for sure.
This feast of deliverance, a feast which marks the coming freedom of God’s chosen, 
a quintessential event in the history and faith of God’s people,
is not a joyous event, it is not grand, lush, or extravagant.
There is nothing celebratory here.  Eat fast.  Get ready to go.  The LORD is coming.
This Passover feast – this feast of freedom – is nonetheless an unsettling feast.

As much as we speak of comfort, love, and grace in the church – and we should! – 
we too often attach to these qualities gentle sentiments of tranquility and calm.
On a night like tonight we are reminded that our faith is not always tranquil or calm,
that faith cannot be held captive by a sentimentality and idealism 
that is scrubbed clean of pain, suffering and death.
As I shared earlier in this Lenten season 
while reflecting on Jesus’ prediction of his rejection, suffering, and death, 
the church is akin to a messy emergency ward,
a place where we ought to bring brokenness, pain, anguish, sadness to the foot of the cross, 
a cross where our Lord himself was broken, where he shouted out in pain,
a cross where many looked on with anguish, sadness, regret and even betrayal.
That is, the yucky, broken, conflicting stuff of our lives is here, in this place,
in this holy book, in the holy tradition we live into this night,
at the foot of his holy cross, where we gather this night.
That is what brings us here tonight, 
at the beginning of these three holy days of Christ’ Passion:
to witness where the height of divinity intersects with the depth of humanity,
in the treachery of the cross.
We do a disservice to the church and its Gospel when we pretty it up,
when we reduce it to sweet sentiments more fitting for a greeting card 
than for moments of life and death, grief and suffering, angst and remorse …
moments that we all experience, for sure, 
but which we all too often hesitate to bring to this place.
The church is no idyllic haven, no sanctuary to which we retreat from the world . . .
For in the church we tell a story of a man, our Savior, Lord and God, 
who was betrayed, tortured, killed, and buried.
It’s an unsettling story.

In the midst of this unsettling liturgy we hear how Jesus took off his robe,
took on the posture of a servant,
and washed the feet of his disciples.
Peter himself seems a bit unsettled by the thought that his Lord and teacher, Jesus, 
would wash his feet.
And that, perhaps, points to the most unsettling aspect of our faith . . . 
That God comes to us with unending, undeserving, unsettling love,
even though it is our human nature to be settled in patterns of 
self-care, self-interest, self-congratulations, self-love.
In the face of such inward-looking behavior,
God calls us to works of righteousness, mercy, and love . . .
not so that we could earn the right to be called children of God,
not so t
hat we could prove our value or worth,
not so that we could somehow, on our own, undue our narrow selfishness,
but so that we might live in grateful response to the One who first loved us.
That is, what is most unsettling to we who cling to pride, ambition, achievement, and success – 
what is most unsettling this night 
is that God calls our whole system of achievement into question 
by calling one and all to love; 
not to work, to earn, to build, to merit, to prove, or to gain . . .
but to love.
This holy scheme of love is a direct challenge 
to our pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps meritocracy,
to our cult of individuality,
to a way of life that has governed Western society for centuries,
and which has been good to many of us,
or so we tell ourselves …
but what about those who live on the other side of the railroad tracks?
Yes, our world and we who populate it are wedded to sin and settled in our way of life.
We order our lives and even define ourselves over and against others
in ways that deny, demean, destroy the least of those among us.
We believe more in the power of death than we do in the promise of resurrection.

And yet, what do we see we here tonight?  
We see our God, in the posture of a servant, acting in and calling us to love, 
and in so doing turning the tables on our system, on our way of life.

The way of life to which Jesus is calling us is governed not by merit but by love,
a love which he exemplifies in these three days . . .
a love which leads him to humbly serve others,
a love which leads him to death on a cross,
a love which will not allow death to have the final answer,
a love which breaks all kinds of rules,
including and especially the rule of sin and death,
a love which promises to establish a new Kingdom, a new way of life here on earth,
a love which changes us, reshapes us, recreates us.
This sounds good, yes, but I think if we’re honest about this love 
and how much of a challenge and change it represents, 
we’ll find it all to be quite unsettling.

Gird up your loins, dear friends.  
Put on your sandals.   Grab your staff, and get ready.
The Passover of the Lord is coming.  This unsettling feast is ready.
Thanks be to God.

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

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