Sermon for Maundy Thursday, St. Lydia’s Dinner Church, Brooklyn, NY.
For more than a year, we have wept bitterly. For more than a year, we have witnessed this pandemic overturn our world in ways previously unimaginable to us. And only now, with vaccine distribution, do we begin to see relief, can we begin to unclench. So much has been taken from us. This plague that has ravaged our world, our communities, our families, our lives. It is overwhelming. It is not over.
When New York City first shut down, we did not have much time to prepare to let go. Out of self-preservation, we scrambled for what we could not knowing how it would affect us. In this process of our isolation, we have become dis-membered. We have lost so much. Lives lost. Jobs lost. Safety lost. Futures lost. We are unable to gather in person.
What we have lost is not what can be found. What we have lost can never be recovered. What we have lost can only be remembered. And it is in the act and ritual of remembering, re-membering that together we create something new. We create new understandings about what has happened to us. We create new community. We create new stories.
Tonight, we read Luke’s long account of the final night of Jesus before his execution. At the Passover meal, Jesus gives us the foundational way of how we remember him. For us Lydians, this remembrance is a foundation of our dinner church. This night of Maundy Thursday is part of our origin story. Jesus gives his disciples the cup. He gives them the bread. “Do this in remembrance of me.” In telling us to remember him, Jesus lets go. He gives us the elements and the ritual by which we can hold onto him by holding on to each other. This is what brings us together and sustains us. We are not letting go.
The Passover dinner complete, Jesus and the disciples go out to the Mount of Olives. Upon arrival, Jesus tells them to pray that they “may not come into the time of trial.” The Greek word for “time of trial” is used in Luke’s Lord’s Prayer: “Save us from the time of trial”. It’s not just “temptation”. It’s the period within which each of us must hold on, the period within which we are tested during adversity. Luke is warning us: in the middle of it, don’t let go. Jesus goes off to pray. He tells God he wants to let go of the cup from which he’s been given to drink. Jesus gives us the cup and asks that his own be removed. It’s tempting… but, no. In his time of trial, in the middle of it, Jesus does not let go. “Not my will, but yours be done.”
The Gospel of Luke tells us next that an angel appeared and that Jesus’ sweat became like great drops of blood. Spoiler: in our earliest copies of Luke, who cribbed from the Gospel of Mark, there is no angel. No divine strength is given. This Deus ex machina is added later, reassuring the reader that God is with Jesus, that God is with us. The massive sweating is an added touch, too. Someone long ago chose to ensure us that our bond between Heaven and Earth remains intact, complete with obedient Jesus as the middle.
We are to be reassured in this revised text that we are not alone in our suffering. That we can let go and that God is there. We are vividly shown divine comfort and aid in time of true agony and anxiety to give us strength – even when our bodies seem to be on the verge of biological failure. But this comes afterward in the later reading, when we retell the story, if we can. Each retelling is new.
The original story is sometimes more troubling than we care to remember. Jesus is as human as ever. God is silent. Or perhaps there is divine silence. And in that silence, Jesus receives his answer. He is alone with the disciples, who we hope will not fail him. Except that everyone fails him. Even Peter. Especially Peter.
When Jesus gets up, he goes and discovers that his disciples have cried themselves to sleep. They are exhausted. And as he is lecturing them again, warning them to pray about the coming time of trial, he is interrupted by a crowd led by Judas. The time of trial is now. They do not have time to prepare to let go. Everything is now set in motion. Everything will happen so fast. Jesus will be dead before we know it. His disciples afraid and scattered.
There is a strange mechanic to separation. When we lose something, it is taken from us, we lose our agency. Letting go is our deliberate act toward loss, toward absence, toward end. But when we let go, we retain our power, which makes it all the more difficult. We do it. It is our will. Letting go can be liberating and devastating in the same act. Loss is a paradox.
When Jesus prays that he will not fight God’s will, he lets go. He doesn’t get an answer to anything. Letting go, everything intensifies. Luke’s story gets louder, more vibrant. Everything that has led up to this point at the Mount of Olives is now sharper. It is sharper in part because everything about it is coming to a singular moment and action: the crucifixion. It is in the crucifixion that everything is let go. Everything is lost. Jesus lets go.
When Jesus establishes the Last Supper, he is letting go of his disciples. He is preparing them for their loss. He is instituting his memory. When we remember Jesus and we break bread and eat bread and drink from the cup, we remember that we, too, are letting go. We are letting go of a particular orientation, a particular understanding toward the world. In eating a sacred meal together, in remembering the Passion of Jesus, we are not alone. We do this together. We act for each other in the name of Jesus. This is the love of God.
And yet in the same night when the disciples are commanded to remember Jesus, they abandon him. They let him go – Peter, especially. He goes even further, denying three times that he ever knew him. We don’t dwell on that part of the story, how the disciples, maybe with the taste of dinner still in their mouth, let go of Jesus so fast. We have layered the story with a better outcome. The original is often worse than we can bare to remember. This cannot all end with the crucifixion. We just cannot bear it. But on that night before the execution, this is all there is.
At the Mount of Olives, Jesus commands the disciples twice to pray that they do not enter the time of trial, but it is too late. They are already in it. Here in our plague-ridden world, we are already in it. It snuck up on us. We fall asleep exhausted, in grief. There are countless ways we endure our time of trial. Fortunately, St. Lydia’s is one way we can endure it, to re-member ourselves with each other, God, and the World, and hopefully remember both the good and the horrible, letting go as needed and as desired.
Letting go is to release one’s self from something tangible, something that provides an anchor. In letting go of someone or something, the meaning of that relationship intensifies. Becoming absent, what we let loose becomes more present. It feels more present, sharper, more vibrant. In our loss, it becomes here and now. The Eucharist is about remembering the absent and discovering – making the absent present. It is an irresolvable paradox. A mystery.
Tomorrow, we enter the Triduum, the darkest and brightest moments of the Christian calendar. Let us not forget what we have been given. Let us not forget what we have let go of. Let us not forget each other in our time of trial. We are already in it. Let us remember. Let us let go and move forward. Amen.