Maundy Meditation

(John13:1-17, 31b-25 )
There is so much to sort through in Holy Week: the confusing move from festival parade to betrayal, or going through death to new life as the darn-near inexplicable mystery of our faith. That—plus love!—is just plain lot to absorb, with so much central to us in this week.

It’s interesting to look at it by proportions: the Gospel of Luke has more than 5 of 24 chapters set in this week. For Matthew it’s 8 of 28. Nearly 40% of Mark’s story is told between Palm Sunday and Easter morning. The Gospel of John starts the story of Jesus “in the beginning,” at the birth of creation, and yet almost half the book takes place in one week, with about six chapters spent on this Maundy Thursday evening alone.

Now, we’ve tried to fit a lot for you into this evening: remembering that little children lead us. We’ve eaten together, the night of the Last Supper as an obvious time to share a meal. We told the Passover story, since Jesus was sharing that special meal and redefining it. But we also notice how that further increases the complexity; the Exodus meal provides the defining narrative of the Hebrew scriptures, but tonight becomes a background footnote for our gathering.

So how do we consider all of this? How do we fit it in? Can we begin to comprehend so much that is deep, complex, challenging, rewarding? Probably the most apparent answer is no, we don’t. We can’t. We could consider much more on freedom from slavery and ancient festivals and the practice of footwashing and political dynamics of Jesus’ arrest in the garden—which may or may not be more worthwhile than discussing menu options of communion bread or historical dilemmas of determining if we’re doing it right and who’s in. Overall there’s just lots to grasp.

Similar to the observance that the ancient creeds spend a lot of time on controversial details and miss out on the main point of what Jesus was up to, you came here this evening not to debate and deliberate details, not to learn history or try to repeat the past.

You’re here tonight for love, to be loved and striving to love in return. You’re here because we always need practice at this, never have it resolved permanently or perfectly, because it is the hardest, most complex thing in the world, even if it can feel so natural.

In this way, it’s no surprise that attendance dwindled since Sunday—either contrasting the crowds for the palm parade with Jesus only having his close disciples around him on Thursday, or comparing our fun and vibrant protest service with this group tonight. It’s not about being entertained or getting caught up in the hysteria; you understand being commanded to love means taking community seriously, is about acting as a neighbor, a citizen of earth, about engaging your gifts, taking a risk, asking what’s best for others.

Recognizing that loving can be exhausting and frustrating and sometimes draining of life, you also gather here to be loved, with Jesus who gives himself to you whole-heartedly, with all his life and all he has. We may question if that can fit in one night, or one Holy Week, or even in one life. But sharing it at this service, absorbing it with a bite of bread is a start.

Hymn: Will You Let Me Be Your Servant (ELW 659)


My Neighbor Mark

      a newsletter article

My neighbor died last week. I’ve confessed occasionally that—in spite of Jesus admonishing us to love our neighbors—I’m not a very good neighbor. I don’t interact much with those who live next to me. Mark had been an exception.

He grew up in that house. He had a philosophy master’s degree and played jazz saxophone and had taught for a while. After his schizophrenia got bad, he moved back into his parents’ house and continued to live there until last week. The house was yellowed from his cigarettes and the smoke shut inside; he never opened windows. Either the heat was on or the air conditioning. With the help of the police, on Friday we discovered that he’d died there.

Life was pretty small for Mark. Because of tremors from medications, and paranoia, and obsessive/compulsive tendencies, he hardly got out. Trips to Woodmans. Phone calls from his psychiatrist. Otherwise the shape of his life was NPR, Turner Classic Movies, and the Milwaukee Bucks. He shared rhubarb and jokes and sardines and music books and weed-killing advice and movie suggestions. I used to pet his Boston terrier, Sammy, who helped fertilize my flower garden.

After Sammy died, Mark was especially grateful for chances to pet our dog, Doug. From time to time, I got to be helpful to Mark by changing the oil in his lawn mower, staining the trim on his windows, cleaning out his basement, or helping him buy and install a new CD player.

Mostly Mark wanted to talk theology. He fretted over the sins of his earlier life, and also fretted that he still enjoyed the memory of those indiscretions and so wasn’t repentant enough. He longed to die, but also worried that killing himself would exclude him from God’s love. It might be argued that Mark took all this too seriously, either because of the time on his hands or because of the illness in his head. It probably could be better argued that he gave theological questions their just weight, as matters of life and death. Or, in the terms of a good Lutheran theologian, as matters of death and life, the end of our old selves and rising to new beginnings.

Mark seems to have had a heart attack while asleep. It was before he had to move into a nursing home, so his estate will go to charity, just as he had carefully planned in his will and often described longingly. Again, I’d say Mark was more charitable to his neighbors than I frequently am. He was also, by any account, more loving than the God he seemed to believe in—the strict one of his Catholic upbringing, the angry one from the Billy Graham magazines and Chuck Swindoll books he insisted on reading.

People often say that all religions lead to the same place. Well, Mark and I were both talking Christianity, but not with much similarity at all. His outcome was fear and exclusion, that left out certain politicians or homosexuals or other creatures. Once, he tried giving out booklets on the Bible, fearing that a lack of conversion would damn them, and maybe him for lack of effort as well. This religion was about the individual mustering fierce certitude and how insistently they could banish doubts.

It didn’t really work for Mark, which is why we kept talking about it. He would ask what my sermons were about, never quite satisfied that my content and the core truth of the Bible is basically a repetition of “Jesus loves you.” Mark couldn’t go to a worship service, and so in some way our discussions were the most church he got, an example of Jesus coming to find us in our “mutual conversation and consolation” (in the words of Martin Luther), of community that encourages and supports each other.

Through it all, Mark remained skeptical of the good and gracious God in Christ that I was trying to preach to him, one who was more ready to love than we are to accept, whose life stretches long past our faults and brokenness. From early conversations, when I was less than a year out of seminary and these theological arguments were still at the front of my mind, to his last weeks when I’d gotten too distracted to find time to be so insistent. In the end, because I couldn’t convince Mark and couldn’t save him and have to say goodbye, all I can do is commend him—and myself—to this God of love, hoping in grace and trusting in mercy.