Mark 14:22-25, 32-42, John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Earlier in Lent we talked about silence, and how difficult silence can be. As I was writing my sermon that week, thinking about God speaking to Elijah from the silence, I was remembering a moving performance I attended while I was in college. Actors Roscoe Lee Browne and Anthony Zerbe shared a performance called “Behind the Broken Words.” They shared poems and readings and conversation with the audience. It was profound and moving. At one point, they spoke about silence, and our discomfort with it, and then, sitting in their arm chairs on the stage, they proceeded to be silent for what seemed like perhaps three or four minutes. Three or four minutes of total silence on a stage felt incredibly long. It was uncomfortable. And an audience member in the front clearly couldn’t take it, loudly shuffling in their seat and unwrapping some crinkly candy. The actors were visibly amused at the patron who just could not handle sitting through that uncomfortable space, that awkward quiet, proving the very point the actors were trying to make.
Tonight, as we celebrate Maundy Thursday, we’re immersing ourselves in the story of Jesus’ last time with his disciples before his arrest, trial, and crucifixion. And it is a time fraught with tension. Throughout the events that unfold, the disciples remind me of that uncomfortable theatre-goer. They’re awkward. They’re confused. They don’t know what to do or say or how to respond. And yet, Jesus invites them in to these sacred spaces. Jesus invites us in too. That’s why we come here tonight. And we, too, might find the intensity of these experiences with Jesus jarring and uncomfortable. Even still, I believe this is exactly where we are supposed to be. In the Lenten devotional I’ve been reading this season, Walter Brueggemann writes, “A quite remarkable feature of this loss [the death of Jesus] is that Jesus invited his disciples to walk into that loss with him. The Last Supper is an invitation to solidary with him in loss.” Indeed, I think that on Maundy Thursday, we are invited into solidary with Jesus, into sharing with Jesus in three distinct acts: in the foot washing, in the supper, and in the garden. Jesus invites us to join him, to come right alongside him in these actions.
As much as we want to be by Jesus’ side, though, when the moment of invitation comes, I think we find it to be startlingly difficult. The disciples, who had spent years following Jesus, certainly found it difficult! In John, we read about Jesus washing the feet of the disciples, an incredibly intimate and humbling action, one a slave would usually perform. Peter can hardly stand it, and he begins to refuse Jesus. But Jesus insists: “If I don’t wash you, you don’t have a share with me.” In our reading from Mark, we find Jesus sharing the Passover meal with his disciples. Just before our text for tonight, though, Jesus tells them that he will be betrayed. And now all they can focus on is asking, “Surely, you don’t mean me, do you Jesus?” Jesus means Judas. But none of them, it seems, are sure, are positive that they won’t somehow act to betray Jesus. I wonder how much of meaning of the meal Jesus shares with them they can absorb, distracted as they are by questioning their faithfulness as disciples. “This is my body, this is my blood,” Jesus says, sharing bread and cup. No response is recorded.
And then, after telling Peter that everyone will desert Jesus, and that Peter himself will deny Jesus three times, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John to Gethsemane while he spends the night in prayer. You’d think with these tellings of betrayal, denial, and desertion so fresh, these three disciples would be bending over backwards to prove themselves to Jesus. But what we find it much different. Instead, while Jesus is distressed and agitated, even telling the disciples that he is “deeply grieved, even to death,” three times he comes to speak with them only to find them asleep. Finally, it is too late, and the moment of his arrest has arrived.
On this Maundy Thursday, as we remember, as we share in these sacred rituals, can we stay with Jesus? Can we accept the invitation to join him in his profound grief? Even if a grieving Jesus makes us deeply uncomfortable, can we sit with him anyway?
When I was in seminary, I took a unit one summer of a program called Clinical Pastoral Education. Basically, I worked as a chaplain at Crouse Hospital for the summer, and along with spending time with patients, the six of us in the program also had classes three times a week to reflect on our growing practice and theology of pastoral care. Our instructor asked us each to choose a scripture passage, over the course of the summer, that spoke to our understanding of what it means to provide pastoral care for someone. And eventually, I chose the second part of the passage from our reading from the gospel of Mark, where Jesus, filled with grief and pain about his fast-approaching death repeatedly asks the disciples to please, stay awake with him for just an hour. Mark tells us that Peter and James and John fall back to sleep again and again, partly because they are tired, sure, but also, Mark narrates, because “they did not know what to say to him.” When I started my chaplaincy program, I was petrified. All day long, every day, I would have to go into the rooms of patients I did not know. I worked on the NICU, where tiny babies were struggling for their very lives, and I felt presumptuous and out of place, showing up and pretending I had any idea what to do or what to say. I certainly didn’t feel equipped to talk about God with these people who were going through some of the hardest moments of their lives. When I started, I would always introduce myself as a chaplaincy intern who was there just for the summer. I couldn’t have made it more clear that I was temporary, not the real chaplain, not really ready to be fully present with them. But eventually, I started to really learn what I already know, what we all already know from being on the other side of things, from being on the side of grief: hurting people aren’t waiting for us to fix their hurts. They’re hoping we will just sit with them, even in the midst of their pain, for just a little bit. They’re not looking for our words. They’re looking for our presence. Even Jesus, even the son of God, even God-in-the-flesh wants just that: us. Our presence. Our lives. Our willingness to stay, to share, to sit side-by-side. “Could you not keep awake one hour?”
On this Maundy Thursday, this Good Friday, and even in the loneliness of Holy Saturday, these holy sacred days of pain and sorrow before we share in the joy of Easter: we may sometimes find these services a bit uncomfortable. A bit overwhelming. A bit like we want to shift in our seats. Or like we really must unwrap that candy right now. Or like maybe we’ll just rest our eyes because we don’t know what else to say. Here’s the blessing: You don’t need to say anything. Instead, let yourself feel the water of cleansing and renewal pour out on you. Instead, taste the bread and share in the cup. Instead, just come, and sit with Jesus, just for a while. Amen.