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Sermon for Maundy Thursday, Year B

(Sermon 4/9/09, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, John 13:1-17, 31b-35)


This past Sunday evening, members of the youth groups from our church and from our neighbors at Grace Wyckoff United Methodist gathered together here to learn about the symbolism of the Passover meal. Rose and Justin Peligri shared with us about the meaning behind the different foods eaten at a Seder supper, and we heard about the story of God leading the people out of slavery in Egypt through God’s servant, Moses. We talked about how the Israelites celebrated Passover as a way to remember what had happened to them, how God had led them out of captivity. The Passover celebration is primarily about remembering, retelling the story, so that the people don’t forget their history with God.

We might wonder – how could they ever forget? How could they forget their life of slavery? How could they forget the horrible conditions they were living in? But if you remember what happened after the Israelites left Egypt, it might make a little more sense. They left Egypt only to wander in the desert for 40 years, following Moses to the Promised Land, but going in such a round-about way that they must have had to wonder if Moses – and God – knew what they were doing, and if this Promised Land really existed. After all, during forty years, many of those who had been slaves in Egypt would have died. And many of those who grew into adults would have been just children in Egypt. In fact, many would have been born on the journey, and never have lived in Egypt themselves. How easy would it be to forget, then, if many of the Israelites had never even experienced, or at least could not remember on their own, the time in Egypt? Add onto that the sometimes difficult situations the Israelites encountered in the wilderness – depending on God for manna, searching for water, and just the difficulty of such a journey – when you put all these things together, perhaps we can understand how the people might forget, or start to downplay or underestimate, how things had been in Egypt, and what God had done for them.

Unfortunately, it seems like the people forgetting about God is a huge theme in the scriptures. In the Old Testament, over and over, though in less familiar stories than Moses and the Israelites, we see people forgetting the covenants made with God, forgetting their histories, forgetting what God has done for them, and turning to old ways, other gods, their own way of living. And then, God finds a new way to speak to the people, and they remember, or sometimes have to even re-learn their own history, and start again. Forgetting and remembering. It’s a significant theme in the Hebrew Scriptures.

We forget, too, don’t we? Forget our own stories, our own histories. My paternal grandmother had a pet peeve with me when I was little. I was in the habit of saying, “I forgot” as an explanation for anything that I was supposed to do but didn’t get around to. She always told me that’s what it would say on my tombstone, “I forgot.” I think it frustrated her in part, of course, because she suspected I hadn’t actually forgotten, but also because forgetting just isn’t a good excuse. Forgetting isn’t responsible. Of course, sometimes forgetfulness becomes something out of our human control, a result of illness or injury. But the very reason we care about forgetfulness is because we know how critical memory is to our lives. It’s a personal issue and a societal issue too. We often fear that history will repeat itself – particularly that the mistakes of history will repeat. We fear that given enough time, enough distance, we will forget even the most significant events – forget what brought us to those situations, why we shouldn’t have let those things happen, how we could prevent them happening again. And so we create ways to remember – family reunions remind us of our roots, class reunions help us remember our school days, holidays like President’s Day, and Martin Luther King Day, and so on, are there not just to help us celebrate and have a day off, but to help us remember something. We celebrate anniversaries and birthdays to remember how special people and relationships are. And in the church, our rites and rituals help us remember.

Tonight, Jesus calls us to remember. He’s sharing a Passover meal with his disciples, and so they are already in the mood to remember, to think about symbolism and meaning. And then Jesus takes bread and takes wine and says to them, “When you eat this, remember me – my body for you. When you drink this, remember me, a new covenant made with you. Do this often, remember me every time you eat and drink.” We usually remember this meal and Jesus’ words when we celebrate communion in worship – but Jesus says something with a broader meaning – he wants us to remember him, remember the new covenant, remember his gift of love to us every time we eat and drink. And that’s not all. Throughout his ministry, Jesus tried to get his disciples, the crowds – and us – to remember by pointing out all of these common day connections when he was explaining God, God’s kingdom, and how we should live: Bread. Wine. Water. Seeds, Soil. Birds. Trees. Vines. Animals. Coins. Whatever was part of people’s everyday lives, Jesus used to help them remember. Because he wanted them – wants us – to remember who he is everywhere and all the time.

Jesus calls us to remember him in everything we see and do, to remember God, to remember who Jesus is and who we are in everything, every moment, every day. This is actually a pattern I’ve developed in my children’s sermons, though it happened by accident. I have to admit, I used to be afraid of children’s sermons. They stressed me out – wondering if I could handle the unexpected directions the kids’ responses sometimes take you! So I would look for a way to ‘tie up’ and conclude my message, and got into the habit of saying to the kids: “So when you see X, (referring to whatever item I’d brought to show them), remember X (referring to whatever lesson I wanted them to learn.) It started out by accident, my habit of ending my messages that way, but when I stopped to think about it, it made sense to me. That’s exactly what I want our children to do – to remember God, to remember their church, to think about their faith in all of these different things they see in their lives – to remember God loves them when they see Chutes and Ladders, or when they see Before and After pictures, or when they buy something new to replace something old and worn out – I want them to remember all the time.

That’s what God wants for us, too – to remember all the time. And what are we called to remember? Who Jesus is, who God is. Who do you say that I am? That’s been our theme all this Lent. We know, don’t we? We have our answers. We know, at least I hope we know, or are beginning to know, about God’s unconditional love, about Jesus’ call to discipleship. We know, but we forget. We come to worship to remember, and that’s good! But we’re called to remember everywhere, at all times. Jesus wants us to remember so that we never forget, so that who he is touches us in everything that we do. And so he calls us to remember.

Holy Week is about reenacting, replaying the Passion, the journey, so that we remember, can practically remember being there ourselves, experiencing it all for ourselves. And so we see the story – and remember. Hear the scriptures – and remember. Sings the songs – and remember. Take the bread and cup – and remember. Come to the table, and remember who God is, and who you are because of it. Amen.


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