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Sermon for Maundy Thursday, Year A, "Staying or Leaving," Matthew 26:20-29, 36-46

 Sermon 4/6/23

Matthew 26:20-29, Matthew 26:36-46

Staying or Leaving

You’ve probably heard that when animals feel like they are on high alert, under stress, or under attack, they have a “fight or flight” response. Some animals, when in danger, will do everything they can to get away as fast as possible. Some, when cornered, will lash out, ready to fight, ready to harm in order to get free. There’s actually another option - “freeze” - some animals freeze, like the proverbial deer caught in the glare of headlights, immobilized with fear. Of course, we are animals too, we humans, and we sometimes find ourselves deeply driven by fight, flight, and freeze responses too.  Sometimes we are in genuine danger - and we must figure out if we need to flee or fight or freeze in response to a threat, to abuse, to something or someone that can do harm to us. 

But sometimes, we react like we’re responding to a threat, to danger, but our minds are confusing danger and discomfort. Here’s what I mean: Those of you who’ve known me for some time now might remember that I will admit that my default mode is to be a conflict-avoider. I think that mostly falls into the “flight” response category to stress, but I also manage to try to pretend a conflict just isn’t happening sometimes too. I do not like conflict. I don’t like it when people are arguing, when people are being unkind and hurtful. I don’t like it when people’s feelings are hurt - the emotional pain of others really bothers me. And when I see that happening as a result of conflict, my impulse is to try to fix, to smooth things over, to do anything I can to suppress the sense of conflict. 

My conflict-avoidant response is something I’ve had to work on a lot over the years, particularly because leadership roles and the flight response or the “pretend this isn’t happening” response don’t work so well together! In fact, a lot of leadership guidebooks will tell you that a good technique for leaders is knowing when to “turn up the heat” on tense, conflict-ridden situations. Conflict, when handled thoughtfully, can actually be an ingredient for new life in an organization, in a community, in a congregation. Staying committed and attentive and ready to work through things during a conflict in healthy relationships can lead to meaningful transformation. One of my favorite scholars, Donna Haraway, calls this “staying with the trouble.” If you can work past the fight, flight, and freeze responses of conflict, if you can “stay with the trouble,” stay committed to the work, something really transformative might happen. 

I mentioned in my sermon on Sunday that the events of Palm Sunday are the start of this pressure-cooker intensity where Jesus is pretty consistently confrontational, taking actions and making statements that require a response. Jesus is “turning up the heat.” And all of those who have been following Jesus - the crowds, the women who supported his ministry with time and money, the disciples - they are all confronted with a decision in response to the increasing pressure: fight, flight, freeze. Or… or, another way. Staying with the trouble. Staying with Jesus. A path that might lead to transformation. 

I’ve read the gospel accounts of the passion narrative, the last days of Jesus’ pre-resurrection life, so many times, preached on them, taught about them so many times. And yet somehow I never noticed until this week that in Matthew’s account - our focus today - and in Mark’s account, Jesus, while dining with the disciples at what we call The Last Supper, brings up Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial before he says the words that have become our sacrament of communion. In other words, Jesus says: I know that among you, my closest followers who I have spent years with, one of you will deny ever knowing me, and one of you will betray me into the hands of those who want to execute me - and then he shares with them the bread and cup, signs of his body, his blood, his life given for those very disciples. In Luke’s account, it’s the other way around - Jesus shares the new covenant of communion, and then, as things are wrapping up, talks about Peter’s pending denial. So Jesus is sitting with the knowledge of what will unfold, but the disciples are (mostly) blissfully ignorant. But here in Matthew, everyone has to stay at the table together with this painful, awful truth Jesus has just lobbed into their midst. Denial and betrayal are about to unfold - but right now they have to sit together still. Right now, they have to accept the unfathomable grace of God poured out literally and figuratively by Jesus, as he breaks the bread, as he passes the wine. Jesus turns up the pressure - and they just have to sit there

Somehow, they made it through that meal, a meal that I can only imagine was so fraught with unspoken questions, accusations, explanations. But eventually, the pressure, the confrontation, the truth Jesus speaks to them - the disciples fall away. Judas departs, returning only to see Jesus handed over to the authorities. Peter will deny Jesus, just as Jesus said. But even before that, he and James and John escape into sleep, finding a way, perhaps like my technique, of pretending the conflict around them just isn’t happening. Maybe they can just sleep through it, and Jesus - and his words - will be easier to take the next day. The next day, though, only has more heartache in store. 

I said on Sunday that we need to stay close to Jesus - but staying with Jesus is pretty hard on a night like this, isn’t it? Jesus always stays close to us. But can we stay close to Jesus? On this holy night, I wonder: how have we - how are we putting distance between ourselves and Jesus? When the path of discipleship gets to be too much, how do we try to turn down the heat, avoid the conflict, deflect the responsibility and work and risk and sacrifice that discipleship entails? And on this holy night, I wonder: how can we draw closer to Jesus? How can we stay? Stay with the trouble. Stay through the crisis. Stay through our doubts and fears. Stay through our failures. Stay through the discomfort. Stay even when staying means Jesus shining a light on everything we don’t want to examine in our lives and world. Jesus asks us: Will we stay? 

Let’s linger, a little, in the garden, in the dark, in the midst of heartache, in the grieving. Even though we want to get to Easter, where it’s bright and sunny and pastel and joyful, let’s stay. Because our task, our purpose, the very meaning of discipleship is to be where Jesus is. We have to stay with him. And tonight, Jesus is at his most vulnerable, and asking if we can stay, if we can share with him and in him even though it is so hard, and so uncomfortable, and so demanding, and so full of grief and pain. Let’s stay. Amen.  


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