Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Sunrise Service
It was one of the six original red grapes of Bordeaux, France, then, in 1867, disaster struck in the form of Phylloxera, a tiny sap-sucking insect related to aphids. Other varieties recovered, but Carménère never did, and it was eventually presumed to be extinct.
Over a century later, in 1994, Chileans, trying to explain why their Merlot was so different from that grown in other regions, discovered that certain vines that ripened at an odd time, perhaps 50% of their Merlot stock, were in fact Carménère, descended from imports during the 1850’s, before the infestation struck France. The climate in Chile is not favorable to Phylloxera, so the pest never spread and the grape had survived.
Four years later, in Italy, Ca’ del Bosco purchased Cabernet Franc vines that turned out to be Carménère. And so what was believed to be dead was found to be very much alive.
I’m not suggesting that the resurrection of a variety of wine grape is anything like the resurrection we will celebrate in three days, but it is a lovely wine. I’ve even purchased bottles right here in Blue Hill.
Tonight is all about wine and bread, staples of the Mediterranean diet in the age of Jesus, and still staples on the northern side of that sea. Of course there is way more going on, including a lesson in the washing of the feet that is crucial to our Protestant understanding of ministry as servant leadership.
We’ll end this evening in the garden, when the fear of betrayal becomes the reality of betrayal, and the Jewish elite move against the one they deem to be a threat. But right now, we are gathered at table as Jesus reconfigures the Pascal meal, the passover, to create the central mark of our faith, for unlike the familial feast of Hebrew tradition, communion is egalitarian.
It is all about geography, precarious geography, this Hebrew obsession with standing apart, with drawing lines, with in group and out group. One tribe among many competing for the same land, they also sat at a crucial intersection, the space between the powerful cultures in the Nile and Tigris-Euphrates river valleys, space that would later serve as a landing point for Mediterranean powers seeking access to the East, groups like the Philistines, and later the Greeks. Like a small child in the surf, the Hebrews were overwhelmed time and again by other cultures.
They became obsessed with standing apart, adopted an exaggerated set of ritual and dietary laws, a rigid theology. It was fear of assimilation that led to the revolt under Judah Maccabee in 167 B.C.E., the event still celebrated annually in Hanukkah.
The table was to most contested of spaces, something we will see again in the Acts of the Apostles when Peter is instructed in a dream to accept Gentile food. And it didn’t just matter what you ate. It mattered who was at table, for uncleanliness was contagious. The open table of Jesus was radical. The open table at Corinth was radical, so much so, that correcting division at that table is a major theme of Paul’s letter to that church.
Jesus didn’t choose some special ritual held on a special day in a special place as the mark of his community. He chose the quotidian, the daily meal, as the ritual of inclusion. Do this in remembrance of me is doing the thing you would do every day anyway. This meal was nothing and a revolution. All too often in the Reform tradition, we turn it into an empty ritual, schedule it as seldom as possible, then expect people to skip worship. We forget that this meal, open to all, saint and sinner, is the mark that most distinguishes Christian practice from all other traditions.
But there is more than just who is at table, for the two elements, bread and wine, both are the result of transformation. Both the grape and the grain are crushed, and it is the crushing that releases the sugars, the sugars that combine with outside agents to create something deeper, more satisfying, more complex, more nourishing. The symbol of our faith, not only radically open, not only the daily, the ordinary, but also that which has been transformed, crushing and heat and outside agents making something more, something beautiful, something nourishing. Deep and earthy and lush, but first, crushed and transformed.
And there is Golgotha and a non-violent reformer being brutally murdered, being crushed and being transformed.
And there is us, each feeling crushed at times. May the Word of God, the People of God, the Power of God be at work in you.
The Hebrew people, faced with divine mystery, came to understand the power at work in creation in their own unique way, constructing an understanding of God not as the agent authorizing human power and cruelty, but as an agent subverting human power and cruelty. They adapted and reconfigured and borrowed, until the angry king god became the loving parent god, until Creator was also lover.
Among the things they borrowed were names for what they understood as God. First, they borrowed the Midianite word, represented in ancient language as YWH and turned it into YHWH, Yahweh, though the word did not have vowels, and was rarely written as, in that age of superstition, naming itself was considered to have supernatural power. When they came to Canaan, presumably a returning after their time in bondage, they encountered another religion, and adopted some of its traits, including the ancient Semitic word for God, El. Specifically, El was the chief deity of the Canaanite religion, often called “the Most High.”
Many of the names found in scripture are then directly tied to the name of God. Find the letter combination “e+l,” and odds are, it means something to do with God. Rachel, Samuel, Elijah. And so, when Jesus cries out from the cross, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?,” “My Lord, My Lord, Why have you forsaken me?,” it should not be surprising that those listening got their wires crossed, thought he was calling for Elijah, for Elijah was still the greatest prophet, the one who called out a king, the one expected to come again just before the arrival of the messiah and the Day of the Lord.
But Jesus is not calling for Elijah. He is invoking the Twenty-Second Psalm. My Lord, My Lord!
Does Jesus really feel forsaken? This is not the simple story of a two-dimensional comic-book deity. This itinerant rabbi is at once confident, forgiving, teaching even as he is dying, and at the same time doubting, afraid. And the psalm Jesus invokes, like Jesus himself, isn’t two dimensional, either/or. It is both/and.
My Lord, My Lord, why have you forsaken me. Seven lines of doubt. Seven lines of anguish.
Then it turns on a dime.
The psalmist remembers all that God has done, their God, Yahweh, El, Adonai, the liberating God that delivered them from bondage, the God that demands justice for the oppressed.
This cross, this crown, symbols of what is worst in humanity, cruelty.
My descendants shall serve God;
they shall be known as God’s forever.
They shall come and make known to a people yet unborn
the saving deeds that God has done.
We are at the pivot. No blood thirsty God demanding sacrifice. Just this man, this man with a soul open to the divine, a perfect Christ-consciousness, the Human One, slowly suffocating, scapegoated by his own tribe, abandoned by his followers, brutalized by the other.
This man invoking a psalm that ends in deliverance.
Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani. We are at the pivot. Seven lines, and then…
It was quite the cast list. Kelly McGillis was at the peak of her career, never quite a leading actress after “Top Gun,” released the following year, but others in the cast included Harrison Ford, Danny Glover, Patti LuPone and a young Viggo Mortensen. The entire movie, “Witness,” was about being a witness, about an Amish boy, played by young Lukas Haas, witnessing a murder. There are bad guys, a forbidden romance, and lessons about simplicity, hard work, and Anabaptist non-violence.
Whether or not children are credible witnesses, and at what age, has been a subject of debate for years, most famously during the witch hunts of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. But women have been considered credible witnesses for a very long time. This was not the case in Roman-occupied Judea in the years before the Jewish Revolt. Women could not give testimony, not surprising really when you consider the treatment of women in general, including in scripture, scapegoating, rape… even a woman’s basic biology was considered unclean. We’d like to think we have come a long way since then, until we turn on the news. We all know the worst of the worst, but we can’t let a list of recent “misogyny’s greatest hits” go by without including Snap, the company that owns SnapChat and that recently offered a successful but toxic IPO. The company’s board has only one woman, and she makes a tenth of what her male colleagues make.
Still, it was worse that year in Jerusalem. The male 8 year-old witness in the 1985 film would have been trusted more than the women at the tomb. No one was going to take their word for it.
If you were going to make this story up, you’d have done a better job.
If you were going to steal the body, you’d need a conspiracy, you’d need to get the story straight. There wouldn’t be all of this confusion.
And you would not choose women as the first witnesses. You’d choose Simon, nicknamed Peter, James and John, aka the Sons of Thunder. Pretty much anyone except Judas would have been a better choice.
But here are the women, doing the work women always did, tending to what was broken.
We do not know exactly how Jesus was resurrected. Was he fleshy and real, a wound that could be touched? Was he spiritual, a virtual person who could appear in a sealed room, a holy hologram? Who knows? The disciples clearly didn’t know what to make of it all, and they were there. The stories that were passed across generations and communities are not consistent.
But this we know: they, that band of fishermen and tax collectors and woman, this reforming crusade of the Hebrew poor, had given over their lives to this man, this prophet, who said that God is moving in the world, that there is a new way of being human, that love is everything, and that the Creator looks at us like a parent. Then factions within his own tribe used the brutal Roman occupation as an instrument of execution. That should have been the end.
Jesus bin Joseph was not the first would be messiah, not the only popular prophet and healer. Others came before and there would be others who came after. Even the claim of resurrection is not entirely unique. But their movements all died away.
And here we are, telling this one story almost two thousand years later.
You could have written a better story, a tighter plot, could have created more credible witnesses, edited out the times when Jesus comes off as a jerk, when he says things that turn out to be wrong.
But that’s not the story we have. We have the story of a guy with a little bit of a temper, struggling against his own tribalism, who preaches a powerful message of divine love, is brutally and publicly executed by those with power.
And who is experienced by his followers as being very real, very present in their lives, days after they have witnessed his death, for forty days after these women, these imperfect witnesses, arrive at the tomb.
Our faith is a leap of faith, a choice to believe that God is love, that love wins, and that brutality and violence will never have the final word. That you can find God at work, life at work, even when all looks lost. That Jesu will always be there, reminding us to “Be not afraid.”
Be not afraid. Go. There are empty tombs yet to be discovered.