Remembering our Stories — A Maundy Thursday Sermon

Photo Credit: P. LaBelle

Photo Credit: P. LaBelle

Based on Exodus 12:1-14.

Remember, God says to the Israelites.  Remember this day as you hurriedly eat with your cloak wrapped around you, your sandals fastened and your staff in your hand.  Remember that you cannot even wait for the leaven in the bread to rise, for on this night you will be delivered from the bondage of slavery in Egypt and set out for the Promised Land.

Don’t forget this day, these stories and the rituals that go with them.  Keep the story alive in your descendants so that they too may know that it is God who delivers them from their oppressors.  Let it live on each year as you remember.

Jesus and his disciples were in that frame of mind as the story we heard tonight unfolds. Jesus’ story of deliverance merges into the foundational Exodus story for faithful Jews to remember that God is a God who delivers people from oppression.

The Israelites had been slaves in Egypt for a very long time.  Scripture tells us that a Pharaoh arose who did not remember that God worked through Joseph and saved the Egyptians from a crushing drought.  Joseph had long since died while the Israelites stayed in Egypt and flourished.  This new Pharaoh saw them merely as free labor in order to complete his building projects.  He violently oppressed them.  And God heard their cries for mercy, and eventually delivered them.

However, even though God intervened, the Israelites weren’t done with oppressors forever.  Others rose up, including the Romans in Jesus’ own day some 1500 years later.  But that wasn’t all, the thing that oppressed the Israelites and all human beings most of all was not an evil dictator, but sin: those things that drive us further and further from God, each other and ourselves.  God wanted to set us free so that we could be reconciled in all three of those relationships.  Tonight we gather to remember not just one story, but two: Both God’s deliverance of the Israelites at the Passover, and Jesus’ washing his disciples’ feet thereby giving them a new commandment to love sacrificially just as he himself had loved others.

We have a tendency to forget these stories, especially if we neglect to gather and share them with each other.  I’m preaching to the choir, of course—literally and figuratively.  You all are here tonight to remember and make meaning with me.  We take part in these rituals, in washing each other’s feet and receiving bread and wine so that we don’t forget, just as faithful Jews the world over gathered Monday evening to eat unleavened bread and lamb and bitter herbs dipped in salt water to tell the story of their deliverance from Egypt again.  Additionally, as we listen and partake we need to recall our own stories as well, how our sub-plots intersect with God’s grand story of deliverance and hope.

My mom’s diagnosis of cancer came only about a month after we had shared the news that Melissa was pregnant with our second child.  The growing life within her womb matched the slow demise of my mother.  Mom loved her grandchildren more than anything and it pained both me and Melissa to imagine that mom might never meet this little one.

Melissa and I eschewed learning the gender of our baby prior to the birth figuring there aren’t enough true surprises left in this world.  We had however been convinced that the little one she carried would be a brother for Noah.  One of the last conversations we had with my Mom had been about names for the baby, and the ones she liked especially if the baby was a girl. We didn’t think much of it at the time, especially since the boy’s name was locked in on Ben.

Mom died two months before Melissa was due.  It had been a draining good-bye with two week’s of home hospice care as we loved and held her till the end.  Those next two months are still fuzzy in my mind as we slowly got ready for the arrival of our baby and grieved.

The contractions came regularly one steamy August evening as the Red Sox battled the Yankees on TV.  We traveled to the hospital only to be told we had some time and we could either stay overnight there to wait for the contractions to get stronger or head home.  We went home to be with Noah and watch more of the game and eat some dinner.  Early the next morning things had progressed and so we headed out hoping to beat the commuter traffic on 95 and get to the hospital quickly.  We did and were taken to labor and delivery.  We shared stories and laughed between contractions and tried to catch a bit of rest.  And then in those last painful moments of pushing, a new little one began to cry, drawing in those first breaths of air and the doctor exclaimed, “It’s a girl!”

We were stunned.  And then immediately, a wave of unexpected healing and joy and deliverance from grief washed over both of us.  We gazed at the face of this new little daughter, and tried names on for size.  We remembered that conversation Mom had with us about names for the baby, and how much she loved one name in particular.  We looked at this dark-haired little bundle of crying joy, and we knew what we should call her.  Olivia.  Olivia Hope.

We tell this story nearly every August when Olivia’s birthday rolls around, and I think I’ve shared it with you all as well.  By doing so, we remember the love Mom had for us and for all her children and grandchildren.  And even though she never met her in person, Olivia knows a great deal about her Nena, the one who named her in love.

Tonight we’ll wash feet so that we can remember how much God loves us.  God came to deliver the Israelites from bondage, and God sent Jesus to deliver us from sin.  God did this because God deeply loves us, and God wants us to love others deeply too.  That’s how our stories intersect with God’s story, when we take our part and share in love and remember holy stories both in our collective and personal faith lives.  When we place our hope on God that God will bring healing to us in more ways than we can even imagine, that God will bring us deliverance.

It can happen again tonight.  If we open ourselves up to each other and share the love of Jesus in powerful ways.  If we pause and remember that God yearns for our deliverance too from all that holds us back from living hope-filled lives of love.  May we remember and receive instruction again on this new commandment, this mandatum novum as it’s called in the Latin, so that we can show the world that we are Christ’s disciples.  Amen.