The texts for this sermon were:
Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, John 13:1-17, 31b-35, and Psalm 116:1, 10-17
When I was trained as a Godly Play teacher a few years ago, I learned that an essential part the Montessori-inspired children’s curriculum is what’s called “work time.” After the teacher physically acts out a Bible story with small figurines, the children are invited to play with the props themselves. After sitting impatiently through the story, they’re finally invited to wiggle their fingers in the sand of the Exile story, smell the chrism scent of the Baptism oil, and spill water all over the floor.
Contained in this teaching method is an understanding that the act of retelling a story ourselves, with our bodies and voices, is a key part of learning. As a Christian educator, I also used other Sunday school curricula that suggested silly activities like jumping around a room, dividing up marbles, and holding hands to metaphorically reinforce lessons from the Bible and Christian tradition. They were fun, and they ate up time, but they also helped the kids remember.
It took going to seminary to plant to idea in my head that “work time”--playing through the lessons--is exactly what worship is for adults—for everyone, really. It’s rehearsal for our lives. It’s a chance to act of the “what if” of the kingdom of God, and to intentionally move and sing and speak as if all this is true and worth learning to do well. And it’s a time to know it in our bodies. We taste the sweet wine on our tongues, we touch the soft sweater of the friend we are praying for, we let our feet move to the rhythm of ancient songs.
In this specific context and culture—in this well-educated, 2018 Californian city—intellectual, rational knowing is most often privileged above all other ways of knowing. In fact, there are very few spaces in our culture left for embodied knowing at all. Mainly we just leave it to experts or watch others play out the drama. I fear we’ve forgotten what it means to let ourselves learn with our bodies, through play, through throwing our whole selves in.
That’s part of what makes this place, this parish, so special, isn’t it? Over the course of this year, I keep learning what many of you already know. Silliness and humor, acting and drama, are a striking part of St. Aidan’s gifts. And I, the way-too-serious kid who gave up acting as soon as she had to do comedic musicals, have a lot to learn from you still. Play--letting loose, letting go, diving in--hasn’t always been so easy for me, especially with other adults. It can feel so...foolish sometimes. My brain gets in the way. I’m afraid it will be awkward or unhygienic or unsafe, that’ll break the rules...See, but then Jesus comes along and reminds me that the rules that keep us from one another, that bar us from following the truest, greatest commandment of love, deserve to be broken. This is the first gift Jesus gives to me this night this year. He comes along this night and shocks Peter, and me, into love that breaks through my sense of self.
So much of Holy Week is about allowing ourselves to be shocked, after all. No matter how many Holy Weeks we’ve experienced, we are invited to get carried away in the drama, throw ourselves in, and feel it all anew. To be shocked at the horror of the cross, the hollow emptiness of the closed tomb, and the joyous fullness of the open one. Yet here, at the beginning, on Maundy Thursday, the mighty act of God is a humble one. What’s so shocking is how tiny and simple it really is. A small ritual that speaks beyond words.
Tonight, we celebrate a second beautiful gift Jesus gives us, one that’s meant to be opened again and again. This is the night when Jesus knelt down to wash his students’ feet and asked them, asked us, to do the same. This is the night when he sat with his disciples and took, blessed, and broke the bread and the wine and asked us to keep doing this. To keep remembering symbolically together, to keep knowing in our bodies what his words really mean. So this is also the night we take those bodies and we act out what service looks and feels like—taking each other’s feet into our hands and gently washing them, feeding each other from a shared glass of wine. As if all of it is true and worth practicing and doing well.
Yes, God asks more of us than the symbolic actions contained within worship. Hospitality is more than the gathering around a Eucharist table and serving each other is more than washing feet. And no, Holy Week is not just contained within the next three days. The cross and resurrection don’t just happen once a year--or even once a week. But it is in worship, it is in these three days, that we collectively reorient ourselves to those values and deep truths. It is in worship where we define ourselves and our faith as the way of life signified in simple movements.
I've had the pleasure of speaking with several of you these past few weeks in recorded interviews. You've let me ask you about what faith and church and all this means to you. And I hope more of you continue to let me! I've been struck, in this interviews and the one-to-one meetings in the fall, by a point that seems to crop up in just about every meeting. There's this moment when it all becomes just a bit beyond what either of us can express. When you've told me that the feeling, the knowing you can't explain--well, how real it is anyway. And I hope you've noticed me nodding. Because I've known, too. Just as there is love too deep for words, and cliches, there is, too, a faith too mysterious, too shocking, too irreducible to squeeze into human language. And it's what draws you back. And it's what I suspect many of us know in our bodies--that which our hands and feet and hearts remember from the simple act of practicing, over and over, as if all this is true and worth doing well.
So this Holy Week, this is our chance to wiggle our toes in the water, breathe in the scent of lilies, and dribble beeswax all over our clothing. Now maybe washing feet feels silly to you, or too shocking. Or maybe it breaks too many rules. And that’s okay. Noticing those feelings, and that resistance, that's actually part of the point. And there are so many more moments in our Christian life to try on, play around, and practice together. But above all this Tridium, I do invite you to allow yourself to be shocked, all over again. To let go and dive in, regardless. To step into the drama that is at once both theatrical and so profoundly true. To play.