Georgia, Alabama, and Jesus: Sermon for May 19, 2019

One of the least understood Christian holidays must be Maundy Thursday. Most of it is about the name. People don’t get it. They ask, “What does “maundy” mean anyway?” Or sometimes they think people keep saying “Monday Thursday”, which makes no sense at all.

The explanation of what it really means is actually pretty interesting, but it involves a quick language lesson:

The word “maundy” comes from a Latin word: mandatum. And mandatum means “mandate” or a “commandment”. And when we talk about “Maundy Thursday” we’re talking about “mandate Thursday”. We’re talking about the night that Christ told his disciples exactly what he expected of them.

So, Maundy Thursday was over a month ago…why am I talking about it today?

When I opened up this week’s lectionary, the calendar of readings that we follow in the church, here was that same passage that we traditionally read on Maundy Thursday. It threw me. Why are we reading it again? But then I started to think, “Maybe there’s something here worth paying attention to more than once a year”. 

The passage tells the story of how Jesus has gone to Jerusalem for the Passover. He’s gathered his twelve disciples there at the table. And he knows what is going to happen. He knows that by the end of the night one of them will betray him to the authorities. One will deny him three times. And all of them will leave him alone in his hour of greatest pain.

And yet, there he is. Breaking the bread and pouring the cup. Eating with them. Blessing them. Getting down on his knees and washing their feet, showing them his love and grace and compassion, in a time when we might have better understood his wrath or anger.

In a world where we are often surrounded by messages of retaliation, or vengeance, or eye for an eye cries for justice, it’s a different message. Jesus had done nothing wrong. He’d lived a life of non-violence, he’d healed the sick, raised the dead, and freed the captives. He’d brought hope and life to those who needed it the most.

And in the end, he knew that he was not about to be thanked. He was about to be killed. Because in the end, the goodness, and the kindness, and the compassion he had brought were more of a threat to the Roman authorities than any weapon or any army. He so radically upset the status quo that they decided their only choice was to kill him.

And that’s where that word “maundy” comes in. Because what do you do if you’re Jesus? What do you do when it’s the night before you are going to die? What do you do if  you have to tell the people you love the most, the ones who followed you, the ones who sometimes make big mistakes, how to keep moving in the right direction after you’re gone? What is the one thing you are going to tell them?

The mandate, the mandatory thing Jesus tells us to do in this passage is this:

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

The irony is that sometimes, especially in the public arena, Christians aren’t very loving people. In fact, sometimes those who share our faith aren’t even kind people. 

There are times when people ask me what I do for work, and as soon as I tell them I can see a wall go up. There are a lot of reasons for that, but one of the big ones is that they have been treated unkindly in the name of the Christian faith. I get it. If all I’d felt was pain at the hands of Christians, I wouldn’t want to get to know a Christian minister either.

The reality is that sometimes we Christians are our own worst public relations people. Jesus told us that our love for one another, our kindness, would be the mark of how people would know us. It would be our identification card. And yet, sometimes Christians do just the opposite.

I debated about whether to talk about what I’m about to talk about today, but I know it has been on a lot of your minds this week, and there are times when not talking about the hard things is a form of pastoral malpractice.

Over the last years, some of you have shared old, deeply painful experiences with me related to what I’m talking about. I’m honored you have trusted me. And I know this week has brought many of those memories up. 

Because this week we heard about what is happening in the South, especially in Georgia and Alabama. There the right to choose is being eroded. And in those places it is primarily Christian groups, people using the name of Jesus Christ, who are driving this agenda.

Now, I understand that there are good Christians who are pro-life, and good Christians who are pro-choice – perhaps those two exist even here in our own church. Our own denomination’s stance, along with a number of other denominations, is that everyone should have the right to choose. In fact, ministers in the UCC were active even before Roe v. Wade, helping to connect abortion providers with those who needed them.

But I also know there are those who really believe abortion is immoral. I disagree, but I respect it. And I know people who live out their pro-life commitments by genuinely caring for parents both before and after childbirth. They also don’t end their concern for the child after birth, but advocate for them in every arena.

But these laws in Georgia and Alabama? They’re just plain cruel. In Alabama, for instance, not even survivors of rape or incest are allowed to seek abortions. That means children who have been sexually abused will be forced to carry their pregnancies to term. And survivors of sexual assault can now be jailed for longer than their rapists.

And these bills won’t just stop in the South. They will make their way to every state, including ours. Back alleys will be the norm once again. And, of course, abortions will not stop…they just won’t be safe anymore.

Because this isn’t how you stop abortions. This is just how you make them criminal. If you really wanted to stop abortions you would fund family planning initiatives. You’d teach sex education. You’d make sure people had access to contraceptives. You’d work to stop sexual abuse and assault. You’d make sure that every baby could have enough food, and shelter, and medical care. 

But this isn’t about stopping abortions. This is about exerting control, and instilling fear.

This week I remembered a time about twenty years ago when a friend of mine had to go to one of those Georgia clinics. I have to admit that I was still working out what I thought about abortion back then. I had qualms. And when my friend asked me if I would go with her, I think she saw a split second of hesitation. 

That’s when she said to me the thing that made it all clear: “I just need you not to judge me right now…I need you to support me”

And so, I did. I went with her, and held her hand, and realized that in that moment my calling as a Christian was to be kind to her, and to love her, as she made an excruciating and frightening choice

And it was excruciating and frightening, even for me. Going into that clinic in a city where clinics had been bombed was unsettling. And this was in a Georgia where she had every legal right to do what she was doing. That Georgia does not exist today. And I know that today there are many there who are afraid. 

Right now you might be agreeing with me, or you might not be. You might be saying, “Why are you preaching about politics?”

But I hope you hear me that I’m not trying to preach about politics, and certainly not about partisan politics. You will never hear me endorse a politician or political party at church. Vote however your conscience dictates. But hear me that I’m trying to preach about our faith, and how it tells us to treat others. Because I don’t believe that right now the Christians who are driving these laws in the South are being very loving. 

My friends who live down there, who are afraid? They don’t either. 

Friends sometimes ask me “How can you be a part of the church? How can you be a part of a group that does things like this?” And, I get it. Sometimes it must seem like by staying in the church, I’m siding with the oppressor. And this is just one example out of many of the ways that people have used Jesus Christ to bully and intimidate those with little power. 

But in the end, I remember what Jesus said. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

And I want to follow that Jesus. I want to follow the one who said that the only identification card we need as Christians is our own loving kindness. I want to follow the one who I think would often be appalled by what is done in his name.

And I want to be a public witness for that kind of love. I want to show our neighbors and our world that the Christ I follow is not one who issues painful, punishing mandates. The Christ I follow had only one mandate: to love

I believe in the mandate. And I believe it’s my job to fiercely love this world enough to want it to be fair, and just, and kind. And I think that sometimes that means that we who are Christians cannot be silent anymore. And we cannot allow our faith to be co-opted in the public arena. Not now. Not when lives are literally at stake. 

In New Hampshire we are in a unique position. Every four years the eyes of the nation turn upon us and we have an early chance to influence the agendas of the people who are running for the highest office in the land. 

So, no matter your party, no matter your political belief, I want to call on you to not squander this chance. Instead, speak about your faith this year. Speak about what you believe. Speak about what you believe Christ would have us do

But as you do it, do this…do it with kindness…do it with fairness…do it with love. 

This is our chance, as Christians, to change the narrative. Moderate and progressive Christians are rarely the ones chosen to be talking heads on the evening news when it comes to matters of faith. That’s because we’ve been too quiet. But that can change. That must change. Our moral voice, our voice of Christ’s love, is needed more than ever.

And may there come a time, soon and very soon, when they know we are Christians not by our laws, but by our love. 

Journey Through Lent: Day 38 (Maundy Thursday)

521304_10100263452964988_715142070_nYou can also find this post here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-emily-c-heath/maundy-thursday-and-the-love-mandate_b_2941615.html

The most common question I get asked during Holy Week is about this night, the Thursday before Easter. People get Palm Sunday, and Good Friday, and Easter, but tonight, Maundy Thursday, is unclear. And the one thing people want to know the most, is this: What does “Maundy” mean?

It’s a good question. Who uses the term “maundy” in their daily life? For those on the outside of the church, and even for those of us inside, it might just sound like a church service where we know we should want to go to it, but we have no idea why.

But before I talk about what the word means, I want to go back to that story we read from the Gospel. In it Jesus has gone to Jerusalem for the Passover. He’s gathered his 12 disciples there at the table. And he knows what is going to happen. He knows that by the end of the night one of them will betray him to the authorities. One will deny him three times. And all of them will leave him alone in his hour of greatest pain.

And yet, there he is. Breaking the bread and pouring the cup. Eating with them. Blessing them. Getting down on his knees and washing their feet, showing them his love and grace and compassion, in a time when we might have better understood his wrath or anger.

In a world where we are often surrounded by messages of retaliation, or vengeance, or an eye for an eye cries for justice, it’s a different message. Jesus had done nothing wrong. He’d lived a life of nonviolence, he’d healed the sick, raised the dead and freed the captives. He’d brought hope and life to those who needed it the most.

And in the end, he knew that he was not about to be thanked. He was about to be killed. Because in the end, the goodness and the kindness and the compassion he had brought were more of a threat to the Roman authorities, and clergy of his day, than any weapon or any army. He so radically upset the status quo that they decided their only choice was to kill him.

The night before, he wasn’t running away. He wasn’t preparing for a battle. He wasn’t plotting his revenge. Instead, he was with the ones he loved most. The ones who loved him, but who weren’t perfect. The ones who knew who he was, and what he had done, and who would be the witnesses to his life after he was gone.

And that’s where that word “maundy” comes in. Because what do you do if you’re Jesus? What do you do if you know you are not going to be around much longer, and you have to tell the people you love the most, the ones who followed you, the ones who sometimes make big mistakes, how to keep moving in the right direction after you’re gone?

The word “maundy” comes from a Latin word: mandatum. And mandatum means “mandate” or a “commandment”. And when we talk about “Maundy Thursday” we’re talking about “mandate Thursday.” We’re talking about the night that Christ told his disciples exactly what he expected of them.

And if you read a book or watch a movie about almost anyone else, you might think the lead character right about now would be saying something like “avenge my death” or “make sure there’s payback” or “don’t let them get away with this … strike back.”

But this isn’t any other story. This is a story that turns everything on its head. The mandate, the mandatory thing Jesus tells us to do in this passage is this:

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

It probably wouldn’t do well at the box office. It wouldn’t get Nielsen ratings. The story wouldn’t soar to the top of the New York Times best-sellers list today. But it’s a story that transcends all of those things. Because it’s the beginning of a story about what happens when the world does its worst through violence and hatred and fear, and yet love wins anyway. It’s a story of love that was rejected and buried, and yet was still too strong to stay in the ground.

It’s not my job to rename Christian holy days. But if it were, I might change the name of Maundy Thursday. I might change it from this word that none of us really know anymore to something we would all understand. Something like “Love One Another Thursday” or “The Last Thing Christ Really Wanted Us to Know Thursday.”

Because this is a message we Christians all need to hear. We don’t need to hide it behind fancy terms. We don’t need to just check it off as another night in holy week. We need to hear that this is how Christ said other people would know us: by how we love one another.

Maybe it would help us remember. Maybe it would help us remember not just what this night is about, but maybe it would help us remember what it means to be Christians. And maybe if we always had that reminder, if we always had that commandment to love in the front of our head, Christ’s dream for us would come true.

Maybe we wouldn’t be known as Christ’s disciples by the fact we put a Christian fish sticker on our car. Or wore a cross around our necks. Maybe we wouldn’t be know by what we said about what we believed. Maybe we wouldn’t be known by our what we voted for, or against. Maybe we wouldn’t be known by the anger some Christians express on the evening news, or the mean-spiritedness others show in their day-to-day lives. Maybe instead we would just be known by the one thing Christ wanted us to be known for: by how we love.

In a few minutes we will be celebrating Communion together, and you’ll hear me repeat the words of institution, the phrases we are told Christ used as he broke bread and gave it to his disciples for the first time, on this same night many years ago. I’ll say to you that “on the night Christ was betrayed he took bread, and blessed it, and gave it to his disciples.”

You hear that all the time here, and if you are like me, you are uplifted by it.

But what if you heard this just as often too? “On the night Christ was betrayed he turned to his disciples and said, ‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.'”

We don’t say that often in service. Not in so many words. But I think we try to say it in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup. It’s no coincidence Christ said these things on the night of his last supper, but we sometimes forget the say the words.

This year, let’s not forget. Between this Maundy Thursday and the one next year, let’s not forget what the mandate is. It’s so simple, and yet it demands our whole lives and our whole attentions. But here in the church, we can give Christ nothing less. Tonight, as we eat this bread and drink this cup, as simple as it seems on the outside, know that we are choosing no less than to feast upon Christ’s love for us, and to bring that feast out to others. If every Christian would do that, no one would ever have to ask us who we follow. By our love, they would already know. Amen.

The Love Mandate – Homily for Maundy Thursday

The most common question I get asked during Holy Week is about this night, the Thursday before Easter. People get Palm Sunday, and Good Friday, and Easter, but tonight, Maundy Thursday, is unclear. And the one thing people want to know the most, is this: what does “Maundy” mean?

It’s a good question. Who uses the term “maundy” in their daily life? For those on the outside of the church, and even for those of us inside, it might just sound like a church service where we know we should want to go to it, but we have no idea why.

But before I talk about what the word means, I want to go back to that story we read from the Gospel. In it Jesus has gone to Jerusalem for the Passover. He’s gathered his twelve disciples there at the table. And he knows what is going to happen. He knows that by the end of the night one of them will betray him to the authorities. One will deny him three times. And all of them will leave him alone in his hour of greatest pain.

And yet, there he is. Breaking the bread and pouring the cup. Eating with them. Blessing them. Getting down on his knees and washing their feet, showing them his love and grace and compassion, in a time when we might have better understood his wrath or anger.

In a world where we are often surrounded by messages of retaliation, or vengeance, or an eye for an eye cries for justice, it’s a different message. Jesus had done nothing wrong. He’d lived a life of non-violence, he’d healed the sick, raised the dead, and freed the captives. He’d brought hope and life to those who needed it the most.

And in the end, he knew that he was not about to be thanked. He was about to be killed. Because in the end, the goodness, and the kindness, and the compassion he had brought were more of a threat to the Roman authorities, and clergy of his day, than any weapon or any army. He so radically upset the status quo that they decided their only choice was to kill him.

The night before, he wasn’t running away. He wasn’t preparing for a battle. He wasn’t plotting his revenge. Instead he was with the ones he loved most. The ones who loved him, but who weren’t perfect. The ones who knew who he was, and what he had done, and who would be the witnesses to his life after he was gone.

And that’s where that word “maundy” comes in. Because what do you do if you’re Jesus? What do you do if you know you are not going to be around much longer, and you have to tell the people you love the most, the ones who followed you, the ones who sometimes make big mistakes, how to keep moving in the right direction after you’re gone?

The word “maundy” comes from a Latin word: mandatum. And mandatum means “mandate” or a “commandment”. And when we talk about “Maundy Thursday” we’re talking about “mandate Thursday”. We’re talking about the night that Christ told his disciples exactly what he expected of them.

And if you read a book or watch a movie about almost anyone else, you might think the lead character right about now would be saying something like “avenge my death”, or “make sure there’s payback”, or “don’t let them get away with this…strike back”.

But this isn’t any other story. This is a story that turns everything on its head. The mandate, the mandatory thing Jesus tells us to do in this passage is this:

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

It probably wouldn’t do well at the box office. It wouldn’t get Nielsen ratings. The story wouldn’t soar to the top of the New York Times bestsellers list today. But it’s a story that transcends all of those things. Because it’s the beginning of a story about what happens when the world does its worst through violence, and hatred, and fear, and yet love wins anyway. It’s a story of love that was rejected and buried, and yet was still too strong to stay in the ground.

It’s not my job to rename Christian holy days. But if it were, I might change the name of Maundy Thursday. I might change it from this word that none of us really know anymore to something we would all understand. Something like “Love One Another Thursday”, or “The Last Thing Christ Really Wanted Us to Know Thursday”.

Because this is a message we Christians all need to hear. We don’t need to hide it behind fancy terms. We don’t need to just check it off as another night in holy week. We need to hear that this is how Christ said other people would know us: by how we love one another.

Maybe it would help us remember. Maybe it would help us remember not just what this night is about, but maybe it would help us remember what it means to be Christians. And maybe if we always had that reminder, if we always had that commandment to love in the front of our head, Christ’s dream for us would come true.

Maybe we wouldn’t be known as Christ’s disciples by the fact we put a Christian fish sticker on our car. Or wore a cross around our necks. Maybe we wouldn’t be know by what we said about what we believed. Maybe we wouldn’t be known by our what we voted for, or against.   Maybe we wouldn’t be known by the anger some Christians express on the evening news, or the mean-spiritedness others show in their day-to=day lives. Maybe instead we would just be known by the one thing Christ wanted us to be known for: by how we love.

In a few minutes we will be celebrating Communion together, and you’ll hear me repeat the words of institution, the phrases we are told Christ used as he broke bread and gave it to his disciples for the first time, on this same night many years ago. I’ll say to you that “on the night Christ was betrayed he took bread, and blessed it, and gave it to his disciples.”

You hear that all the time here, and if you are like me, you are uplifted by it.

But what if you heard this just as often too? “On the night Christ was betrayed he turned to his disciples and said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

We don’t say that often in service. Not in so many words. But I think we try to say it in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup. It’s no coincidence Christ said these things on the night of his supper, but we sometimes forget the say the words.

This year, let’s not forget. Between this Maundy Thursday and the one next year, let’s not forget what the mandate is. It’s so simple, and yet it demands our whole lives and our whole attentions. But here in the church, we can give Christ nothing less. Tonight as we eat this bread and drink this cup, as simple as it seems on the outside, know that we are choosing no less than to feast upon Christ’s love for us, and to bring that feast out to others. If every Christian would do that, no one would ever have to ask us who we follow. By our love, they would already know. Amen.