The Love Mandate: A post for Maundy Thursday

“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.” – John 13: 34-35

No one really uses the word “maundy” anymore in their daily lives. Which is why today can seem a little murkier than some of the other holy days in Lent. We get Ash Wednesday, and Palm Sunday, and Good Friday…but what’s “Maundy Thursday”?

10001453_10151948036261787_1162216634_nThe 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 before he died, when Christ told his disciples exactly what he expected them to do next.

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. Instead, the mandate that Jesus gives 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’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.”

There’s a song that many of us learned as children: “and they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love…and they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

It might not sound all that radical…but it is. It’s a song that reminds us of Christ’s true mandate. And it’s still the gauge of how well we are following him. Because, if we take Christ’s word for it, love is more than our mandate as Christians. It’s our calling card.

Prayer

God of love, help us to remember the mandate that Christ has given to us, on this sacred Thursday, and always. And God, may they know we are Christians by our love. Amen.

Between Sundays: A sermon for Palm Sunday, and beyond.

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Matthew 21:1-11
21:1 When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples,

21:2 saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me.

21:3 If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.”

21:4 This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

21:5 “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

21:6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them;

21:7 they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.

21:8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.

21:9 The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

21:10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?”

21:11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Today is the only day of the church year where you come to church and we give you not only your regular bulletin, but this palm frond too. If you aren’t expecting it, that probably seems a little odd.

Your palm fronds mean of course that it’s Palm Sunday. Which means we are getting close to the end of Lent, and are starting Holy Week. Next Sunday you’ll hopefully be here to help up celebrate the holiest day of the Christian year, Easter.

But today we have these palms to contend with, and what, from the outside, must look like a very strange tradition.

On Palm Sunday we remember Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. We remember how he rode into the city on a donkey, and the crowds were waiting for him. They had heard about him. They loved him. They threw their coats on the ground, and spread their palms out on the road, and they cheered as he came in. They were looking for the Messiah and they were sure it was him.

So all these centuries later we Christians gather in churches and collect these palms and wave them. We celebrate a great parade that took place long ago, the coming of the Messiah to Jerusalem. And we are so, so close to Easter. We almost want to take this day as a warm-up, a celebration before the big celebration.

And if you read the story today knowing nothing about what happens between Sundays, you could. But you all know that something happens between Sundays. And the story isn’t as straight-forward as it seems. Stories about Jesus seldom are.

When I was in college I saw a production of Jesus Christ Superstar. The musical traces the events of Holy Week and I was struck by the crowd, the chorus of singers that followed Jesus. As they waived palms on one Sunday they shouted his praises and sung and called out to him. But as the week went on, they changed. And by Friday, those same people once shouting their admiration were calling for his death.

It’s always stuck with me. That change in feeling. I think of it every year during Holy Week. Jesus goes from the exalted one to the one who is offered up as a sacrifice by the crowd. There’s something fitting about the fact that in many churches the palms from Palm Sunday are saved until the following Ash Wednesday, when they are then burned and turned into the ashes we wear as a symbol of our humaness and fraility and mistakes. Sometimes we turn from Christ, and we get it wrong.

We don’t like to dwell on that. We don’t like to dwell on the reality that Christ was betrayed, and denied, and abandoned. We like to stick with the Palm Sunday and Easter joy, not the Maundy Thursday and Good Friday pain.

Holy Week, fittingly, is the holiest week of the church year. It’s also the busiest. And many pastors, whether we admit it or not, know that when we announce the extra services that week there’s sort of a heavy sigh.

I get it. We’re all busy. Sunday morning feels hard enough for many good Christians. Thursday night, after a long day at work, is even tougher. You just want to go home, have dinner, and either tackle the pile of laundry or have a few precious hours to yourself. You probably don’t want to take the car out one more time, drive to church, and sit through another service, and one that’s not so joyful at that.

No one will blame you if you don’t. No pastor I know takes attendance, and, truth be told, we clergy all have our own Netflix queue and stack of unfinished novels that we might longingly look at on our way out of our own doors. But the occupational hazard of being clergy means we can’t call out on Holy Week. Which means the messages of the stories we hear on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday can’t go unheard by us.

That’s good because what we hear about Jesus on those two nights is the same as what we hear every day in our offices. But we don’t talk about that much. Because most churches are good at doing Sundays. But sometimes not so good at acknowledging what comes between Sundays.

On Sunday mornings we often focus on the joy. We sing uplifting hymns. We hear hopeful sermons. We smile. We shake hands. We dress up. We talk about grace and blessings and gratitude. That’s not a bad thing.

But when many of our parishioners leave on Sunday, they step into a different world. Between Sundays I visit with people who are facing a struggle that few in their lives  understand. They’re sick or injured. Dying or bereaved. Or depressed, heart-broken, betrayed, alone, and wrestling with doubt.

And if you come to church on Palm Sunday and Easter, you might not think we in the church know anything about that. But if you come between Sundays, you’ll find a faith that knows what that is like. More than that, you’ll find a God who knows what that is like.

To me, the most comforting part of Holy Week is not the waving of triumphal palms on one Sunday morning, or the flowers and joyous hymns on the next. It’s what happens in between.

It’s Jesus on Maundy Thursday sharing a table with the people he loved the most. It’s him washing their feet, and showing that the mark of a true leader is whether they can serve others.  And it’s Jesus still loving those disciples even though he knew that, at best, they would abandon him, and at worst, they would betray him. And it’s Jesus in the garden, alone, heart-broken, and struggling between what he wanted to do and what he knew he had to do.

And on Good Friday, it continues. The world turns against him, and the ones who cheered his entry in Jerusalem instead cheer his death. He suffers. He calls out to a God who does not seem to answer. He doubts. He feels pain, and loss, and grief. And in the end he loses the life he knew.

I’m sometimes asked by those who are going through a difficult time whether God is angry when they have doubts, or when they wonder why God doesn’t seem to be answering prayers. They ask if God understands when we suffer, or when we feel alone.

When they do, I point first not to the Christ of Palm Sunday or Easter, but to the Christ of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. The one who lived as one of us. Who loved as one of us. Who doubted as one of us. Who suffered as one of us. And who died as one of us.

And only then do I point to the Christ who rose again, and overcame the worst that the world could throw at him.

I sometimes worry that we forget the lessons of Holy Week the rest of the year. Some churches even cancel mid-week services due to low attendance, and instead roll all the stories into a “Passion Sunday” service on Palm Sunday. But when we forget Holy Week, I wonder if we are losing that time we once had to sit with Christ in his own human struggles? And I wonder if when we lose that time, we lose our ability to learn to sit with others in their struggle, and with ourselves in our own?

But what would Christian life look like if we took that time. What if we became known not just as the people who knew what to do on Sundays, but the ones who knew how to stay with you when your life was falling apart, just as Christ asks us to do on Maundy Thursday? Or the ones who could stand by and still love and respect you even when you call out your doubts, as Jesus did on the cross? What would happen if we weren’t just know for our Easter Sunday celebrations, but for our Thursday night solidarity? Our Friday afternoon compassion?

We have the capacity to be those people. We have it because Christ has called us to be those people. All we have to do is be willing to make the journey with him. Not just on Sundays, but on the days between. The world has plenty of Sunday morning Christians. It needs a few more of the weekday ones.

Today, we wave our palms. We shout Hosanna. We look ahead to the Resurrection. But when you leave, consider taking them with you. Consider keeping them this year as a reminder of who we are on Palm Sunday. And then, when the times get hard, and the week grows tougher, look at them as a reminder of who you could be. Not the person in the crowd who yells out what everyone else is yelling, but the person instead who believed what they said on Sunday, and who will follow Christ on this journey. Even a journey that continues between Sundays.

Christ is waiting for us there. May we join him on this holy path. Amen.

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.

Journey Through Lent: Days 35-37 (Monday through Wednesday of Holy Week)

Today is my weekly pastor’s sabbath. It’s the one day each week that I try to keep completely devoid of parish-related work. Except for emergencies, I don’t do anything pastoral. But tomorrow my “work week” starts again. And this is my busiest week of the year. It’s Holy Week, and in the run-up to Easter there are Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services to plan an officiate, Easter egg hunts to organize, Easter Sunday preparations to be made, and a seemingly never-ending list of details that need to be crossed off between now and Sunday.

It’s hard to sit here and not do any of those things. I know I could get a head start on them. I could maybe even knock out the special worship bulletins for all the services in the next few hours. Or, I could call the Scripture readers and make sure they are all ready. I could go over the hymns with the organist. I’ve already slipped once and emailed a parishioner back anyway.

But I’m resisting. Because the point of Holy Week isn’t about being as busy as possible. It’s about making room for God in our lives. And no matter how many important things that I think I have to do, nothing is more important than that.

The gift of sabbath, whether we take it on Sunday, or on another day of the week, is that it allows us the chance to not bow down to false idols. Money, demands on our time, and anxiety all take a back seat to the time we spend with God and those we love. And during Holy Week in particular, we have a chance to take small sabbaths along the way.

Maundy Thursday worship might cut into our usual evening routine, but by going anyway, we tell ourselves, and the world, that nothing is worth more than our time with God. The same is true on Good Friday, when services might cut into our workday, or on any other day this week when we feel torn between the demands of work and chores and the opportunity for sabbath.

I know it’s a struggle. I live that struggle every Monday on my days off. I’ve gotten better, but I’m nowhere close to perfect. But, when I really take my sabbath, I find myself more focused, more energized, and more ready to handle the demands of the rest of the week.

During Holy Week, that sabbath time is even more important. If we really pause to worship, and to pay attention to what is spiritually happening, we will find ourselves ready for Easter in ways we could not have imagined. It’s tempting to dismiss Holy Week services as “one more thing to do”. So, think about this instead. Think about Holy Week as “one more thing not to do”. Think of it as a chance to break the chains binding us to what doesn’t really matter, and choosing instead a life free of that bondage.

And then, take a night off…and come to church.

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.