Thursday, April 5, 2012

And Still I Rise

My Maundy Thursday sermon for 2012

This is my body  Jesus says of the bread tonight. And this is my body he says of us. These are the twin elements of communion—linked to Christ through bread and through each other.

The words of institution sound so normal to us today… we hear them so often, and we know some of the many interpretations they carry with them..  what must they have thought at that table, that night, when Jesus said them?  Or in Paul’s community of Corinthians, to whom he is writing them… what did they mean for them? 1980 years ago (more or less) a group of friends sat around a table eating a meal and were confused… and at every meal that that group of friends—and subsequent groups of friends of those friends—ate to remember the first meal, the meanings have gotten richer, if not crystal clear.

Tonight is about the new covenant and the new commandment.  A covenant is an agreement between two parties; it’s mutual—neither side can impose it, and both sides have duties to uphold under it.  In the Old Covenant between God and Abraham and his descendents—signs of its fulfillment were land and progeny, and eventually the law. The signs of the new covenant on our side are our worship and our praise, our continuance in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship and prayers; our obedience to the new commandment to love one another as he has loved us.  And on God’s side, God gives us eternal life. 

On Saturday night, we will renew of our baptismal vows at the Easter vigil.  Tonight is the renewal of our baptismal action. The washing away of our sins, the intimacy with one another and God that is what communion is all about.  We eat, we drink, and we serve one another….  And then we mourn together.  It’s like in cultures where women still prepare bodies for burial. You wash the body lovingly, wrap it in cloth, and prepare it for the tomb. That’s communion—with the one who has died and the sisterhood of servants. Tonight we do that to the altar—the stand in for Jesus’ body. We take away all the stuff that’s excess.  The candles, the cross, the linens, the furniture, until all we have left is the table. And that stays.  Empty. And then, when it’s all away, we can mourn for a while.  Go to the garden and weep and pray, and keep vigil with the body. 

I have here the Fermentum.  This is a piece of the bread that was consecrated by our bishop on Tuesday at the Chrism Mass at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.  In each church in our diocese (or at least in the churches that remembered to get their piece of the fermentum) it will be placed in the cup or on the plate of bread we consecrate tonight as a sign of our communion one with another beyond this parish’s boundaries.  You might hear in the Latin fermentum a sound like “fermentation”… or hear the meaning behind it which is the idea that it is leaven; it is yeast.  It is one tiny piece that imbues the whole assembly with communion with the wider church. 

Jesus is the leaven for our gathering.  His body has died so that ours may live.  So that he may be the leaven that brings us fully to life: that causes us to rise.  You only need a little bit of leaven to make all the dough rise.  Communion is leaven: in both directions. In our community,  love, the bonds of affection, accountability, faithfulness, they all help us to rise.  Partaking of the bread and wine draws us ever closer to Jesus, ever closer to rising to eternal life with him.  And we are called to be leaven in the world---the living organism that in being mixed with diverse ingredients creates something wonderful and delicious. It’s not about making everyone be exactly like us or believe exactly like us, it’s about taking the unique message of Christ out into the world and setting the Gospel free to grow and thrive. 

In the Passover story from the Hebrew Bible tonight, we are reminded that after slavery comes freedom.  In the Gospel and Epistle, the message is that after death comes life. Both attest that after violence and oppression come relief and a rising.   Which made me think of the poem by Maya Angelou, “And still I rise.” May be we the leaven to the world that gives us confidence in our ability to be raised, and to rise.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I'll rise.

Out of the huts of history's shame
I rise
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

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