Thursday, April 18, 2019

Maundy Thursday 2019: The power of servanthood today

Lectionary: Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14; Psalm 116:1, 10-17; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Note: If this recording doesn't play on your device, click HERE for an alternative audio format.

Our reading tonight from Exodus always feels a little alien to me: animal sacrifice just isn’t part of my life experience. And the details about how exactly to do the sacrifice… well, it all seems a bit excessive. Until we consider our Holy Eucharist and the rubrics we keep as we offer our sacrifice of thanksgiving. In ritual practice, the details matter.

Moses and Aaron instructed the people to sacrifice a lamb. This is where we Christians get our language about Jesus as the Paschal Lamb, the perfect sacrifice who gave his life for our redemption.

As for me, I struggle against the theology of substitutionary atonement, that is, that Jesus made a choice to be punished - even unto death - for our sins in order to satisfy the demands of justice so that God could forgive us. I don’t buy it, though I don’t judge those who do.

I even struggle being part of a legacy that honors sacrifice. It just doesn’t fit with my experience of God. I am, however, part of that legacy. We all are.

Our forbears in faith sacrificed animals - some to appease an angry or vindictive God; and while that may not have been supported by their religious authorities it was in the hearts of some of the people as evidenced in the language of the stories we inherited in our Scripture.

For our Jewish forebears, these rituals were likely to have been for the purpose of communion - a means to bridge the realms of heaven and earth, to draw people into relationship with one another and into relationship with God. The role of the victim was as mediator between the realms. Source.

I can roll with that.

As we read these stories from our Scripture this Holy Week, we do so from our experience and present context. When Jesus was acting out this gospel lesson for his followers he was using experiences and language that they knew and understood, ritual actions that had deep meaning for them. And he asked us to remember…

When we remember we are doing so much more than recalling events, or even making them real in the present moment. The kind of remembering Jesus asked us to do, as one theologian said, brings “past actions to bear on the present, with new power and insight.” Source.

That is our purpose tonight. We are distant enough in time from ritual animal sacrifice that it: a) seems alien to us and incongruent with our spiritual experience; and b) kind of grosses us out.

So, how can we relate? Well, we look at what this particular evening of sacrifice meant to our forbears, how it impacts the world we live in, and what power and insight it brings us today.

“In ancient Judaism the ḥaṭṭaʾt, or ‘sin offering,’ was … for the expiation of certain, especially unwittingly committed, defilements. The guilty laid their hands upon the head of the sacrificial animal” [a lamb according to the instructions in Exodus]. “In this way they identified themselves with the victim, making it their representative (but not their substitute, for their sins were not transferred to the victim).”

The early Christians took this ritual and brought its power and insight to bear on their present moment delivering to us our ritual of Holy Communion and, specifically, our Maundy Thursday observance of it. We are called to so the same thing now. In the gospel from John we see a past action that bears on our present moment in a very powerful way. Jesus is demonstrating servant leadership – a concept almost as alien today as it was then.

Whether the leadership we know is political, religious, or familial servant leadership runs counter to the understanding of leadership in current culture. As one modern theologian says, the power model of leadership… “is focused on “how to accumulate and wield power, how to make people do things, how to attack and win. It is about clever strategies, applying pressure, and manipulating people to get what you want.” Source: Aug 4, 2015 by Scot McNight

Servant leadership, on the other hand, leads by serving a concept that almost sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s only contradictory on the surface. As theologian and bishop, Bennett J. Sims, said in his seminal book, “Servanthood: Leadership for the Third Millennium,” “From the secular perspective ‘servanthood’ often means ‘servitude,’ a condition either imposed on women and racially different groups by male-dominated cultures, or self-imposed by both men and women out of their fear of power.” …I will argue that servanthood is the way of fulfilling the human longing for peace and the planet’s need of preservation as the theater of all life. …Servant power functions as a two-way exchange, never as subjugating dominance; it not only influences others, but is open to influence. Servanthood acknowledges and respects of the freedom of another and seeks to enhance the other’s capacity to make a difference.” Source, published 1997, Preface, p1.

This way of understanding servant leadership isn’t actually new to the Christian community. In the 4th century, St. Augustine of Hippo said this: “For you I am a bishop, but with you I am a Christian. The first is an office accepted; the second is a gift received. One is danger, the other is safety. If I am happier to be redeemed with you than to be placed over you, then I shall, as the Lord commanded, be your servant.”

In our gospel reading, we hear Jesus say, “I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” As the redeemed, we must get on our knees and serve humbly. And really, washing feet is washing feet, right? It’s a difficult and humbling experience on both sides of the basin then and now as Peter so aptly illustrates for us.

Jesus also 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."

Our task, as the church of today, is to bring Jesus’ words to bear on our present moment with all their power and insight. We start by celebrating this perpetual feast bridging the realms of heaven and earth, in order to draw people into deeper relationship with one another and with God. And we remember…that in whatever way we choose to understand it, Jesus has launched the fulfillment of God’s plan of redemption and in doing so, made us all one family.

Then he showed us how to live into our redemption by serving one another humbly. He even gave us a ritual to help us bring the power and insight of our remembering to bear on our present experience: washing one another’s feet.

At this time, then, we proceed with this powerful, humbling experience of servanthood as Jesus taught us.

No comments: