SERMON FOR MAUNDY THURSDAY 1999
By the Revd. J. Michael Povey at St. Stephen's, Pittsfield, MA
I was chatting the other week with one of our good parishioners and she
reminded me of her disaffection with the institutional Church. She got no
disagreement from me. What ought to be so simple -- ordinary people
finding extra-ordinary communion with God through Jesus -- has been
complicated beyond all comprehension. We have built an enormous
institution on the simple life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. It is an
institution which often seems designed more to keep people from God
than to introduce them to the profligate love of God.
For that is what Jesus is all about. He is constantly saying and indicating
that communion with God is not a reward for good people, nor is it
privilege for religious leaders and other elites. Jesus declares that God
calls all people to the relaxation of knowing that they are beloved by God.
Never is this clearer than in what we call Jesus' Table Fellowship. Jesus
loves to sit at table with prostitutes and tax collectors, that is with the
dregs of his society. It is as if he were saying "look, in God's reign the feast
of abundance has no seating plan, no high table -- in God's reign the
humble are exalted". The so-called last supper plays this out to the limits.
Jesus, the host takes on the role of the servant as he washes the disciples
feet. Even Judas could have chosen to stay and enjoy the meal had not his
mind been set on betrayal.
It sounds so attractively simple and gracious. When God reigns there are
no limits to God's hospitality. Yet within a few centuries the picture had
changed. For the Roman Emperor began to take the place of God as the
one who issued the invitation to the feast. And since the Emperor began to
call the shots it became fashionable to become Christian. St. Ambrose of
Milan writes "And here is one who comes to the Church because he is
looking for honors under the Christian Emperors; he pretends to request
baptism with simulated respect; he bows, he prostrates; but he does not
bend his knee in spirit". An early Church historian named Eusebius
reports an Imperial banquet given by the Emperor Constantine for the
Bishops. "Detachments of the bodyguard and troops surrounded the
entrance of the palace with drawn swords, and through the midst of them
the men of God (the Bishops) proceeded without fear into the innermost
of the Imperial apartments, in which some were the Emperor's
companions at table, whilst others reclined on couches arranged on either
side". As John Dominic Crossan comments "the inclusive meal practice of
Jesus --- has been replaced by an imperial banquet at which the
participants are the male Bishops alone, and they recline, with the
Emperor himself, to be served by others".
And so the Supper of the Lord becomes an Imperial Banquet and the institution becomes more important than the people. Even this lovely room is set out more like a banqueting hall than the family dining room. The "high table" is set on a raised platform and the robed Clergy have places of honor. Our Liturgy, stilted and formal, struggles in spite of itself.
to convey the message "come hungry and thirsty ones, God invites you here
so that you may hunger no more and thirst no more".
I know that many of you believe that I am being cranky and quirky when I
suggest that lay ministers ought not to robe. It's not that I am against
robes, but I really want us to be able to visualize the truth of God which is
firmly opposed to religious elites. Lay people, dressed as lay people,
standing at the Altar Table help to remind us that we are all welcome at
God's meal. I know all too well that as a professional religious leader I am
often much too concerned with my status and prerogatives than with
living and proclaiming the Gospel invitation. For that reason I do a very
old fashioned thing at Eucharist, I wear this dated Vestment called a
Maniple. It is a reminder of Jesus taking a towel as he, servant-like,
washes the disciples' feet, a reminder to me that I am here to serve and not
to rule. God help you when the institution of the Church becomes more
important to me than the message of God's inclusive love.
And in a few moments I shall do something which I find to be somewhat hokey, something which I dislike, but must do. I shall wash some feet, to remind me of who I really am. The Institutional Church wants me to act like a surrogate of the Emperor, and boy do I like that. But Christ wants me to be a simple servant, the one who sets the table, who waits on table, who does the dishes so that, from the least to the greatest we all may simply relax and sit at Table with Jesus. And Jesus has the same welcome for each and every guest "I am the bread of life, those who feast with me shall never be hungry".
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