Sermon for Maundy Thursday, 2016: What makes us church (preached at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin in San Francisco)

This homily is for the kitchen workers – despite the fact that most of them probably won’t hear it, because they are too busy cleaning up right now.  Still – I think it’s important to take the time to thank them – to thank you – for all the work you do behind the scenes to make our communal worship possible.  Thank you to those who brought the food and to those who prepared it.  Thanks to those who set the tables and those who planned and will participate in the worship service.  Thank you all for offering your gifts to this community – because without those gifts, this community doesn’t work.  Without the gifts of all members of our community, we cease to be one.

Because it is those who perform the hidden tasks in our community that are crucial to holding us together.  It is easy to assume that the clergy has all the power in the parish, but that is not the nature of the Episcopal Church.  The Episcopal Church is a uniquely American institution and it is a democracy.  And the most important people in that democracy are the “kitchen workers.”  It is our everyday workers – the altar guild, the Sunday school teachers, the choirs, the ushers, the office volunteers, the flower guild, the liturgy commission, the anniversary planners and all of the many other “kitchen workers” who are the beating heart of our community.

More importantly, it’s not just what they – what we – do that’s so crucial to our identity as a church community.  It’s the reason we do things – the why of our actions – that truly make us “church.”

It’s common for us to think of “church” in terms of our religious rituals – and for many of us getting those rituals just “right” makes a huge difference in the beauty and authenticity of our spiritual experiences.  We can be so drawn to the words of the service, or the music, or the actions of the players that when we don’t get those things “right” it ruins “church” for us.

Tonight’s readings suggest that the Lord of the Israelites felt that way too.  The Lord tells Moses and Aaron precisely how they should remember and celebrate the Passover of the Lord – the subtext being that if it’s not done just that way, it’s not a valid ritual.  Getting their worship right was pretty important to our religious forbearers too.

Which leads us to wonder why, if the Last Supper of Jesus was, as the Gospel of John suggests, his celebration of the Passover – Jesus himself decided to do his church wrong.  Because if we’re paying attention we have to notice that Paul’s account of Jesus’s gathering with his friends for the Passover meal bears only a passing resemblance to the description of Passover in Exodus – and John’s gospel has Jesus going completely off script.  When he tells his disciples he needs to wash their feet, they have no idea what to do because Jesus is not following protocol.  He is messing up the service.   Why, we might wonder, is Jesus not doing “church” the “right way”?

Luckily for us, Jesus answers this unasked question.  He tells his disciples that the reason –the why – they have gathered is much more important than what they do or how they do it when they get there.  “I am with you only a little longer,” he says, and I love you.  What is important, according to Jesus, is that they – that we -spend time together – and that that time is filled with love.  Jesus doesn’t leave his disciples with a transcript, a shopping list and musical selections for their time together.  He leaves them instead with a very simple command: Love one another.  That, he says, is how to do church – with humility and kindness and love – not worrying about things being perfect, but making sure everyone is happy to be there.  What Jesus’s example shows us is that “church” is simply an opportunity to be together – and to love each other in the best way we can.  Like Jesus.  Like the disciples.  Like the kitchen crew.

And in that spirt of love and the importance of being together on this significant day, we now invite you to proceed into the church sanctuary to share in the traditional rituals of foot washing and the stripping of the altar.

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