Grace, Gift, and Generosity

This week is about grace, gift, and generosity…

Those words spoken by Rev. Peter Matthews during his Palm Sunday sermon settled into my heart yesterday with an intensity that surprised me! For the past few days I have been pondering the irony of Palm Sunday: Jesus riding on a colt, nearing Jerusalem amidst cheers of “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”, all the while knowing that he was riding towards a gruesome death, called for by the very people who were now singing his praises. I have imagined the anguish he must have felt as he tried to reconcile this praise that was rightly his with the coming crucifixion that was certainly not.

Holy Week of 1988 forever changed my experience of Easter. My life commitment to Christ was still relatively new. We had just moved far from our Kentucky roots, settling in a little town in southern Alabama. In our search for a new church home, we were led to an Episcopal church which was a far cry from what I was used to. I decided to participate in all the events of Holy Week, curious to experience fully the traditions of this new denomination. As I journeyed from the palm-waving praise of Palm Sunday to the somber reflection of Maundy Thursday–kneeling in the dimly-lit sanctuary, listening to the haunting words and melody of “Were You There When They Crucified my Lord” softly sung acapella which provided an apt backdrop for the stripping of the altar and the draping of the cross–I wept with an awareness of Christ’s suffering that I had never before experienced.

As painful as the anticipation I felt in that Maundy Thursday service was, returning to the darkened sanctuary with the black-draped cross for Good Friday itself was heart-wrenching. By this time, I had so entered into Christ’s passion that I was simply wrecked…or so I thought. I grieved and wept, and for the first time I could understood that ancient Jewish practice of putting on sackcloth and pouring ashes over one’s head in an expression of unbearable grief. Saturday’s Easter Vigil brought little relief. That black-draped cross and bare altar overshadowed the baptism of a young woman that evening.

Finally, Easter morning dawned! We headed to church with an anticipation the likes of which I had never before felt for Easter Sunday! I was not disappointed… We entered into a sanctuary resplendent with beautiful flowers and freshly polished brass, the black drape happily missing and the altar covered in starched white linen, the candles lit in welcome. The choir sang a beautiful anthem as the little children in their Easter finery (and I do mean finery–no one does this like southern mommas!) processed into the sanctuary, each with a flower to place on a styrofoam cross wrapped in chicken wire–something quite ugly to start with and absolutely beautiful when the children were finshed with it! The joyful praise, so much richer than those Palm Sunday hosannas, reverberated as we worshiped our Risen Lord. It was then that I was totally wrecked!

Long story, I know. But I needed to relive it in order to see clearly why those words spoken by Fr. Peter yesterday captured my heart. For the past 30 years I have experienced Easter in much the same way as in 1988. Each year I recall the memory of that particular Easter and how it changed my perception of that final agonizing week of Jesus’ earthly life…how it changed me. I’ve entered into the darkness of it in order to fully experience the unsurpassing joy of Easter.

But this year I want to embrace Holy Week differently. I’ve pondered and lamented my sin and the world’s sin and the darkness that Jesus came to illuminate, as any Christian must! But today I want to lay all that aside to remember what this week is really about: God’s incredibly generous gift of absolutely amazing grace! I want to experience all week that unsurpassing joy I typically save for Easter morning!

My prayer for you is that you will open wide your arms, unclench your hands from whatever you are holding so tight, and simply receive the deeper truth that this week–of all weeks–is about grace, gift, and generosity. Amen and amen!

The rest of the story

Christ Washing the Feet of the Apostles by Meister des Hausbuches, 1475 (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

As has been my practice for many years, I attended the Maundy Thursday worship service tonight. It marks the beginning of the Easter Triduum–in my opinion, the three most important days of the year–recalling the passion, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This service includes the washing of the feet, a particularly meaningful ritual for me. Even so, my first instinct is to balk at participating…until I think of Peter’s initial refusal to let Jesus wash his feet. In Jesus’ mind, it was critical that Peter allow this.

8… Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”

As with Peter, I relent, taking my seat before the basin. And I wonder… Why did Jesus insist that Peter allow his feet to be washed? Why was this act so important?

The gospel reading this evening–fitting for Maundy Thursday–was from John 13. I love this story and I use it often as I teach on serving, when addressing the inevitable question, “Why are we supposed to serve others?”

“14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”

Like all children, when mine were young they would pepper me with the question, “Why?” Sometimes, in an effort to expedite whatever I wanted accomplished or to nip an argument in the bud, my reply would simply be, “Because I said so, that’s why.” Similarly, John 13:14-15 is the quick answer to, “Why are we supposed to serve others?”

Tonight I hears something more. When Pastor Lee came to the end of the gospel reading that was listed in our bulletin, he kept reading…

34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

As I sat down and offered my feet to be washed, I realized that there is indeed more to the story than I have shared when teaching. It is true that the reason we serve is because Jesus says we should, but that’s not the full answer. We serve others because in so doing, we are identified as disciples of Christ. It is the way we reflect His selfless love for all humankind.

I hesitate to have my feet washed because it is a humbling experience for me. I am far more comfortable washing someone else’s feet. I suspect Peter may have felt the same, which is why Jesus knew Peter–and I–needed to submit to having our feet washed before we could have any part with Jesus, before we would be truly ready to answer His call to serve others.

The next time I’m asked, “Why are we supposed to serve others?” I think I will avoid sharing the expeditious answer, and tell the whole story instead. Amen and amen!