Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Maundy Thursday 04/05/2012

Maybe more than at any other worship service all year, tonight is about what we do; the actions are louder than the words and there are a lot of actions; ritually, this is one of the busier services we have.  It starts with the act of forgiveness of sins, not just the words, which we hear just about every Sunday, but the act of hands being placed on your head as the words of forgiveness are spoken; that’s different; the physical nature of it makes it much more personal.  Forgiveness is for all of us together, but you’re more aware of the fact that it’s also for each of us individually.  That’s the first action. 

Tonight there’s also the act of washing feet which many find to be the most off putting and awkward thing that happens in church all year, a lot of churches don’t do it because of that.  It’s an act that leaves many echoing Peter saying, “No way, not me.”  That’s where I’d be too if I was sitting out there, but what better way to put into action and to visualize Jesus’ command to love one another than to do something as menial as washing someone’s feet?  I’m glad we don’t do it every week, but tonight it is important.    

Then there is the ritual action that we are most familiar with, the sacrament of Holy Communion, the meal that Jesus introduced on this night before he died.  We do this every week, but tonight it has added weight as we begin these three holy days knowing that this act of love quickly leads to betrayal and arrest so we think about it differently. 

The final action of the night is the stripping of the altar.  For a lot of us it’s one of the most moving moments of the church year as it symbolically prepares Jesus for death and leaves us feeling a little bit drained, a little bit sorrowful as the service ends and the words of Psalm 22 echo.  Actually there is one more action after that, which is all of us leaving the dark church not in conversation and fellowship as is usual, but in silence.  Tonight is about what we do.  There are words too, there always are, and the words are important; but tonight it really is about the actions; too many words just get in the way.

There are reasons why we do what we do tonight, reasons that remind us of why we do everything we do in worship.  Especially during these three days before Easter what we do is about defining and remembering who we are and when done properly, it really doesn’t require a lot of explanation.  Again, the actions explain themselves.  The way the actions make you feel also tells you a lot.

The first reading tonight, goes into detail about how the people of Israel were to observe the Passover.  Much of it seems rather arcane and foreign to us, not terribly interesting, and actually what we hear tonight is just the beginning; it goes way beyond the 14 verses that were read.  But the Passover was the saving event for these people.  As such it was important to remember because for them the Passover wasn’t an event understood to be just for one group of people a long time ago; it was understood as a once but for all event.  So it had to be remembered not just in the past tense but in the present tense for every generation that would follow, whatever their circumstances might be.  The Passover had to be remembered, because otherwise…people forget; it’s that simple.  People forget what happened and with that, they forget who they are.

So in the book of Exodus the story is told, but also the details of the action because it’s the repetition of the acts that reinforces the remembering and creates the identity; it’s the repetition of the acts that evokes questions about why, and the questions then get back to the identity; this is who we are.  For Jewish people, they are people of marked doorposts that help them remember that they are special in God’s eyes, protected against forces that threaten them.  They are people who eat the “hurried bread,” the unleavened bread of the Passover to remind them that this is urgent, not casual.

We don’t do the same things that Jewish people do.  Our rituals are different, but the reasons for them are the same.  What we do tonight and tomorrow and Saturday and Sunday is all about our identity.  The actions of these days bring home to us who we are in ways that we are probably not even aware of.  Think about Holy Communion.  When surveys are done that ask people what the most important part of worship is for them, among Lutherans anyway, communion always wins.  As much as I would like it to be the sermon, communion wins.

And that’s interesting, because if you were asked to explain why that is, why communion is so important to you, I bet you would have a hard time putting it into words, because it’s not about words.  It’s the action, the repeated action done week after week, year after year throughout your life that forms you, that changes you, that makes you know who you are and especially it makes you know that God is present with you, that God isn’t just an impersonal force out there, but one who comes to us in flesh and blood, bread and wine.  For someone outside the tradition, it doesn’t make sense, but for those of us for whom this is our ritual, it makes perfect sense.  This is who we are.  We are part of God’s story and it’s not just an old, old story, it’s our story right now.

In that respect, the ritual act of Holy Communion is a source of great comfort; but one of the things we face with our actions tonight is the fact that this identity we claim, this story which we are part of isn’t all about comfort, it isn’t just a feel good story because life isn’t just a feel good story.  So with our actions tonight we also encounter loss, profound loss because it is part of life.  Often though, we’d rather not talk about it; we’d rather not think about it and many don’t.  Crowds will show up on Sunday for Easter.  Crowds show up for Christmas, they show up for Mother’s Day but not so much tonight or tomorrow even though these are among the holiest liturgical days of the year. 

Like it or not though, we confront loss tonight and we enact that loss in the stripping of the altar.  The ladies of the altar guild will carefully and reverently remove the candles, the communion ware, the books, the linens, the paraments, everything from the altar and the surrounding furnishings.  It’s very moving in a sad way and a little bit shocking at the same time.  It doesn’t seem right to see the altar like that and quickly the remaining light will go dark so we don’t have to see it for long.  But for that moment we confront loss and vulnerability. 

On leaving tonight, we’re kind of left there; there isn’t a happy ending tonight, but we don’t leave in despair because we know this is part of the path to Easter.  We confront loss because it is part of life and our faith is an honest faith that doesn’t pretend to be just one long Easter celebration.  In faith though, we know that as we experience loss, God is working through it to create new life.     

Tonight, the actions are important, and so we continue. 

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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