When it was evening, he came with the twelve. And when they had taken their places and were eating, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.” They began to be distressed and to say to him one after another, “Surely, not I?”He said to them, “It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the bowl with me.For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.”
While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”
Who do you invite to your dinner table? As Jesus approaches the hour of his death, he gathers around him his most beloved and trusted friends, the twelve disciples. As the darkness gathers beyond that room, Jesus take the time to be present with those to whom he has taught everything he knows. And as one of his final lessons, he breaks bread.
Scholars often point out that, before sex or any other form of “joining together”, meal-sharing has since ancient times been the central expression of unity and intimacy between people. In the Psalms, trust in God is expressed when people gather at table, even in the presence of their enemies. Abraham greets God’s messengers with a meal; worship in the temple is centered around the giving and receiving of God’s generous gift of food to eat and enjoy.
So it isn’t surprising that Jesus would tell his final lesson with the elements of bread and cup. For the last few days, he has again and again told his disciples that he is going to Jerusalem, and that he will suffer and die. Again and again, they have struggled to hear his words. He has asked them to pick up their cross and follow him; they have argued over who will be the most powerful.
And so now, as he breaks bread and pours the cup, he reminds them, reminds us, that even at the table of communion we are challenged, for at the table we cannot ignore or pass over the reality of Christ’s suffering. “Take; this is my body….This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.”
Jesus doesn’t want us to miss the connection between our communion at table and our participation in the journey of the cross. See, it turns out that, when Jesus asked us to pick up a cross and follow him, he meant it. As would-be disciples of the Lord, he asks us to “get busy” doing what Christ did. And as we stand on the edge of Good Friday, we are reminded that if we do as Christ does, we may be punished for it. We may find ourselves abandoned, imprisoned, even put to death.
In their book The Last Week, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan reflect that Jesus is incredibly consistent in the week leading up to his death. Again and again, he will remind his followers that the Kingdom of God invites particiation–that as disciples, Jesus calls us to serve, to kneel, to follow, to tend. That we cannot have the glory without the struggle that precedes it. That if we are going to walk this path, we need to be willing to “drink the cup” that Christ drank. In other words- if we would call ourselves disciples, then we will find ourselves where Jesus is: in opposition to the powers and principalities of this world, which would prefer that things stay the way they are. And when we place ourselves in the path of empire, we need to be prepared for the possibility that we may get run over. We may endure struggle, suffering, even death.
But when we follow Jesus, we must also remember: we are not alone. We are with Christ.
Maundy Thursday begins with a meal, and ends with a conviction. By the dawn’s light, Jesus will be handed over for a death sentence, his followers will have scattered, Peter will have denied him, Judas will have betrayed him, and Jesus will be alone. The unity of the table will seem to be shattered.
Even from these bones, God will breathe life. For every time we gather at table, we rebuke the darkness and the fear that caused Jesus’ disciples to abandon him. We remember that even those who were afraid were welcomed by Jesus, reconciled and redeemed on Easter morning. We testify to the truth: that being a disciple is HARD work, that we WILL fail, but that God’s love in Christ can transform us.
A Prayer for Maundy Thursday:
Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, help me stand, I am tired I am weak I am worn. Through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light. Take my hand, precious Lord, take me home.
Holy God, as we stand on the threshold: between the past and the present, between your ministry and your death, between hope and fear, send Your Spirit to be amongst us.
To those of us who are afraid of the cost of discipleship, give us courage.
To those of us who are tempted to flee when the risks become high, console us with the knowledge that you welcome the broken and the fearful into Your arms.
To those of us tempted to sell you out, to give you up, either because we don’t understand Your Kingdom or because we have other ideas, remind us that even the enemy was welcome at the table, and that Christ loves us even at our worst.
To those of us who would condemn you, persecute and even kill you, break our hearts with the compassion that comes from God, and the courage to act humbly and righteously in the midst of a violent and broken world.
And to those who would stand on the fence, taking no sides, convict us. Open our hearts to the knowledge that to do nothing is to choose.
Holy God, help us always to remember this truth: that as often as we love, help, hurt, fear, condemn, and ignore our brother or sister in Christ, we do it to you. May we never forget: the drama of Holy Week is re-enacted every. single. day. Give us eyes to see, and feet to walk the path your Son Jesus Christ walked, then and now.
We live increasingly in a world of violence, and we offer our prayers today for those in Brussels whose world has been pierced by the sword of terror.
For civilians who fear the threat of bombs in public places–airports and subways, markets and malls–we pray.
For the families of the dead in Brussels, but also in South Sudan, in Syria, we cry in mourning.
For first responders, police and fire and hospital staff, who balm the wounds, comfort the dying, tend the traumatized, seek the perpetrators, we beg that you would watch over them.
And for those of us who wait and watch from a distance–give us courage to be a people of peace where we are. Help us to preach the Word of Jesus’ Kingdom, to seek unity with our neighbor, and to meet the violence of this world with the kiss of peace.
May it be so. Amen.
-pray a prewritten prayer, like the Lord’s Prayer or Psalm 23?
-did you have to learn how to pray, or did you always know?
-do you follow a pattern or use a specific order?
-do you say whatever is on your mind?
-do you say anything? Or are you quiet?
-how do you situate yourself? Are you standing? Sitting? Lying down?
-when do you pray?
When I was in seminary, I knew people who used prayer wheels, people who prayed out of a book, people who believed the only true prayers were ones made of your own words, people who insisted that the ancient prayers of our faith were the ideal, and people who believed that the prayer that was pleasing to God was one offered in the holy tongue of angels.
I knew people who believed that prayer was something you could learn, like Spanish or Math, and advised others to take their handy four-week course in order to learn how to pray, and people who believed that prayer was a natural language, a spiritual gift beyond words and therefore beyond teaching.
What is true about prayer is that people have been doing it as long as there have been people. Whether you believe in one god or many, or simply in the ingenuity of the human spirit, it would seem that the human tendency is towards looking beyond what is, and speaking into the mystery of the universe in which we are guests.
And like anything important, prayer is one of those practices that humanity has spent a lot of time and effort arguing over how to do right.
Three preachers sat discussing the best positions for prayer while a telephone repairman worked nearby.
“Kneeling is definitely best,” claimed one.
“No,” another contended. “I get the best results standing with my hands outstretched to Heaven.”
“You’re both wrong,” the third insisted. “The most effective prayer position is lying prostrate, face down on the floor.”
The repairman could contain himself no longer. “Hey, fellas, ” he interrupted, “the best prayin’ I ever did was hangin’ upside down from a telephone pole.”
Which gets me to our question today: one of you all was curious: why don’t Presbyterians kneel when we pray in church? It is a good question, one that I suppose could have as much to do with comparing our practice to other traditions as it might have to do with wondering whether there is a right or wrong way to pray in our tradition.
So let’s talk about it.
When the question was posed, I initially thought to myself that there very well may be an “argument against kneeling” in our history. I often hear kneeling referred to as a “catholic practice.” The reformed church, which had its beginnings nearly 500 years ago in Europe, spent many of the early years distancing itself from the Catholics, with whom they split. And like any disagreement, there were moments when the church went ugly, and spent its time arguing about why Catholics were wrong instead of wondering about how to be faithful to God.
So when I turned to John Calvin, the founding father of Presbyterianism, I will admit I expected to find some “anti-Catholicism” rear its ugly head. And instead I was pleasantly surprised.
Here is something we need to remember about our theological roots: one of the most important insights that John Calvin contributed to the church was the insight that we ought to let Scripture guide our practice. If the reformation had a slogan, then it was sola scripture, the idea that what mattered most about being Christian was fidelity to God’s Word, which required that we know it.
So when he gets to prayer, Calvin first turns to the Bible, and what it says on the subject. And according to John Calvin, the Bible is totally cool with kneeling, or raising your hands to the sky, for that matter. Our scripture this morning, at least, should be a reminder that there are at least as many ways to pray as there are people in scripture. The test of any prayer position, according to Calvin, is this: does it help you focus your attention on God? Does it bring us closer into communion with the One we have come to know as our Savior in Christ? Or does it draw attention to yourself?
Turns out the early church had no problem with what it called “ceremony” or exercises of piety, as long as it was used to deepen our relationship with God. Which meant that people were given the freedom to respond to God in the ways that seemed appropriate to them. Which also meant, for the most part, doing away with the requirement that a congregation kneel in prayer. If it brings you closer to Christ, he says, do it. If it doesn’t, don’t sweat it.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that other Presbyterians haven’t railed against practices like kneeling. The Scottish reformer John Knox famously preached a sermon before King Edward the 7th of England in which he stridently argued against kneeling during worship, especially before communion, because he worried that in kneeling the people might be tempted to worship the elements of bread and wine rather than the God who gave them in Christ.
All of this is to say that what is important to remember, I think, is that our history, our legacy as Presbyterians, leaves a lot of room for freedom in prayer. We may not have a whole lot of rules about how one ought to pray, but this should be an opportunity to allow for diversity and freedom in our prayer life, rather than uniformity. At any given time, anyone in this room could find themselves brought to their knees or moved to lift their hands, or faithfully to remain still in the presence of God. All of these responses are and can be faithful when they draw us closer to God.
Which leads me to the question that has been bugging me: if we are so big on freedom, and on the ability to choose your own way in prayer, why is it that we all feel so much pressure to conform to what the other people in the pews are doing?
I remember when I was in college I attended two different faith communities: a campus ministry, and my local Presbyterian church. At church, I would sometimes feel so moved by music, or in confession, that I felt compelled to get on my knees. Except. I was embarrassed about what other people might think about me. I was afraid of drawing attention to myself. So I didn’t. I sat motionless in my pew and struggled with the conflict between how I felt and how I was. And in campus ministry, everyone was always raising their hands and swaying to the music, which often made me feel pressure to do the same. I worried that if I didn’t, I might be missing out on something.
I know I am not alone. We all feel the pressure to conform to the “rules,” and in the absence of rules we make our own. I told myself that the rules dictated that I had to stay in my seat like everyone else. But in the process, I deprived my soul of an opportunity to draw closer to God in prayer. In both of these situations, it was easier to submit to community pressure than it was to follow my own sense of what practices might draw me closer to Christ.
So the question for us is this: what kind of church are we? Last week we shared our ideas about our dream church with one another, and one of the qualities that was mentioned over and over again was welcoming and inclusive. For many of you, the church at its best is a place where people from every kind of background can gather together as a community, as a family, and feel like they belong. And I am so proud to be the pastor of a place with dreams like that. Because that means that, if we live into our dream for ourselves, we should feel free to pray in whatever way feels honest. We should feel free to be ourselves in the presence of God and one another, without fear of breaking some unspoken rule.
In the words of Calvin: love will be the best judge of what may hurt or edify. If we let love be our guide, all will be safe.
Brothers and sisters, let us pray with love, and let us be a house of prayer, with hands raised, knees bowed, hearts inclined toward God, our Rock and our Refuge.
Our mighty band of fellow travelers gathered in fellowship for a second day of study and conversation. Our task today: to gather and consider the Scriptures of Epiphany through Transfiguration. To help us do this, our facilitator, the talented Dr. Judy Siker, introduced us to the practice of Havruta (חַבְרוּתָא), the study of Scripture in groups. The word finds its root in haver, which translates in Hebrew as “friend” or “fellowship,” and it is the one of the dominate forms of faithful scripture study in the Jewish Tradition.
And so it is that we gathered in groups, calling upon the Holy Spirit to be present in our fellowship and in our dialogue as we asked questions, pushed ideas, and challenged one another in our understanding of Scripture. My group focused on the Isaiah and Gospel passages for the 3rd Week after Epiphany, which had been paired with the following quote from Xenophon:
The true test of a leader is whether his followers will adhere to his cause from their own volition, enduring the most arduous hardships without being forced to do so, and remaining steadfast in the moments of greatest peril.
We read, and we listened, and most of all we asked questions. We argued over the agenda of the pairing of THESE texts at THIS time in the church calender. We struggled with the silences of Isaiah, and with our own discomfort with the text. We worried and wondered at the author’s decision to parallel the joy of harvest with the joy of plunder.
In the Gospel, we pondered over the motives and movements of Jesus, and noted the changes in the quotation of the Isaiah passage. We wondered at the sons of Zebedee, struggled with their decision to follow a stranger in that time and place, questioning the motives of their following and their leaving behind of the father. We grappled with the call that Jesus offers all of us, and weighed the responsibilities of claiming one’s status as a person of God. Some of us spoke into the mystery of choice and of following, wondering whether we have a choice at all to follow, when the alternative is to be left outside in the dark where the light may not shine.
We wondered whether we are the followers that Xenophon speaks of, or whether it is perhaps the case that Jesus himself is the follower that tests the true leadership of the Holy One, who leads us into places we do not and cannot know with any degree of certainty.
All of this and more we struggled with, together. It was interesting, and it was fruitful, and it was a meaningful way to experience the community of faith in dialogue with the Spirit of Truth on this retreat.
Afterwards, we had the opportunity to explore the Scriptures with art. Meditating on the beatitudes, I chose a combination of collage and acrylic paint, the result of which is the beginning of this post. It was a wonderfully meditative way to explore the scripture.
In the end, I had the blessed opportunity in three hours to experience two fruitful means of prayer with Scripture, both of which deepened my personal and communal experience while on retreat. And when you add to all of this the amazing massage I received after our classes, well, you can imagine how I am feeling at the moment. I feel in touch with my body, with my colleagues, and with the Spirit, and I cannot wait to bring some of this back to my congregation when this is over.
But at least for now, I am happy to rest in this experience with gratitude, and with peace in my heart.
“God doesn’t answer prayers; our prayers are answers to the prayer that God has already started”
The alarm buzzed irritably from the window where I had left it the night prior. Morning, I thought to myself. How swiftly we are plucked from the warmth of our beds to greet the day. Earlier than I would ordinarily rise, I lifted myself out of the warm blankets and began the process of waking up. There was running to do before class could start, one week left in an extended process of disciplining myself into health.
A brisk run in the fog, a quick shower, and I am back and dressed at the breakfast table, a bowlful of granola and mug of dark coffee in hand. Morning devotions are at 8:15, and so I am out the door by 7:45, having only once to return to the car for whatever I have left behind.
SFTS is a quick drive from my husbands’ parents’ home, and so it is that I arrive in the parking lot with little trouble and plenty of time to spare. Settling into the pew, I marvel at how peaceful it feels to sit and to rest in the knowledge that this is retreat time, that I am away from the noise of my life, if only for the briefest moment. It is praying time, spirit time, reading time, re-charging time. It is good, and it is well, and it is welcomed.
I must say that I am quite excited about the format of this space—a time to pray and live more fully than I would otherwise in the life of the Gospel Text for next year’s lectionary. It feels good to dwell in this Scripture, to sit with Matthew, the synoptic with which I am least comfortable, and to let it become a part of my daily rhythm. To be honest, it almost feels good for me, but more like homemade granola than vitamins or annual exams. I relish the flavor of it, the diversity of community that has gathered here in the shadow of Mt. Tam, and I hope that here is space that has power, if I but let God have a crack at it.
So I sit in the silence of the chapel, weaving my voice into the melody of the chanted music, entering the mystical space of our worship as it enters me. I try to focus all of my self and my intentions in the act of prayer, and though it is difficult, it feels good. It reminds me of conditioning exercise, and I hope that some of it will stick with me when I return to the parish.
Today we speak of lenses and perspectives, of what we see and what has authority, and I am struck by the words of my colleagues. One speaks of the Scriptures as representing the “arc of human potential,” and of their authority resting in this fact. I find it intriguing, for certainly it is the case that Scripture offers portraits of the best and the worst that we can offer to God. It seems meaningful then that these stories hold so much water for us—they are not merely God’s story, but our story as well, and we repeat them in our daily lives, in differing and wildly diverse combinations, with manifold results. In this sense, the Word is living because we are living it, not only in our extraordinary moments, but in our most mundane. The Spirit is within us all, it would seem, and the “meaning potential,” as Blount might say, is only as limited as we choose to make it.
That this is the point at which we begin our time together and the entry point for our study and prayer upon the texts is a great blessing to me. I appreciate that this is a time for deepening relationship with God and Scripture, for open dialogue with willing colleagues, and for intentional devotional space, rather than a race to plan a year’s worth of sermons. That I may rest rather than write restlessly is a gift, one that I believe more of us pastors need to give ourselves, for it is what we ask of our community, is it not? That they stop, that they pay attention, and that they respond to the Word that defines us? And how can we model this for our congregations, if we are not making it a priority for ourselves?