Sermon: Thursday, April 1, 2010: Maundy Thursday

Texts: Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14  •  Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19  •  1 Corinthians 11:23-26  •  John 13:1-17, 31b-35


As a middle school teacher working with kids in a special ed. classroom in Boston my first year out of college, I picked up a few things about the different ways people learn. Some of us learn best by reading, others by listening. Some learn by doing, others by imagining. Howard Gardner, a developmental psychologist at Harvard University, described these different forms of intelligence in his theory of multiple intelligences, work that was published in the early 1980s.

Gardner’s theory posits that there are many different kinds of intelligences, and that with each variety comes a different way of learning.

multiple intelligences

  • There is visual-spatial intelligence, the ability to visualize with the mind’s eye.
  • There is verbal-linguistic intelligence, the ability to use language – written or spoken – to communicate one’s self and accomplish tasks.
  • There is logical-mathematical intelligence, the ability to reason abstractly that expresses itself in science and mathematics.
  • There is bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, the ability to quickly learn and master challenging physical tasks – the three-point shot or the pirouette.
  • There is musical-rhythmic intelligence, the ability to perceive and create tones and rhythms, and the relationships between them that give rise to melody, harmony and music in its many forms.
  • There is interpersonal intelligence, the ability to correctly perceive the essence of relationships between people and to organize group activity.
  • And there is intrapersonal intelligence, the ability to reflect accurately on one’s own internal state – feelings, reactions, thoughts, motivations, patterns of behavior.

For most of us, and for too long, classroom learning has been oriented toward logical and linguistic intelligence. This was fine, as long as you were the kind of student who learned best by sitting in place for long periods of time, reading a book or listening to a lecture. It was less ideal if you learned best by imagining, introspecting, creating, talking or moving. If those were your strongest suits, you were probably labeled a day-dreamer, a wallflower, an artist, a goof-off or a jock, and you figured school just wasn’t for you.

Well, the church is not a classroom. However, like schools, faith communities are responsible for transmitting knowledge and traditions. Boards of Education exist in order to constantly assess and revisit a community’s standards for what knowledge we deem essential for people who want a place in our society. They create learning objectives that teachers and administrators use to decide which textbooks and activities should be used to help students meet those goals.

Likewise, we in the church have sacred texts and sacred rituals, and we rely on both to shape our religious imaginations and identities. We rely not only on words and explanations of words, but also on music and poetry, food and drink, bodily movements, visual images suspended in glass and iron and stone. Long before Howard Gardener gave names to the multiple intelligences God has given us, human beings were using all of them to reflect on their life together and the source of that common life.

We find evidence of the teaching tasks of religion in tonight’s lessons. From Exodus we get a set of instructions for a religious ritual,

Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat it…This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the LORD; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance. (Exodus 12:3-4,14)

And this ritual is still being enacted annual today. In fact it was just three nights ago, on Monday evening, that our Jewish brothers and sisters began their seven-day celebration of the Passover and this same text was read aloud around dinner tables set with lamb and wine, matzoh and bitter herbs and sweet apples, roasted eggs and parsley. Symbolic foods that recalled the bitterness of slavery, the sweetness of liberation, the sacrifice of the lamb and the blood that marked the doors of their ancestors. As the ritual meal is celebrated, children are invited to ask questions, so that the dinner might not feed only their bellies, but also their minds. They ask, “why is this night different from all other nights?” And then the adults in the room share with them the meaning of this meal, the symbolism of the foods, the family stories that accompany the tradition, and the hopes of their people.

That is what we are here to do tonight, and throughout these Three Days. We are gathering to hear once again the stories that are at the heart of what it means to be a Christian, the stories that tell us what it means to say that we follow Christ. But we are not just here to hear the stories, we are here to imagine the stories, to sing the stories, to kneel and touch the stories, to enact the stories. We are here to make sense of what these stories mean for the life we share between us, and for the life we sense at the core of our beings. We are here to use every possible kind of intelligence with which God has blessed us to take these stories in, to consume these stories, to make them so much a part of ourselves that we see their meaning in every aspect of our lives.

The stories we hear tonight are amazing examples of ritual and tradition, theology and ethics. They go straight to the heart of Jesus’ ministry, and capture the essence of his teaching and the meaning of his dying and rising. The Exodus text we heard earlier is not only a set of instructions for how the Israelites were to mark their doors and spend their last night in slavery, it is also instruction to all the generations that followed about what liberation from the narrow place of Egypt is supposed to mean. So that centuries later, when they gathered to celebrate their freedom, they knew that they were also responsible for providing liberation from life’s narrow places for their neighbors (“If a household is too small for the whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it.”). Ancient ritual, not empty ritual, teaches the people what it means to follow Christ.

Paul is remembering this function of the Passover meal when he lectures the Corinthians in the second reading for tonight. The portion we heard read is a stripped down version of the words of institution we use every week in worship, that we will use tonight, that Paul taught to the Corinthians. But, when you read this passage in its larger context you find that the Corinthians were gathering for the Lord’s Supper, and were showing favoritism to those who were wealthy while the poor went away hungry and humiliated. Paul is warning them against this abuse of the Lord’s Supper, calling back to mind the meal in which Christ becomes for us the lamb shared equally among all people, the meal that c
an only be celebrated in community, never alone. Knowledge the church deems essential for those who want a place in our community. Ancient ritual, not empty ritual, teaches the people what it means to follow Christ.

And then Jesus himself, teaching his band of disciples, each with their different ways of learning, each struggling to understand the meaning of his life. First he rises from the table, and then he stoops at their feet and washes them. Right in the middle of the Passover meal, right in the middle of a ritual, right in the middle of a worship service, he gets up and starts washing their feet. Because, even though he says,

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. (John 13:34)

there are still those who will not learn by listening, or taking notes, or reading the book. Some will need to get up from their chair and stoop by another’s feet and wash, and be washed, before they understand what wondrous love this is that Jesus is communicating. Ancient ritual, not empty ritual, teaches the people what it means to follow Christ.

Every time we gather as a community, we engage as many of our intelligences as possible. We stand at the reading of the gospel to communicate our respect. We turn to face the cross to remind us that worship is a conversation between us and God. We speak words, we listen to words, we write words, we sing words. We walk to the front, we touch pools of water, we eat and drink. We kneel and pray.

But these Three Days everything is heightened. We stand or kneel as we hear words of forgiveness. We expose our vulnerabilities to one another, along with our feet. We stoop to wash one another, as we would a child or an elder parent or a dying friend. Tomorrow night some will kneel to touch or even kiss the cross. Lights will be extinguished. Saturday night fires will dance, dancers will spin, crowds will process, actors will embody, and water will fly through the air to land on our bodies as we sing words buried in the ground forty days ago.

Like the children at the Passover Seders that took place around the world earlier this week, we may ask why. “Why is this night different from all the others?”

Because on this night we are pulling out all the stops – which is a reference to the music our organ makes, so I suppose I should add, “organs will bellow (or trumpet or sound),” – to make sure that we are teaching ourselves and our children and all that are to come after us, that we have learned, God’s command and God’s comforting promise:

Love one another, as I have loved you.


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