“Shovel It In”
Holy Thursday Sermon
April 2, 2015
On this Thursday of Holy Week, maybe we’re used to hearing a scripture reading from the New Testament. We think about Jesus and his last meal with his disciples. This church has a history of remembering that meal with vivid and lifelike portrayal! Some traditions read about Jesus washing the disciples’ feet on this day, following his mandate in John 13 (where the name “Maundy Thursday” comes from). But we have just read from Exodus. Does it seem out of place to you? Is it a story you’re not so familiar with?
Maybe it is. But sometimes when we gather and remember the stories of Jesus, it helps us understand more when we also remember the stories Jesus knew. When Jesus and his disciples gathered in that upper room on the night before he was crucified, they would have shared together this same story. They were all there in Jerusalem to remember this story together. It was a yearly event—the festival of Passover. They sat together at table and recalled the story of their redemption. Each person had a part to play—the oldest said these words and the youngest said these words. There were symbolic foods and drinks, as well as the “real” meal that they shared. It all went by a certain script, as they relived the story of their people’s deliverance from slavery and into God’s hands.
But we don’t observe Passover. What do we even know of Passover? Why do we care about this unfamiliar story? What does it mean to us, tonight, as we wait for what will come between now and Sunday?
Well, Passover is about a meal—but not just any meal. It’s about getting together to share in a meal that means more than just food and drink. The Israelites were told what to eat, how to prepare it, what to do with the leftovers, and even how to dress and how to eat the meal. The date of this meal is to be marked and remembered each year; it is to become the first month of the year for them, even, Exodus tells us—it must be a big deal! The cuisine is specific: an unblemished lamb, unleavened bread (because there’s no time to let it rise), and bitter herbs. There is a sign for them to use—blood of the lamb is to be put around the door. And their attitude is to be one of urgency—“Shovel it in!” they are told! Something amazing and horrifying is about to happen, after you eat this meal—and then you will see your own redemption coming, out of what seems like horrible carnage.
Yes, that’s the story of Passover: a story that is to be remembered yearly, at a gathering of all the people. A story that tells them who and whose they are—not some earthly Pharaoh’s chattel, subject to some Egyptian gods, but beings called children by the God of the universe—the God of Heavenly Forces—the God whose angel army strikes down those who stand in the way!
So, let’s remember that story, even as we’ve gathered tonight on this Holy Thursday to remember another story, too. People may say there’s no need for remembering, for ritual—maybe ritual is useless and time-wasting. Maybe remembering all too often leaves us stuck in the past. Maybe what we’re doing here is pointless.
Or maybe not. You see, we’ve come here to be together and to remember together for several reasons. We need each other. We need to come together and remember the old, old stories because all too often we are tempted to forget who we are—that we might just be enslaved in so many ways, like the children of Israel were.
We remember because doing so connects us with other people around the world who may not be just like us, but who share this exact same story. Remembering connect us with the people of God—the body of Christ—across time and space. Our story is cosmic, not just a folktale of long, long ago!
We remember because it connects us with God. How can we tell the stories of the God who calls us beloved without drawing closer to that God, who renews, sustains, and redeems us from the messes we all too expertly get ourselves into? We remember together because we need God—both individually and as a group.
We remember and we share together in ritual because we believe that even through the very simple act of doing this again and again—gathering for a ritual meal often (at least once a month) and retelling the story of our faith during a week set aside (holy week)—God is changing us and the world around us, as we grow into this story and live out its meaning every day.
But we are not people who have gathered tonight to remember only the Passover. We do not stand around a table, our robes on, our sandals fastened, our loins girded, ready to shovel in roasted lamb, bitter herbs, and flat bread. This is not the only story we have come to share.
Tonight, we peek in on another Passover supper. We see a gathering in an upper room. But as we settle down to hear “the usual script,” something goes awry. The teacher—the leader—is not saying the right things. He’s not doing it right! Instead of remembering that first Passover, he messes the whole thing up!! He picks up that bread and he says, “This is my body, broken for you.” WHAT?! He picks up that cup of ceremonial wine and he says, “This is my blood, shed for you.” Wait, Jesus! You’re getting it all wrong! That’s not how the story goes! What’s gotten into you?!
What is it that’s gotten into him? Is it the entry he made into town at the beginning of the week? Is it fatigue, from all that has been going on with the religious authorities? Is it fear? What is going wrong here?
Well, as we understand it now, this Passover meal was not like all the others that had happened before. No, this Passover meal would change how a small group of people (which would soon grow to thousands, and more!) would think of Passover forever. Nothing would ever be the same again, after this Passover meal with Jesus!
Sure, everything tasted the same. The meal was set the same as it had been every year of their lives. Everything started out “normal.” But now it was different. The lamb and the herbs took a back seat to the bread and the wine. Jesus took what was there and changed it. This Passover meal, celebrating a great day of deliverance for the people of God, turned in to something different, became a meal that was about God doing something new.
For Jesus, there was urgency of a new kind. For all of them, there was suddenly an unknown they had never experienced before on Passover. They had thought they knew what was going to happen on this night, but boy, were they in for a surprise! Soon they would find out that nothing would ever be the same again. Something awful and horrifying would happen, like on that first Passover, but this time would be very different.
It must have sounded strange to them—“this is my body” and “this is my blood.” How were they to know then, that what was about to happen would forever transform the lamb, the bread, and the wine, as they understood it? The bread. The wine. Jesus’ body and blood.
What about the lamb? Well, yeah, then there was the lamb that was part of the Passover meal. That poor, sacrificial little lamb. An unblemished one, the Lord had called for, all those years ago. And if the cost of one was too great or one whole lamb was too much for a household, the people were to go in together, to share that expense. Lambs were precious. Unblemished lambs were indescribably special. Years and years after that first Passover, there would be a big business around the need for special, unblemished lambs. There would be shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over temple flocks at night. There would be lamb upon lamb raised carefully, just so that they could be offered up to God, as penance for the brokenness of a people.
What about that lamb? Well, that lamb, the one whose blood protected the people from the angel of death, way back when, would become something else, or rather, someone else, with this “new” Passover meal. This new Lamb would be the one serving the meal. That is what had gotten in to Jesus. He knew what was coming. He knew the story of Passover all too well…and he knew how he was becoming the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. And he stood to tell his disciples, “Shovel it in! You don’t yet know what is about to happen, but you need the strength of my body and my blood, for the work for which you have been called and sent to do, and for the spectacle that you are about to witness. So shovel it in!”
Approach this table tonight, remembering not just a meal that happened years and years ago, and not just a reenactment of that meal that went awry, when Jesus and his disciples met together on a fateful night in Jerusalem, about two thousand years ago. Approach this table tonight, remembering that you know who that Lamb of God is—you know what this story is all about—and you know that God offers you grace to get through the rest of this week, to share in the story with others, to come to the Table as those who need each other and need God’s grace more than we can say, and to face the truth of death and resurrection that comes with following Jesus. Hear now, the invitation:
Tonight we gather around the Lord’s Table. It’s a table so large that there’s room for all to come and share in this most holy of meals. Tonight let us break the bread of blessing and share in the cup of salvation. Let us gather to remember and celebrate.