March 28: Maundy Thursday

The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews is the vicar of St. Hilda St. Patrick. The sermon for March 28, 2024 was preached in response to John 13:1-17, 31b-35 based on the manuscript below.

The folk opera Hadestown
begins with Hermes —
both a character and narrator —
singing about the road to hell
with a railroad line.
He sings,
“Someone’s got to tell the tale
Whether or not it turns out well
Maybe it will turn out this time
It’s a sad song…
We’re gonna sing it anyway.”
When Brandon and I saw Hadestown in November
I remarked to Paul —
who baptized Finny —
that it was like Holy Week.
He accidentally reminded me of that last week
when he was working on his Passion Sunday sermon
centered around Jesus’ crucifixion…
and Hadestown.
After introducing us to Eurydice and Orpheus
Hermes tells us that this old, sad song
is a love song.

As we begin this triduum,
these three days
where we are in one liturgy
spanning four gatherings,
we’re singing an old, sad song…
We’re singing a love song.
These final days of Jesus’ life
are about God’s love for humanity
made known to us by becoming human
by walking among us as Jesus.
We’ve heard “God so loved the world”
on a Sunday not long ago.
Tonight we’ve heard,
“Having loved his own who were in the world,
he loved them to the end.”
John’s gospel is a mystical,
poetic story
about God’s love for the whole of creation
before the creation itself existed.

John’s gospel doesn’t have a birth narrative.
It doesn’t have a Last Supper narrative,
which is why we hear Paul recounting it
to the Corinthians tonight.
John’s gospel instead had Jesus appearing on the scene,
having been introduced as the Word
who has become flesh.
For Jesus’ last night with his friends,
John gives him a farewell discourse.
He gives final teachings.
Teaching about himself.
Teaching about how his disciples
should act and behave.
He doesn’t just teach them,
hoping they’ll intellectually assent.
He shows them how they should act, too.

All four gospels record Jesus’ coming into Jerusalem
not on a stallion
but on a humble donkey.
The standards his parade includes
are palm branches
and people’s clothes on the road.
The disciples don’t want to believe,
but maybe they’re starting to understand.
The one who has come to save them
is really leaving them.
When Jesus says,
“Little children,
I am with you only a little longer”
no one rushes in to argue with him.
He started his teaching at this meal,
by showing them how to live and act.

knowing that the Father
had given all things into his hands,
and that he had come from God
and was going to God,
got up from the table,
took off his outer robe,
and tied a towel around himself.
Then he poured water into a basin
and began to wash the disciples’ feet
and to wipe them with the towel
that was tied around him.”
Peter doesn’t say that Jesus won’t be killed,
but Peter rejects this humility.
“Master, Savior,
you can’t wash my feet…
well if you insist,
go ahead and wash me all up!”
Jesus says that Peter will understand it
We hear it again tonight
and hope that we’ll understand this time
or the next time
or still have some understanding
from the last time
that we heard it.

Maybe starting to believe,
Jesus tells the disciples that he’s going away.
He’ll tell them too,
that he won’t be leaving them alone.
Before he goes, though,
he has a new commandment:
Love one another.
He’s established that the greatest commandments
are to love God and neighbor.
Usually loving neighbor
is treating others
the way we’d like to be treated.
Love your neighbor
as yourself.
Having just washed the disciples feet,
and knowing that he’s about to go to the cross,
singing an old, sad, love song
Jesus raises the standard.
His commandment isn’t
to love our neighbors as ourselves.
“Just as I have loved you,
you also should love one another.”

The love of Jesus,
the love of God
is what motivates the love
from Jesus’ disciples.
Not love motivated
by how we hope to be treated.
That’s a pretty good standard,
don’t get me wrong!
But Jesus gives the disciples
a model of love:
humility in washing feet
and being willing to be betrayed
and killed
but maintaining unbreakable

aving told the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice,
with Hades and Persephone tied up in it,
Hermes reminds the audience
that they’ve just watched a tragedy.
Hadestown is a folk opera,
so it’s sung through.
As the old, sad song,
two love songs circling each other,
comes to a close, Hermes starts the beginning again. commenter ButtonsDavenport said,
“The Road to Hell reprise
is one of the most gut-wrenching numbers
in the entire show.
It shows Hermes on the stage,
returning to a reprise of the song
that started the entire show.
The first part of the song is acapella,
and the lack of instruments
make the lyrics just that more
sad and somber.
Along with the fact
that the song is the same,
he talks about
how he’s going to sing the song again,
as if he is about to tell the story again and again
in a loop.
However, he sounds much sadder this time,
as he, along with us,
has experienced the story once again.”

I can only imagine Jesus’ own sadness
knowing the plans that are in motion
and the number of times
he’ll be betrayed
and denied
in the coming day.
His love persists.
It’s an old song.
It’s a sad song.
It’s a love song, though.
“Having loved his own who were in the world,
he loved them to the end.”
“I give you a new commandment,
that you love one another.
Just as I have loved you,
you also should
love one another.
By this everyone will know
that you are my disciples,
if you have love for one another.”

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