Sermon preached on Maundy Thursday, 2022 at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY: Psalm 116
You can listen to the sermon here.
I lift up the cup of freedom as I call on God’s Name.
I want to add another short text to today’s biblical mix, four verses from Paul’s letter to the Romans.
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. (8:18-21)
Suffering. Longing. Freedom. Glory. These words are in the air today as we gather during this Holy Week to contemplate the last hours of Jesus’ life, and their meaning for our lives in “this present time.”
Suffering. Holy Week is hard work. There is so much suffering and death to go through before we get to Easter. And it is not just the suffering and death of Jesus, although that alone is hard enough.
We started today with the story of the first Passover, the passing over of the homes of the Israelites by the angel of death, killing every first-born person and beast in Egypt. How many first-born persons are here today? Yes, we’d be done in this story.
Tomorrow we will hear the story of Jesus as we heard it this past Sunday—the story of betrayal, cowardice, maliciousness, cruelty, and death. And hanging over the story the sense that in some way God willed all this to happen.
And even when we gather for the Easter Vigil Saturday night, and finally get to hear that first “Alleluia,” we have to go through the stories of God’s destruction of creation in the flood story, and Egyptians lying dead on the seashore after the Israelites escaped through the sea.
Why all this suffering? The only answer I have is that it is our real life. Our life and the life of the whole world. There is no way to deny it. And it is the life, as Paul says, of the whole creation, living in what seems like futility. In our stories, and the stories of all living things, the angel of death comes.
Longing. In the next verse Paul uses the word “groaning.” The whole creation and we ourselves are groaning for something more, something better. Let us know without our doubts that we indeed are the children of God, that there is something better than suffering and death.
But where and how? If we knew the answer to that then could our longing could stop? Yes, we know the answer is Easter, but Easter is a promise—a good one, mind you, the best—but still a promise. From a distance—as the Letter to the Hebrews says (11:13-16)—from a distance we see and greet it, and we shout Alleluia on Easter morning and for a moment it is in our grasp, and then we re-enter this present time, and our groaning, our longing, is back.
Freedom. I will lift up the cup of freedom, as I call on God’s Name, as I long for God’s promise. You expected the word “salvation,” didn’t you? The cup of salvation, that’s what we say, that’s what we call it, what we are here to celebrate. It’s part of the obligation and gift Jesus left us on that last night with his friends.
But salvation is a church-word, freighted with centuries of confusion and abuse. We think we know what it means, but, truth to tell, its meaning lies just beyond our reach. Our evangelical friends ask us, “Are you saved?” And we’re not entirely sure what they mean. Am I going to heaven? Sure. But, frankly, heaven is the least of my worries most days. What does it mean now?
But “the cup of freedom.” Maybe—just maybe—there’s another way into what is going on here and out there 24/7. Freedom is what I long for, what the creation groans for, and not some cheap big-talk, “I can do anything I want to and say anything I want.” Not the freedom that means we are a law unto ourselves.
No, the freedom to just be—the freedom to know who I am deep , deep down, in the place where that groaning comes from. The freedom to live in the world without the anxiety and fear that I am not enough or to have to waste so much time proving my worthiness to myself, to others, to God.
This kind of freedom may be another way of talking about, of seeing, the promise, the promise of life that is greater than death, the promise of Easter. The promise that this whole creation means something. It still doesn’t deliver the promise, but it is something if I can lift up the cup of freedom as I long for God, as I long for life.
Glory. Now there’s a word. But another church-y word. A word of the promise, a word that is what is just the other side of what we long to be revealed to us.
But it’s a good word, because we may not be able to describe it, but we know it when we see it. Again, not the cheap and momentary glory when we are the winners and we feel good about ourselves. I mean, thank God for those moments, but they are, in the end, just moments.
Glory is that revealing that we are, actually going to be OK, that our lives matter no matter what, that we can still see the glimpse of life in the midst of suffering and death. It’s there in the creation, it’s there in our lives.
Jesus showed us where to look for it, not in denial of our real lives but in gathering all the fragments, all the missed opportunities, all the hurts, all the hopes, and look at the bread and the cup. Don’t look somewhere else, beyond. Look at what is, in front of you, what literally gives you life, the food given from the creation which groans along with you.
Lift up your lives in the cup of salvation, the cup of freedom, as you call on God’s Name. St. Augustine once said to folks who had recently been baptized, who were experiencing the bread and cup for the first time. Look! It is your mystery on the altar! When you receive the bread, receive the cup you are receiving your life! When you respond Amen, you are saying Amen to your life!
And you are saying Amen, in spite of all the crud, and in some small touch with the freedom that is inside of you and inside of your neighbor, to know the God who is not ashamed to be called your God, the God of the promise but also the God of the present.
In reality, with no denial. With deep, deep longing.
I will lift up the cup of freedom as I call on God’s Name.
And when we do the glimpse we get of glory is just enough to keep us on the journey to something better, to love, to God.