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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Maundy Thursday 03/28/2013

Tonight we begin the Great Three Days.  The liturgies of these days, in words and actions, unfold the mystery of God’s love strangely revealed in the events that we remember, events that don’t seem to be about love at all but more about how things can go wrong, betrayal, deceit and false accusations.  For those of us who gather though, we know something different; we may not understand it all, but we know the significance of what happens.  We know that it is about God’s love, and it is about us.  But it’s not a truth that we know by careful thought and analysis; it’s not a truth of the intellect, it’s deeper than that.  It’s a truth revealed through images and stories, rites and rituals, feelings and emotions, the things that have to do with the other side of your brain.

What we do though, during these three days isn’t exactly a celebration, at least not until Sunday morning.  So as we gather in the increasing evening darkness tonight, we might wonder about how we are supposed to feel?  If this is about all those other side of the brain things, what is it supposed to do to us?  For the most part, the rituals themselves and the atmosphere determine that, the light and the darkness and the shadows and there’s no one right answer.  No one has to tell you how you feel, you just go with it and you might be surprised, there might well be a range of feelings and emotions, all of which are part of that deeper truth about these days.

What you might not expect to be part of it though, is a sense of thanksgiving but that’s where tonight’s Psalm takes us.  I have to admit that I’ve never paid much attention to the psalm for Maundy Thursday what with everything else that goes on tonight, but emphasizing it as a psalm of thanksgiving isn’t a bad way to start the Three Days.

Psalm 116 is an expression of thanks for God’s grace, thanks for answered prayer; that’s what you get in the first two verses:  “I love the Lord, who has heard my voice and listened to my supplication.”  From there it moves to “How shall I repay the Lord for all the good things God has done for me.”  Even as he says it though, the psalmist knows that God’s grace can’t be bought.  There’s no way to repay God for what has been done, nothing we can do that in any way evens the score.  The psalmist knows that, but at the same time the psalmist also knows that the grace and forgiveness of God constitutes a change in relationship, and that change does call for a response.

That’s where there is a connection between the psalm and what we do tonight and in the coming days.  These days are about the cost of restoring our relationship with God.  It’s a relationship that’s marked by sin on our side, one that can only be changed from God’s side. But we can’t even the score; we can’t repay God.  What we can do though is to participate in the rituals that symbolically and sacramentally bring us into the relationship formed by God’s grace.  That’s what’s described in Psalm 116.

Psalm 116 is one of what are called the “Hillel” psalms.  In Hebrew hillel means “praise God” and Psalms 113-118 make up this collection.  In a couple of the gospel Passion accounts though, you might remember that it says that following the Passover meal on the night when Jesus instituted Holy Communion, he and the disciples “had sung the hymn and then went out to the Mount of Olives.”  The hymn that is being referenced is probably all or part of Psalms 115 to 118 as they were the traditional ones used at Passover; so you start to see that there are connections here.

As part of the Passover meal four cups of wine were consumed, one cup for each of the verbs of redemption from Exodus 6; “I will bring you out—I will deliver you—I will redeem you—I will take you.”  Bring out, deliver, redeem, take.  Four cups of wine as part of the liturgy, four cups that ritually fulfill the verse from tonight’s psalm, “I will lift the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord.”  So it becomes even more clear as to why this is the psalm appointed for this night.

It is a psalm of thanksgiving and thanksgiving is a good place to begin our observance of the Three Days.  Our emotions will take us other places too as some of the most evocative liturgical moments of the church year happen tonight and tomorrow and tomorrow night and Saturday night, but thanksgiving is kind of the stream that runs under everything else.  And what we most give thanks for is the relationship that these days celebrate, our relationship with God that is defined by the grace and forgiveness of sins mysteriously revealed in the cross of Christ.  To the logical, reasonable side of our brain it doesn’t make sense but it doesn’t have to.  We’re talking spiritual truth here and by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit we know this truth of forgiveness and relationship that passes all logical understanding and so we give thanks.

What we also give thanks for are the rituals that make this relationship real for us.  Like the psalmist we know we can’t do anything that adequately gives thanks in the sense of balancing the tables, but still we ask “How shall I repay the Lord?”  We want to do something so what we do is lift up our cup of salvation in the sacrament Jesus gave us on this night.  It doesn’t balance the score, but it does help us to know the relationship that is offered and that’s what’s most important.

It is a sacrament that’s about relationship.  Some years we have celebrated first communion on Maundy Thursday; this year we did it a month ago and with that there is always the feeling among some that the kids need to understand before they receive communion.  What that does though is to remove Holy Communion from the realm of mystery and attempt to reduce it to something that is logical and reasonable.  But logic and reason are not what Jesus gave his disciples that night.  He invited them into a relationship, a relationship defined by the new commandment to love one another as he has loved us, a relationship that wouldn’t end when he wasn’t physically present anymore and, he gave them a ritual through which they could better experience the relationship.

So much of what we do tonight and in the coming days is about experience, what we do.  I always like to think that this isn’t a church where you have to turn off your brain before you come in and by that I mean that you are allowed to think and ask questions, we do encourage that.  With these liturgies though, and to a certain extent with all of our liturgies, in some ways turning off your brain might not be such a bad idea, that is to at least turn off the analytical part of your brain and just enter into the experience, let your emotions and imagination lead you.  It can lead you to a deeper truth. 

Tonight we begin the journey of the Great Three Days.  It is an emotional time and there is much to give thanks for.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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