Thursday, April 21, 2011

Sermon for Maundy Thursday, April 21, 2011 “The Taste of Memory”

It is an unusual occurrence that Passover and Holy Week are concurrent this year. At their Passover meal, the seder, our Jewish brothers and sisters retell the story of their exodus from Egypt. They read the Haggadah which recounts the story, and organizes the sacred meal, with instructions to the letter as to what to eat and how to eat it. How can we not hear this Old Testament passage this evening and remember how that meal was at the heart of the final meal that Jesus ate with his disciples? And how can we not remember his words “do this in remembrance of me,” just as the Lord said to Moses “This day shall be a day of remembrance for you.”

Meals are at the heart of remembrance. Each of us has stories about fabled meals of our childhood, and the traditions of those meals that we continue to this day. For the D’Amelio family, the family of my boyfriend in college, Thanksgiving dinner was not complete without a big pan of lasagna. They tied their celebration of the success that life in America brought them to the traditional foods of their homeland. The food told a story of who they were and what they cherished.

For the children of Israel, the food in the Passover meal described in today’s reading had significance. A perfectly beautiful lamb, just a yearling, was an extravagant menu item since keeping lambs and raising them to be sheep was the norm. Such a sacrifice was an indicator of how important this feast was. Not only was its meat precious and delicious, its blood would be used to mark the doorpost, to distinguish that this was a home where Israelites resided, so as to protect it from God’s wrath against Egypt. They would not eat any risen bread, only what we now call matzoh. That unleavened bread would remind them of the haste with which they had to flee Egypt – there was no time for the bread to rise; it would bake under the hot sun on their backs as they escaped. The traditional foods of the Passover seder meal now also include maror, or bitter herbs, usually horseradish, to remind them of the bitterness of slavery under Pharaoh, charoseth, a mixture of apples, raisins, honey and spices, which looks like the mortar between the bricks the Israelites had been forced to make, beitzah, a roasted egg, holding the promise of life and the perpetuation of existence, karpas, or a green, now usually parsley, respresenting hope and redemption, and wine, four glasses of it, to remember the fourfold promise of redemption. Each taste brings remembrance of what happened when Moses led his people out of Egypt.

Food has meaning, even the simplest food, and the ceremonies that are a part of a meal expand on that meaning. It could be the ham you always have at Easter, that ham which always lasts longer than anyone has the appetite for. You have it because your grandmamma always had it, even though most of the family doesn’t particularly care for ham, especially your vegetarian daughter…but at such a meal, a ham is not simply a ham. It is all the hams of Easter dinners past, eaten by all our family members who have gone on to the heavenly banquet table. So, too, the ambrosia, and the lemon pie, and the potato casserole….you can imagine your own special menu, with the items you cannot omit.

A meal with such powerful associations is one that feeds our souls as well as our bodies. We remember, we weep a bit, we taste our memories as we taste the food.

Jesus knew that, as he sat at the table on what was most likely a Seder meal. He knew the communal memory of such a meal, and he sought to use memory – that evanescent flicker within our brains – in partnership with the earthy, the quotidian, the real. He used the simplest and most basic of foodstuffs. Bread. Wine. Not necessarily unleavened bread, just the simplest, most basic food. Not necessarily fine wine, but ordinary drink from ordinary vines as ordinary people drank every day in Jerusalem and in most of the world at that time. Familiar flavors of home and family and community, tinged with the more distant memories of Seders past and the stories of communion between God and God’s people. The tastes would spark the remembrance of all the Seders that had preceded this one.

And what did he say? “Do this, again and again, so you never forget what we did here this night. Eat this, a remembrance. Do not forget what this meal means, or what I mean.”

A necessary part of life, food. It keeps our engines running, gives us the energy we need to do, as they say in Lake Wobegon, “what needs to be done.” But food also has a separate power, a separate energy. It can bring us to a transcendent place where we are seated at the table eating with our Lord and Savior, and it can remind us how he bound his life to ours so intimately, as family around the dinner table, as host at a banquet we did not prepare. It can remind us now, two thousand years after the fact, that after that meal was over, he was the one who became the sacrificed lamb for our delectation. He was the one who did the work to feed our bodies and souls. He was the one who cleaned up after our messes, and all for the love of us. He was the one who washed us, washed our very feet, blessed our meal, and then went to die for us.

This is what we are meant to remember, whenever we gather around this table for the Lord’s supper. This is the moment of anamnesis, a word from the Greek that is literally translated as the moment of “unforgetting.” It is a hard story to dwell on – we’d rather think of the glory than the pain, but the gift is in the sacrifice of the lamb. This meal is a memory of grace freely given, of love that is beyond compare, of food that feeds us more fully and with greater satisfaction than anything we could cook.

This meal of love, the feast we celebrate each week at this table, is our remembering. May it also be our time to be grateful. No one else could have given us this banquet of love, and no one else deserves our love and honor more.


An audio of this sermon can be found here.

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