Maundy Thursday

In many ways, this is the darkest night of the church year.  One could argue that Good Friday is darker and more solemn as it closes with Christ in the tomb, all hope lost – and yet, I would argue that it is this evening, Maundy Thursday, when the darkness presses in most deeply – it is nearly suffocating when we pause to consider it long enough.

It is this quiet evening we remember Jesus, vulnerable and sharing a final meal with his disciples.  Here he is, experiencing final words and moments with those who were the closest to him.  Here he is, knowing that the end was coming, and that these events that would lead to his death were set in motion by someone from his inner circle.  While on Good Friday we can imagine the crowd of strangers noisily shouting, “Crucify him,” – somehow the shouts of an angry mob are easier to understand than the betrayal of a friend, a loved one.  I sometimes think that while the beating and torture he endured on Friday was horrible, the cruelest blow was that of the kiss of his friend, Judas.

Have you ever betrayed someone you love?  Whether on purpose or by accident – have you caused harm to another?

If you have, you know that there are the stories we don’t like to tell.  These are memories that haunt and the stories that we try to shove deep inside and put on a smile and pretend they don’t exist. Try to drown them with drink or soften their edges with pills- yet, they remain.  Their truth cannot be dimmed.  The stories of our deepest failings feel like they need to be shut up tight and never spoken out loud – and yet, I have found in my own life that there is a certain healing that is possible only with admission and confession. 

I’ve spoken many times to you over the years about my mom. Many of you met her during the brief time she lived here before she died.  You know she went through a time of major depression and that was why she came from Minnesota to live with us.  Her depression had gotten so overpowering that she would no longer make the effort to eat or take her medicine or do anything without someone to make sure she did so. 

When mom came to live with us, I was so glad to try to do whatever I could for her.  The ways that she had lovingly cared for us as kids and then took care of my dad when he got older, I wanted to extend that same kind of care to her when she needed it.  We moved her into a room in our house, we loved having her with us even though she really wasn’t anything like herself anymore.  Her anxiety and depression were so deep that days with us were spent mostly sitting by the kitchen table, not speaking.  I would make her breakfast and go to work and then come home and make her lunch and then go back to work and then make her supper and three days a week I took her to a support group for seniors who were going through severe depression.  At the same time, the boys were in preschool and my final project for my doctorate was reaching its’ deadline. 

I took her to doctor’s appointments and checked her blood sugar twice a day.  She had diabetes and liver troubles and a heart condition that required that she get the thickness of her blood checked monthly so she wouldn’t get clots.  These were all things that she had tended to doing diligently before this but now that she couldn’t, I was determined to tend to all of it for her. 

And after a while, it felt like we were finding our way.  It was a strange new normal that we had as a family, but as I said, I was so glad to have her with me and that my boys could get to know her – even though her newfound anxiety and nerves made it hard for her to tolerate the loudness and chaos of a house with little boys.  It seemed like the support group was helping mom and now and then I saw glimpses of the mom I grew up with.  I was getting my work done and getting my dissertation done and getting the boys and mom where they needed to be.  It was a blur of days and I wasn’t sleeping much, but it felt like everything was going to be okay.

But then one afternoon I noticed mom was shaky and she went to lie down in her room.  I went in to check her blood sugar and I saw she had thrown up and was disoriented and couldn’t speak.  We called the ambulance and she went to the ER in Waco.  In the emergency room, the doctor was asking me many questions – about her medications, about when was the last time she had her blood checked.  You see, mom had just had a stroke because a clot had developed in her heart.  A perfectly round clot the size of a walnut.  And the clot was there because her blood had gotten too thick.  And her blood had gotten too thick because her medication dosage was apparently not right anymore.  And her medication dosage was not right because, as I ticked back through the days and weeks in my mind, I realized it had been well over six weeks since we had gotten it checked, instead of one month as it was supposed to be.

Because of that clot, mom had to have surgery to get it removed, a surgery from which she never recovered, and died a few months later.

I often used to joke about my forgetfulness, how I have to write everything down in order to remember both small and big things.  I figured if being forgetful was my worst flaw, then it wasn’t so bad. But in all my juggling of life and family and work and school, I had forgotten an astronomically important thing – to make sure she got her blood checked – and the consequences were catastrophic.  I’ll bear the grief and guilt and sadness about this until the day I die – because even though I would never, ever willingly have betrayed or harmed my mom, I did.  She had needed me to watch out for her, and I blew it.  Utterly and fully blew it.  There are no words to express the remorse I feel about this.

It’s a confession, that’s what it is.  God and I have talked about it an awful lot over the years.  As I proclaim the forgiveness of sins each week, I try to remind myself that forgiveness extends to me, too, and hopefully one of these days I will believe it. 

I share this story with you not just out of my need to speak it out loud, but to hold up the truth that we so deeply need what this night is about.  We come together as a big group of imperfect people, people who have histories and secrets, failures and longings, regrets and sins.  We may do a great job of hiding all these things so that no one would guess how broken we are inside, but we know.  And God knows.  And in this meal we share tonight we remember that even so, we are loved.  We are treasured.  It was because of our brokenness that Jesus sacrificed all for us.  He knew exactly what he was doing. And even though nothing can erase our brokenness, or fix all our mistakes, that God is able to always, somehow, still use us for good.

It seems too good to be true.  Judas couldn’t imagine it.  He was so overwhelmed by what he had done that the scripture says first he went and tried to give back the thirty pieces of silver he had gotten for betraying Jesus and then immediately went and hanged himself.  He couldn’t bear the thought of what he had done.

It’s human beings who feel such a greedy need to hoard guilt and shame – it’s not God.  Judas couldn’t forgive himself, but Jesus could. He did. On this Holy Thursday we remember how Jesus the Christ knelt and washed the feet of his disciples, even Judas.  He begged them to love one another, even as his heart grieved knowing how they would fail.  He loved them through his tears, even Judas.  His forgiveness so great that the cross would not extinguish it.  His forgiveness so great that it was for everyone for all time, even Judas.  Even you.  Even me. 

May God grant us grace to believe in this truth, in this Jesus, now and always.  In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

The Letter

Driving back there always felt like she was being transported back in time.  Almost as if to confirm this sentiment, she switched on the radio and wasn’t surprised to hear the local station playing Van Morrison, followed by Sam and Dave.

Margaret was on her way home…well, a place that used to be home.  She actually didn’t have any family left there anymore, but it was time for her fortieth class reunion, and she decided she wanted to go to this one. 

She’d had the past on her mind lately and thought maybe it would be good to go back.  Maybe it would be good to see some old faces and remember some old stories.  Maybe it would help make sense of some of the things she had been dealing with lately.  Especially as she thought about the letter she had gotten this week, she hoped that revisiting the past could hold some answers for her future.

She had been driving nearly three hours after leaving work early so that she wouldn’t get into town too late.  It felt good to be putting some miles between her and the office.  She was tired. So tired.  Usually, at the end of the day lately all she had the energy to do was heat up something in the microwave and fall asleep on her sofa with the cat curled up on her stomach.

Margaret sometimes felt like she could actually feel the bags under her eyes getting a little heavier, the gray hairs appearing more and more plentifully.  It usually didn’t bother her, but lately it did.  Somewhere along the way, time had seemingly accelerated with each year since she left the hometown that she could now see appearing in the distance.  She reached into her purse for a piece of gum and frowned as she felt the outline of the letter she had placed in there earlier. 

As she drew closer to the lights of the town, she thought about her old classmates.  What had the years brought them?  She wondered if some had grandchildren by now?  Were the high school sweethearts were still married?  How was everyone doing after all this time?

Margaret tried to busy herself with these thoughts – but truthfully, what was most on her mind wasn’t her old classmates – rather, she was wondering and worrying.  She was trying to figure out where so much had gone so wrong.  She said out loud, to God and to herself, “What in the world am I going to do?” as she couldn’t stop thinking about the contents of that pale ivory envelope in her purse.

It was past suppertime now.  The reunion didn’t start until tomorrow, so she was trying to decide whether to go directly to the hotel, or to drive by the family farm.  Nobody lived in the old farmhouse anymore but she and her brothers and sisters still owned it and the land.  Her brothers and nephews still came back there to go hunting and fishing.  She only debated a moment before turning down that country highway she knew by heart. 

Past the country church on the hill, past the abandoned schoolhouse, past Hanson’s barn and the old Johnson house she drove and felt the anticipation rising in her chest.  She turned onto the dirt road that always used to get so muddy in the spring, went over the hill where her oldest brother had his first car accident, and up the long driveway where she had learned to drive a stick shift.  And she was home.  Home.

No matter how much time had passed, every time she came back Margaret still half expected to see the yard light switch on as her dad used to do when he would hear a car pull up after dark.  No matter that it had been decades since her mother had died – she couldn’t help but glance up at the kitchen window where her mom would have been pulling aside the curtain about now to see who was coming.

She stopped the car in front of the house and got out.  Everything was quiet.  The only light came from the nearly full moon and the cool stars overhead.  She pulled on her jacket, grabbed the letter from her purse, and wandered around the yard, observing everything and nothing in particular. 

Memories were soaked into everything here  – moments shared with her brothers and sisters and then with her children when they were small and she would bring them here and they would run and play in the woods and on the hills.  These days when she came back, sometimes she felt lonesome for the soil itself that everyone had left it behind.

She walked up on the front porch and sat down on a folding chair that remained.  The air was chilly but she wanted to stay a while and think….because this used to be a good spot to figure things out.  She had always felt like she could hear God more clearly when she was there…and she hoped the same thing would be true tonight.

Margaret pulled the letter out of her pocket.  In the moonlight, she could just barely make out the words on the page.  Truthfully, she didn’t need the letter anymore – she’d had it memorized for days, but she still stared at it as if it were some strange language she didn’t yet understand.

The letter read:  Dear Margaret,  “Due to a change in business operations, your department and every job in it will be eliminated. Your position will no longer exist and you won’t be replaced. We are sorry to inform you that you will be laid off from your position as of December 1st”The letter went on with some brief formalities and then ended with a tidy, “We appreciate the work you have done.”

Twenty-two years she had worked for them.  Twenty-two years she had given them – rarely taking a sick day.  She had put in the long hours, the extra time.  No, she hadn’t particularly loved the job itself or found it to be exceptionally challenging, but it had been comfortable and she always received compliments on her work.  Plus, she had so many good friends there.  That would be the hardest part about leaving…many of her co-workers were the friends who had comforted her when her parents died, and when the divorce came out of nowhere.  They had celebrated birthdays and holidays together for years. 

And now, as of December 1st, she would no longer be a part of that place.  She would no longer have the routine she was so comfortable with, daily contact with those friends, or a paycheck.

She felt hopeless as she sat on that porch, the same porch where she used to dream about all the endless possibilities…but now she simply felt discarded. 

The minutes ticked by.  She propped her feet up on the side of the porch railing and looked up at the stars.  She said out loud – to God and to herself – “Why?” 

She sat there for quite some time, thinking, listening. There was only silence.

So she thought it couldn’t hurt to elaborate.  She said, “Everything is a mess, God.  I don’t know how to start over, but I don’t have enough money to live on the rest of my life.  I can’t rely on my children who are just getting started with their own families.  I thought I was doing okay.  I thought I was doing enough.  Why does everything have to change now?”  She sighed. 

But an answer didn’t come from the heavens.  Instead, as Margaret sat there mired in the past, muddling with questions, and enveloped in silence -she spotted a flower pot on the corner of the porch.  It was a big clay pot – very plain, chipped and unattractive now from years of being beaten by the weather.  But as Margaret fixed her eyes on that pot she could remember the day her grandmother brought it over to their house and placed it there with a bright arrangement of artificial daisies in it.  She had found it at a rummage sale. 

Oh how Margaret had loved her grandma who told intricate stories with a cup of coffee next to her and her hands busily working on her embroidery.  What was it she always used to say?  She was trying to remember – there was something Grandma would say whenever someone in the family was muddling with a decision.  She’d say it whenever someone was feeling too sorry for themselves.  She told Margaret she had said it to herself a million times when her husband had died at an early age and she had to raise their three children alone.  What was it again?  And then Margaret remembered – she would say, “Begin to weave and God will give the thread.”

“Begin to weave and God will give the thread.”

 “Ah yes,” Margaret said.  It was close enough to a voice from the heavens for her.  If Moses could receive a message from God through something as strange as a burning bush, she’d happily accept hers through an old flower pot.  Margaret got up off her chair, folded the letter and placed it in the flower pot, and went over to her car.  Her eyes surveyed the house and the yard one last time before she got in the car and abruptly drove away. 

 And she did not go to the hotel.  She did not go to the reunion.  Instead, she drove back past the Johnson’s and the Hanson’s, past the abandoned schoolhouse and the country church, back to the Interstate, and headed back home. 

Yes, she was tired.  Tired from the long drive.  Tired from working too much and resting too little.  But she was mostly tired of looking behind.  So tired of pondering the years that had passed and worrying over what was long gone…and frankly, she had been tired of her old job, too.  It had just been so comfortable, so steady. She had been living so cautiously and carefully, so dutifully following her routine – it had been effortless to while away the years until suddenly twenty-two of them had gone by.  She said out loud, to God and to herself, “No more.”

In that night air, as she thought about the years to come, she could sense change and risk and new beginnings floating around everywhere – and suddenly she didn’t fear it anymore.  And she wasn’t sure why, but something in it all felt sacred – as she drove off toward her future that night.