1 Corinthians 11:23-26
“Plagues, Family Meals, & Remembering”
I was out last Saturday, dropping off some faith formation resources and girl guide cookies at the homes of our church families with children. And while I was doing it, I enjoyed a few nice chats with some of the parents and kids from a safe physical distance, usually at the bottom of the front steps.
But I’ll remember the greeting I received from one of the teenagers when she looked out the front door and saw me standing there: “I haven’t seen you since before the plague!” That’s quite the dramatic way of putting what’s going on with this viral pandemic, but I guess it’s not too far off.
Now, I’ve been leading worship services on Maundy Thursday every year since I was ordained. But I realized as I began to prepare this year that although the services have varied a great deal in their format and liturgies, they have always included a celebration of the Lord’s Supper and they have almost always included a foot washing or a hand washing piece – either with a few people having their feet washed in a symbolic or dramatic presentation, or with everyone invited to participate in washing and being washed.
With all that’s been going on over the last month, we’re all hand washing experts by now! Plus, our hands are already dry and cracked enough that adding liturgical hand washing just seems like something we don’t need to do. And without being able to gather together physically, sharing Holy Communion, let alone having our usual Maundy Thursday potluck supper at First Church, is just not going to happen.
So, with the focus of this service normally centered on the Sacrament of Communion and the foot washing, I have typically included the reading from 1 Corinthians in which the Apostle Paul relates the institution of the Lord’s Supper. Plus, we’ve read the story from John chapter 13 in which Jesus washes the feet of his disciples as they share that last supper together before he is arrested.
The text that I have NEVER included on Maundy Thursday is the Old Testament reading from Exodus 12 that we just heard read tonight. But somehow, this year, it seems particularly appropriate. After all, it’s about a plague. And it’s about families gathered together in their homes, not really safe to be out and about in the community. It’s about fear, and hope, and uncertainty, and trusting in God.
This part of the story of God’s People comes from the time when the Hebrews were still slaves in Egypt. God is working on a plan to get them out and get them free. And, at least the way they tell the story later on, God uses the plagues to cause trouble for the oppressive Egyptians so that Moses can lead the Hebrews out, and through the wilderness, and into the promised land.
Now, I should say right away that I don’t believe God causes plagues. I don’t think God caused the “plague” that the world is experiencing today in the COVID-19 pandemic, and I don’t think God caused other plagues that have created hardship and suffering for people and communities throughout history.
I understand why God’s people tell the story that way. I mean, they look back and see the good that came out of all the trouble and they see God’s hand in that good. The plagues happened, and the Egyptians suffered, and the Hebrews managed to escape to freedom.
It’s like when I hear people commenting that this pandemic is giving them an opportunity for a long-overdue sabbath rest. Or when they note that God seems to be forcing them to slow down their hectic schedules and appreciate the simple things in life like time spent with their children or spouse.
They don’t mean that God caused a pandemic so that they would experience these positive benefits. But maybe God works some good in our lives, even in the midst of really bad events, when we are open to God’s guidance and direction.
The Exodus text also seems appropriate for this year’s service because it’s about the Passover meal that all the People of God are instructed to share, but they’re not going to do it all together in one gathering at a synagogue or church or public place of some kind.
The special meal is for the whole congregation, but they’re not going to congregate together. They’re going to eat their meals within their own households, with their own immediate families. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
If some families are smaller and don’t need a whole lamb, they’ll divide a lamb with some of the others. There will be sharing, and looking out for households in need, and families will neither have too much nor too little. No hoarding going on here!
The Hebrew People were instructed to gather in their households and to eat together as families, even while there was a plague going on outside their homes. I don’t know if it was their staying home that protected them, or the careful way that they cooked their food, or the blood with which they marked their doors. But they were told to observe the Passover meal in their homes, not only at the time, but throughout their generations as a perpetual ordinance.
They were invited to remember God’s faithfulness and protection. They were invited to remember God’s presence and help through the most difficult time of their lives. They were invited to adjust their calendars to make it a kind of New Year celebration, the most important time of remembering in the year.
The connection between the Jewish Passover meal and the institution of the Lord’s Supper by Jesus is a bit confusing. In John’s Gospel the last supper and foot washing take place “before the festival of the Passover” and in the other Gospels we read that the last supper WAS the Passover meal.
But there are a couple of things that are clear. Both meals include an important element of remembering – remembering God’s presence, and love, and saving help. And the instructions for both meals include the definite command to keep on getting together for these meals, and to keep on remembering and giving thanks to God.
We’re pretty used to sharing the Sacrament of Holy Communion in our church building. We normally do it on the first Sunday of the month, and on special days like Maundy Thursday. And if you’re like me, you’re already missing the fact that we haven’t shared the Lord’s Supper together for a while, and we’re likely not going to be able to do so for some months to come.
But I keep thinking about that last verse in Paul’s instructions about Holy Communion. He says, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” Or there’s the language that I often use in the Communion liturgy: “Every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, remember me.”
So, I’m wondering if we can keep doing that whenever we eat and drink in our own households. I’m not suggesting that we all have private little sacraments at home. But how about we make a particular effort to pause and remember God’s presence with us whenever we eat? Perhaps we can take a moment to remember God’s saving help in our lives, to give thanks for the blessings we have experienced. Not only that we do have food to eat, but that we have homes that provide us with a safe place to hunker down until this pandemic subsides.
I realize that I’m probably just reminding us all to “say grace” before our meals. But I want to invite you to do something more than just recite a quick prayer like you’ve always done. Pause and remember. Pause and give thanks. Pause and know that as you share your meal with your family, or with your spouse, or just with yourself and maybe your cat… that you are one of the households that is a part of the great congregation of God’s People that is sharing, and remembering, and giving thanks together.
Each in our own place, we are keeping our physical distance for the sake our own health, and the safety of our neighbours, and those most vulnerable to this virus, and for the sustainability of our health care system. Still, in the midst of this plague, we are sharing family meals, we are remembering God’s saving help, and we are placing our trust in God for our needs today and for the future.
May God bless us as we do, so that we will be a blessing to one another, to our neighbours, and to the world around us. Amen.