Sermon for Maundy Thursday 2018

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Wheat and grapes- they’re terribly ordinary things. The former has been cultivated for about 12,000 years, and its so easy to grow, so resilient, that it takes up more farmland than any other crop on earth (over half-a-billion acres worth). The latter has been used to make wine for at least the last 8,000 years. While today oenophiles might prefer wines from particular regions made with particular varieties of grapes, if one isn’t picky the grapes grow wild and the fermentation process is just nature taking its course. We’re not picky here, by the way. We don’t use fine wine for the Mass. It’s pretty cheap stuff- Taylor Port from New York. I think that’s appropriate, though, lest Holy Communion become a wine-tasting exercise.

Anyway, the ordinariness of wheat and grapes, of bread and wine is, I believe, at least part of the point our Lord was making when on this night, so many centuries ago, he established the Eucharist. They would have been part of every meal, as much of a given as a fact that the host of that meal would be made of flesh and blood.

An older friend of mine once told me that the worst thing her mother could have said about anybody (tantamount to a vulgar epithet) was to say that they were “common.” Now that kind of pretension can find no place in the upper room, in this sanctuary, or on the pilgrim way which is our common life, because that’s the meal we eat; those are the feet we wash (symbolically this night and metaphorically throughout our live); that’s the Lord we worship. Common.

That’s the other thing about wheat and grapes. The sustenance they give is borne of violence. The wheat grows magnificently high, but then it’s struck down with a scythe, that gleaming symbol of inescapable death. It survives the threshing floor, spared the infernal fate of the chaff, only to to face the mortar and pestle, to be ground until unrecognizable as wheat, until its former glory, its proud striving toward the sun, is but a faint memory.

Likewise, the grape- that splendid symbol of connection, of sharing that which is needful for life through the vine, finds its siblings plucked, feels the mutual love draining away, as the picker approaches. Will it be found worthy? And then, cruel irony, its worthiness once established leads to the greater indignity. It is crushed under foot until, like the wheat, its very being is diminished. It is no longer a grape but a part of the bloody mash.

Bread and wine, though common, hold in themselves the power to give life, but only through death. Flesh and blood, though nothing special, made out of carbon and oxygen and hydrogen, common elements, have somehow combined in such a way to produce beings with reason and skill, with the ability to love someone else, to live for someone else, to die for someone else.

We embark this night on a journey through the three holiest days of the year. As we proceed on the way to Calvary and beyond, I ask that you contemplate how our God is the God of the ordinary, the mundane- that the most important events in history can be made present, truly and mystically, through the common stuff of life- bread, wine, flesh, blood. Contemplate the great paradox of the fact that for God to be God – the kind of God who is all-powerful and faithful and worthy of our devotion – God became an ordinary human being, with all the limitations that keep us from approaching divinity. Consider how a Savior who can miraculously give himself to us in the form of bread and wine can transform us, our hearts and minds and bodies, to share with us a radically new kind of life.

I often think a lot about poetry during Holy Week, and tomorrow I’ll share with you a poem which helped me contemplate the crucifixion. There’s another poem which helped me consider the great moment of this night and I would like to close by sharing it with you. It’s an early poem of Gerard Manley Hopkins, while he was still an undergraduate at Oxford. Its epigraph is from a pretty terrible story about starvation and cannibalism in Second Kings, but he uses it as a jumping-off-point for a meditation on what we contemplate tonight. The poem is titled “Barnfloor and Winepress”.

And he said, If the Lord do not help thee, whence shall I help thee? out of the barnfloor, or out of the winepress?
2 Kings VI: 27

Thou that on sin’s wages starvest,
Behold we have the joy in harvest:
For us was gather’d the first fruits,
For us was lifted from the roots,
Sheaved in cruel bands, bruised sore,
Scourged upon the threshing-floor;
Where the upper mill-stone roof’d His head,
At morn we found the heavenly Bread,
And, on a thousand altars laid,
Christ our Sacrifice is made!

Thou whose dry plot for moisture gapes,
We shout with them that tread the grapes:
For us the Vine was fenced with thorn,
Five ways the precious branches torn;
Terrible fruit was on the tree
In the acre of Gethsemane;
For us by Calvary’s distress
The wine was racked from the press;
Now in our altar-vessels stored
Is the sweet Vintage of our Lord.

In Joseph’s garden they threw by
The riv’n Vine, leafless, lifeless, dry:
On Easter morn the Tree was forth,
In forty days reach’d heaven from earth;
Soon the whole world is overspread;
Ye weary, come into the shade.

The field where He has planted us
Shall shake her fruit as Libanus,
When He has sheaved us in His sheaf,
When He has made us bear his leaf. –
We scarcely call that banquet food,
But even our Saviour’s and our blood,
We are so grafted on His wood.