I found myself pondering several issues as I approached my Holy Week sermon preparation this year.
Issue #1: During Holy Week we are preaching the best known part of the gospel.
That means that we know that the people who come, whether they are the every Sunday worshipers or the Christmas Eve and Easter Sunday only attenders, figure that they already know what we’re going to say.
It also means that we preachers figure that we already know what we’re going to say: on Palm Sunday Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, on Maundy Thursday he washed his disciples’ feet and shared the Last Supper, on Good Friday he was crucified, and on Easter Sunday he was resurrected.
Everything else is detail, it seems.
Issue #2: As a friend of mine is fond of saying, “One’s greatest strength is also her or his greatest weakness.”
One of my strengths as a preacher, and it is one that I share with many, is the ability to look at old stories from different angles and arrive at unexpected, if not unique, observations. I confess to liking it very much when a listener responds to a sermon by saying, “I never saw it that way before.”
My strength is also my weakness, though, because all too often I try so hard to find some new insight in a text that I fail to appreciate the value in the standard or traditional approach to it. Sometimes the old, old story just needs to be retold.
Issue #3: All worship and all preaching, but especially Holy Week worship and preaching, should promote a sense of awe and wonder inspired by the mysterious and amazing grace of God’s love in Jesus Christ our Lord.
I found myself not wanting to talk about how it all happened or even why it all happened; I found myself wanting instead to celebrate the fact that it did all happen and somehow to help us as worshipers and as disciples to be drawn into the story without being manipulative or cute about it.
So I planned and preached a Holy Week series called “Look!”: “Look! He is Coming!” for Palm Sunday, “Look! He is Serving!” for Maundy Thursday, “Look! He is Crucified!” for Good Friday, and “Look! He is Risen!” for Easter Sunday.
And I encouraged my listeners to try to see what was happening with the eye of their imagination; I tried to help them be drawn into the stories so they could see how the stories involved them.
I did so by taking a great risk: during each sermon I asked the members of our congregation to close their eyes. After introducing the sermon I said something like this: “Please close your eyes and keep them closed until I tell you to open them. Imagine…”
Then I tried to tell the story in a way that would hopefully help them to participate in it. So, for example, on Maundy Thursday, after asking the people to close their eyes and to imagine, I read the following imaginative recreation of the events of Thursday night:
It is Passover week in Jerusalem and the city is teeming with pilgrims and the air is thick with tension. The Roman-appointed governor, Pontius Pilate, is in the city for the week as is his custom and Roman soldiers are much more evident than usual. Your teacher Jesus has been involved in many controversies and has engaged in many debates with various religious leaders during the week.
What a relief it is to go into a private room to share a dinner with Jesus and with the other disciples; what a relief it is to shut the door and close yourselves off from the teeming crowd and from the maddening world.
Besides, you think, it is always a joy to share a meal with Jesus; he always enjoys his food and he always enjoys the fellowship.
Soon, though, you realize that something is different about this night and about this meal.
The atmosphere in the room is heavy; the conversation around the table is subdued.
Jesus is much more solemn than usual; when he looks around the room there is a pronounced sadness in his eyes and when he speaks there is a troubling pain in his voice.
Everyone is eating and drinking—and waiting, although you are not sure for what.
Jesus is picking at his food.
Then he sighs, gets up, pours some water into a basin, and kneels in front of Bartholomew. He removes the disciple’s sandals. Bartholomew just sits there, his mouth open, as Jesus begins slowly and deliberately to wash his left foot. The water in the basin darkens with the dust from Bartholomew’s feet even as, you can’t help but notice, the countenance of Judas Iscariot, who is sitting beside Bartholomew, darkens with—well, you really can’t tell with what. Jesus moves to the right foot of Bartholomew and repeats the process, carefully and tenderly. He then takes a towel and dries Bartholomew’s feet.
He skips Judas.
He moves on to Matthew, then to Thomas, then to Thaddaeus. Judas is staring at the floor. You are staring at Judas.
Jesus pours a fresh basin of water and walks back to the group, stopping in front of—Judas. He kneels before Judas, placing the basin on the exact spot into which Judas has been trying to stare a hole. Jesus glances up at Judas with what you will later think of as a knowing glance and then gets to the business of washing Judas’ feet. Judas alternates between expressions that look like he wants to throw his arms around Jesus and like he wants to get up and bolt from the room.
Jesus moves to Philip, then to Andrew, then to James the Son of Alphaeus.
After refreshing his basin of water, Jesus goes to Simon Peter. To this point no one has said anything but you can always count on Peter to be the first. They’re on the other side of the room and their exchange is quiet but you can interpret their body language well enough to know that Peter at first refused Jesus’ offer to wash his feet and then quite dramatically acquiesced. As Jesus begins to wash Peter’s feet, you see the first and only smile of the night appear on your Rabbi’s face—as well as the usual look of confident confusion on Peter’s.
Jesus then washes the feet of the brothers James and John, who are together, as usual.
And now, at last, he kneels in front of you.
Then, after telling the members of the congregation to open their eyes, I said,
Look—he is serving—you!
Look—he is washing—your feet!
After putting away the basin and the towel, Jesus said, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”
Later, after Judas had in fact for some reason bolted from the room and as the room became filled with an air of expectation, Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Look—he is serving!
Now—look at us…
This approach, which I used in each Holy Week sermon, seemed effective in drawing us into the story and in limiting distractions. I don’t think too many people fell asleep; at least, they all seemed to open their eyes when instructed to do so.
[The texts of all of my Holy Week sermons are available at my blog On the Jericho Road.]