We’ve been here before

A Holy Week reflection for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday

patrick heeryWe’ve been here before
A Holy Week reflection for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday

by Patrick David Heery, editor

The following reflection was delivered at the Holy Week worship service at the Presbyterian Center, the national office of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), a place undergoing significant transition. The service, entitled “You Have Made a Cross for Your Savior,” was a time for confession, grief, and cleansing. It included the Solemn Reproaches from the Cross (based on Psalm 78), a renewal of baptismal vows, and selections from John 13, where Jesus washes the feet of his disciples. This reflection led directly into Communion, closing with an Invitation to the Table.

We’ve been here before, haven’t we? At this Communion Table. On this eve of crucifixion. This waiting for Easter and an empty tomb. And we’ve been here before, haven’t we? In this building, this very chapel, waiting to see if we’ll have a job in another month, waiting to see which of our friends and colleagues will be escorted out of this building, not to return the next day. And we’ve been here before, haven’t we? Sitting isolated in our offices, wearily, madly dashing off emails and programs and strategies, hoping that this one will turn the tide and save the church, save our ministry. Oh and we’ve been here before, haven’t we? Cutting corners because there’s too much work, because there’s no time for play or imagination, because it’s by our stats that we have value here in the wilderness. And yes, we have been here before. Trying to pass off a wilderness as if an oasis, locking deep inside of ourselves our un-confessed sins, our unspoken wounds.

And I get it. We work so hard to appear valuable and speak so little of our failures and limitations, trying to leap over the crucifixion, because we fear that if we were to reveal our true and broken selves, we would be left behind, deemed a weak and unwanted vulnerability.

And frankly, that is how the world generally works. And if we’re being honest, it’s sometimes how this place works. We shoot our wounded.

But you know, it’s funny; for people who have been here before, we have an awfully poor memory. We have forgotten that it wasn’t the strategies of Moses, or the armies of the Israelites, or the wealth of Solomon, that carried our ancestors through the wilderness and out of exile. And it wasn’t the wisdom or perfection of the disciples that resurrected Christ. It was God and God’s unfailing love for us, not because of who we seem to be, but because of who we are—and because of who God is.

Here, in this terrifying hour resounding with the echo of explosions in Brussels and Turkey, with the cry of protestors over the bodies of slain black children, here, now, as we keep vigil over our own sinful crucifixion of our gentle Lord, this is the time to speak our woundedness and confess our sins.

Christ says come to me that I may wash your feet. And yet, here we are, again, refusing to remove our shoes from our stinky, blistered, weary feet, fearing they are nasty, unlovable things.

And again, I get it.

For what must have been more than eight years, I told myself that I was a monster and a blight on this world. I tried to be worthy of love and respect by a frenzy of activity, by working long hours in countless do-gooder organizations and getting all the best grades and awards. But it was never enough. Because I knew who I really was.

It was never enough until I finally confronted my burden. Until I finally, after so many years of silence, shared how—after long days of being bullied and bloodied and laughed at—I would come home and call my sister fat, and kick my dog, and hurt the weaker ones in my life, the ones I loved, the beautiful ones who deserved much better, so that I could reclaim some measure of power. I, the gentle and kind youth who lived and depended on that image, saw secretly in myself only the same ugly violence of my oppressors. And finally, I told someone. And then . . . a miracle happened. . . . They didn’t recoil in fear or disgust, as I was so certain they would. Instead, they shared with me their own times of violence and weakness and powerlessness. We held each other. And suddenly, this big, awful thing didn’t seem so big at all. I felt free. Free to atone for my actions. Free to receive an undeserved but certain and breathless grace.

"This table was built for crucifiers." Photo by Chip Hardwick of the Communion Table at the Presbyterian Center.

“This table was built for crucifiers.” Photo by Chip Hardwick of the Communion Table at the Presbyterian Center

Believe it or not, that’s what this moment of confession and condemnation, of preparing for the crucifixion, is all about: grace.

It is in the naming of these sins that we are potentially freed of their power.

After all, if God knows all of this sin and still chooses us, we need not hide anymore. We need not swipe at ghosts, like raging Macbeth. We need not work so hard to keep the world and ourselves blind to our brokenness. It is named. It is conquered. It is crucified.

Here, in this building, we have clung to our silos, opted for self-preservation over self-crucifixion, bartered truth for the appearance of success, failed to love and know each other, listened only when confirmed in our own assumptions, settled comfortably into hierarchy, and allowed unfaithful wage disparities to prevail. We have been racist, ageist, sexist, and heteronormative. We have gloried in our own prophetic speech while sacrificing nothing. We have pretended everything is OK when everything is not OK. We have failed to discover and empower one another’s unique gifts and passions, demanding instead conformity to abstract plans. We have feared for our future instead of trusting in God. In place of a church that dreams, plays, loves, and risks, we have built a factory of exhaustion, competition, and mistrust.

We have made a cross for our Savior right here.

But named and confessed, it is a cross that God can break. It is a twig in God’s hands.

It can seem like such a big thing for God to spread a table in the wilderness, impossible maybe in the face of such awfulness. And yet, the table is already set. It has in fact been here all along.

And it invites us to let go of all that we once were—for all that we once were has no power over us.

This Table is here to tell us that, while yes, we’ve been here before, we are not the same people who were here before. We are not the same people who were here before. . . . We are a changed people, a washed people, a loved people.

Friends, you are welcome at this table. It is a table built for crucifiers like us. Our Savior invites all who trust him to share the feast that he has prepared in the wilderness. According to Luke, when our risen Lord was at table with his disciples, he took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Their eyes were then opened, and they recognized him. So, come, eat. But know this: you will not leave this table unchanged.

Patrick David Heery is a teaching elder in the PC(USA) and editor of Presbyterians Today. Before taking on that role, he worked with the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy as the creator and managing editor of Unbound: An Interactive Journal of Christian Social Justice.