Invented Memory: A Maundy Thursday Sermon


Carol M. Highsmith [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A sermon by David Daily…

Sometimes, when people invent a memory, we think they are crazy.  But that’s not always the case.  I distinctly remember as a child being home with my mother when she learned that a cousin had been killed in Vietnam.  But I found out as an adult that that memory was an invention—a pure fabrication—because I was just a baby at the time, and we didn’t even live in the same house where my invented memory had placed the event.  Apparently, I had heard mention of the cousin’s death often enough, and seen my mother’s continuing grief over it, that my mental image of the moment of hearing the news had become a personal memory of my having been there.

Of course, the facts are important.  It is important to set the record straight and know that I was too young to remember this event.  But on a deeper level of meaning and relationship, that memory was rooted in something true—my sympathy for my mother, my childhood sense that her grief was my grief too.

Our readings today, and the entire service in which participate, invite us to invent a memory.  In fact, it asks us to live the memory, to be that memory, here and now.

We take our clue from the story of the Passover in the reading from Exodus, the same story of the Passover that Jesus would have read with his disciples on their last night together.  There are some very strange things happening there from the standpoint of time.  In the narrative world of the book of Exodus, the distinctions between past, present, and future collapse.  The account of Passover subverts the normal order of time by telling Israel how to remember an event before it actually happens.  This is not simply an event that people experience and only then construct a ritual to memorialize.  Passover memorializes something before it occurs.  As a result, the narrative of exodus itself becomes one with the ritual, and those who participate in the Passover ritual become one with those who take and eat in the story itself.  To celebrate Passover is to become like a book reader who tumbles into the story world of the book she is reading.

This is where literalism, you may be glad to know, fails us, and becomes the enemy of religion.  In the Passover ceremony, participants state, “We were the Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.”  Taken at the literal level, when later Israelites celebrated the Passover meal, and made that statement, it was false.  They had not been slaves in Egypt—only their ancestors had been.  But at the deeper level of meaning and relationship and identity, this claim would be reinvented as their very own memory, as the one thing that told them more than anything else exactly who they were.  In short, in imagining themselves to be what they were not, they became who they most truly were.

And that’s something of the mystery of what happens to us as well, on this very night.  Our own sense of time collapses as we hear Jesus, in the spirit of the Passover, memorialize his own death before it occurs.    And in this case, too, like the later generations of Israelites celebrating Passover, we have to admit that we were not there at the original event.  We were not there with Jesus in that room. He didn’t wash our feet, he didn’t break our bread, he didn’t pour our cup.  We are not living in the year AD 30, we are not sitting outside Jerusalem, our world is not ruled by Rome, and Pilate is not our governor.  We are Arkansans.  We come here in the midst of hopelessly busy lives, driven to distraction by a hundred competing tasks.  We are worried about (take your pick) our children, our aging parents, writing a paper before the deadline, finding our first job out of college, finding someone to spend our lives with, paying our mortgage, whittling down our credit card debt, eating a better diet, pacifying an unreasonable boss, working through conflicts in a relationship.  When we walk in here, that’s what we are. That’s what we’ve allowed to define us.  But we come here to be told that we are the disciples sitting at Jesus’ table, and in acting out that moment—by inventing that memory—we find that that is who we most truly are.  And it’s the power of that moment that makes this a solemn hour.

In this hour our indebtedness, our griefs, our fears, and our failures—even our achievements and our comforts—no longer ultimately define us.  For we are known to God, we are loved by God, and we encounter this God tonight in the servant who washes our feet. We meet this God tonight in the One who gives us the bread and the wine.  We meet this God tonight in the One whose sorrow is our sorrow, whose joy is our joy, whose love led him to the cross.

Tonight is not a night for long discourses, so enough with words.  There are feet to be washed, a table to be set, a divine love to be shared.