I’ve noticed that some of our youngest friends at St. John’s are in the WHY stage. They are curious about everything and demand a reason for tying their shoes or taking only one donut or holding Dad’s hand before crossing the street. This stage can demand a hefty amount of patience from their parents, but most of these WHY questions do have a reasonable answer.
It’s just that when several WHY questions are strung together, we continue backing up and backing up until there are only a few universal answers. The two I hear most often are because I said so and because I love you.
Tonight we hear God telling people to do some pretty peculiar things and I can’t help but furrow my brow and wonder WHY?
In Exodus, the Israelites receive really specific orders about choosing a lamb and how to eat it. They have to get their neighbors and calendars and kitchens involved before following yet another set of instructions about a trip – packing lunches and a suitcase.
But WHY does the lamb have to be a year old and male? WHY do we have to burn the leftovers? WHY do we need to scarf it down? WHY does God pass over some houses, but not others? These instructions for Passover elicit all kinds of WHY questions.
And then in Corinthians, Paul gives us the first biblical account of the Last Supper. Jesus tells his followers to eat bread…but that it’s no ordinary bread. It’s also his body and they should do it to remember him. Then he passes a cup of wine around and tells them that it is also his blood, together a tradition that will remind them of Jesus’ presence in the days and weeks and years ahead. But Jesus, what exactly are we remembering about you and WHY do we need to eat this stuff to do it?
And as if these weren’t enough strange instructions for tonight – enough random routines and objects and words tied together into rituals that beg the question WHY – we have the servant Jesus in John’s gospel. The disciples have just started to wrap their heads around the majesty and holiness of Jesus when he trades his robe for an apron and sits on the floor in front of their feet. Their dirty, smelly, sticky feet. He takes a bowl of water in his hands. His soft, clean, for-eating-only hands. And then he makes their dirty feet clean by getting his clean hands dirty.
Peter is appalled. He would rather keep his dirt and vulnerability out of Jesus’ hands thank-you-very-much. He not only wants to know WHY Jesus would offer something so strange, he flat out refuses the gift. That profound touch is too much to bear and too close for comfort.
Feet still carry this offensive stigma. When I would pick my brother up from high school soccer practice, I made him put his shin guards and socks in the trunk because the stench was so terrible driving home. On the day Saddam Hussein was executed, the media showed pictures of Iraqi citizens slapping their shoes against posters of his image, a symbol of profound disgust and hatred. Even today, it’s clear that Jesus is crossing a line and making moves that have us asking WHY.
Maundy Thursday tells of Israelites hurrying to put their shoes on and disciples hesitant to take their shoes off. It's about a people hurrying to keep up with God and a people slowing down to relish their last meal with God. We hear about the very first Passover with an innocent baby lamb and the night God transformed Passover with the innocent Lamb of God. They are complex stories God has given to us along with a solitary command: remember me.
WHY all these rituals and traditions and details?
Because when God describes something just so, he draws us in to see the delicate and specific ways he is always present at the pivotal moments in our history.
Because by remembering where we come from and walking through the stories with scripture, food and other believers, we end up learning about where we are going.
Because God doesn’t throw out promises that could get picked up by a breeze and swept away before they reach us. God ties his promises to things we can see and hear and taste and smell and feel. He gives them weight, like when he ties the promises of baptism to water and the promises of communion to bread and wine. He creates experiences around these promises that ensure we’re not alone. And he calls us together because together it's easier to remember.
There are so many answers to these WHY questions – so many ways God is moving ahead of us like that pillar of cloud and fire through the wilderness. But when we chase those WHYs all the way back to the very beginning, through all of God’s gracious and wise and love-soaked replies, we are left with the two answers every patient and kind parent knows by heart:
Do this in remembrance of me…because I said so and because I love you.