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This time last week I was still pinching myself, having just left a brief tour at my university of a new arrival of cultural artifacts from Iraq and Syria. A generous donor had gifted them to the university, entrusting our linguists to translate and catalogue these few remaining tokens of common life in the Ancient Near East, perhaps the last remaining glimpses of a part of the planet that has become the bull’s eye in an everlasting war.
My professor suggested I return when I had a week or better still a month to spend with the collection and not just a few hours. Even with just a brief examination, one item stayed with me.
It was a large piece of rock, engraved with about fifteen lines of Ancient Arabic poetry. A devoted and patient artisan had composed the hymn to his beloved sometime around the 9th century BCE, declaring his undying love.
I once tried without any success to carve my initials along with Jack’s on a tree and gave up. I couldn’t imagine how long it took this Arabian poet to create this piece. I wonder if the woman ever saw it. I wonder if they got together. And if they did, I wonder how it turned out.
“I wonder,” Jesus said, “do you understand what I have done?”
Not just tonight, but for these three years that we’ve been together. Did you understand what I was doing?
At Cana, did you understand how important it is to rejoice with those who rejoice? That being present with a family to celebrate milestones like a wedding is part of what it means to be human? Did you understand the significance of radical hospitality that would ensure that the wine would not run out? Did you see that we have more than just a duty to be present, but to contribute to the celebration? Or did you just wonder whether I would show you how to turn water into wine?
That afternoon at Bethany, did you understand how important it is to weep with those who weep? That the death of any person diminishes your own life? Do you understand how vulnerable those two sisters would be without their brother to defend their honor? Do you have any idea how many people at the margins of your world are at risk every day? Or were you just wondering whether Lazarus was really dead?
And that evening, on the shores beside the Galilee, did you understand that the needs we face will always be greater than the resources that we bring to them? Do you understand that this will always be the calculus of ministry and that responding to it will require our collaboration with God? Or were you just thinking that surely these thousands of people must have homes to go to and that you’ve barely got enough for yourself, much less to share? Were you just thinking that you wanted things the way they were, when it was just you and Jesus, before all these “other” people showed up?
And tonight, do you think that I was just being a gracious host to wash your feet?
I wonder, have you understood any of this? It is mandatory that you follow these examples when you love each other. This is what the prophet Jeremiah was talking about when he said that the law of God will be carved onto the stone of your hearts. This is what undying love looks like.
Mandatory, mandate, mandatum, “Maundy”.
For three years, Jesus had offered undying love to the world he came to deliver from bondage to freedom. His compassionate presence in ordinary and even unpopular social situations created relational artifacts that he expected us to examine and to emulate.
How we care for, love, each other and love “the other” is the continued declaration of Jesus’ love. One day when some archeologists are examining the artifacts of our time, will they see traces of this love? I wonder.
The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Park
March 29, 2018