“Around This Table,” Sermon, May 4, 2014

“Around This Table”
Luke 24.13-35

The two men shuffled along. On the road somewhere. A village called Emmaus….

A stranger sidled up beside them. Curious. “What are you talking about?”

It took them a minute to answer. The Gospel writer puts it plainly: “They stood still, looking sad.” Who wants to be the The_Road_To_Emmausfirst one to explain? To find the words, which will force them to relieve the painful reality. Finally, Cleopas answers with something like disbelief: “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem….?!”

They explain. They explain that Jesus – a “prophet mighty in deed and word – was handed over to be crucified.” And then he explains…“We had hoped…” “We had hoped he would be the one to redeem Israel.”

They are disappointed. Angry. Confused. Grieving. This thing – this promise – this person – in which and in whom they had staked everything was gone – the promise: gone. The hope for the future redemption: gone. Now what?

They’re shuffling along the road – they had hoped…

I can only speak for myself, but often in the days following Easter – the weeks where we proclaim Easter is not yet over! It’s still Eastertide! – and I feel some of the same pangs of disappointment. It’s hard to believe, and I am left with the words “but we had hoped…” Maybe Easter would feel different this year. Maybe we’d finally understand – or feel more.

Here we are shuffling along the road with the two travelers – we are having a hard time with our belief. The men on the road talk about the women who shared their tale of the empty tomb, and yet they find no hope in their story. It’s deeper than disbelief – it’s the hollow aching of grief and loss that has left no room for hope and faith.

We wander down the road and feel their disappointment.

Their loss is so powerful and palpable that they nearly missed Jesus in their midst.

Did you catch what happens next?

First, this stranger (who we – with a wink – understand to be the risen Christ) begins interpreting scripture to them – which is odd, okay?

It’s odd. But it certainly got their attention. Although – they still don’t quite realize who this stranger is. They might have had some clue – some sub-conscious inkling, but they don’t know. Here’s where it gets really good.

They invite him in. They invite the stranger in, which maybe seems radical enough for some of us – inviting an odd stranger into our midst. They invite Jesus in – and after settling around the table, Jesus takes the ordinary bread on hand for the meal. He takes it, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to the men at the table.

A-ha!

They see immediately. They understand. They recognize Christ in their midst in the breaking of bread, in the sharing of the meal, in coming to the table together.

Jesus was there all along.

It’s interesting to me that after Jesus leaves the room – leaves their presence after the meal – that the disciples engage in a bit of revisionist history. They didn’t recognize him until he broke bread – and then they say “Were not our hearts burning…?” Surely we weren’t that dense to miss the risen Christ in our midst. Surely even as he walked with us we knew. And yet – they did not. The loss and disappointment was so deep it clouded their vision. (We know this experience well.)

In order to recognize Christ they had to gather around a table.

In my estimation, for my part, the table is central to how I understand this Christian faith. It is central to understanding my identity and my call – not just my vocation as pastor – my call as a follower of Christ.

In order to recognize Christ in our midst, we also come to the table. We must come to the table. We must all come to the table.

Around this table – we encounter the risen Christ.

The table points to the entirety of the Gospel – and the entirety of our faith.

Around this table we learn who we are and whose we are.

Around this table we welcome – we are welcomed, invited, by Christ, and we welcome others. We call it the Lord’s Supper because it is first and foremast Christ’s table – it is his meal to which he welcomes and invites us. When we offer an invitation to the table, it is not our table, but an invitation to join us at Christ’s table.

Around this table we share – we are one – we find unity. We call it Communion, which is to say we find unity – we are made one when we share the meal together.

We find unity as a community gathered in the name of Christ. The way we take communion – the form of the meal matters. We didn’t always take communion from individual wafers and grape juice in miniature shot glasses. And we didn’t start taking communion with individual wafers and miniature shot glasses by accident. (And by “we” here, I generally mean most Protestant churches).

Here’s a little history lesson. The shift away from a common cup and a common loaf (what we so gracefully refer to as ‘intinction’), and the shift from wine to juice, emerged out of social movements that began in the church, but sought to change the entire society.

The move away from wine as the assumed contents of our Cup began with the Temperance movement, led by a host of lay Protestant women. (I’d like to point out spear-headed by the Methodists and Presbyterians – we Baptists joined in but did not instigate!) The temperance movement began in the early 1800s, and took root in evangelical Protestant circles as a movement not just celebrating moderation in drinking, but complete abstinence.

In 1874 the Women’s Christian Temperance Union was formed, and one of their banner issues was ridding churches of wine at the Communion table – they promoted the use of grape juice and provided it for churches. (Conveniently enough, Charles Welch, a Methodist, was getting his start as a grape juice maker, motivated by the Temperance cause. Welch’s grape juice dominates the market today because of Christian Temperance and shifts in substance of our Communion Cup.)

As the contents of the cup changed, so did the shape and size of the cup itself. The individual communion cup emerged as a result of sanitation concerns, which “revealed deep anxieties about cleanliness and the borders of the church and of society.”[1] Now that the cup was filled with juice, and not wine – which contains germ-killing alcohol, fears intensified about contamination and disease.

Physical cleanliness and purity were not merely associated with godliness, they were equated with it – the cleaner and purer the person in physical forms, the cleaner and purer their soul. What better way to represent and preserve this than keeping communion contained, clean, and pure?

Other people nervous about the common cup were squeamish about “sharing a Communion cup with strangers – particularly the poor and other social outcasts.” The shift to individual cups, one social historian observes, has resulted in a shift in the meaning and theology of communion, “making it a solitary sacrament rather than a communal one,”[2] by “focusing on the Communion of the individual and God rather than the Communion of the entire church.”[3]

I find this history interesting for many reasons, partly as trivia, but also because it points to how important even the things that we call mere symbol can be. The Communion meal that Christ instituted was a meal, shared among friends – how different would it look to him today to observe bites of bread that could barely sustain and individual cups – and a ritual where we barely have to look into the eyes of our brothers and sisters – our fellow children of God.

How much are we really sharing at all?

The meal is intended to bring us together – in the shared cup and the shared loaf, we find equality and unity in our identity as called and blessed by Christ as God’s children. The ways we share in communion as this body can help us understand that (or prevent us from the same).

We ought also to recognize our unity at this table with Christians around the world – with all persons – all persons created, known and loved by God. Instead, our churches have so often used the table as a weapon, or a way to build walls between who belongs and who is left out.

We welcome only those who are like us, leaving out those whose theology is different. How heartbreaking it is that we have, throughout the two millennia of the church, used the table as a means of radical exclusion than radical inclusion.

We have decided that others cannot come to the table for various reasons – because they do not believe the right things, because they do not belong to the right tribe, because they aren’t members of us, because they aren’t old enough because they do not know the right three-point summary of what it all means.

Around this table we are not passing a test – at the table we embrace mystery.

Tasting the bread, sipping from the cup is not about knowing some kind of secret information – could any of us really know what it means – do any of us really understand what we are doing when we gather – when we break bread and eat together? Of course not. There should be no barriers on the table – age, gender, race, class, orientation. Those are our barriers, not Christ’s.

Around this table we find liberation. We call it Eucharist – which is a fancy way of saying it is a table of Thanksgiving. Remember that Passover is a time to celebrate, remember and re-enact God’s liberation of the Hebrew people from Egyptian slavery. It was during the Passover festival that Jesus broke bread with his disciples and now we celebrate and remember. Likewise, even in this post-Resurrection meal in this Gospel story, the disciples were liberated from their grief and their false expectations. Christ was in their midst – they were free to share and tell.

We are to celebrate, remember and re-enact this transformative meal. In celebrating the Eucharist along with the risen Christ, as we do like Cleopas and his fellow traveler, we project our hopes for the coming Kingdom of God – already in our midst, and not yet fully realized.

As Brian Wren puts it, “The Eucharist is not simply a celebration of small historical victories, but a token of the final and full realization of the Kingdom of God. Thus it is not only a subversive memorial, but a source of hope and the beginning of transfiguration.”[4]

Around this table we share a meal – we are invited to be fed, and then we are called to feed. Jesus shared meals with all kinds of people – eating together, he recognized is one of the most intimate things you can do. Don’t we all know, that it is often over a plate of food that communion happens – conversation, sharing, laughter, tears, togetherness, hopes and fears. In the same way that sharing food with strangers can transform us into friends – and sharing food with friends can transform us into family – the communion table invites us into not just a ritual where we barely get a snack, but is an invitation to a radical and transformational meal – with strangers, friends and family – where we are all transformed because we are all called children of God.

And then we are sent from the table. It is only after they share the meal – they are fed by Christ – that the disciples are compelled to go out and share. They call of Christ, though, is not merely to go and tell – it is to go and share, to go and feed. Because Christ invites us to the table, we invite others to the table. We break bread with others and are fed together.

The table is missional – meaning it points us to our mission. To break bread with other people – with all people, and to welcome all people. The table of Christ is a table with room enough for all. The kind of hospitality that we respond to at the table, and that we, then, imitate is one of “expansive welcome.”

When Christ invites us to share this meal with him, he is inviting us to transgress boundaries. This was never meant to be a safe table. This was never meant to become mere ritual. I would even posit that this was never meant to be mere symbol. It is a radical act – and is radical every time we share a common loaf and a common cup – even something as ordinary as that is revealed as incredibly counter-intuitive in the midst of a culture that tells us to remain safe, insulated and independent.

In Luke’s Gospel, we hear the two disciples invite Jesus in. They invite Jesus to their table – and at the table Jesus is revealed to them. Or more to the point, their eyes can finally recognize the risen Christ in their midst. What they realize is that the table to which they invite Jesus is Jesus’ table all along. They extend hospitality to the stranger and find Jesus in their midst – they find Jesus inviting them into sharing a meal of grace. We understand that our own acts of hospitality offer us “doorways to grace.”[5]

The table points to the heart of it all – it points to the presence of God in our midst. At the table we are fed – with real food, in community with one another. Our spirits are fed – in community with one another. At the table we meet the risen Christ – he is in our midst in our invitation and inviting us to share and share again. We are sent from this table – to feed others, to offer nourishment of body mind and soul.

 

 

 

[1] Daniel Sack, Whitebread Protestants, 11.

[2] Sack, 35.

[3] Sack, 57.

[4] Brian Wren, “Justice and Liberation in the Eucharist,” Christian Century, 1 October 1986. http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=1051

[5] Molly T. Marshall, Feasting on the Word, 422.

Holy Week Prayer

Creating and Sustaining God – We continue to walk this journey of holy week – from palms and hosanna to cries of fear and punishment.

Help us remember the wonder of your love, the wonder of your life, the wonder of your presence.

We walk the journey from the shouts of crowds to join you at the table. You invited your friends to share a meal with you. It is in the breaking of bread that we recognize you euchin our midst. May that be so. May we continue to find you working and living in our midst.

In our brokenness – meet us in the work of your healing peace.

In our darkness – meet us in glimmers of light that flicker hope.

In our arrogance – meet us in the vast expanse of your love that we may wonder anew at the world and your works.

In our ignorance – meet us in the eyes of a stranger – may we recognize your image in and beneath their skin. May we recognize your image in our own being.

In our complacency – meet us in the work of your Kingdom yet to be done. 

In ways new and old may we be struck profoundly by the wonder of the depths of your love – a love big enough for all corners of creation, and a love personal enough that it meets each one of us in bread and wine. Sustain us again with your meal and your presence.

World Communion Sunday

Last Sunday (October 6) was World Communion Sunday. Prompted by logistical constraints, though perhaps serendipitously, we didn’t have a sermon. Or at least we didn’t have world communion sundayonly one sermon. We asked a handful of members to share a story, or thoughts, or what-have-you based on the idea of Sharing at the Table. We also did something a little different (careful, there) with Communion. The table was decorated with textiles attempting to represent as much of the world as possible. The table held a variety of breads and grains available during the breaking of the bread.

Here is my Invitation to the Table – the Bread:

Christ shared so much over meals. He shared forgiveness over dinner with Zacchaeus.  He looked sinners – broken and arrogant – in the eye and pronounced them whole. He broke bread with strangers, outcasts, alienated and alone. He changed them to friends, welcomed, and members of his body.

We celebrate communion differently today – in several ways. First, we will take the bread together in a few moments, and later in the worship, we will share in the cup.

You will notice the table is covered in textiles and in cups and plates and bowls and many kinds of breads – representing our brothers and sisters around the world.

We join with them today in celebrating Christ – his life, death, and resurrection – in our own shared meal – a meal we share in this place together, and a meal we share with those near and far. We celebrate the great spiritual mystery that out of such diversity, we may find communion in the common table of Christ.

In a few minutes I invite you to come forward, row by row, and choose a piece of bread – from any of the options you see – and return to your seat. We will eat together once everyone is seated.  The cup will be passed later in the service.

Let us pray –

Bless now, O God, this table, this bread, this meal we share together. Keep us mindful of those with whom we share this bread in spirit – down the street and in far-flung corners of our world. We celebrate the diversity of your world – from the rocky west coast to our own plains and prairies, to the warm sands of the East Coast. From the dusty desert of Africa to the tallest peaks of Asia. From the cobblestone streets of Europe to the outback stretching across Australia. We thank you that your hands created it all, and that you care for and love it all. With many tongues and yet one voice, we honor you in our thanks and our meal today. May this bread connect us more closely with you and in relationship with your children. Amen.

 

Here is my reflection on Sharing at the Table:

This all started with the Presbyterians, this World Communion Sunday business.

Think of the 1930s – economic turmoil, wars and rumors of wars. In the midst of that context, Hugh Thomas Kerr – a Presbyterian pastor urged his fellow Mainliners to join brothers and sisters around the world at table of Christ – the table of grace – as a gesture of solidarity. It was and remains a day where we – in our words, our worship, our meal – celebrate the unity out of diversity wrought by the Spirit in Christ.

Jesus shared this meal first with his friends – his disciples – and he instructed them to do the same – “Do this in remembrance of me.” “This” refers, of course, to the meal we share – the bread and the cup – but also to his entire life of ministry. Jesus calls us to his entire life of teaching, healing and welcoming all – and we do this especially at our table. Jesus’ welcome was a radical, scandalous welcome. We are called, too, to open wide our table, open wide our welcome to convey God’s grace, love and forgiveness for all – all corners of humanity in every corner of the world.

Which brings me to Sara Miles – if you’ve paid much attention, you’ve heard me mention her several times before. But here goes again: one Sunday she was walking home, up the hills of San Francisco, after hitting the weekend market, and something compelled her enter the doors of St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church. She wasn’t seeking religion, she wasn’t aware that she was seeking God or Jesus, and yet, she found herself in the sanctuary, struck by the fragrance of incense and beauty of the iconography. When it came time in the service for the celebration of the Eucharist, she hesitatingly cupped her hands and received the bread that was offered her. Likewise, she received the sip of bittersweet communion wine (this is the Episcopal church we’re talking about!). Everything changed for her in a few chews, sips and swallows.  She writes, “Eating Jesus, as I did that day to my great astonishment, led me against all my expectations to a faith I’d scorned and world I’d never imagined. The mysterious sacrament turned out to be not a symbolic wafer at all but actual food — indeed, the bread of life. In that shocking moment of communion, filled with a deep desire to reach for and become part of a body, I realized that what I’d been doing with my life all along was what I was meant to do: feed people.” (xiii)

She goes on to write beautifully and simply about Jesus’ call on our lives to feed one another, and to be fed, both with him and through him. We are fed in both literal meals and through the food of God’s mysterious grace.

What she felt called to do – almost without thinking – what she knew to the core of her being she was supposed to do was to feed people. Not feed them spiritual platitudes, or bible stories, or even a warm handshake. Or at least – not to feed them these things only.

She heard in Jesus’ words, in the mission of the church, a distinct call to feed people – real food to real people with real hunger.

So she started a food pantry – a food pantry that literally takes over the altar space of St. Gregory’s sanctuary.

It is a place where over 1,000 families receive food – fresh food, and leftover bread from some of San Francisco’s famed sourdough bakeries – literal tons of food move in and out of the sanctuary.

I have had the opportunity to visit and volunteer at the pantry on more than one occasion. And the experiences there have challenged my idea about God’s family. Not everyone who receives food is kind. Not even every volunteer fits my idea of hospitality – colored, of course, by my genteel Southern grandmothers. Not everyone fits the mold of sweet and compassionate volunteer.  But people get fed.

There is room enough for all.

Sara’s story also changed my idea about communion. I grew up taking for granted that communion was for those who had passed through a specific rite – for those who somehow understood more than other people. Reading her book opened up a new appreciation of the mystery – after all, for those who venture to name communion a sacrament, we are essentially naming it a mystery – how is it we encounter the risen Christ in a simple meal. How is it that ordinary bread – and an ordinary cup of juice – can become for us more than literal food? Who are we to put limits or boundaries on the ways that God can reach human hearts, minds and spirits through the sharing of a meal?

There is room enough for all.

Indeed, as we spoke together at the beginning of the service – the table will be wide. And may our welcome, too be wide.

 

Marks of our church, “Wonder” (sermon, 5.5.13)

First Baptist Church, Lawrence, Kansas
Revelation 21.1-6

A few months ago I offered an invitation to wonder. It was on Epiphany – the entrance from the season of waiting into the season of light. We wondered together at a story of bright stars guiding strange men to a baby. We wondered at the absurdity of the conclusion of our nativity story. We wondered together at strange gifts, from strange men, for an even stranger occasion.  We wondered together at what it means to hear all of this and return home by another way.

I would like to invite you to wonder again – this time, in the context of being church together.

Wonder is something that comes pretty easily, pretty naturally to children. All you need to do is to sit down, eye-level with a small child and watch the world through wondertheir eyes for any amount of time. As they discover the icy-cold of snow for the first time, the sour punch of a lemon for the first time, the beauty of butterflies on a spring day. Or as you introduce them to your favorite books, movies, characters – the wonder and curiosity with which they approach the world gets lost on us pretty quickly.

I invite us, though, to think about the ways that we can claim and re-claim a sense of wonder into the very life of our church – how do we understand wonder as integral to our faith?

I challenge us today not only to think about wonder within these walls, but to reclaim childlike wonder in all that we say, think, and do. How will we approach our lives with a sense of awe? Are we seeking mystery in the world – are we open to the mysterious ways that God has created, God is present, that God is at work in our lives and our world?

We could have done this with each of our marks so far, but there was intention in attempting some clear distinctions between Welcome, Worship, and Work. By some way of conclusion, I would like to illustrate briefly how Wonder permeates all that we do. In some sense, wonder indicates the posture in which we begin all of what we do – as God’s children, we begin with wonder.

Welcome:

By beginning with a posture of wonder we welcome the divine into our midst, even in the most surprising ways. In some sense, when wonder infuses our entire being – as individuals and as a community – we are never surprised to find that the Spirit of God is moving among us in all that we do.  In our welcome to others, we also welcome a spirit of wonder, as we seek to get to know them, and welcome them as family.

We are not a community that lives by rigid doctrines or creeds – some of that is through our Baptist identity – but I believe that is also the character of the church. We welcome wonder in our midst – in the form of questions, in the form of openness to God’s leading, in the form of doubting. Most of all, I believe we introduce and foster a sense of wonder in how we welcome and tell stories. There is no greater means of wonder than in the embrace and wide-eyed hearing of story. And whether this be the biblical story, our own stories of faith, struggle, joy, grief – we welcome story among us. We wonder together at the story that God continues to write among God’s people gathered as First Baptist Church.

Worship:

Wonder is an act of worship. Not only ought we come to our worship each week with a sense of wonder, but outside this room, outside this building, whenever we approach our world with a sense of awe, a sense of curiosity, that is worship. When we reflect on our own lives in wonder – and sometimes this wonder is sorrowful, sometimes it is joyful – we are worshipping. One of the church fathers, St. Anselm approached his theology with the phrase “faith seeking understanding” – meaning that we don’t approach our faith from a purely intellectual assent. Nor does our faith assume complete certainty. Rather, in our action of loving God, in our faithful response to God’s grace, we seek understanding – to understand ourselves, who God has created and called us to be, and the world around us.  When we echo the cry of the Gospel: “I believe, help my unbelief!”[1] All this seeking, this wondering is an act of worship.

Work:

It takes effort to be okay with our questions. It takes effort to be honest with ourselves, with each other, and even with God – to tell the truth and tell our stories with integrity. It seems counterintuitive, but it is easier to seek certainty, to ask questions expecting concrete answers. But the work of being human is resting in the wonder of acknowledging the world is vast, that God is ineffable, and yet, God cares about each one of us; God created each one of us.  As scripture promises, we are all fearfully and wonderfully made.

I love stories of God’s creation and God’s re-creation. Genesis is at least my second favorite book in scripture for this reason. Likewise, the passage from Revelation is one of my favorite passages in scripture. And not because I have some kind of strange fascination with the end-times.  (I don’t.) This passage is commonly used in funerals, as a comfort in times of grief. And certainly its promises of an end to death, an end to pain, mourning and crying, the promise of God wiping all our tears away – are immensely comforting words.

But wonder with me at the totality of the promises here.

We often think about heaven as being ‘out there’ – above us – in some other realm. God’s home is in the clouds, with the angels.  Listen, though, to John’s vision. Instead of us being raised to heaven, heaven comes to us; God descends to us. John’s vision is that God’s home will be among mortals – here, on a reconciled and redeemed earth. This is good news for all of creation. We could perhaps use this as an opportunity to expound on the implications that John’s vision has for our concern for the earth – how we ought to take care of it, to participate in God’s redemption of the entire created order.  And there is some of that here.

But let’s sit down for a bit and observe John’s vision. Let’s pull up a chair and take in all the promises that God has for us.

Wonder at how these words – some of the last words in our scripture – bring the entire biblical story into beautiful conclusion. In the beginning God spoke the entire world into being. God put the humans among animals in a garden – and God called all of it good. We know how that piece of the story went. We know how our own desires for power, control, knowledge, our own desire to possess the future, each other, the world – those pervert and destroy God’s good earth and the goodness God intends for us in relationship.  And yet we know how throughout scripture – throughout the story of God in relationship with people – that God remains faithful. God continues to enter into loving covenant relationship with us. We celebrate the story of a God who became human, a God who called us friends, and calls us to follow into the ways of love, grace, compassion. We proclaim hope and faith in this story.  And here, in John’s vision of a new heaven and a new earth, we observe the covenant, promises, love of God come to completion.  Once again God speaks this new creation into being – in verse 5, God proclaims, “See, I am making all things new.” It is a promise of relationship once again – this time we are redeemed, the world is redeemed, and we have the assurance of living fully united with our Creator.

Wonder with me at this vision – John invites us to ponder a world made new. He invites us to bear witness and trust in this vision.  Wonder with me at this God we worship – the God who creates and re-creates – and marvel that this same God seeks to make a home among us.  This is a life-sustaining message. Wonder with me at how we might be changed and assured if we truly claim this message for ourselves.

Do you see yourselves as part of this story? You are; we all are. We are in the midst of a story, and we proclaim that God is the author – God is the author of our lives, our deaths, our salvation, and our re-creation. God’s story is a story of resurrection. Hear the power of resurrection in a new earth – where all things and all people are made new. Wonder at the mystery of God’s story – as we hear the story drawing to an end in the book of Revelation, we marvel that God’s ending is just another beginning.[2]

Do you understand the world we live in as in process of being redeemed? It takes a holy imagination – an imagination “…nourished by the word and sanctified by the Spirit to connect what is visible and invisible – the reconciliation of heaven and earth – seeing the past, present, and future of all things through the light of God’s glory in Christ.”[3]

This holy imagination helps us envision of a new earth – the promise of Revelation that God will choose to descend – to bring heaven here – and make a home among us once again.  It is our sense of wonder that does, in fact, acknowledge this vision. It drives us to put work into maintaining our Food Pantry, and providing our Deacons Fund, and hosting Family Promise.  We imagine a world where all are fed, all have homes, all are safe and secure – so we work to contribute to that vision of God’s Kingdom – not after death, not in some other realm, not “up there” – but here, on earth. On earth God will make a home among us.

Sacrament

The proclamation and promise of God’s Kingdom on earth comes near to us today as we celebration communion.  I see no better opportunity to talk about wonder as a mark of the church than on a day when we share together in the bread and cup of God’s covenant with us. One way we can do this is to talk about the idea of sacrament.

We Baptists tend to run pretty far away from talking in terms of sacraments – we prefer language of symbol, memorial, maybe ‘ordinance’. We tend to approach the idea of sacrament with no small amount of suspicion, trading ideas like transubstantiation for mere symbol.

But what if we didn’t? What if we reclaimed some of the theology behind the idea of sacrament? I would like to challenge us to hold the idea of sacrament a little closer today. We tend to cast away this language partly because of our Reformation heritage – Reformers like Martin Luther, John Calvin, Zwingli, rejected the Roman church’s perversion of grace and sanctification – rejected the idea that salvation can be sold or that we needed mediators to the divine. Lost in some of that Reformation language, as it has been traced down to our own Anabaptist heritage is the language of sacrament.

The word sacrament has a couple of derivatives – one is thanksgiving – in our practicing these actions, we find demonstrable ways to return thanks to God – for presence, for grace, for love.  Another, is from the Greek mysterion – meaning mystery.  We practice the sacraments – the actions that trace back thousands of years – and acknowledge the mystery of our participation.  Sacraments, by many theologians’ rendering, are a visible sign of an invisible grace – meaning they are the ways that we participate in, that we take action, to remind ourselves of God’s grace – to experience God’s grace.

The idea of sacrament was originally intended to convey the “presence and purpose of God make known in Jesus Christ.” Through the formation of church doctrine, we have the idea of sacramental presence – the presence of God in the world, embodiments of grace – codified into sacraments –actions or observances that are intended to enact grace.[4]

Therefore, I do not think we are mistaken to consider baptism, communion, ordination, baby dedications, weddings, as sacramental actions, as sacraments – though perhaps we are committing a specific breed of Baptist heresy.  These are visible signs of God’s grace.  If there were not something powerful in the immersion under water, in the breaking of bread and drinking from the cup, in the laying on of hands, in blessing and committing to care for the youngest among us, in the exchanging of rings and vows, if there were not something powerful, some grace felt in these actions, then why perform them at all? Why participate? We do them, not because of mere symbol, but we do them because they connect us in powerful ways to ancient tradition, and to the mystery and ineffability of God’s free grace. Through participation in these moments, in these ceremonies we bear witness to the working of God’s Spirit among us – in much the same way that God’s spirit has been at work through the ages. These are actions of the church that weave together the thanksgiving and the mystery – they are at once our response to God’s grace and God’s call to be community, and they are operative: in our participation we become grace-filled communities created by God, redeemed by Christ, and sustained in the Spirit.

How do we take this idea of sacrament and let it inform our everyday lives? We can shy away from language of sacrament because it sounds too Catholic, but I believe we lose a significant piece of the mystery of our faith when we do that.  To live sacramental lives opens us up to the presence of Christ in our midst. And in being open to that, we open ourselves up to be sacraments – to be the presence of Christ in the world.  This happens any time we are open to the grace, love and compassion that marks the Way of Christ. Any time we live and move in the world out of grace, love, and compassion, however imperfectly, we too become sacramental presences in the world. Take a moment and wonder at the power of that. If we really believed that, if we really behaved in that Spirit, how much might we be transformed? How much might the church be transformed? How much, then, might our world be transformed?

In a few minutes we will gather around the table and re-tell the ancient story. We will speak words that remind us why we gather around the table – we talk about Jesus taking, breaking, blessing, and giving bread to his friends. And likewise sharing the cup. We call it the body of Christ and the blood of Christ.  Of course, again, as Baptists, we mean this symbolically.

However, I would like to challenge us, at least for this day, to re-claim some of this sacramental theology in our observance of communion. I would like to challenge us to wonder at the mystery of breaking bread together, of sharing a cup together. Wonder together this day at a God who chooses to dwell among people, and who chooses to call us ‘friends.’ Wonder together at a God whose primary motivation is love, compassion and care – and who calls us, empowers us, to the same. Wonder at a God who demonstrates these things most clearly through a meal. Wonder with me at the power of this meal we share together – but not only in this loaf of bread and this common cup, but each time we gather together around any table to share a meal with others – that we meet Jesus in the faces of one another – that we recognize God’s care for and God’s love for all of us. We recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread, and we recognize Jesus as we feed each other.  Reclaim with me this day the wonder of that mysterious grace, and that mysterious community.

What if we believed in the things we proclaimed from the table – that like the bread and the cup, we ourselves are taken, broken, blessed and given – that we are made new, wrapped up in God’s covenant together, sent out to be the very living presence of God in the world? It’s hard to believe because it takes a sense of wonder. It would require reclaiming some of the childlike openness.  It takes a holy imagination. How would we approach this table today, in all its awkwardness, and crumbs, and drips, with a sense of wonder, expecting to receive something of the divine Spirit? Moreover, how would we leave this place today, ready to participate in Heaven on earth, trusting that God makes all things new – that God’s very self seeks to make a home among us – God’s beloved?

Rabbi and Mystic Abraham Heschel once wrote: “Never once in my life did I ask God for success or wisdom or power or fame. I asked for wonder, and [God] gave it to me.” The entry point, he writes, to spiritual awakening, to deep and lasting experiences of God’s working in our lives, is not in worldly means, like success or fame, though the world often tries to convince us otherwise. Rather it is in keeping our eyes, our hands, our hearts open to the wonders that God is working, everywhere, in the mundane, in the ordinary, turning our lives into an integral part of the sacred story that God is writing.

This day may we ask for wonder.


[1] Mark 9.34

[2] Eugene Peterson, quoted in Michael Pasquarello III, Feasting on the Word, Year C, volume 2, 467.

[3] Pasquarello, 467.

[4] Daniel Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans Publishing, 2004. pp. 274-282.

Morning Prayer, March 3, 2013

God of hospitality, you have set a feast before us. You have invited all the world to join you at your table.Image

In these Lenten days of preparation, when both springtime and Resurrection feel more like far off dreams than imminent reality, help us receive your provision.

Already this year we have been caught off guard by the distractions and inconveniences of this world. Of the latest newsworthy controversy and of political bickering that prevents us from seeing the world through your eyes – through bigger eyes.  We have been inconvenienced by weather, snowbound and frustrated perhaps by our agendas that have taken a pause. May we find the words of gratitude on behalf of the thirsty ground, and may we find rest and restoration even in the most inconvenient of pauses.

Already this year we have worried and wondered and questioned in the face of pain, suffering, sickness, even death.  It feels like too much for us to bear the weight of it all. The year has barely begun and already our resources seem worn too thin.  Give us the strength and the courage to rise and rise again to face each new day. May we meet your peace in the midst of grief, and steadfastness in the midst of gratitude.

We don’t have to look far to see the weariness that saturates this world. We hear and see the ravages and spoils of war. We lose our trust in leaders who fail to lead with compassion, humanity and a sense of common purpose. We often feel restless and without a home in a world that often looks so very different from the Kingdom you created.  May we not despair. Embolden us, awaken us to seek out and create your image in ourselves, in each other and in the world we live and work and play.

God you have invited us to your table, to your feast. We give thanks for the richness of this life you give; we celebrate new beginnings, healing, laughter and hope that breaks in and denies the darkness the last word. We offer our humble and inadequate thanks for the grace you give that makes all things new, that offers forgiveness in each moment. May we know that grace anew this day, as we join together at your table, as we share, chew, sip and swallow the feast you have prepared for us. With our entire being, may we taste and see that You are Good.

We ask for your patience, your guidance and your wisdom. May we have the patience to trust that you are already at work ahead of us, as you have guided us in the past, and guide us even unto this moment. In our thoughts, words and deeds, shape us in your wisdom to live with intention and compassion.

As we seek to understand and follow Jesus this day and every day, we pray all this in his name, Amen.