“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.

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Morning Prayer, 10.13.13

God you are the Author of Life – from before our birth and beyond our last breath – you know us and call us by name.

You have created us uniquely and amazingly in your image – the power that each of us bears your mark of grace and love and faith is often too much to bear, too much to understand. If we are honest, if we were to embrace fully the truth of this – we are, truthfully, afraid of what might happen. Forgive us for our reluctance and our fear to take care of, to take responsibility for, the least of these among us. Forgive us for our inability and our unwillingness to love our neighbors as ourselves.

You have created us and called us to your work: an unceasing call to build your Kingdom – to be agents of your love, mercy and justice in the world.  Unsettle us, awaken us, for-least-of-thesedisquiet us to see ways in which we would do your work.

We ask for your blessing this day, but not for blessings of comfort or of complacency. Rather bless us with new sight and new perspective:

Bless us with discomfort – may we not be satisfied with easy or simplistic answers. May we not be content with empty truths or superficial relationships.

Bless us this day with anger – with righteous indignation at all the ways that injustice, oppression, exploitation seem to tell a greater and more powerful story than your freedom, justice and peace.

Bless us this day with deep grief – grant us tears to shed on behalf of others who suffer. We honor the physical wounds of domestic violence, of warfare and of abuse. We honor the suffering caused by famine, starvation, drought. We honor the mental and emotional anguish of mental illness – suffering that often goes unnoticed and unspoken.

Bless us this day with the audacity to believe – the audacity to have faith in your Kingdom, believing, standing on your promises that your peace, your mercy, your grace is big enough, deep enough, wide enough to cover and consume the whole world.

For those among us who continue to seek your healing, we pray.
For those among us who continue to wrestle with the hidden and yet powerful companion of grief, we pray.
For those among us who suffer – silently or otherwise, we pray.

Likewise, O God, we recognize that we struggle to love our enemies – individuals, institutions, other nations, political parties. We pray for the enemies we wrestle.

We pray all these things in the name of Jesus, our Christ, Amen.

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.

 

Morning Prayer, June 30, 2013

On the occasion of celebration of baptism.

God of our birth, God of our life, God of our death, and God of our resurrection – in the waters of baptism you call us to new life. In the waters today, call us once again to life in you, following your Son.

In the waters of baptism we remember that we are buried with Christ and raised with him. This day may we be buried to our old lives and raised anew in the ways of your Kingdom.

Buried to vengeance, hatred, and violence,baptism
                  Raise us to peace, acceptance, gentleness.

Buried to jealousy, self-doubt, and hostility,
                  Raise us to contentment, confidence, and welcome.

Buried to wall-building and judgment,
                  Raise us to drawing circles of inclusion, seeking understanding.

Buried to systems of injustice, discrimination and oppression,
                  Raise us to foster new systems of justice, equality and righteousness.

Buried to our own tendencies towards fear,
                  Raise us in your perfect love, which you have promised casts our all our fears.

Buried to our inclinations of despair, anxiety, and worry,
                  Raise us anew in the fullness of your hope and your joy.

Buried to our selfishness and anger,
                 Raise us to compassion and reconciliation.

Buried to our posture of competition,
                 Raise us to cooperation and fellowship.

Buried to our sin,
                Raise us to new life in your son, for it is in his name we pray all these things, and join our voices with him, saying Our Father…

Morning Prayer, June 9, 2013

Amos 5.21-24

God of power and might –

We cry out with the voices of your prophets, seeking justice and righteousness. We long to be filled with the good things of your kingdom – your truth, your mercy, your peace – and yet we ask, as men and women have asked from generation to generation, “How Long, O Lord.”

We both fall victim to, and perpetuate systems and cultures of injustice. When we fail to act with empathy and compassion, putting ourselves first, forgive us. When we act smoky-mountains-pictures-flowing-water10out of fear and victimization, have compassion on us. When we would rather blame others for their own circumstances, meanwhile we reject our own positions of privilege, forgive us.

Challenge us with new sight this day, O God; eyes that can see your face in the meek, the poor, the wealthy, the sick, the powerful. May our eyes and hearts be ready to act in the world as you would act, cultivating peace and mercy.

Although we sing, proclaim, and seek your justice and righteousness, too often we fall into rhythms and routines of complacency. Awaken us this day, fill us with your Spirit, to act on behalf of those who lack, to speak on behalf of the voiceless, to empower those who are displaced and disadvantaged. More than that, may we build your Kingdom by advocating real and lasting change in our world. May we no longer shrug our shoulders how things have always been, but stand up for how things ought to be.

We cry out with the voices of your prophets, O God, seeking good and not evil. Help us conform our understandings of good, justice, mercy to yours. May we understand with our whole selves that justice is not punishment, and love and mercy are not sentimentality. Grant us the courage to be agents of your justice, love and mercy, for it is only in doing so that we will be co-creators of your Kingdom on earth.

We pray all this together, joining our voices with your Son, who taught us to pray, Our Father…

Morning Prayer, April 7, 2013

Creating God –

Today we give thanks for the gift of music.

For the gift of melody – for song in which we all lift our hearts and voices. We give thanks Imagefor the ways we can sing together words of prayer and praise to you. We welcome the talents and energies of all those who would join voices together to make the beautiful music in worship of you.

For the gift of harmony – for the many parts and descants that add richness and fullness to our song.  In the harmonies we create and absorb today, may we be reminded of the many parts that make up the body of your kingdom and your church.  May we join together in the work of serving and creating alongside you – each person and part integral to the work you call us to do.

For the gift of dissonance, we give thanks. We recognize that things are not always as they ought to be. Even in our music, we recognize the discomfort in discord. May we be reminded of your presence with us, even in moments of discomfort and pain. May we seek your grace in all these moments.

For songs of lament and mourning, we give thanks. We know that in our music we express not just joy and praise, but struggle, grief, and pain. We are thankful that you are present in our minor keys and our cries for relief and of mourning.

For the gift of movement and dance – for the rhythm that calls us out of our complacency, and into bodily response to the music of the world around us – we give thanks.  May our dancing remind us of the beauty of the rhythm of your entire creation. In our footsteps, our laughter, our breathing, our weeping, in the birdsong, the cries of children, and the multitude of other songs that sing out from your creation, may we find the music of your very Self.

May our lives, our bodies, our spirits be instruments for your music – may our lives sing the song of your grace and resurrection. For all this, we give thanks this day and all days.

In our words of prayer may you find our very song of life. Amen.

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.