Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Communion stretches your heart

Communion Stretches Your Heart.
Ephesians 3: 14 - 21; John 6: 1 - 21

I grew up a Methodist. And in the Methodist church, we had communion about once every three months. We were reverent people and communion being special we didn’t want to wear out the occasion by too much repetition.

The choir rehearsed for weeks preparing for Communion Sunday. About two hours before the service, the ladies would arrive and head to the kitchen. There was plenty of time for gossip – the neighborly kind – while they poured grape juice out of the large store bought cans into the thimble sized communion cups - shot glasses, actually. When my girlfriends and I got old enough we were allowed into the kitchen and it was our job to arrange all the glasses into the round silver tray holders. The ushers took their job of passing those trays from pew to pew very seriously. And so did we – we passed the trays from person to person down each row, holding our tray carefully while our neighbor took out their own glass, placed it in the pew rack, and then took the tray out of our trembling hands and passed it on.

I sincerely do not remember anything that the minister said to us in preparation for these occasions. I do remember singing. And the stained glass windows, the light streaming around Jesus who had drops of blood on his brow as he prayed in the garden. His long brown hair was thick and wavy and it grew past his shoulders. With that hair and pleading eyes he definitely did not like any man I knew. But he did look holy and very kind. I remember the responsibility of holding that silver tray so that none of the juice spilled. And I remember the dilemma of whether to go ahead and eat the wafer and swallow the juice or wait until everyone was served.

I usually waited.

Even to my child’s heart, it seemed like this was something that should be done together – something that could only be done together. And even in a very non-mystical, non-sacramental church - it did. Phyllis and Ann and Toby and Mike and Carol became not just my school principal and my teachers and my classmates and the grocery store owner. They became co-conspirators in this kingdom of God. I didn’t especially like all of them – but in front of Jesus, eating his food, it just was not all that important whether or not I liked them. Even at 10 years old, I knew that when we prayed “Thy kingdom come” and we passed the communion tray to each other and we sang passionately if not in tune and then went and had punch and cookies together, that God meant for us to take care of each other and that God meant for each and every one of us to arrive home some day. That in some mysterious way we go to God together.

So, when I first encountered Episcopal worship, I knew in my bones that this was the way I needed to worship – and that the one chalice was perfect – it was exactly what I knew to be the truth of belonging to the Body of Christ.

We are going to get to reflect on the Eucharist for five weeks in a row! That’s what the lectionary has us doing – from this Sunday right through until August 23rd. That’s so much bread and life that I’m already feeling a bit bloated – but also looking forward to exploring this central mystery of our faith.

I teach a communion classes for children during Lent - and I usually hear from the parents how much they enjoyed the class! Things they'd never known, or had forgotten about, open up for them - and we talk about how communion is like the facets of a diamond, always shining light a bit differently. We have many names for communion - maybe as one way to acknowledge these different facets: Eucharist, the Lord's Supper, Holy Communion, Mass.

The facet I’ve just been exploring is what it means to be in Holy Communion with all the others who say Amen to the prayers and drink from the cup. I want to tell you more about this. Edythe was a widow in a church I served. One day, in an adult confirmation class, Edythe shared with me her favorite part of the worship service. It was the ending of the Eucharistic Preface which has the church on earth joining with the hosts of heaven with the unending hymn: "Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might." She knew in that moment that her beloved Myers was with her and that somehow this meal joined together "things in heaven and things on earth." Communion opened up a window into eternity for her, a tangible connection to the "cloud of witnesses."

Paul closes his beautiful prayer that we read in Ephesians this morning with a doxology of praise by referring directly to this holy communion that is opened out into eternity - “to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations for ever and ever. Amen.” In other words, it is within the company of believers, this cloud of witnesses, who are in union with Christ that God is glorified.

That’s possible because the church is Christ’s body – Christ and his church are deeply and intimately one. That doesn’t mean that the church is Christ’s presence on earth – like an extension of his incarnation. But it does mean that all who are incorporated into the church by faith and baptism are also in union with him who is their Lord. We are in holy communion – and the practice of the Table is a sign of that – it points to that reality – even more, it becomes that reality in these moments when we are gathered together and transcending the time/space continuum.

This was the theme of General ConventionUbuntu – an African word that means the community that is a given – the reality of the larger whole to which we individuals belong whether we are conscious of this or not. Dottie will give us a flavor of what that meant for her when she reports to us hopefully next week.

If you want a great visual of the way holy communion stretches boundaries, and creates this ubuntu / this deep unity – watch Places in the Heart – a 1984 movie starring Sally Field, Danny Glover, and Ed Harris. It takes place in the 1930’s when many Texas families have lost their farms. The sheriff’s farm has not yet gone under – but when he is accidentally killed by a drunken young man, his young wife and two children are left in dire circumstances. His death sets off a string of events that highlight racial, class and gender divisions as well as many grace filled moments of redemption and unity across sharp dividing lines. There are tormentors, betrayers, and all out sinners aplenty in this film – but the closing scene takes place in a church – much like the rural Methodist church I grew up in. Those communion trays with the shot glasses of juice are passed down the rows – but as the camera pans through the pews, you realize that you are seeing the cloud of witnesses gathered – those who have died are sitting beside those still living, those who have been betrayed pass the communion tray to their betrayers, those who have killed are next to those who have been killed – it is enough to raise goose bumps on your arms. In their songs, in their prayers, in their hearing of the word, in their acts of confession, absolution – but most of all, in the bread and blood of Christ – God is glorified and they are saved.

When Jesus sat those five thousand hungry people down in the grass, and fed them from the boy’s five barley loaves and two fish – it was a miracle. It’s the one story that is found in all four gospels – they all four of them remember it and tell the story but John’s gospel goes further. For him it is far more than miracle. It is Sign. It is a sign of Holy Communion – it points to the reality that eating with Jesus stretches your heart so wide that the very kingdom of God enters in, forgiveness is a given, and a community is born that stretches boundaries in all directions – breadth, length, height and depth – those people rise up from the Table knowing the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge and reason.

Let us "bow our hearts before the Father from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name and pray to him who by the power of God at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen." Ephesians 3:21

Resources: Working Preacher, The Rev. Rolf Svanoe