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Based on the Scripture readings:
Isaiah 60
Psalm 72

2009 January 4
Second Sunday after Christmas
The Rev. Dr. Kenneth F. Baily, Senior Pastor

Unbreakable Body

For some years we have practiced a tradition here of our children entering this sanctuary just before communion so that we can share this sacrament all together, intergenerationally. Some families ask their kids to wait to receive the bread and cup until Confirmation, and others begin very early, and I can create an argument for both. At any rate, the children come in, and they bring in a small plate and cup, so that we have elements for our celebration, symbolically, from the east and the west and the north and the south, which is an ancient value. When I hold up the bread and chalice, I always pour something from the small cup into the large one and spread the small loaf on the big plates so that everything is shared from each of the gifts given. These days I watch out so that the gluten-free plate doesn't mingle with the others, but in general I value both the symbol and the practice of just distribution.

One time two or three years ago, the children brought in their elements in the small silver cup and the small silver plate and placed them on the table as usual. They'd carried up a nice loaf of bread about the size of a tea loaf, eight or ten inches long, and the time came for the consecration and I picked up this loaf and I began the words that are familiar to our liturgy.

Jesus took bread and he blessed and broke it, and He gave it to them, saying…

Now as I was doing this, as usual, I was holding up the loaf in order to break it. But it wouldn't break.

Now, I've had tough loaves before. Bread gets stale, bread gets chewy, crusts can be tough. So I just worked a little harder. I tightened my grip and torqued down with my thumbs but the bread still wouldn't break. And people were watching.

Most weeks Gretchen is here with me, and most weeks some deacons are standing close by, but I don't remember anyone helping that week. And it took me twenty seconds, thirty seconds, to realize that I was holding a loaf of plastic bread in my hands, very lifelike, and there was no way that I was going to break it.

Now, bracket for a moment the line of questioning that asks, who decided to send a plastic loaf of bread up that week? I didn't even know you could buy plastic bread. But I'm not interested in that this week.

As communion went on that week no matter what I was saying, I can tell you what I was thinking. I was thinking, "Unbreakable bread." Now there's a sermon. The bread that cannot be destroyed. The strong, powerful, solid loaf. The body of Christ, unbreakable. There is something in that. And for two or three years off and on I have pondered that idea, and I have to say it is powerful for me. The Holy Spirit can reveal something there. But that's not my sermon this week, either. Because we have a different loaf of bread on our table this week. But before I describe it, let me say something about the background of communion in general.

Christians around the world are so divided by so many things that we provide real fuel to our critics, if not our own problems, all of which further fosters more divisions. One of the things that divides us is the background and meaning of communion, the Eucharist, or the Lord's Supper, and just having three names (or more) for the same event easily makes my point.

But there is actually a core about communion which is the ground of agreement across Christendom and it is so simple that it can be described in four words, although the book that makes this point is over eight hundred pages long. But the four words describe the essentials of communion, across divisions. And they are these: for communion to be authentic the substances must be taken, blessed, broken and given. Taken, blessed, broken and given. We agree on that.

I am not fond of the idea of breaking things prior to their sharing life, but it is widespread. Joseph Campbell says that in the hero cycle there is always a stage of challenge or struggle or injury before power is available to share. Something like Jacob struggling with the angel or Paul with his thorn in the flesh or Jesus and His rejection and crucifixion. Martin Luther King, Jr. died, and then the 1968 civil rights bill was signed. We live in a broken world. So perhaps our communion service is being descriptive as well as prescriptive. We live in a broken world. We take, bless, break, and then give.

Today we have a different loaf on our table, and I don't know if I even need to break it. In a way, it is broken twice already. But it means something very healing to me, and I ask that as you participate in this sacrament you ponder what it can mean to you, too, but more, what it can mean to us as the body of Christ.

Many of you know that at least once a week, people from this parish pick up discarded bread from Whole Foods and deliver it to two food pantries. We're trying to add on more deliveries, but we don't have the people yet.

But on Monday of this week, I asked two of our Mission Committee members if they would take one of the discarded loaves and bring it to this table today. So, this bread has already suffered the break of abandonment. But it reflects another level of brokenness, too. This loaf was selected randomly from food for our sisters and brothers who are homeless and in need, so it is the exact same thing that they are eating yesterday, today, and tomorrow. The word companion is from the root that means to eat bread with. Today we are companions with the hungry of Boston.

Now, why are we doing all this? What does it mean? Don't we normally have a good loaf of bread, and don't I often ask for us to share specialty bread, savory loaves, and even some gourmet products for the impact that has on our memory and spirit?

When the Psalmist was writing an inaugural poem for the celebration of a new ruler, he used some specific language. The Psalmist said that the way that justice was practiced and the way that the cause of the needy was addressed would have everything to do with the reign of the ruler. Strength comes from sharing. Indeed, Jeremiah condemned King Jehoiakim for focus on a big palace for the royals, and Jeremiah commended King Josiah for making big provisions for the poor. The reign of the ruler has everything to do with their care for the needy. We read our Psalm today and notice how Three Kings fall down before a new leader, but the reason they do is because of His companionship with the poor.

When the exiles in the time of Isaiah were imagining the nature of a new king and even a messiah, they included specific text about how to guide a great people. The concern for the needy came up over and over and over again. You might know that in ancient Israel, there was no law that required a King to care for the widows and orphans and all the other poor. No law, but repeated references in the Holy Scriptures, and in today's reading, another one that talks about the wealth of nations -- the origin of that phrase -- and gold and frankincense and rulers on camels, it talks also about how to be a shining example to all the world, a light to the nations, and all this has to do with caring for the poor.

In the Gospel story today there are literally six scenes in twelve verses. And let me be clear: the words poor and needy do not appear in these six scenes. But you cannot read the Gospel of Matthew or any other and think that these are not at the core of Jesus' ministry. And every early reader knew why this might be the anointed King, the light to the nations: because of a new practice in companionship, a new way of compassion, a new care for the needy where Jesus is literally taken, blessed, broken, and given.

The reason to eat this bread, this specific bread today, is to go a little deeper and a little farther in our spiritual engagement of mission. As we eat this, perhaps we see that we share in both the same hunger and same gratefulness that those in the shelters feel, and perhaps for a moment we can meditate on what it means to be rejected and what it means to be a companion. We can reflect on what it means to be fed. And to give. Someone will ask if it was right to take a loaf of bread from a system so in need. Maybe that person will be inspired to deliver another one next week and the week after. Maybe we will all give a little more to this mission in which we share.

And then we will have Epiphany. Epiphany which is a mysterious/marvelous combination of recognition, assent, celebration, and discovery. Epiphany which means, "A-hah, I'm beginning to get it." Epiphany which is the discovery of Jesus' light by the nations or by the hungry or by us. Epiphany which is not just a moment but a movement.

To be honest, the very idea of unbreakable bread is moving to me and intriguing to ponder. But I live in a world of broken bread. And part of my call in the sacramental life is to take it and bless it and give it. And to open myself to the mystery that in those actions I am in the real presence of God: the unbreakable Body of Christ. And so are you. Amen.

Copyright © 2009 Kenneth F. Baily.  Used by permission.
http://www.nhcc.net/sermons/Sermon20090104.htm
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