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Based on the Scripture readings:
Mark 1:21-28
I Corinthians 8:1-13

2009 February 1
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
The Rev. Dr. Kenneth F. Baily, Senior Pastor

[Web note: click here for photos of the Annual Congregational Meeting that followed worship on the day this sermon was preached.]

Digesting Communion

Many of you know that I am a lectionary preacher, which means that I don't select the basic scriptures that we read most Sundays but share what is heard in millions of other places across the world on the same day. I do this to be in solidarity with other churches and so that I don't preach my own favorite sermon over and over again but even read texts that I don't favor. Which leads to days like today. On Annual Meeting Communion worship, I would not necessarily choose stories about exorcising demons or arguing over food sacrificed to idols. These were not pressing issues in 2008. But the truth is that they are powerful stories, and they may be pressing issues next year or maybe even later today. Especially this food issue, because we are just about to celebrate Communion and then eat brunch and then digest our budget.

I mean no irreverence, but it is possible to make a case that from one end of the scriptures to the other there are repeated food fights in the Bible. Some of them are deadly. From Cain and Abel to Jacob and Esau, from Joseph and the famine to the Jews and the shellfish, there are a lot of struggles over food that reflect varying types of logic and hugely high stakes. Matt Boulton, over at Harvard, recently wrote to remind us that in the Gospel of Luke the Last Supper ends in a fight. The first Communion caused an argument, just as Jesus had done by eating with tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners and feeding hungry people on a hillside. Now the Apostle Paul writes to us about the bad behavior in Corinth concerning food sacrificed to idols and another fight, and I'm telling you all of this about forty five minutes before our pot luck begins.

But let me go deeper, because the issue in Corinth was multi-layered. It had to do with theology, liberty, intellectual ability, and self understanding. It had to do with hunger, culture, and Christ. Back to top This was a social issue, and this was a religious issue, which is why it gets almost three chapters in Paul.

At its root, this meat sacrificed to idols had to do with meat suppliers and the quality and character of their product. In Corinth some of the best meat was pre-sacrificed, so if you wanted a high-quality, safe product you likely got something already committed to some Greek god. You got that at church pot lucks, and you got that at the equivalent of Super Bowl parties -- the Isthmus games -- and that represents the fullness of my reference to American football today.

Anyway, if you were poor the meat you got at church and at social events was probably your only meat, so this had to do with health and need and culture, and it wasn't a simple issue of this or that. In church, the brightest and most articulate folks, the most progressive and educated and reasonable, thought that at the end of the day this was not a big theological issue for them, if you will, and it was OK to eat this meat because these were false gods and the meat was just meat, of a nice quality. These folks described themselves as knowledgeable, and they were.

But not everyone was so knowledgeable, and some people were poor, as I said. Some people were new Christians, too, and not so firm in their faith -- not so sure these other gods didn't have a hold on them. These people worried that this meat was tainted, like money donated to a church by a drug lord, and that this taint was irrevocable.

So what did the knowledgeable people in church do? They ate the meat anyway, because they were smart. They celebrated emancipatory theological knowledge, knowing God had liberated them, as I so often preach.

Enter Paul. Paul was not impressed. Because his sense of the Body of Christ is not just the importance of each emancipated individual but of the community sharing God's love together.

Paul introduced a revolutionary idea to the ancient world already so replete with amazing ideas. Indeed, he introduced a counter-cultural claim: to the culture that said "Know thyself," Paul said knowledge must be subject to love. Imagine telling that to the CIA. That's the rough equivalent of saying it to Greek intellectuals. You may know more than someone else, but you can't be unloving to them. And furthermore, you can't be exasperated or impatient with them. You can't overpower them. You can't insult them. You are in solidarity with them. Which does not just elicit the lowest common denominator in all community action but the highest communion values in all creation. Scholars say thatBack to top Paul is working to unite the theoretical and the practical for a new way of life.

Here's another dimension of his idea: freedom is an illusion, and its pursuit can even result in enslavement as we go with our individual inclinations. No man is an island, so to speak. Being in Christ has corporate implications. Don't eat meat if it is injuring or troubling those who are not where you are or new to the journey or simply weak. Love them. Now, how do you run a church like that?

Well, basically Paul is asking for love, patience, unity, and humility. These aren't such bad ingredients for Communion, brunch, or annual business. Basically Paul is echoing Jesus saying not only what goes into our body is important, but what comes forth from the body is central.

The way that we actually celebrate Communion here can reveal how we receive all this. Our practice might seem casual to you at times, but it has a deep meaning -- actually several deep meanings from which we draw. I don't mean what happens to the bread and the cup: I mean what happens to us.

Some weeks we serve Communion in the pews, and we pass around trays with individual cups and cubes of bread. This reflects a layer of meaning as the Elements are carried to the people -- God meeting us where we are. Servers bring out trays to serve you, symbolically. As we do this we have two choices where we are: we can serve ourselves first or we can serve our neighbor first. And what we do makes a difference.

When we pass around these trays to the pews we have another choice, too. We can eat as soon as we are served or we can wait and all eat together. This parish asks folks to serve others first, Back to top and it asks everyone to eat together, but there is no way to control how people act in freedom.

Other weeks we come forward for Communion. It means something that we get up and come forward, assuming that we can. Christianity is a participatory sport. Which means lots of choices. We've chosen, here, always to have lay people serve lay people: we don't generally have our pastors serve the cup and plate. Even symbolically God is not uniquely in our hands. God is in everyone's hands. Indeed, my own practice is to walk to the back of the sanctuary and be served almost last. I do that because in so many Christian families the priest or pastor is served first by tradition, and I am not theologically accommodated to that, even when it is house rules. So my little walk is intentional, too.

But there's more. What we say here is important. Even though we say many different things -- which is fine. Some say "the bread of life" or "the body of Christ" as they serve you. Some say "the cup of blessing" or "the blood of Christ." That's a longer sermon, but these are all correct. Sometimes deacons ask me exactly what to say and I vaguely make a suggestion because there isn't one exact thing to say that will make Jesus any more present than another -- that would be idolatry. So I offer ideas, which I put into your hands for new life.

But there's more. What do you say when you are served? Something. Thank you is appropriate and literally a faith stance. Amen is traditional and wonderful and almost Aramaic. I've always wanted to say "wow." Or even "you're kidding." Not to be irreverent, but what do you say when someone offers you the bread of life?!

The way we act when we celebrate Communion means something, and isn't just an accident. In the context of theology, liberty, intellectual ability, and self-understandings, it is our quest for love, patience, unity, and humility.

What if we led our whole lives this way?

What if we strove to make knowledge subject to love?

I wonder if there be fewer food fights and less hunger? I wonder if we would be more alive?

Copyright 2009 Kenneth F. Baily.  Used by permission.
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Parent page ] Sermon "Sacred Vessels" ] Sermon "No System to Save" ] Sermon "Entitled to be Thankful" ] Sermon "Welcome Food" ] Sermon "Waking Devotion" ] Sermon "Sitting at the Welcome Table" ] Sermon "Table Manners" ] Sermon "Speaking of God" ] Sermon "Singing New Songs" ] Sermon "Prepare the Way" ] Sermon "Here-ing God" ] Sermon "The Possibility of Possibility" ] Sermon "Sweet Creations" ] Sermon "Not at All Dead" ] Sermon "Planning, Praising and Pondering Palms" ] Sermon "March for Life" ] Sermon "Imagination, Dreams, and Vision" ] Sermon "Following the Magi" ] Sermon "Pushing Christmas" ] Sermon "Forecasts" ] Sermon "Ready for Christmas" ] Sermon "God in the Middle" ] Sermon "The Days to Come, the One to Come" ] Sermon "Earthly Healing" ] [ Sermon "Digesting Communion" ] Sermon "The Change of Prayer" ] Sermon "Unbreakable Body" ] Sermon "Seeing Clearly" ] Sermon "Right for Present" ] Sermon "A Change Agent" ] Sermon "What is Sabbath" ] Sermon "In Memory of Hope" ] Sermon "These Baptisms are Killing Us" ] Sermon "Wanting Prayer" ] Sermon "Last Minute Gifts" ] Sermon "Praying Well = Praying Much" ] Sermon "Peace Repent, Peace Remember" ] Sermon "Choosing Church" ] Sermon "A Model Church" ] Sermon "The Empire Struck Back" ] Sermon "Love is Patient and Primary" ] Sermon "Manifestations" ] Sermon "The Green Grace of God" ] Sermon "Signs of Sacred Things" ] Sermon "A Deal with the Future" ] Sermon "Free from Fear" ] Sermon "To Carry Each Other" ] Sermon " With God in Death; with Each Other in Dying" ] Sermon "Healing Prayers" ] Sermon "Facing God's Miracle" ] Sermon "Finding All Three" ] Sermon "Controlling Christmas" ] Sermon "Finding Jesus" ] Sermon "God as a Baby" ] Sermon "What Does It Mean" ] Sermon "Katrina's New Covenant Call" ] Sermon "Elevate your Expectations" ] Sermon "See: the Healing" ] Sermon "Lifeless Chaos and Living Creation" ] Sermon "Rapt Gifts" ] Sermon "Welcome to Reality" ] Sermon "Offering Up Thanks" ] Sermon "Blue State Blues" ] Sermon "Are we not entitled to thanks?" ] Sermon "Ancient Pieces of Peace" ] Sermon "Noticing Neighbors" ] Sermon "A Summer Day of Renewal" ] Sermon "A New Thing" ] Sermon "Breath of New Life" ] Sermon "Easter" ] Sermon "Sin: Currently Tense" ] Sermon "Why Are You Angry?" ] Sermon "Anxiety over Sin" ] Sermon "A Marriage Grade in Heaven?" ] Sermon "Isn't Marriage Gay?" ] Sermon "Expanding the Body of Christ" ] Sermon "Miracles:  Seeing More in our Midst" ] Sermon "Turning to God" ] Sermon "Why are You in Churchl" ] Sermon "Remember your Baptism" ] Sermon "Every Day Spirituality" ] Sermon "The Cross and Joy of Love" ] Sermon "Welcome Back" ] Sermon "Living Together" ] Sermon "Transforming Destruction" ] Sermon "The Work of Healing" ] Sermon "Peace" ]Back to top