Based on the Scripture readings:
2012 October 7
There are few things in life that I enjoy as much as good road food, and some of you know that I have driven miles out of my way while crossing the country to eat authentic Gooey Butter cake in Missouri. I've taken detours into New Mexico to have carne avovada with Chimayo chiles, and before the Transportation Security Administration arrived, I would leave an airport during a layover to get a local fish taco, a country ham breakfast, or whatever was nearby that isn't here in New England.
One thing about road food is that I can afford it, but moreover it forms great memories. In fact, psychologists say that our clearest memories come from tastes and smells. From fish chowder with paprika, garlicky escargot, wild-blueberry pancakes, and caramelized flan.
But there are many places where memory gets muddled and meals divide. Some are in church.
Some of us know the story about one of our own who was turned away at a meal. It was the co-chair of the committee that called me here, Christine Micklitsch. And she told this story years ago.
Christine had grown up Roman Catholic in Pennsylvania, and she'd been baptized, confirmed, and committed there for many years. As an adult she came here, settled here, became a leader here, helped to found Nurturing our Souls, and of course found me, too. But about seven years ago, she returned to her childhood home to attend a funeral in a Catholic Church, and of course one of the great dimensions of their worship is that at every special occasion they celebrate the Mass or what we might call the Lord's Supper. It represents the moment when we proclaim that God is with us, we are joined to one another, Jesus is feeding us, and resurrection gets the last word in an eternity not yet complete. Anyway, Christine went forward to receive the elements of Communion that day, and when she got to the front the officiant said to her, "Are you a Catholic?" He held the elements still to await her answer, while she stood there mourning her friend, uncertain what to say.
Martin Luther King, Jr. called 11 AM on Sunday "America's most segregated hour." He meant black and white, and he said it was the Church's cross to bear and to address. In many parts of the world, this table is the most segregating object that we own, but it doesn't have to be that way because it hasn't always been that way, and it needn't be in the future: that is our issue to address.
So this morning I want to do what Jesus invites: to re-state and re-member the elements of the history of Communion for our whole Church and to re-ignite our own thankfulness and joyfulness and faithfulness at this table grounded in memory and hope. Because in particular what we are doing today -- by sharing Communion and by hearing different languages call us to this table -- is linking ourselves across the globe and linking ourselves to our history, to Jesus' mission now, and to God's future: to past, present, and future, and let me make this as clear as I can.
If we come to this table with different expectations, if we come with different practices, we're in good company. We know the most about the oldest celebration of this feast from the church in Corinth with its 120 or so members and its upper middle class demographic in an urbane and important city of the ancient world. Corinth was Newton Highlands, closer to the Muddy River, and populated by a mix from Roxbury and Beacon Hill. And there in Corinth they first used the term "Lord's Supper." It came to be called Eucharist later, because that's the Greek for thanksgiving, which is what we are invited to express here. But in Corinth they did the opposite. The rich members would have a pot luck before the poor members got to church, and they would eat up everything they'd brought, even though they had plenty at home, and the more needy folks could really use a meal. And Paul said, that's not the Lord's Supper. Share. Remember. Moderate. Include. That's the Lord's Supper. But our varied practices today are rooted in some confusion right from the start.
But there is more confusion, too, and it comes from what we don't know, so let me go negative for a moment.
From Corinth to Newton Highlands, we don't know what day Jesus' last supper was. We don't know precisely what Jesus meant by what He said -- in fact we can't even agree on exactly what He said. And, we don't all agree on exactly what happens at this table because the claims about it have changed many times since the beginning of our Church.
But start at the beginning. We don't know the date.
This meal that we repeat took place either on Passover or the night before Passover, depending on which Gospel you consult. The arguments are pretty good each way. If it was Passover, then there is a direct line not only to what we know in the modern celebration of the Jews but to the ancient celebration, which was different. And four things about Jesus' time are certain: they had lamb, they had wine, they had bread, and they reclined at Passover, unlike at Sabbath meals. But some argue that this meal began the night before Passover: as John's Gospel says, Jesus represents the lamb of God, slain the day before, in preparation for the feast. So we aren't sure if Jesus is the symbolic lamb or the new liberator. We don't know which night it was and therefore which message it was, but that frees us from an argument between these two to say "both." Both lamb and liberation. For in God's way, more is better than either/or. We know that.
Now, we also don't know exactly what Jesus meant when He said "my flesh is food," or "this is my body." To the modern mind, this is befuddling unless you know that before He said this He invited people not to seek the miracles of compounding bread but to seek what He called "the bread of life." He emphasized the bread of life. We know that was part of the meaning.
But now that third negative: we don't know exactly what happens in Communion. Not only do we disagree today, but we've disagreed century after century.
Here is the dramatically abbreviated history:
In the first century a community meal and the Lord's Supper were barely separate. The pot luck and the Eucharist were folded together and rarely on a communion table -- often at a gravesite.
In the fourth century, the established Church proclaimed that for a moment, for a moment, the bread and cup were really body and blood, but they didn't claim that this lasted, and they didn't press the mechanics of the mystery.
In the ninth century, logic asked the question regarding how Jesus could be in heaven and in a church simultaneously, yet this Dark Ages discussion fizzled fast.
Then in the thirteenth century, a Roman Council established what a lot of us today imagine is the prevailing idea that there is a material, mechanical method to change the baked product we hold in our hands into the literal Body of the one who holds the whole world in His hands. But that's rather a recent claim by Church standards and yet evolving.
In the sixteenth century, the German and the Swiss Protestants argued with one another over whether this meal was literal or symbolic. The Germans were the literalists and the Swiss the dreamers, which is quite a pattern. The Congregationalists leaned Swiss.
Then in 1965, the Roman Church that had affirmed for seven hundred years that the feast was something almost scientific said -- the Pope said -- the elements of Communion take on "a new significance and a new finality," and literal transubstantiation became almost symbolic transignification. That's a complex and wise word.
Our common history is still evolving, but let me share two quick stories that guide my faith.
First, when I was in divinity school all the folks from different denominations were invited to share Communion together each week, but this was awkward, and often we'd all go off to our own groups, participating with our own kind, evading and avoiding other people's practices.
But I didn't get that memo, so I would go to all of them. Lutheran, Episcopal, Congregational, Methodist, and Catholic. I loved them all, and I was nourished.
Then one morning at breakfast in the Refectory before All School Communion, I got into an argument with a conservative fellow with an Anglophile heart. He told me how the celebrant that morning always got it wrong and left out bits and was a woman to boot and how it was just not right to participate if people couldn't lead it right. Now I liked this guy. We ate together often. He was a friend. And smart. And had a point. And he never came to community Communion. And in my foolishness that morning I said to him, couldn't we just do the best we are able and leave it up to God to do the rest? Wasn't it as much about God as us anyway?
And I went up the stairs to the chapel to face God's table. Which I did until it was time to receive the elements, and at that time in that chapel we would form a circle around the table and then finally see who else had come to eat. And as we formed the circle, I saw my friend from breakfast join the group for the first time. And I can't remember the preacher from that day or the nature of the elements -- pita or rye bread -- but I remember that we were together in a new way before God. And that was lesson enough for me.
Second, when Christine Micklitsch was asked by the priest if she was a Catholic, she replied "I was baptized as a Catholic," and he held out the elements to her, and she could taste and see that the community gathered to remember a beloved departed was all united in the presence of God, the provision of Jesus, and the hope of resurrection. And that's how she finished her story.
In my ministry I've been through many discussions among deacons and members of churches regarding who is welcome at this table. Usually the issue is children, and often the question is a good one: when do they understand what they are doing? When are they ready for this historic, powerful, important gift from God? And I think, never. We're never ready. Because this feast is not only about our readiness or about us. It is about our memory, invitation, and our thankfulness, about our eating, sharing, and including, but the rest is up to God. And for me, seeing who is here, not taking everything myself, including everyone, and pondering the idea that at least for a moment something happens -- that there is a transignification -- that feeds me.
There is more to say, but the rest is commentary. The core, though, is that God wants you to have the bread of life in daily bread; God wants you to remember not only the death that faces us all the time but that Jesus is risen. Or, if you remember nothing else, that God wants you. Amen