Sunday, October 6, 2019. Rev. Jen Dunfee, preaching.
Scripture Readings: Lamentations 3:19-26; 2 Timothy 1:1-7, 13-14
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For those of you expecting a continuation of our sermon series on the Book of Ruth, come back next week for Part 3. Today we join with churches all across our country and, true to its name, our world, to celebrate World Communion Sunday. A quick google search shows that other churches in McLean, including the McLean Baptist Church whose softball team our Lewinsville sluggers beat handily in a double header last Thursday night) others in the Northern Virginia area and across denominations, will hold World Communion Services today.
This is the 86th year of World Communion Sunday; the first service was held in 1933 at the Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, and from that one church it spread to other Presbyterians, then other denominations, then across the country and beyond. In 1933, a pastor at Shadyside Presbyterian, surveying the news of the day, ongoing global strife and suffering after a war, divisions leading to hatred and violence over nationalism, race and religion, sought a way forward through celebration. Celebration of this sacrament, where Christians near and far, regardless of any category that might have divided them, consider their unity with Christ and with each other.
It is a Sunday where we employ our Holy imagination. We prayerfully think about all those who call on the name of Jesus, and as a part of worship today will be served in their seat, or walk to a chancel or altar, to receive the same two things. Bread and Cup.
The bread might be (like this), gluten free, baked by a member of the congregation, bought at a local store, packaged in a box of wafers, somewhere in the world it might not look like a bread that you recognize, but it will remind those who partake of it in that moment of the broken body of our Lord. Whether it is white or purple grape juice, red wine or rose, it will remind those who drink of it in that moment of the shed blood of our Lord.
Ever pull a piece of bread off the loaf that is so small you can barely get the juice on it? Or you just drop it entirely in the cup? Ever pull a piece off the bread that is so big it is difficult to fit it in the cup? I remember one Sunday here where Tommy was younger and he took about 1/3 of the loaf because he was hungry and going straight to baseball. I think we were singing our final hymn by the time he finished it. (told with permission from Thomas Sharp.)
We can imagine any variation for the bread, the cup, the logistics, the songs sung and prayers prayed before and after, the language spoken, the location, but we can know one constant, “on the night he was betrayed Jesus took the bread, and after giving thanks he broke it and gave it to his disciples saying take, eat, this is my body broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And similar with the cup.
All the churches celebrating Communion on this day will use the words of scripture to remind the people gathered, 10 or 10,000 red, blue or purple political beliefs, people in countries in the headlines, people in countries on America’s radar: China, Ukraine, Iraq, all colors of skin, all kinds of families, will hear the same words about why we do what we do here.
My Holy Imagination can only get me a little way towards considering what God does not need to imagine but can see, people everywhere telling each other the story of Jesus, God’s beloved son. And I wonder if God is pleased whenever we remember, and tell again this most important of God’s redeeming stories, because it is about the only begotten son.
This is the Joyful Feast of the People of God, but not because we leave behind our worries here, not because we cover up our messes, not because we hide what is broken. This is the Joyful feast because Jesus shows up in the middle of our real life and particularly in the hardest places and points to new life on the other side of hurt and brokenness. On the night he was betrayed, Jesus ate with his disciples, and told them that what was about to happen was for them, body broken for them, blood shed for them. They would come to know exactly what those words would cost Jesus, when he was arrested, and whipped, and when the nails held him to the cross. Body broken, blood shed.
When Jesus came down from the cross and went into the tomb, if the disciples were thinking of that dinner the night before at all, they may have thought they would get together each year on that same day, eat bread and drink wine, and lament how it all went so wrong. But that is not the end of the story; there is so, so much more to remember than a tomb door sealed shut, and it is in the rest of that story when the tomb door cracks open, that we find life on the other side of death, the promise that there is nothing that can’t be forgiven, possibility in the seemingly impossible, the mercies of the Lord with and through suffering, and the never-ending steadfast love of God.
Betrayal, denial, fear, self-centeredness, cowardice, hurt, loss, grief, falling asleep and turning aside, were our part of the story, but they were not a part of Jesus story, who took all of those things and in a rather uneven exchange, (to put it mildly) gives us forgiveness, reconciliation, healing, restoration, unity, abundance, presence and salvation. No sleeping, no turning aside from your need. I imagine that you are here in this church today because you know something about that first list – betrayal, loss, grief, but most importantly because you have received something about that second list. When you walk to receive communion you witness that you have experienced enough of Jesus to know he can be trusted.
This will be true about the first person to receive communion today, and the last, the person in front of you and the person behind, the elder serving you, and the ushers guiding you. It will be true about every person who receives communion today in our town, country and world, that they have a story they could call to mind, about how God has been made known to them. So they come to the table to say thank you, to remember, for renewal of spirit, or because they are empty, and only God can fill them.
The poet Maya Angelou writes “while I know myself as a creation of God, I am also obligated to realize and remember that everyone else and everything else are also God’s creation.” (The Christian Century, September 3, 2014, p. 19) On World Communion Sunday we are obligated to realize and remember that everyone who shares the gifts of this table is connected to us in Christ and has a story of God’s love to remember and to tell. We are connected like members of one body, like brothers and sisters, like friends who have the same best friend. If we imagine God’s joy at our telling the story of Jesus over and over, it is not a big leap to imagine God’s heartbreak at how God’s body now, which is another name for the church, is broken. Not by something as beautiful as Jesus’ sacrificial death for the salvation of the world, but as ugly as hatred, superiority, dismissiveness, or disregard for other friends of Jesus who may fall into some negative label or category for us.
If I were to describe four people who may come to church today on World Communion Sunday:
- a child with undocumented parents who attends a local public school,
- a single mother with four children from three fathers attempting to live on disability checks and food stamps,
- a CEO who makes 361 times what the typical worker in the company makes,
- a regulator who has advocated for 20 rollbacks in pollution and emissions standards, there will likely be reactions and categorizations in our brains to at least one of these that move us farther apart from them as human and as Christians, members of one body.
Now imagine that person calling to mind a time they learned to trust Jesus, and now that person is taking communion with you this morning, that person is your brother or sister in Christ, members of one body, one in the Lord. That is how seriously Jesus takes this unity thing. We are to Re-Member, as seminary professor of mine once said (Dr. Gilbert Bond.) To put all the members of the body back together. Have you ever taken communion while angry at a member of your family? A spouse or partner? A child? How about someone else in the church, maybe after an intense committee meeting? How about your pastor? Maybe even God? In that moment of bread and cup, you are united in Christ, each of you is forgiven, and challenged to reconcile, so that the body of Christ works as it should, as a family. We can take that personal experience and apply it to the town/country/world, to whatever category or label might make you say: I don’t think that anyone who calls themselves a Christian can think that way, believe that thing, act that way, say those things, each of you is forgiven and challenged to reconcile.
This is the hardest of work, so God does not leave us without support in it, as Timothy receives promise of in his letter: God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. The hope of World Communion Sunday is that we are all called to this unity in Christ and the Spirit is already working in us and among us to bring it about, these seeds of the kingdom, by gifting us power, love and self-discipline.
And right now, as 2 Timothy says, God is rekindling the flames of our faith – maybe communion is just that, a moment to rekindle the embers, to call us to our best selves, a mix of love and self-discipline, the ability to restrain ourselves in such a way that love for others prevails.
In Jane Smiley’s book Horse Heaven, a horse trainer named Buddy found Jesus and was found by him, it was like a flame, but it was hard to keep the flames burning, and he describes it like this when his wife finds him crying: “When the Lord came into me, it was such a good feeling, I thought Well, I can do anything because of this feeling, but then there was all this stuff to do, and to think about, and I don’t remember the feeling all that well.” (excerpt from Lauren Winner’s book Still, Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis.) I don’t remember it all that well, and there was all this stuff to do, and to think about.
This passage reminded me of something St. Augustine said, “Lord all that I have discovered about you I have done so by remembering.” (found in Writing the Christian Life by Richard Lischer. Christian Century 8/24/15) We discover the Lord in remembering, remembering our personal experiences of God: remembering our communal Holy calling in God, remembering the stories of Jesus we tell each other time and again. I wasn’t there when Jesus ate the meal with his disciples, and neither were you, which means we are in a long line of remembers and story-tellers. Maybe like Timothy, it was our mother and grandmother, your own Lois and Eunice, passing on a living faith. Maybe like in Lamentations, it was words of a prophet who turned being lost in literal exile into “yet this I call to mind.” And found a way to remember God’s promises and saving in the past and use it as hope for a present darkness. Promises like: the steadfast love of the Lord, that never, ever, for a single second, steps flowing towards you and the mercies of the Lord, that never, ever, for a single second, will come to an end.
How can you remember this, to call it to mind each morning, and each night? How can you call that to mind in a time of suffering, or a time of distraction? How can you call that to mind when you consider the life of another person with whom you have personal conflict, or division for some category or belief?
Do not forget as great a love as this, that caused the Lord of bliss, to bear the heavy cross, for our souls. Do not forget that the grave couldn’t keep him in, and when the light broke into the tomb it meant that there would be no darkness so dark, in your life or the life of the world, that can keep out the light of Jesus. Do not forget that the steadfast love and mercy of God are yours to call to mind whenever you most need it, and in every minute of every day. Do not forget that as amazing as these transforming saving promises are for you, they are the same for me, and everyone who has ever come to this table, and everyone who ever will.
And even if you at times forget all that he has wanted you to remember, do not forget that Jesus will never forget you, and one day we will eat this meal with him, and those around the world taking communion right now, in the kingdom of God, with Jesus as the host who welcomes us all. And what a memory that will be.