Holy Communion & Them

Pic by Bernadette Morris (creative commons)

Pic by Bernadette Morris (creative commons)

Sermon: Emanuel Lutheran Church, Strawberry Point, Iowa
August 23, 2015

John 6.56-69

Lutherans talk about two sacraments: Holy Baptism and Holy Communion— visible signs of God’s invisible love. In Baptism, what’s visible? (Water). But Martin Luther taught that it’s not really about water. It’s about God’s promise inwithandunder that water. (Cool expression, huh? Say it with me: InWithAndUnder.

In the same way in Holy Communion, what are the visible, tangible elements? (Bread and wine or juice). Lutherans tend to say it’s not magic food. It’s the mystical presence of Christ’s body and blood inwithandunder the elements of food that are important.

In both Baptism and Communion, we celebrate the invisible, unspeakable mystery with ordinary earthy stuff.

Today’s gospel reading seems to be an invitation to think about the question: What is Holy Communion? 

It’s more than a mini-Meal. It’s about being intimately woven into God’s love, connected to the wider church and living day to day at school, where you work, where you play and at your kitchen table.

Last week our confirmation students and their parents gathered to talk about what confirmation instruction might look like at Emanuel, and I was remembering when I was in middle school in Rochester, Minnesota going through my 3-year career of confirmation: Classes each Thursday night including lecture, memorization of Luther’s small catechism, writing papers, Bible study, class discussion.

What was that like? To be honest…

I kinda loved it.

It was an important time for me. My intellectual self was so ready to explore my faith. Someone brought up at our meeting that Martin Luther loved questions. As both a pastor and a professor, he framed religious education with questions. So in his Small Catachism, for example, we pray the Lord’s Prayer, “Our father, who art in heaven” and we stop there and ask: “What does this mean?” We think about the words, we wonder at their meaning. And then we move on with the next petition: “Hallowed by thy name.” And we pause again. “What could this mean? We study carefully and take it in, following our curiosity and allowing the mystery of faith to soak into us over a lifetime, our education never complete.

I think part of Holy Communion is being students sitting at Jesus’ feet over a lifetime. A holy communion— togetherness—all of us with Jesus. Asking our questions, feeling the richness of our ancient tradition and experiencing what’s brand new that God is doing in you and me.

But we don’t do this alone with Jesus. Holy Communion is also about being connected to one another.

And to me that means jokes.

You see, almost every Sunday, my friend Gabe and I find each other and share a joke. All week I’m on the lookout for a good one to tell him on Sunday. Sometimes he has one for me. Because one of my favorite things in the world is laughter, I love that Gabe and I are connected this way. So, Gabe, here’s my joke for you today. Musicians will appreciate this one.

What’s the most musical part of your body?

Your nose, because you can pick it and blow it.

[Wait for uproarious laughter and/or disapproving groans]

Communion is about community with one another. Laughing with Gabe. Knowing where people at Emanuel usually sit. That Elle will probably be at the organ, Cathy at the piano, Robbie strumming and one of our many brilliant singers helping to lead singing. Passing the peace and knowing that some of us don’t like to be touched so I can hold my hands together as a handshake-hug for them. Being in touch with Chuck’s cancer, the success of our youths’ 4-H showings at the fair. Feeling the newness of our life together as the call committee works to discern calling a new pastor.

Communion means we are doing life together. I’m grateful for where we are together and how God is leading us into the future.

But community is not only us in this room. Let’s pull the camera back. We in this room are part of a larger body, along with every other little church worshipping this morning— here in town, across the country and all over the world.

The Apostle Paul’s favorite metaphor for the church is one single body to which the many, many body parts belong (obviously) and where each body part belongs to the others. Picture a human body— male or female— with each arm, leg, ear, toe and pancreas are fully whole, each body part good, good, good and clearly belonging to the whole person. Where would we be, Paul asks, without any one part?

Holy Communion means we’re jerked out of our individualism and self-centeredness to understand we are part of something way bigger than ourselves. Something we’re not in charge of. It’s world-wide, made up of all kinds of people, most of whom do not have white skin, do not speak English and do not own a car. The church we are part of is embarrassingly wealthy, and it is dangerously poor. Our one church suffers, our one church rejoices. Our one church has AIDS, cancer, and gets shot at; our church celebrates birth, scientific discoveries and the teensiest sign of peace anywhere in the world.

Holy Communion means we claim one another– all the One Anothers to whom we belong. Beyond this room, beyond our personal preferences and prejudices, even beyond this time!

That’s another dimension of communion. We are surrounded, the book of Hebrews reads, by a great cloud of witnesses, beyond space and time. So we are part of the whole people of God that includes Abraham and Sarah, King David, Ruth and Naomi, Simon Peter and Mary of Magdella as well as our loved ones no longer with us.

Who comes to mind for you? Picture there faces, hear their voices.

We are the church that includes our ancestors going way back, our dearest companions of our lifetime as well as children and grandchildren yet to be born.

A Russian Orthodox theologian named Alexander Schmiechen puts it this way: Worship with our One Body never really begins or ends.

When we ring the bell here at Emanuel and start our service, we are simply joining the worship that has been going on continually for eons and that continues in other time zones when we at Emanuel Lutheran are finished. It’s like we just sort of step into a stream that has been flowing almost forever.

Because we are in Holy Communion.

Let’s close with John’s gospel today.

Jesus says again, “Eat and drink. But look deeper. It’s me. Eat and drink and make me part of you.”

Now people who heard this were starting to get what Jesus was about. And it made them nervous. Why? They noticed the people with whom Jesus ate and drank.

Treasonous, cheating tax collectors working for Rome.

People so sick there were laws against touching them and being close to them.

Prostitutes, and women of ill repute that didn’t have much standing in the community apart from a man.

People it was a waste of time to be with, so ridiculous a prospect to be seen with them that it truly effected the reputation of Jesus’ 3-year ministry.

Because Jesus touched them, ate with them, laughed with them, went to football games with them, quilted with them, hung out with them. He treated them like he didn’t know they were a Them. You could make the case that Jesus was killed because of who he ate and drank with.

So when Jesus said in a number of different ways, “Eat and drink me,” it began to dawn on his students what he meant. Their lives would have to change to be with those Them. The barriers between Us and Them would be dissolving into respect, compassion, maybe even handshakes and hugs.

It must have seemed impossible.

If that wasn’t bad enough, Jesus went on: “I’m telling you. This is the Only Way. God, the Holy One of your ancestors, is calling you.” (John 6.65)

This was the last straw for some followers, the gospel says. Reading from chapter 6 that we heard today:

“Because of this many of his followers turned back and no longer went about with him.

And Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?”

There was, I imagine, a pregnant pause. The twelve looking around at each other.

And out of the awkward silence Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.

We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6.68-69)

Can you feel a bit of what that must have meant to them?

And we sing those words from Peter’s mouth every Sunday around the gospel reading: “Alleluia. Lord, to Whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Alleluia.” Except what’s different about what we sing and what’s in the story?

No alleluia.

I imagine the tone of Peter’s words to be pretty heavy. Maybe even agonizing.

Like: “Jesus, this is hard. You’re asking for a revolution. A way to live where there is no Them? Nobody that’s not part of who we think of as Us?!  No male or female, no black or white, no gay or straight, no republican or democrat, no honor student or drop-out, no diseased or healthy. You want our whole lives to change to be about Communion— you even want to change the way we think!”

And the twelve men looked around at each other. And the women disciples who probably were there but weren’t counted. Restless silence.

“Jesus. A change that’s inwithandunder this meal like a contaminant? Jesus, a new world that’s somehow hidden within this world? Holy Communion with you and *Those* People— the Only Way? Outrageous. Impossible. So much at stake.

*Sigh*.

Maybe there were tears in Peter’s eyes when he said it:

“Where else can we go? You have the words of real life.”

And maybe, in considering his failures of the past and knowing so well his fear of the future… maybe Peter added under his breath: “Alleluia.”

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Where Else Would God Be?

WorldStretching

I heard him say, “The scandal of the Christian story is not that God became incarnate as a human. It’s that God is incarnate in every particle of creation. I mean… [dramatic pause] where else would God be?”

My Constructive Theology professor Dr. Eleazar Fernandez may never know how that woke me up.

“Where else would God be?”

The name Emmanuel means God With Us. The Incarnation we celebrate at Christmas is a recognition of God’s presence spun through creation. Now when church people talk about a particular day or season, it doesn’t mean it’s not real all the time. In this case, the Story of Christmas is that Holy breaks into our lives all the time, not just in late December.

But it’s good we have liturgical seasons to help us practice these kinds of things. Otherwise– for me, at least– all the rich bewilderment and awe of life…

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Deliver Us From Evil: #ICantBreathe

despair by Catalina Gonz�lezCarrascoWeek after week, year after year, when church folks pray, “Deliver us from evil” in the Lord’s Prayer, what do we mean?

Post-9/11, post-Ferguson, post-Eric Garner’s death and recent jury decision, and in the midst of NFL diminishment of violence against women, it’s a damn good question. #LordsPrayerHack

And you’re adding to that list your own experiences of outrage for the issues important to you. Good.

Now. When we pray, “Deliver us from evil,” what do we think we’re doing?

Among the possibilities, I hope we open to:

  • Noticing what evil looks like in the world.
  • Recognizing that some hatred is systematized in social and hierarchical ways.
  • Coming clean that by design some of us are privileged to benefit from these systems while others suffer.
  • Understanding the ways most of us reading this directly allow, sustain and nurture these corrupt systems.
  • Begging for the courage to face our addiction to power and to understand it.
  • Developing an imagination for the experience of the other that grows empathy and naturally shapes lives of compassion.
  • Committing to resist and/or destroy these unfair systems.
  • Confessing our failure to do this.
  • Praying for, watching for and making way for the holy upheaval of justice that will free us. All of us.

Psalm 58 is a fierce text we might lean into when we are angry and desperate for change. One loud musical interpretation:

Disarm the terrorists
Tear out the lion’s teeth
Uproot corruption even if it’s served us
Shut down the violence
Once again make us free
Against, away from systems that enslave us

Deliver us, deliver us
Bring on the holy upheaval and
Deliver us, deliver us from evil

We’ve been oblivious
We’ve fed the system beast
The bramble’s grown up to entangle all of us
Forgive our arrogance
The snake can’t hear or see
Deliver us where one of us needs justice.

There’s only one of us
Show us the holy way
Uproot corruption even if it’s served us
Renew our sense of life
Once again make us free
Against, away from systems that enslave us

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All rights reserved. Please use only by permission.
Licensed via CCLI, OneLicense.net and Worldmaking.net

Thanks to Psalm scholar Clint McCann for a brilliant commentary on how Psalm 58 and other ancient laments poke our 21st-century world.

Pic: “Despair” by Catalina Gonzalez Carrasco


Give Me a Word

IMG_2256It’s happened the past three years at this same time.

I’ve discovered a centering, resonating, challenging word as a kind of companion for the coming year. And it happened again this morning. Thought I’d share.

Following the tradition of desert pilgrims, hundreds of my fellow Dancing Monks at Abbey of the Arts have been seeking their own words, too, with the question:

“What is your word for the year ahead? A word which contains within it a seed of invitation to cross a new threshold in your life?”

It’s a powerful moment when we put ourselves in a position of open-hearted vulnerability. In this case, it’s surrender to a piece of vocabulary, a part of speech. I’ve lost some of you by now, but some of you are curious as to what manner of weirdness this be.

In 2011, my word was Stretch.

2012: Empty.

2013: Salmon.

My word for 2014 arrived this morning: Turn.

Turn.

To commit a switch on or off,
to flip over a piece of grilling salmon.

Autumn maples.

Milk on its last day,
to repent and move again,
to reach for the corner of the page you’ve finished.

His face was set toward Jerusalem.

To respond to magnetic attraction,
to move a screw deeper,
to switch moments: is it mine or yours now?

To evolve in season.
To reorient.
To be romanced.

Turn.

What’s on your mind as 2013 closes up shop?

What hopes and fears are with you about 2014?

In which areas of your life are you excited and curious? Which ones carry anxiety?

If you want to try “Give Me a Word” yourself, Abbey of the Arts has a free 7-day mini-retreat that guides you through a contemplative process of discovering your word.

Here’s entering a new calendar year with hope. May you welcome all the goodness coming your way.


New Year’s, The Point of the Church, and Johnny Depp

A case for Epiphany as most important liturgical season.

WorldStretching

After the Twelve Days of Christmas is Epiphany. It kicks off the most important season of the church year– better than Christmas, stronger than Easter, able to leap Pentecost in a single liturgical bound.

At this point in the post, I pause for a number of you to scoot to the edge of your seat in fascination, and the rest to politely excuse yourselves to do anything else you can think of.

Bob Webber called Advent-Christmas-Epiphany “The Cycle of Light,” (unrelated to Tron). If Advent is about longing and preparing for Christ’s presence and Christmas rejoices in the eternal breakthrough of God-With-Us, then Epiphany is about manifesting the Christ.

Which, in my humbly-justified, sinner-saintly opinion, is the Point of the church.

It’s too bad only 11 percent of church-goers know what Epiphany is about. (Okay, I actually made that stat up. But shocking, right?)

The church exists to…

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Richard’s Christmas Fudge

A December favorite. I’ve again posted my personally crafted recipe for my Christmas fudge. Enjoy the sweet darkness.

WorldStretching

It’s that time of year again. Oh, the goodness.

Fudge is one of the first things I learned to make well, and my recipe has evolved for two decades.

It requires patience, so cooking a batch each Advent for me is a spiritual practice of the season.

Share and enjoy, share and enjoy.

__________________________________________

Richard’s Christmas Fudge

Ingredients:

  • 3 cups sugar
  • 12 oz evaporated milk
  • 1 cup butter
  • 12 oz. semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 8 oz. unsweetened baking chocolate
  • 1 7-oz. container marshmallow creme
  • 1 tsp vanilla

Slather up a 13x9x2 pan with butter and set aside. Reflect a moment at the wonder of butter.

Butter sides of a 3-quart saucepan, humming as you do so. In it, combine sugar, butter and milk.

Cook and stir over med-high heat to boiling. Stir more, changing now from humming to singing. Stir, my friend. Stir like the wind. Stir until cows actually come…

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Dirty Confessions

Water RipplesWell, it’s gettin’ on Lent. That means good Christians everywhere are making plans to feel bad.

A friendly reminder for your upcoming 40 days: confession is about facing a life of forgiveness, not one of grieving the past.

Psalm 51 is the classic prayer of confession: Make me new. Restore my life. It’s really a deep trust in a simple principle of the universe: things change. 

Lord knows David had some baggage, so when we utter Psalm 51 together we know we’re in good sinner/saint company. (Is my Lutheran showing?) I don’t know a soul who doesn’t desire renewal in their life in an honest, continual way.

This 3000 year old text has been spun into the liturgy for a loooong time. We pray together:

Create in me a brand new heart,
       forgiven and renewed
Restore to me your spirit now
       and the joy of your rescue

May you and your circle experience true renewal this Lent.

Listen to Richard’s community song “Wash Me Clean” for Psalm 51. It’s a little groovy, but don’t worry– if you feel bad about feeling good after, read the Psalm again.