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The First Supper

As long as I can remember, I have been a fan of the song “Turn! Turn! Turn!”. It was originally penned by Pete Seeger, taking the words from the book of Ecclesiastes. The Byrds made it famous, with Roger McGuinn’s jangly 12-string Rickenbacker guitar cementing it in public conscience.

As a teenager, I was part of a youth mission trip to inner-city Denver. We were working on a church there and providing programming for some of the children of the neighborhood, who were among the poorest of the poor. Every day we had a brief chapel service, and one day it was my turn to lead. I chose this text. I planned to teach it to the children, and then we would sing it together. And as I read it and asked them to reflect what they heard, it hit me: here I was, a well-off white kid from Atlanta, telling poor Hispanic kids in Colorado that hardships and good times were all just a part of life. I might as well have told them to just “suck it up”, because that’s just the way life is. I was horrified…and so, quickly, we brought the reflection to a close and started to sing: “To everything…”

It is only when you strip the song of its beautiful melody that you see the blunt lyrics that they hide: there is a time for everything. A time to destroy, a time to build; a time for war, a time for peace; a time for love, a time for love; a time for birth, a time for death…not exactly your typical pop song fare.

In many ways, it is an unflinching look at life on Earth with its ups and downs, such as they are. And it becomes so much more when we look at it in its context in the book of Ecclesiastes. Because the author is identified as a son of David, many associate it with Solomon; it is, though, ultimately an anonymous collection of wisdom sayings by someone who has seen it all and as declared that it is all pointless. There’s nothing new under the sun. There is nothing to be gained by work, except to eat and drink and enjoy.

So…happy Sunday?

This is a tough reading. I think that is especially so in our culture, where we expect all of our stories to end with “happily ever after” and have somehow absorbed that real life should be that way, too. For me, what this highlights is the fact that our cultural identities and our faith identities exist in a tension that we tend to ignore.

We love that our central story is resurrection – but forget that it is also crucifixion. We relish the community of standing around a table and sharing in prayers, in bread, in cup – but tend to hurry past the words Jesus spoke, of a body broken and blood poured out. We act surprised every time we hear about violence and injustice at work in the world – but ignore that our own Savior was betrayed by one of his closest friends and put to death by a brutal regime. In many ways, the up and down rhythms of Ecclesiastes get it right. It’s not all up…it’s not all down…it…just…is.

What are we supposed to do with this?

I don’t know about you, but I struggle with this text. I know that sin is pervasive: whether in individual unrighteousness or societal injustice, we are far from perfect. And yet, I rely on the conviction that hope has the final word, that God has not given up on us. After all, isn’t that the whole point of our shared story?

Whenever we gather around this table, we remind ourselves of this sweep of salvation. God created the world, called it good, and formed us in God’s own image. We messed up; but God forgives. In fact, God called forth a people to give them a place and covenant of promise. They veered off course; but God is merciful. God sent prophets to remind them of the true way. They strayed time and time again; but God is gracious. God sent his son, Jesus, as holiness personified. In his life and ministry, he showed what it means to live as God desires. And on the night he was betrayed, he gathered around the table with his disciples and established this feast we now share.

We call it the Last Supper. My mother-in-law loves to point out that we should refer to it as the First Supper. After all, the Church has been gathering together now for centuries in the echoes of that ancient meal, remembering the whole sweep of our story – or rather, of God’s story – and resting in God’s hope for us.

And then we look back to the Old Testament, to the Hebrew Bible, to this book of Ecclesiastes, and we wonder: is any of this worth it?

Part of the challenge, I believe, comes from the fact that there ain’t a whole lot of Jesus in Ecclesiastes. Part of that is historical, of course; it was written at least 300 years before the birth of Christ. For me, that’s – at best – a partial answer. After all, the gift of Scripture is its enduring meaning: what it teaches us about ourselves, what it teaches us about God, and what it teaches us about what it is that God desires for us. As much as I might want to, I won’t pick and choose which texts I like and which ones I don’t. Instead, I do my best to read them all through the lens and focus of the cross and its love, inclusion, and redemption, regardless of which Testament they happen to be in.

So it goes for the wisdom of Ecclesiastes. The title of the book comes from the Greek, and is a rendering of the job ascribed to the author: namely, “Teacher”, or rather, the one who speaks to the gathered congregation. In that way, it is meant to be like the wisdom of a sermon, a reflection on who we are and who God is. And that, ultimately, is the point of what the author is trying to convey. Life, they write, is fleeting. Ephemeral. Short-lived. This is not a call to strip life of all meaning. It does not mean we are supposed to live in sackcloth and ashes; nor does it mean we ought to hoard and party like there’s no tomorrow. Instead, it is a call to humility. It puts everything we do in context – no matter how much or how little we might think of ourselves, it is what God thinks of us that matters.

The great Reformer Martin Luther wrote of the book this way, saying that it condemns us because we want to “accumulate riches, honors, glory, and fame, as though we were going to live here forever; and meanwhile we become bored with the things that are present and continually yearn for other things, and still others.”

To put it rather bluntly: we are going to die. And yet, paradoxically, this should not lead to hopelessness, but rather delight because of all we receive from God. That is our hope – that God’s eternity cares for our mortality. We do not experience good because God loves us more than others; nor do we experience evil because God despises us. Instead, we receive life as it comes and are given the opportunity to do something with it, to recognize that God can transform it all for the sake of God’s desires.

All of this reminds me of the story of Shaka Senghor. Growing up in inner-city Detroit, Senghor was an honor roll student who wanted to be a doctor. Turmoil in his family led him to places that young men should not go. At 17, he was shot three times. Coming home from the hospital, the trauma left him paranoid and hyper-violent. Just over a year later, he committed murder and was in prison. Not surprisingly, he became even more bitter and angry. The warden called him “the worst of the worst.” He spent seven and a half years in solitary confinement.

Then one day, he received a letter from his young son. It read, “My mama told me why you’re in prison: Murder. Dad, don’t kill. Jesus watches what you do. Pray to him.” The message jolted him, and he began to change.

After 20 years, Senghor was released; and since then, he has tried to model the possibility of transformation while he works to change the system that once held him – a system, he says, which is designed “to be a warehouse, rather than the rehabilitate or to transform.”

In the end, Senghor hopes his life can stand as an example, a hope, that “anyone can have a transformation if we give them the space. Misdeeds should not define you for the rest of your life.”

To me, there is no better definition of grace: that your misdeeds should not define you for the rest of your life. And that is the hope of this table. Life is fleeting – yes. It will not last. And in this, there is cause for both grief and celebration.

When we come to this table, we bring our shared life experiences, both good and bad. No matter how fortunate we might be in the grand scheme of things, each one of us has experienced heartbreak, loss, disappointment. The point, though, is not to despair; nor is it to lord it over others. Instead, we ought to recognize our brokenness in the broken bread. We ought to see our failings in the cup poured out. And in them, we can be redeemed, saved, healed.

Our misdeeds do not define us – only God can do that. The bread and cup we share are reminders of mortality, that we need food and drink to survive, to keep our bodies alive and well. And even though our time around this table is fleeting, it can and will transform us into the people that God desires us to be: fed and strengthened to seek out and love all those whom Christ loves.

The Last Supper

“Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase. Just take the first step.” – The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

This morning, we gather around the table yet again for this feast. Since the beginning of June, we have done so each week – and we will do so again next Sunday, in our chapel next door, as our summer worship series draws to a close. And as we do, we consider these words of Dr. King’s, about trusting in the path of God’s journey, even when we are unsure of the destination.

It’s hard to do so at times, in the wake of news cycles that draw our tribal divisions more starkly than they tend to exist in reality. Shootings in Chattanooga; Klan rallies in South Carolina; political campaigns ramping up, wars raging, environmental catastrophes looming…there are days when it feels like it’s hard to put one foot in front of the other.

Those are the days we would do well to listen to Dr. King, who faced brutal injustices and inhuman divisions, embodying the hope he knew in Christ, and passing on that hope in elegant rhetoric and action that continues to speak movingly to us today.

Dr. King was, before anything else, a Christian. He was taught at the foot of the pulpit. He was encouraged and challenged in the Sunday School classroom. And he was nourished at the table, the one that owes its origins to Jesus, to that ancient feast.

That meal took place the last week of Jesus’ life on earth. It was the last time he would gather with his disciples before his death. And so, as he broke bread and shared cup with them, this Last Supper was one final chance to be with them. It would be one last opportunity to encourage these faithful friends to continue what they had begun – and to do so, now, without him.

At least, we can see that now with the benefit of hindsight. We can see in their confusion that night that the disciples still had no clue what was in store. At this point, some of them were probably still convinced that they were on the verge of launching their armed rebellion against a corrupt, foreign regime.

Jesus, on the other hand, knew betrayal awaited him later that night. Beyond that lay torture, death, and burial. On the other side of the agony, resurrection awaited – and yet, for now, as he spoke of a broken body and spilled blood, it was crucifixion that loomed on the horizon. The best he could hope for was to point them in the right direction, to let them know that there was, indeed, a staircase; all they had to do was to take the first step, and to trust the rest to God’s holy wisdom.

It is that wisdom which our Proverbs’ lesson speaks of this morning. The book of Proverbs is full of wisdom sayings attributed to King Solomon. And the idea at the heart of it all is that there is this divine wisdom existing since the beginning of time. This wisdom was there creating alongside God: folding mountains, spewing oceans, leveling plains, carefully molding creation out of nothing.

The puzzling question is this: What is this wisdom? Is it another, but lesser, deity? Was it some form of God’s chief of staff? Was it nothing more than a poetic description of God’s own knowledge and skill? Or do we have an early glimpse of the later Christian theological concept of the Trinity?

We may never know what it was that Solomon had in mind. And yet, as we dig a little deeper, we find this odd little note about the Hebrew word for wisdom. For the most part, its meaning is straightforward. It means wisdom, skill, knowledge. And it also means, “becoming” – that is, I think, in the sense that we are never fully there. It points to us always being on the journey of wisdom and of faith.

You may have heard me speak of my grandmother on my father’s side before. She was a remarkable woman, who took a year of courses at Yale Divinity School back in the 1920’s. Female students were derisively referred to as “Spinster Ministers”, and one professor asked her and the other women in one class to sit in the balcony so that they wouldn’t be a distraction to the men. She later taught the large Sunday School class at First Presbyterian Church here in Atlanta alongside my grandfather – well, actually, he was there to provide gender cover, since women wouldn’t be allowed such a place of prominence at the time.

When I went to seminary, it was all she wanted to talk about in our visits together. In some ways, it felt like she was living vicariously through me. She had a very specific assignment for me, though: “I want you to find out where I can learn Aramaic.” She was in her mid-90’s at the time, and to say that she was obsessed with this idea would be an understatement. Whenever I saw her, it was all she would talk about. Why? “Because it’s the language that Jesus spoke. And when I get to heaven, I want to be able to talk to him.” I told her that, by now, Jesus probably knew enough English to get by, but there was no dissuading her.

To be wise is to recognize that you’re never fully there. Instead, it is a becoming, a never-ending process of discovery and growth. It is understanding that life is meant to be filled with learning. And it is knowing that all you can do is to take that first step, and then the next, one step at a time, trusting that the staircase is there somewhere, even when you can’t see it.

This is what was at stake for the disciples, gathered for that Last Supper, there in Jerusalem – though they didn’t know it yet. That same pre-existing wisdom, the one Solomon of which wrote so poetically, was the same wisdom Jesus was handing on to them. It was holy wisdom that would give them the opportunity to become more and more the people it was that God had created them to be. It was that same Holy Spirit whom Jesus promised, who would be there to guide them. All they needed to do was ask, to take that first step in faith.

We know that they first stumbled blindly in the dark. If the next few days were a test, the disciples failed it miserably. Fearing for their own lives, they denied him and separated from him. They hid in terror, afraid of meeting the same fate. They forgot all they had been through: the miracles, the courage, the wisdom he had given them and those who gathered in crowds, seeking this man named Jesus.

I don’t know about you, but I find it difficult to be too hard on the disciples. I would like to think that I would fare better than they did, which takes incredible doses of hubris on my part. They had the benefit of knowing Jesus first-hand. They were witnesses to the blind seeing, the lame walking, and they still gave into fear. If I am honest with myself, the truth is that I would buckle under the pressure, and fast.

That, to me, is the gift of the disciples. To put it mildly, in those first few days when their faith was tested, they blew it. In the wake of Jesus’ arrest and trial, the disciples failed spectacularly. If there was an opportunity to bear witness to the faith Jesus had entrusted to them, they were sure to miss it, and miss it boldly. And yet, as surely as morning follows night, life came out of death. Resurrection came out of crucifixion. And out of their impressive display of ineptitude came…forgiveness. Peace. Courage. Leadership. Martyrdom. These utter disappointments were transformed into builders of the body of Christ. The wisdom sank in. They healed and taught and spread the gospel, opening themselves and the world in which they lived to new possibilities, giving it the potential to become the world God had created it to be!

This morning, as I read news reports of the violence this week in Chattanooga, I came across the story of an interfaith gathering at Olivet Baptist Church. The final speaker was Dr. Mohsin Ali, representing the Islamic Society of Greater Chattanooga. He asked the Muslims in attendance to stand – they made up nearly half of those in attendance. And as they stood, he shared that though it was the final day of Ramadan, the day that the fast is broken in celebration. Instead of doing so, they chose to be at a Baptist Church, to be signs of peace and healing and hope.

Among the many lessons to be drawn from that moment, the one that stands out to me is simply this: there is always hope. In other words, the Last Supper wasn’t really the Last supper (spoiler alert). Instead, it set the model for all that was to follow! It was the moment where Jesus passed the baton to the disciples, so that they would know to pass it on to those who followed them, and so on down the line. And as we receive it, we would know that it is not ours to keep, but to share it down the line, one step of faith at a time, trusting the journey in the hands of wisdom that continually calls us toward who it is we have been molded to be.

So, what about us? How is it that we, as a community, make sure that we don’t become complacent, so sure that we have already become what God desires? How do we keep from allowing personal comfort to be our guide, or letting fear float us into stagnant waters? How is it that we continue to make room for those who are not yet here?

Or what about you? When you think back about the steps you have climbed thus far, who was it that gave you the wisdom to do so? And now that you are on the way, what are you doing to nurture that gift? What are you doing to share it? What are you doing to cultivate this inherited wisdom, so that you might be fearless in your faith, in your witness, in your generosity, in your living?

Or are you just looking to take that first step? Maybe there’s a new journey that awaits you: a new relationship, a new phase of life? Or maybe it’s just the end of an old one, without anything clear waiting on the horizon? Perhaps it’s nothing more than a simple restlessness, a wisdom hinting that is letting you know it’s time to move on, to stretch, to do something else, even if that something is fuzzy, at best.

Whatever the case, whether for us as a congregation, for you as Christ’s disciple, for you as someone who simply senses that there is more to life than meets the eye, then the first step, I believe, is to come to this table today.

This is not the same table where Jesus gathered with his disciples. This is not the same kind of bread. There was no unfermented juice there. They did not stand, or even sit at the table. And yet, none of that matters today, because our point is not to be historic re-enacters. Instead, we trust that this feast is yet another step toward becoming who it is that God has crafted us to be. And through the holiest of wisdoms, through the power and mystery of the Spirit, we are intimately connected to that ancient feast, to Christ himself, who is here with us, as we share bread and cup, signs of blood spilled and a body broken.

Today, as we take steps toward this table, we are fed and nourished so that we might move out from this table, continuing out into the world, stepping out with the wisdom and faith we have and in which we are called to grow and become.

Eucharist

“Thank you” is always a good way to begin.

This morning, we continue our closer look at the feast we share. And as we do so, we look at one of the terms we use to describe this feast: The Eucharist.

We have already talked about several of the other identifiers we use. Next week, we will talk about it as the Last Supper and what that means for us. We also speak of this as communion, a simple reminder that we are together around this table. We refer to it as the Lord’s Supper, remembering that it was Jesus who gathered the disciples together, set an example for them in the simple sharing of bread and cup, and commanded them to do likewise. Incidentally, it is this command, combined with the physical elements, which makes this one of our two sacraments as Presbyterians, the other being Baptism.

Today, we talk about the Eucharist. It’s an old term, one that comes from the early centuries of Christianity, when the bulk of the community spoke Greek as their common language. The word itself is Greek in origin. The two-letter prefix “eu” is the same that we find in words like eulogy. It is also there in evangelism, where it becomes “ev”; and it simply means “good”.

“Charis” means grace. Put them together, add a Greek ending, and you get the word ευχαριστία (eucharistía), which means “thanksgiving”. The Eucharist is, then, the thanksgiving feast. You can see some of this retained in the fuller liturgy we use, the call and response referred to as the Great Thanksgiving:

The Lord be with you.

And also with you.

Lift up your hearts.

We lift them to the Lord.

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.

It is right to give our thanks and praise.

Communion, then, is an opportunity for us to thank God for blessings received and for the chance to gather around this table. In fact, if you change a couple of letters at the end of the Greek word, and you get ευχαριστώ (eucharistó), the modern Greek for “thank you”.

Elizabeth and I once had the chance to travel to the Greek side of Cyprus. I remember flying over on Cyprus Airways with its multilingual signs all around the plane. We sat in the emergency exit – or, as it was written in Greek, έξοδος  (exodus). The word for seat belt included ζώνη (zonay), which is also the name for the special liturgical belt that Greek Orthodox priests wear. And when the flight attendants thanked us, they said “eucharist”. I had no idea we were in for an experience that was so sacred!

I joke, of course; and yet, I wonder: could we live our lives in such a way that we, too, can see the sacred all around us, even in the most ordinary of things? Could we give thanks to God, not just when things are going the way we would like, but at all times and in all cases?

There is a tension in doing so. Our Scripture this morning from the Proverbs attributed to King Solomon reminds us of this fact. In them, we are told that “wisdom begins in the fear of the Lord.” And again, we are commanded to “fear the Lord” as we turn away from evil. How on earth are we supposed to give thanks to that of which we are supposed to be afraid?

The Hebrew word behind this phrase, the fear of the Lord, has many meanings. It means to be in awe, to stand in wonder. These are meanings we can swallow a little easier, I’m sure. The hard truth, though, is that it also means fear. For many of us, that might conjure up images of a vengeful God, one who stands ready to condemn us at a moment’s notice. And yet…if God really is God the way we describe and believe, then is it just possible that fear is the right response?

God created worlds with just a word. I can build a mean Lego house, if it includes the instructions…God has bottomless patience, calling for a people, sending prophets, and even came in the person of Jesus. I…I get angry when someone enters the Express Lane with sixteen items. And as Christ, God was willing to suffer and die on a cross. I, on the other hand, need a band-aid for a blister…

When faced with the creative, patient, and sacrificial power of God, could it be that we really should stand in fearful awe and wonder? The vastness of God and the smallness of humanity – that is a fearful gulf to be bridged…and yet, God does it again and again and again.

It may not be a comfortable place to be, between fear and gratitude, but it is a far more interesting place to be. And I believe that, somewhere in the creative tension that arises, we can find our faithfulness to what it is that God desires of us.

That, I trust, is the intent of gathering around this Eucharistic table. It is, among other things, a moment to remind us and reconnect us with the sacred so that we might find sacredness wherever we go. And yet, that is an increasingly counter-cultural idea. Our American culture is becoming one in which more and more people find transcendence in places other than in religious community. Faith is no less ardent; it is just as individualistic, too. What is new is that it is less and less connected to any recognizable tradition.

I suspect that many of us here resonate with that description, though. We find holiness, Sabbath, rest, refreshment in the mountains, or by the shore, or with friends and family, or in sleep and naps. I don’t think any of that is wrong. I personally find transcendence in conversations, in moments that challenge my thinking and assumptions, in serving others. I find it in music, in live performance, in laughter. I find it in many, many places far away from our gathered feasts, well beyond the four walls of a Sanctuary, away from the property footprint of a congregation. And yet…here’s the missing key:

It is the gathering of the faith community that gives context to the holiest of experiences. When we are here, when we listen to Scripture read, when we lift up prayers for and with one another, when we hear the call to selfless service, when we are fed and nourished in body and in Spirit, then the rest of the moments where we sense the divine come into focus. The grandeur of the mountains points to the God who crafted and crafts them. The relationships with others who lift us up, challenge, us, and stretch us remind us that we are not alone, and that God isn’t finished with us yet. The creative arts connect us with God’s creating and re-creating act. And all of it is focused in the light of Christ, reminding us that living in God’s desires isn’t just something we do in our hearts and minds. It is a fully-embodied activity, an incarnational truth that is at stake.

It is this perspective, I fear, that is missing for so many. You see: without the anchor of faith, without the joy and challenge of living in community, we are prone to craft our own beliefs, to create God in our image instead of the other way around, so that God, miraculously, agrees with us at every turn. We are never judged or convicted. And so we are never forgiven or receive mercy. Which means we don’t know how to share it with others.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a defender of religious institutions at all costs; far from it. I see the shortcomings and wrongdoings. I know how far we are capable of straying from what we are actually called to do. I believe that even a congregation as gifted as Oglethorpe Presbyterian has a long way to go to reflect the image of God within us.

And yet, with that said, I know that I am a better person when I am in community than when I am alone. It is only in community that I can grow more and more into the person that God has created me to be. It is because I don’t have it all figured out that I am forced to realize how grateful I ought to be. The very fact that others are willing to put up with me is the gift. When others reflect God’s grace and mercy to me, that’s what teaches me to pass it on – to live into the deepest, holiest “thank you” of the Eucharist.

So, come: let us gather around this table. Let us gather as God’s people, invited here not by me, not by the leadership of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church, but by the awe-inspiring holiness of God’s very self.

In each other’s faces, may we recognize the beauty of God’s creation. In each other’s voices, may we heard the holiness of God speaking through in words of wisdom, of comfort, of challenge. In each other’s presence, may we know that we are not alone in this world, but that God is with us every step of the way, giving us the cause and the faith to say “eucharistó”, thank you, at every turn.

Amen.

An Improvised Anthem

Pulling the weekly bulletin together is always an act of improvisation.

It rarely looks like it; after all, it is the planned order of worship that the congregation receives a few days later. And yet, there is always something that we hadn’t anticipated: a hymn we chose that’s unfamiliar; a special litany that needs to be included; a Scripture that doesn’t speak to the moment…There are always last minute adjustments. This past Sunday, however, stood apart.

Tim, our Music Director, was returning from a month-long sojourn in Europe. Our worship planning had gotten us through his absence, but we had not planned for his return. Tim and I agreed that the two of us would “do something”, and that was as concrete as it got.

Then it hit me: why not improvise? After all, I have been spending the better part of a year learning about the habits of improvisation; why not put some of that into practice? Using my own children as my willing improv guinea pigs in the days before (with different results each time), I hatched a process.*

Last Sunday, our Scripture was Psalm 146 from the Narrative Lectionary. During our time with children, I told them how the psalms were meant to be sung, and that Tim and I had nothing planned. And so we needed their help figuring out what it was we were going to sing.

I read the Psalm, asking them to say something like “I like that” when I read something that grabbed their attention. Then I told them we needed to figure out our key: I needed a letter between A and G and two numbers between 2 and 6. After one child asked if it needed to be a whole number, we got our suggestions: A, 3, and 5. That became the chord progression.

Tim and I began playing our three chords on piano and guitar; eventually, a melody emerged, which became a simple chorus:

I will sing my praise to God;

I will sing my praise to God;

I will sing my praise to God all my life.

The congregation soon joined in; I used the “liked” phrases to build verses. It took a while. The melody wandered on- and off-key, but we always returned to the chorus with full energy.

I have heard prettier and more interesting melodies. I have encountered more poetic lyrics. This was no Coltrane or Davis. And yet, there was something about this particular piece of music that “worked”. Along with everything else, the whole process invested the congregation in the anthem in a unique way. It wasn’t just Tim’s music or the choir’s music or my music; it was our music, our praise. Our shared creation had them “rooting” for the music in a new way.

We will definitely do this again.

One final note: our worship recording failed Sunday; so here’s my rough re-creation with guitar and voice:

Cup

We should err on the side of grace.

Our Psalm this morning is, at first glance, a simple one of praise. The phrase “Praise the Lord” bookends it on either side. The author sings God’s praise and speaks effusively of God’s goodness. And it is in lining out how good God is that the psalm shows its importance to the overall message of Scripture. We can see its echoes in the Old and New Testament alike. In the song of Hannah, in Mary’s Magnificat, in Jesus’ first sermon in Nazareth, in his sermon on the mount, in his parable of the sheep and goats on the day of judgment, the themes of our morning psalm arise again and again. God lifts up the powerless and humbles the powerful. The hungry are fed, the prisoners are freed, those on the margins of the world are brought into the brightest light of God’s healing grace and presence.

And we, as the church, as the body of Christ, as those who seek to be faithful in light of these Scriptures, are called to mirror that message in the way that we speak and act and live. In other words, we should err on the side of grace.

Throughout the summer, we have been taking a closer look at the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, our shared meal at this table. Today, we continue that exploration, looking at the meaning of the cup. The cup (or, to be more accurate in this case, cups) is a reminder of the cup that Jesus shared with his disciples at the Last Supper. If you have been with us at the table before, you know that we have both wine and juice here. It is wine that would have been on Jesus’ table. And yet, we recognize that alcohol can be a stumbling block to the table for many.

As a historical side note, unfermented grape juice didn’t become an option until the late 19th century. It was then that Methodist layman and prohibitionist Thomas Welch discovered how to use pasteurization to stop the fermentation process.

In any case, the cup is meant as a historical reminder. And yet, it is more than that. As we often say here, we are fed at the table so that we might go out and feed. If this table is a means of experiencing grace but we do not share that grace beyond these walls, then we have turned this holy meal into an exclusive function. If even Judas broke bread with Jesus, then who are we to decide who is worthy to be nourished?

I’m reminded of a phrase from a different psalm, Psalm 23. As the author imagines feasting at a heavenly banquet at God’s own table, their own cup overflows. That, to me, is the image that can focus our attention. Our literal and metaphorical cups are filled with blessings, filled to overflowing. What runs over is not ours to keep and hoard. Instead, it is to be shared with the world. After all, we are not arbiters of God’s grace, but instruments of it. And so, we should err on the side of grace.

I hope that this will as true for us outside the walls of this church as it is for us within them. I often share with colleagues in ministry how blessed I feel to be a part of the life of this congregation. There is a strong sense here that we can be honest with each other, and that we do so with love. I don’t know if you can appreciate how rare that is within the church these days. I think one of the legacies of Oglethorpe Presbyterian is that we continue to aim for this balance of truth and grace. We know we can disagree; but we also know that we can do so agreeably. There are times when our Session leadership has robust debate on issues that face us; and yet, once a decision is made, we are clear that we are all on the same page. In other words, losing a vote is not a reason to distrust the process.

And while this kind of emotional health might be woefully rare among congregations, there are times when it seems to be completely absent in our national conversations. We live in these political and cultural bubbles. Politicians and pundits and pastors scream at the walls, apparently loving the sound of their own voice much more than the voice of reason and truth and mercy. Whatever you may think about the appropriate connection between faith and citizenship, I think there is a critical role for Christians to play as people who can speak the truth in love, err on the side of grace, and trust that, even if we cannot see the hand of mercy for the moment, God is at still work.

The past few weeks have been significant in our shared national life. The brutal shooting at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston reminds us that we are still struggling with the reality of race and have not yet been purged of our original sin. The response to the shooting, the overwhelming show of solidarity and the powerful witness of forgiveness, have given us hope – even as three black churches have been burned by arsonists.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court decision in favor of marriage equality just over a week ago reflected a significant cultural shift in our national understanding of sexual orientation. As I have shared before, I think the real tipping point happened not last Friday, but five years ago when the military removed “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” as official policy. The biggest gap of opinion is not between conservatives and liberals, but between generations. Here is the most telling statistic to me: 51% of white evangelicals under the age of 35 support marriage equality. In other words, those raised in a culture that has vocally opposed same sex marriage not only don’t oppose it, they support it.

Whatever the short-term political gains to be made by those who continue to advocate for “traditional” marriage, the debate is, for all intents and purposes, over. That is true not only for the American conversation, but if the numbers are accurate, for the Christian conversation as well.

Here is the thing you might not know: five days before the Supreme Court ruling, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) took the same stand. In other words, our denomination’s constitution officially declares marriage as a covenant between two people, regardless of their gender. What this means practically for pastors and congregations is this: pastors reserve the right to officiate any wedding or not; and sessions reserve the right to host any wedding or not. That has always been the case, and both situations have arisen in my time here.

But here is what I want you to hear from me: I will gladly welcome any two people who wish to covenant together in marriage. I will still reserve the right to officiate or not, but I will not consider gender or orientation in that decision. And I do so because I believe it is the faithful thing to do.

When Paul wrote to the Church in Galatia that within the church there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, I believe that the Spirit may have been offering us a glimpse at inclusion that not even Paul himself would have imagined. And when two people desire to live together in marriage, no matter their orientation, they are going to need God’s help to make it work. More than anything else, though, I want to err on the side of grace. Because if the example of Jesus teaches us anything, it is that those whom society might deem unworthy are among those whom Jesus himself welcomes to the table of fellowship of grace.

And that is where we gather now – not because you agree or disagree with me, or because we are necessarily all of one opinion about this issue or that – but because we know that it is right to be together. We make more beautiful music when we join our voices and hearts together in song. We are God’s people when we are focused on God whom we know in Christ rather than on our own agendas and certainties. And we are more faithful in community than when we are alone in those bubbles that tempt us to self-righteousness.

Friends, we declare that this bread is the body of Christ. And we say that this cup is the blood of Christ, the cup of his new, unbreakable covenant. When we are fed by this bread and cup, among everything else we believe about what that means, we are also meant to remember that we ourselves are the body and blood of Christ.

We are the feet of Christ, moving out into the world as messengers, ambassadors of God’s limitless love. We are the hands of Christ, reaching out to the world in compassion and mercy, feeding those who hunger and giving water to those who thirst. We are the lifeblood of Christ, agents of God’s always beating and oft-broken heart, making this table a place of welcome, wholeness, healing, and embrace. And we do so because we know that, no matter who we are, no matter our station in life, no matter how much or little we bring to this table, that we are all in need of God’s help to make our lives faithful ones of gracious witness.

Amen.

Communion

When one part of the body suffers, all suffer with it.

The memories of Saturday’s Habitat Dedication will stay with me for a while. I think I have attended eight of them over the past ten years. They are always powerful moments, seeing a diverse community come together to work side by side with future homeowners to put a roof over a family’s head. Saturday, I also took home some bodily souvenirs – specifically, three blisters. Between raking and working the sander and the sawsall, I was reminded that I don’t often do this kind of work for sustained periods of time. And even though the rough spots are extremely small, the discomfort takes up a disproportionate amount of my emotional energy today.

When one part of the body suffers, all suffer with it.

When we read the Psalm this morning, a Psalm attributed to King David, we find the author in a much better mood than the one we read last week. It seems like things are going well for the moment, something he attributes to God, giving glory to the Lord of his salvation. I’m glad for David – I really am. I hope that all of us can read this Psalm at times when we feel at our best and give God the glory. I would also hope that this kind of praise could guide us when we know that others are suffering and in pain. If so, it can encourage us to work beside them so that they, too, could claim the words of this Psalm as their own hymn of joy.

Because when one part of the body suffers, all suffer with it.

It’s a principle, I believe, we know well at Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church. When one of our members is in distress, we respond, dropping from the roof like care ninjas. We do so not only when those whom we know are affected, but when those whom we have never met are aggrieved. That’s why we build Habitat houses and deliver coffee to Mercy Community Church. That’s why we bring food and fellowship to Journey Men’s Shelter and give groceries away at the Suthers’ Center. And it is why our hearts break when we learn that bullets fly in a Charleston church.

When one part of the body suffers, all suffer with it.

Like many of you, my thoughts this morning are tied up in the awful news reports from South Carolina just four days ago. 21 year old Dylann Roof went into a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. After an hour, he stood up, made racist statements, and opened fire, killing nine worshipers before fleeing the scene.

As has become unfortunate custom in our society, pundits immediately took to the air waves, offering their own take long before any facts were in. There have been calls for gun control, against gun control, removal of the Confederate flag from places of honor in South Carolina, statements on the gunman’s drug use and mental state, framing this as a terror attack, as an attack motivated not by racial hatred but religious enmity…

And while I do think that there is merit to some of these observations, here is what I think we need to hear this morning: when one part of the body suffers, all suffer with it.

I am convinced that Dylann Roof’s attack was, indeed, an attack on faith. I don’t say so because I agree with the talking heads who want to shape their own narrative of religious persecution of Christians in America. Frankly, the suggestion is insulting to real examples of religious persecution taking place, where people really are dying because of what they believe.

No. What I believe is that, when intense racial hatred motivates someone to kill Christians in church, then I do think that something of faith is at stake. If these ideas drive you to murder worshipers, then they have no place in faith. You cannot be a disciple of Jesus Christ and, at the same time, claim that racial superiority is real. My refrain this morning comes from Paul: “When one part of the body suffers, all suffer with it.” There is no asterisk next to the statement, listing exceptions based on race, or nationality, or gender, or age, or sexuality, or denomination. Just as I cannot put my thumb aside until the blister heals, neither can I separate the body of Christ into different parts because solidarity would be inconvenient.

Two weeks ago, several members of our church shared lunch and fellowship with several members of First Congregational Church, a historic African-American congregation in downtown Atlanta. We had initially been brought together by mutual distress from shootings in Ferguson and Staten Island and Cleveland and Baltimore and…and…and…The #blacklivesmatter movement that has arisen has been crucial, reminding Americans that we have not eliminated racism. The harder question is, what do we do about it?

This morning, several members of Oglethorpe Presbyterian have answered that question by choosing to worship at First Congregational. Like Emanuel AME in Charleston, First Congregational is an old, historically black church in the downtown of a major Southern city.

In the grand scheme of things, it’s a symbolic gesture – but it is something. Here at Oglethorpe, we can, and will, pray for the victims and the perpetrator in Charleston. We can, and will, pray for the church on Earth to look a little bit more like the kingdom of heaven. And yet, when we can still talk about black churches and majority white churches, it is clear that we still have a long way to go.

So what do we do?

There is, I think, in our culture, a desire for the quick fix. There must be something we can do immediately to make everything OK. Prayer vigils and marches and demonstrations have been taking place all over the country, a sign of our hunger for a timely response. And that is all good. And yet, the truth is that solutions to deep-seeded problems take patient diligence for the long haul. So, let’s get started.

Think about your friendships. How many of your friends are unlike you? I don’t mean the cousin that votes Republican while you vote Democrat. I mean really unlike you? Different in politics, race, religion, sexuality, age, economics, and so on? Have you, in your own life, sought to cultivate such relationships? Because in the end, that’s really the only way that we can build the kingdom of God, is if we do it together.

God’s desires are not fulfilled when we exist in our own little silos or ghettoes, segmented off in our echo chambers of self-congratulation. God’s desires come into being when the things we thought we knew about the way the world works are challenged and strengthened because we are with those unlike us who are no less or more created in the image of God.

Can you think of someone with whom you can cultivate a sustained relationship of difference? I’m not talking about one-stop cultural tourism; although, if that’s all you’ve got, it’s at least a place to begin. And if you don’t even have that, then spend some time thinking about why not.

Is there a neighbor you’ve failed to meet or welcome? Or a colleague at work you haven’t invited to lunch? What about your activities? Are they all within the circle of sameness? What would it look like to break out, to reach out, to get out of that cycle? Where are the possibilities for making that happen?

If any of this rubs you wrong or overwhelms you at the mere thought, then good. Faith is rarely about doing what comes easy to us. Instead, this kind of culture shock can be the most faithful thing we do. It can be disorienting, but that’s because it points us toward reorientation, shifting us toward God’s vision.

I remember the first time I attended a Greek Orthodox liturgy. I was utterly lost. I had experienced a variety of Protestant and Catholic services, and knew generally what to expect. But none of them had prepared me for the culture shock of Orthodoxy. Fortunately, I had several friends who were patiently willing to explain it to me. And there was one piece in particular that moves me to my core.

As the priest prepares the chalice for communion, he takes a large loaf of bread. A stamp has been pushed into the soft dough, filling the baked bread with symbolism. The priest takes pieces of this loaf, cutting them one by one, placing them into the chalice. First come pieces representing our ancestors in faith. Then come pieces for the prophets, the angels, the saints of the church. And then come the prayers of the people: their joys and concerns, each offered up as a piece of bread, dropped into the chalice of wine, and mixed together.

It is out of this chalice that the people receive the bread and wine. It is as though their prayers, their joys and triumphs, their concerns and defeats, become one with those of the whole history of salvation, culminating in Christ himself. And right there, stamped into the same bread, is this statement of faith: Jesus Christ is victory; Jesus Christ is victory; Jesus Christ is victory. Just as Christ carries our burdens, giving us the victory over adversity we so desire, so we, too, share in one another’s burdens. After all, when one part of the body suffers, all suffer with it.

Friends, this life of faith is not the easy path. The good news, though, is that we do not travel it alone. It is all about doing it together, with Jesus at the center of all that we do.

The table stands at the center of our worship, because it belongs to Jesus. And when we are around this table, as God’s people, looking into one another’s eyes, we begin to see glimpses of what God desires.

We haven’t said much about it today, but the word around which we gather is “communion”. It simply means together…as one. And that is what this feast is. It is a feast much larger than this table could ever hold. It is a feast that bridges all of those gaps that divide our world and our society. And in doing so, the hope, the outlandish but realistic hope, is that our glance around this table would open our eyes to all of God’s glorious children.

Amen.

The Lord’s Supper

The feast is only the feast because of the host.

Throughout June and July, as our worship focuses around the table, we are taking a closer look at what it means when we gather here: our practices, our habits, our customs, even our language. I know that we come from many different backgrounds and traditions, which are all, somehow, brought together in the feast. Today, we consider what it means to call this the Lord’s Supper.

There are really two poles around which the Lord’s Supper hangs. And both of them derive directly from Christ’s own words at the table. When he broke the bread, he said, “This is my body.” When he poured the cup, he said, “This is my blood.” And he commanded his followers to do likewise, saying, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

For some of our co-religionists, it is the statement about body and blood that is most important. When they gather, and when the priest says the words, the bread and cup are transformed literally into body and blood. For them, there is no scientific claim at stake – it becomes a mysterious, holy, sacred moment when ordinary things achieve unrivaled perfection. Time and space are suspended as the congregation becomes, for that moment, connected with the ancient meal and with Christ’s sacrifice.

I remember attending a Catholic service, where a bishop was presiding over the feast. Among the many who responded to the invitation to come forward was a bee. As the bishop waved it away, he knocked the chalice held by the deacon next to him, sloshing wine to the floor. Priests and seminarians sprinted to the scene, like an Indy 500 pit crew. They dove on the floor, wiping with special cloths and pouring holy water to clean up. After all, this wasn’t just a party foul in need of some Morton’s Salt or seltzer water – sacred blood had been spilled!

On the other end of the spectrum are those Christians who believe that what we do at this table is simply a memorial meal. The real thing happened once, and only once. All we do when we break bread and drink cup is remember. It is a sacred memory, to be sure – but what begins as bread and cup continues as bread and cup and ends as bread and cup. We are here, quite simply, to be reminded of what Jesus did for our sake. But this body and blood stuff? No thank you.

Based on what we have etched into our table here, you might have a guess toward which end of the spectrum we fall. And yet, in historical and theological terms, this is a bit misleading. You see, at the time of the Protestant Reformation, there was real wrestling going on within the European Church about this whole notion of body and blood. The dominant Roman Catholic Church held fast to this concept of the transformation of the elements, on a real, material presence of Christ.

The leadership of the Protestant movement pushed back with different concepts, which they also insisted came from Scripture. Martin Luther claimed there was a simultaneous kind of change going on. He agreed about the real, material presence of Christ, with a slight nuance. The bread was still bread, but at the same time, it was also body. The cup was wine, but it had also become blood.

Then there were the Radical Reformers, the theological ancestors of the modern-day Baptists and Congregationalists. Not only had they gone so far as to stop baptizing infants, a capital crime in some regions. They also insisted that there was nothing more at stake than sharing a meal together, just as Jesus had done with his disciples.

John Calvin, the theological fore-runner of the Presbyterians, was actually much closer to the Catholics and Lutherans, but with an important difference. He spoke of a real presence of Christ – but it was a spiritual presence, not a material one. The bread stays bread, and the cup stays cup. But Christ is truly present in Spirit when we break and bless. After all, as Jesus told his disciples, “Where two or more are gathered…I will be in their midst.”

My own theology of communion holds pretty close to Calvin’s, that the change taking place is a spiritual one, transforming the elements and those who receive them. At the same time, I draw some wisdom from older Eastern Orthodox traditions. Prior to the Protestant Reformation, the Orthodox Church had a more limber sacramental theology. There were ancient church theologians who held close to this Catholic notion of transubstantiation, or bread becoming body, and cup becoming blood. And they had contemporaries who sounded much like the Congregationalists, that the meal was an opportunity to be reminded of the ancient meal. As long as you were somewhere in between these two, you were on firm ground. It wasn’t until both Catholics and Protestants headed East to recruit the Orthodox to their side in the debate that their sacramental theology become more rigid.

As far as I’m concerned, I am grateful that I don’t get to set the standards or of what kind faith others bring to the celebration.

After all, it is the Lord’s Supper. Jesus, not Aquinas or Luther, was the one who broke the bread, poured the cup, and uttered the words. Jesus, not Calvin or Zwingli, was the one who suffered, died, and rose again. If the feast is the building, then Jesus is the architect.

The feast is only the feast because of the host.

We can see how central Christ is in all of this in our Scripture lesson from today. The Psalm, attributed to David, is one of desperation. The King cries out to God for salvation. He feels as though he is stuck, sinking, drowning. He is humiliated, ashamed, insulted, rejected. And in that moment, the only thing he can do is cry out – cry out to God, and God alone.

I don’t know about you, but when I read this, David comes across as pretty whiny. He is the greatest king in all of ancient Israel’s history – greater than those who have come before, far greater than those who will come after. And yet, he sounds as though he has never been able to catch a break. It can be hard to feel sympathy for David.

Even so, there is something in this attitude that can point us toward faithfulness. We may not be among the pantheon of kings, but few of us have suffered the kinds of suffering that fills our 24-hour news cycle. When we hear about what is happening in other parts of the world and even in other parts of our own city, we get a glimpse of the horrors that others face. For them, this psalm surely strikes home.

And yet, we, too, have experienced pain. Desperation. Disappointment. Loss. Many of us know what it is like to be humiliated, driven as low as dirt. Life overwhelms. Exhaustion sweeps over us. When we try to keep up, it can feel like we’re being pulled under. Those are the moments when our cries become one with David’s: help me, O Lord. Save me. Give me sure footing. Help me to breathe again. Answer me. Turn to me.

And that, my friends, is what this feast is. It is God’s answer to our desperate pleas. I pray that you never experience material hunger and thirst. I hope you never know that gnawing, life-threatening, bodily emptiness, or that your lips and mouths never swell because you cannot get enough water to sustain you. And yet, I am sure that each of us has had and will have moments where we feel caught in a kind of spiritual vacuum. If there is any wisdom in how Calvin understood this feast, it is in the fact that this spiritual void can be just as real, eating away at us from the inside.

And that is why we come to the table to be fed.

After all, it is a Supper. There are material things on the table: bread and cup. They are an answer to our material need for food and drink. And when we share them, when we are fed, they become not only a tangible reminder of the provision God gives us. They also become our salvation, pulling us up from the mud, lifting our heads above the overwhelming waters. They are our spiritual nourishment, filling those real, empty places within us.

And, so filled, we leave the table in order to feed the world in its hunger and thirst. When Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you,” it was not a dismissive statement. It was a charge: to face the world and its imperfections head on. We are called not only to recognize the very real, material, spiritual pains that surround us and afflict our sisters and brothers, but to do something about them: to be balm, to be healing, to be embrace.

This past week, as our Mission Committee met, we talked about the various outreach ministries that we support. And in them, there is a common theme: Home. Our Habitat builds put a literal roof over families’ heads. Our partnership with Journey Night Shelter and Interfaith Outreach Home and Mercy Community Church work to be hope and promise for those who have no place to lay their heads. Our leadership in AMIS offers a sense of belonging to the thousands of international students that come to Atlanta. Our support of Thornwell Home works with children and families at risk, both to provide a safe home for those who have none and to bring healing into homes that are desperately hurting.

In each of these ministries, we do not, even for a moment, assume that we are the ones doing them. We know that it is Christ, working through us, that provides this real, material, spiritual hope to those who need a place to call home.

The table is in the midst of a sacred home – Christ’s home. After all, the feast is only the feast because of the host.

I am not the host. You are not the host. This church is not the host. Jesus alone is the host.

And so, we are the guests. It doesn’t matter if you have been to the table 100s of times or never before. It doesn’t matter if you have been to other tables or one table. We are, all of us, guests here. We are, all of us, invited by Jesus to this feast. And so invited and fed, our charge is to make room at the table for all.

Amen.

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