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Posts Tagged ‘communion’

3107459732_dc14f72b60Even if a tent is not our home, it should still provide shelter.

The first time Elizabeth and I went camping together, we brought with us a little rinky-dink tent. If I remember correctly, it was a metallic silver color, because, it turns out, you can judge a book by its cover some times.

It was about 3:00am when the rains started, and that was when we realized that the tent failed at what was really its only job: keeping us dry. We leapt out of the tent, picked it and everything inside of it up, and threw it into the back of our fancy Dodge Cargo Van, where we spent the rest of the night.

I learned an important lesson that night: even if a tent is not our home, it should still provide shelter.

In our lesson this morning, as Paul continues his second letter to the Church at Corinth, he sends them a word of encouragement about the challenges they are facing. And as he does, he focuses on the glory that awaits them one day. Bodies may break down, but spirits are strengthened. What we see is temporary, but what is unseen is permanent. The earthly tents we live in can be destroyed, but our true home is an eternal, heavenly home.

Yes! And, what happens to us now still matters. What happens to the body matters. What happens to the temporary matters. What happens to the tent matters.

There is a temptation to read Paul and declare that the “here and now” is irrelevant, that all that matters is what happens in heaven. If that were the case, we would have to ignore everything else Paul wrote or did. Remember that Paul had an existential crisis that turned him from persecutor to Christians to promoter of Christ. Remember that this conversion sent him to Jerusalem to argue for the inclusion of Gentiles in the fledging Church. And remember that Paul spent the rest of his life traveling, preaching, and teaching the crucified and risen Christ.

If none of this mattered, then Paul could have rested on his laurels after his conversion, waiting for his earthly tent to be destroyed so he could take up his permanent, heavenly residence. Instead, Paul earned his living as a maker of literal tents and spent his days and nights as a maker and mender of spiritual tents, earthly churches, bodily communities that followed Jesus.

So rather than seeing our lesson this morning as a call to disregard the “here and now”, the invitation is to keep the “here and now” in healthy perspective.

If that space-age monstrosity that advertised itself as a tent had been our only earthly shelter, it would have been insufficient to say, “We seem to be getting wet! Oh, well. Good thing we’ll be eternally dry in the sweet by and by!” That’s not faith; that’s delusion. Then again, if we had reacted to all of this by abandoning the tent for some kind of indestructible bomb shelter, declaring, “We’ll never ever be wet,” then we’ve missed the point once more. That’s not faith, either; that’s paranoia.

The call of faith is to live, somehow, with the in-between. It means holding these gifts God has given us, but with a loosened grip, recognizing that they are not ours to begin with.

One of the things that I have always appreciated about Oglethorpe Presbyterian is the ability to keep these kinds of things within a healthy, faithful perspective. If we were to give into the cultural perversion of bigger, better, faster, stronger, then our building isn’t even a mere shadow of what it should be. That said, neither should we neglect it.

And while there is no shortage of projects around this place, in the past few years we have checked a number off the list. We have new roofs! We installed new, secure doors at the back parking lot! We have updated our antiquated HVAC system! We even have a bathroom for grown ups on the Sanctuary level! We have just, thanks to your generosity, finished phase one of replacing asbestos-backed floor tile. And as we speak, we are finalizing drawings to convert the basement of the Chapel into Kindergarten space and the lower courtyard into an outdoor classroom.

This may never be the most elegant building in Brookhaven, nor do I think it should be. After all, at its very best, it is still our temporary home. And yet, the care we give it while it is in our hands should reflect how we value what it is that God has entrusted to us. We are situated in the midst of perhaps unprecedented growth with a piece of property that is vacant more often than it is occupied. To put it a bit more crassly, we are holding onto empty real estate in a place where land is at a premium. What an opportunity God has given us, God has given you, to be stewards of this place in a way that reflects the character of God we see in Jesus.

And that’s the point after all, isn’t it? If Paul knew anything at all, it was the gift of Jesus as God incarnate, as God embodied. If the world we live in doesn’t matter, the crucifixion doesn’t matter. We know that’s not the case. The fact that the body of Jesus was tortured and suffered is of vital importance. And one of the many ways it matters is that it calls us to minister so that others never have to live with that kind of suffering.

It’s one thing to mend our own tents, whether literal or metaphorical. It’s another thing altogether to look after the tents of others.

Our latest ministry is a perfect example of that, as we embark on becoming partners in New American Pathways in refugee resettlement. Sometime over the next year, Oglethorpe Presbyterian and Emory Presbyterian will work together to furnish a home for a family of refugees. It is possible that they may very well come from living in a literal tent. And your welcome of them not only follows Jesus’ command to welcome the stranger and the exile; it shows that what happens to them matters not just to you, but to the same God who created and loves and yearns for them.

It is my hope that, in all of this, all of us will call to mind what it means to live faithfully in the earthly tent that God has provided for us. We know it is temporary. And yet, if it leaks, we know we deserve better. And the same is true for all of God’s precious children and the tents in which they live. God has given us the ability and the means to make and mend tents the world over so that they, too, would reflect God’s promises of love and hope.

The table is the perfect image for what we are saying here today. The bread and cup we share are not enough to feed the hungry or satisfy the thirsty. They do remind us of the eternal feast that awaits us in God’s perfect presence. And at the same time, they stand as a challenge to our conscience that we should do what we can to make sure that none of God’s children ever hunger or thirst.

After all, even if a tent is not our home, it should still provide shelter.

Amen.

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3001809-poster-942-you-are-here-why-location-smartphones-killer-mapThe Holy Spirit is God’s gift, drawing us deeper into this moment, now.

My reflection this morning will be a little different. Those of you who come here regularly are probably saying to yourself, “So, what’s new?”

Fair enough; on this Pentecost morning, the Spirit will draw us again and again into now as we mark several important events happening in the life of our community, ultimately gathering around the table to break bread and share cup. The gift that the Holy Spirit gives us, one that we are likely to neglect otherwise, is to pay attention to this moment: here…now…reminding us that God is at work for us, in us, and through us.

Most of us tend to avoid the moment before us. And for some of us, that means getting caught up in the past. We let grievances and traumas get the best of us, defining us not as who we are, but as what has happened to us. Or maybe we think that the best approach is to just put those things behind us, to gut them out.

The truth, of course, is much more complicated. Our ability to heal from old wounds can only come when we are willing to seek out those who have the spiritual gift of healing – healing in body, in mind, in spirit. They are the ones God has gifted to strengthen us so that we can face the past, come to terms with it, and even find redemption in it.

In healing our pasts, we would do well to remember the story of Jacob in the book of Genesis. Jacob was a fierce seeker of God. It was this fierceness that gave him the limp that he carried the rest of his life. And so, his battle scars ran deep – but his faith ran far, far deeper.

For others of us, the past defines us in ways that seem like misty, near perfection. We reminisce, holding onto precious memories, wishing life could be that way now. The more we learn about memory, however, the more we understand how unreliable it is. This means that we risk becoming captives to nostalgia, to things that never were or, at least, were not the way we choose to remember them.

More importantly, though, as people of faith, it means that we tend to think of God as someone or something that was at work only in the past, as though God has given up on creation, leaving us to our own devices. This idea runs counter to everything we say we believe; and yet, it can take hold of us.

The truth is that God is at much at work in this moment as at any other time behind or before us. Even in those times that it feels like God is away, God is very much here – closer than our own breath.

There are times when we need to be reminded of that truth, of God’s constant presence.

Some of us flee the present moment in exchange for what is yet to come. We get caught up in looking forward, planning ahead, mapping out the road in front of us, that we neglect the beauty of what is happening. It’s as though we are walking along the beach, but remain focused on where the car is back in the parking lot, and never cast our gaze toward the endless horizon.

We can also let anxiety about the unknown future take hold of us. Our financial worries, our medical fears, our relationship uncertainties – all of them can trap us in places where hope gets dampened. And yet, just like we talked about last week, even if we don’t know what the future holds, we know who holds the future. In other words, we are going to be OK, no matter what, because God will always be God.

The Holy Spirit is God’s gift, drawing us deeper into this moment, now.

From our lesson this morning, when Paul wrote to the Church at Corinth about spiritual gifts, this is exactly what he was talking about. God uses our excellence, those things that bring us joy, for the sake of God’s desires. We are, each of us, gifted by God for the working of God’s hopes and joys. The invitation is to move deeper into God so that we might not only find those gifts, but also to discover God’s own self.

And in exploring that faith, we also hope to find ourselves and our unique calling, the gift of God’s Holy Spirit that rests on each of us. In other words, faith in Christ ought to be something that speaks to us in its own particular way and, at the same time, knit each of our strands into a wonderful tapestry of shared faith.

The Holy Spirit is God’s gift, drawing us deeper into this moment, now.

Today we mark that ancient Pentecost, where the Holy Spirit visited the disciples, flames of fire dancing on their heads, sending them out into the streets, gifting them with languages they had never known, giving birth to the Church.

And yet, what made all of that possible was the fact that the disciples first gathered together. Jesus, their teacher and friend, was gone. Unsure what to do, they only knew to do what they had done with Jesus: they came together. They prayed. They sang. And…they ate.

Around the table, that first generation of Jesus’ followers broke bread and shared cup together. And when they did, they found themselves connected across time and space with an infinite number of tables, all different shapes and sizes, that look back and forward at the same time.

As do we.

At the table, we look back to that moment in the upper room when Jesus broke bread, gave it to his disciples, and said, “Take. Eat. Do this in remembrance of me.” We look back to that moment when Jesus took the cup, poured it, and said, “This is the cup of the new covenant, sealed with my blood, shed for you and for many. Do this in remembrance of me.”

At the same time, we look forward with expectation to that heavenly banquet, that moment where all of God’s beloved, former enemies and friends alike, gather in God’s presence and feast together.

And, above all, we are in this moment, now, because God is here! In this sacred space at this sacred time, Jesus is in our midst. After all, this is not our table. It is his. And when we break the bread and share the cup, we are somehow, by the grace of God and God alone, opened to God’s Holy Spirit moving us, shaping us, inviting us to be who it is that God has created us to be!

Amen.

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“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.

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“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.

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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.

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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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Feast

Mural by Sulaiman Mansour, Christmas Lutheran Church and International Centre in Bethlehem, Palestine.

The table is prepared. Let us keep the feast.

For almost ten years, Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church has had a fluid communion schedule. Rather than holding communion once a month as some congregations do, or having it once a quarter which is the bare minimum Presbyterian congregations are charged to uphold, we have followed the church calendar, celebrating communion on particular feast days. This includes Easter and Christmas Eve, Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday, among others. It has become a way for us to mark the church year by heightening these particular days with a shared feast.

This morning, we begin a new worship series that carries through the end of July. And during that time, we will celebrate communion every Sunday. While worship is at 10am in June and July, whether we are here in the Sanctuary or over in the Chapel, we will gather around this table and celebrate the Lord’s Supper.

The hope in all of this is that each of us would grow in our understanding of this feast materially and spiritually; how it feeds us materially and spiritually; and how it knits us together as God’s people, so that we would be people of the feast, wherever we go.

As we say often, the table is prepared. Let us keep the feast.

For many of us, gathering around the table reminds us of our own experiences with communion. I am aware that we come from varied backgrounds: high church, low church, no church, and everything in between. Whether it’s processing forward, or kneeling to receive the elements, or having communion served to you on trays, or gathering to sit around a shared table, or no memory or experience at all, I am sure that a wide variety of experience is reflected in our shared history.

When I was a child, the church we attended did not allow children to receive communion until we had taken a special class. And so, on those once a quarter Sundays, seated between my grandparents, I remember the plates and trays being passed over my head, with their untouchable bite-size pieces of bread and little cups of grape juice. My grandmother, never one for playing by the rules, would pass the plastic cup to me after she had finished so that I could taste the little bit of sweet juice that still swirled around the bottom.

One Sunday, a large group of us gathered in Fellowship Hall where the Senior Pastor led us through the meaning of communion. The one thing that stuck that day was his suggestion that we pray after receiving each of the elements. And after that, we were approved to receive. I remember, after eating the bread and drinking the cup, that I would clench my eyes firmly shut, because that meant I was praying hard – really, really hard. What communion meant, in theological terms, was not something I grasped in the least. And yet, it expanded on the simple meaning implied by my grandmother, passing on that taste of juice: I was included.

Since then, I have experienced communion in a variety of ways. In Episcopal churches, Methodist, congregational, Vineyard, non-denominational, high church, low church. I have even received communion in churches where I should have been forbidden from the table, always by the gracious invitation of someone who valued welcome over doctrine.

I have knelt to drink from a shared cup of wine. I have had a wafer gently placed on my tongue. I have sat around a single table, as we passed elements to one another: “This is the body of Christ; this is the blood of Christ.” I have had a mix of bread and wine spooned into my mouth. And I am pretty sure that I have had crackers smeared with grape jelly. In all of it, what I have learned is something that I never would have known as a child. While I had been raised to assume that there was only one way to do communion, I had, instead, been exposed to simply one way among many; and that it had simply connected me to this remarkable feast in all of its varied expressions.

I do not consider these practices equal, by any means – at least, not to me. And it is now the element of extravagant welcome that I cherish the most. This, much more than any debate over consubstantiation vs. transubstantiation, is what I think this feast is ultimately all about. The bottom line is that the communion table should be a reflection of the tables around which Jesus gathered in his lifetime. Christ sat with people who pushed the boundaries of acceptable first century culture: the sick, the poor, the despised, the marginalized, the hated. He even broke bread with Judas, the one who would ultimately betray him, fully knowing what was to come.

The idea that we could or should set barriers to this table, that there should be hurdles or obstacles, that it should be marked off with barricades and velvet ropes, is something I cannot reconcile with Jesus. That is why we have both juice and wine here, recognizing that there are those for whom alcohol is not a drink of celebration, but a mark of addiction. It is why we have incorporated bread without gluten, because there are those with not only allergies, but debilitating illnesses brought about by wheat. It is why we welcome infants, children, and adults alike here, because ultimately, no matter how much we think we might have learned about the meaning of communion, the most important lesson is that is Jesus who welcomes us, who chooses us to be his guest.

For Presbyterians, our governance requires that a person be baptized before receiving communion. We do not specify the kind or denomination or age, but simply that there have been a baptism. Maybe I’ve got too much of my grandmother in me, but I’m not sure even that requirement holds up to theological or Biblical scrutiny. It is not the Presbyterian Church, or Oglethorpe, or the Pastor that welcomes us to the table. It is Jesus. And I am hard-pressed to remember a meal where Jesus waited to pass the bread until he had verified the baptismal status of all in attendance.

The kind of welcome that Jesus embodies, the radical inclusion of Christ’s table, is at work in the Psalm we read this morning. It is God alone who is seated on high, looking down on heaven and earth alike. It is God who lifts up the poor from the dust, the needy from the refuse, and seats them with the rulers of God’s people. It would be one thing to read this as beautiful poetry, as elegant verse pointing to a heavenly perfection of equality before God. It’s another thing to live this out, to practice this in time and space.

As a child of the Scriptures, Jesus took the meaning of this Psalm to heart. In it, and throughout Scripture, he learned that there was no division among God’s children, that there should be no hierarchy at God’s table. Instead, Jesus took these words seriously to make space for all. And this hospitality threatened the powers that be, those who had a stake in the religious status quo of the day.

With all of the meanings we might bring to this table, I think this is what it is meant to be: a place where we meet on equal footing, where the dusty and refused are made clean and welcome, where the rulers sit, stand, and kneel next to the ruled, where none is considered greater than another in the eyes and economy of God.

If that is how we come to the table, we lay claim to the world as God desires it – not as we would have it be. If we do this, we might become a challenge – even a threat – to the status quo. And I don’t care what your politics are: none of us accepts that the world is perfect the way it is. We may disagree about how it is that we got here in the first place or how we get out of it in the end. What unites us, though, should be our desire to forge this space to welcome the breadth and depth of God’s beloved children. This should a table of righteousness, a table of justice, a table of peace, a table of grace. When that happens, we become people of the feast. And so fed, we feed others wherever we go, extending Christ’s table to the ends of the earth.

My prayer for us, for our summer practice, is that we will reflect on our own memories of the table. And in doing so, that we will be both enriched and stretched as we encounter faithful ways of knowing God and God’s mercy.

Amen.

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