Please pray with me.
God, I am really not exactly sure how I ended up here, standing in this pulpit telling my stories. I wanted to be a fiction writer, but here you have me telling the truth, over and over again. Thank you for being with me on this journey, and thank you for being with me here today. It is my greatest hope that something I say will cause something or someone to shift or widen or find a new ripe home. Thank you, God, for this congregation and their willingness to open their ears and hearts again. Amen.
This passage is an extraordinary one. Life from God, light from God, light overcoming the darkness. Flesh full of grace and truth. Flesh that lived among us. From his fullness we have received grace upon grace. Jesus, straight from God’s heart.
Like some of you, I suspect, it has taken me a while to know and love Jesus. He had been, for me, the cool kid on the playground. The most popular senior in high school. The handsome boy that you might just stare at across the room but never approach. A mystery. Someone so powerful that even stepping into a space with him felt daunting.
And, yet, as I have come to know him, he was such a willing participant of life, normal life. Talking with the fishermen. Hanging with Mary. Eating with his friends. Getting his feet rubbed. Wandering. Yelling. Walking. Talking. Telling stories. Being in relationship. Standing firm in the face of those with power. Hanging on, hanging on when times got tough.
I don’t know about you, but I am awed by Jesus for his miracles. I strive – on good days — to be like Jesus through his teachings. But I love Jesus because he was one of us. He lived among us.
Forgive me for zooming to the end of the story – but I like that nearing his death, he spent time alone, contemplation time, but he also spent time with his friends gathered around the Passover table. I imagine that they laughed some, they prayed some, they followed Seder rituals, they gossiped a little, they told stories. Arms reaching over arms, hands passing food from one to another. Roasted lamb, bitter herbs, unleavened bread.
And then those words that we know so well, words that we will hear later today. Then Jesus took the bread, and when he had given thanks, our Lord broke it and gave it to them saying, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” Then after supper, “This cup is the new covenant, which is poured out for you.”
For years, I did not know what to do with communion – how to wrap my mind around it. What did it mean then on that night? What does it mean now in a modern context? How could eating bread dipped in grape juice help me remember Jesus? Or help me be part of this new covenant? Covenant of whom? Me and God? You and me? Me and the kingdom? I just did not get it.
I suspect that we all might, individually, wrestle with various aspects of our chosen faith. The virgin birth. The stone rolled away. The validity and reliability of God in a world where so much hardship exists. For me, communion was a stopping place. A gate that swung down and closed me out of full participation in this community. Communion was one of my “yeah, buts” ” Yeah, I believe in God, but… Sure, I believe in Jesus, but…” I do not know what halts you, what places you in the yield lane. For me, for a long time, it was this idea of consecrated bread and wine.
I didn’t take communion for years. Probably the first 7 or 8 years at Forest Hill Church. I would skip church that week. Or I would sneak out of church after the sermon, or I would leave during the weekly anthem, or I would sit in my pew, and let the plate pass in front of me. Or I would sit, while the rest of you walked forward during communion by intinction. That takes a lot of guts, you know – to sit there and declare yourself a non-participant.
I did not feel worthy. I did not want to feel worthy of this blessing. I did not want to really be in communion with God. Or Jesus. Not even be in communion with you all, as sad as it seems. I was the lost sheep, the not ready to return prodigal son, the one coin rolling away from the others.
Then, there was an evening service in this sanctuary – years ago, maybe ten – for those who were banished from ministry for being gay or lesbian, and in support of those who supported the fight for justice and equality. The sanctuary walls were lined with stoles of many colors. And, perhaps, one hundred people attended. There came a time in the service when we were called forth to take communion. I got up, I don’t know how or why, and I walked forward to these steps and my shaky right hand tried to grab a piece of bread from the basket, then my shaky right hand tried to put that piece of bread into the chalice of juice but I could not do it. I had to take my left hand and guide my right to force it to the cup of salvation. The server could see my palsy, as if I had nerve damage or Parkinson’s. I did not. I do not. I was suffering from a dis-ease but nothing that could have been diagnosed.
Somehow my hand made it into the grape juice and somehow my hand, still shaking, made it to my mouth and somehow my teeth were able to chew this bread and get it swallowed. I remember that day like it was yesterday, and the thing I remember most, is not all of that shaking and quivering but what John did. Our John Lentz. He was sitting in the front row, right there where Doris Allen is sitting now, and his eyes met mine and then he raised a fist, and put it to his chest. As if to say I am with you, sister, I am proud of you, sister. I know how hard these first steps are for you.
Then, for years, it was the same trembling mess for communion. Sometimes I would avoid it. Sometimes I would take it. But when I did, it was as if the Holy Spirit was spiking my adrenaline. I swear I would have made a good 18th century utopian – a Shaker, a Quaker. Turn, turn will be our delight. Till by turning, turning we come round right.
This frazzle was about my worth. It was about my sin, — and by sin I mean my distance from God — something I saw as so large that one bite of bread and a few drops of wine could not lift. It was about this Jesus. This bread of life. What it would mean to really bind oneself to the teaching of a mystic healer. What would it really mean to do what Jesus would have us do.
Then, for some reason, one Sunday, I actually heard it – I actually took it in — what John said – or Clover – those words, all are welcome. Come, partake in this glorious feast. All are welcome under the banner of God’s love. All are welcome in this living kingdom.
And some cloud opened up, some simple whisper of compassion cracked me open, all of the lessons of the Bible somehow found a common chord. The woman by the well – accepted, Ruth the Moabite – accepted , the woman offering her one mite – accepted, Zacheas called down from the tree – accepted.
Each of the known and counted hairs on my head prickled to attention.
I thought about Pentecost, the voices and languages of Pentecost. So many spoken so that each could hear in his own language, and it felt like – at last, at last – one had finally stretched across all time and place and found me. I was one of the all. And, so, I was welcome.
I went forward, my hand did not shake, and my hand has not ever shaken since. I welcome that walk up the aisle now. I look forward to waiting my turn with all of you. I like looking in the eyes of the server. Saying “amen” after I take the bread. Saying, “so be it” again after I dip my bread in the holy cup.
It is so simple for me now. I am eating at the table. With all of you. And the larger, wider you beyond these walls. I am eating at the table near this holy man, my earthly brother, Jesus. I am eating at a feast prepared by God for our unification. I am taking in something so that I will remember that God is with me.
There is nothing scary about that anymore. I am part of – as you are part of – the huge family of a living and gracious God.
I asked to become an elder as soon as I became a member of this church. I wanted to help the church because the church had been so helpful to me and I wanted to be an active agent in the ordination debate. I was blessed by support and to serve with Carolyn, Kurt and Melody, Jeanette, Anne Wilson, and Eric on the ministry of worship.
But guess what one of our jobs is? To prepare communion and find elders to serve communion. No, the irony does not escape me.
So all of last year, Carolyn Vrtunski asked me to be one of the servers, but I said no. Somehow I could take communion, but I surely could not serve it. I mean, who am I? Someone who needed the feast, not someone who could dispense the bread of life and wine of salvation. I said no in January, no in February, no in March, no in April and eventually, Carolyn just stopped asking. Clearly, I was still wrestling with the weight of this ritual.
I went to a service last spring sponsored by the Covenant Network at The Church of the Covenant, and we sang the song we will sing today, “For Everyone Born.” Again, I got it. The wide expanse of God’s love. During communion that day, I waited in a long line with brothers and sisters from all over the country. It just so happened – and yes, I do believe in the minor miracle of synchronicity – that when I approached the server, after hundreds of people had been served, there was no more bread. It had run out. The left side of the sanctuary had been served and was seated. The balcony was served and seated. The choir served and seated. But there I was, big old me, standing in the aisle with another ten or so people behind me waiting for communion.
In previous years, I would have said to myself, “See, YOU do not deserve the bread of life. See, you are not good enough for what everyone else gets. See where the line of mercy and grace ends? It ends right in front of you.”
But I did not say those things. Think those things. I just waited. Waited for the server to scurry up the long aisle to the bread that had been lifted and consecrated. Waited for her to scurry back and hold out the loaf that had been blessed. And I grabbed a handful. A big doughy clump of God’s love.
Just a few months ago, I was standing in the left line of intinction waiting to receive my piece of bread, when I noticed an elder – who was serving – starting to wobble. I – the person who refused communion for years, then who took it with a tentative hand. Me, one of the reluctant among God’s beloved children – well, I just stepped out of the line that was receiving communion, took his basket, turned around and started serving communion. Thank God, he was able to sit down and recover from a momentary spell of dizziness. This sudden switch of events was so odd to me. I did not think. I did not hesitate. I did not weigh my options or wonder what anyone would think. One moment I was waiting to receive communion and, astonishingly, the next moment I was serving communion.
And that, my friends, is what life is all about. Going from guest to host, and host to guest in this beautiful stretch of love we call living.
This takes me to my final story. When I was cleaning out my mother’s belongings after she died, I came across a Lenten reflection book from Southminster Church in Pittsburgh, where I was raised. There was a turned down corner so I flipped to that page in the book. This page bore an essay Susan Smith wrote about my mother- Susan is a longtime family friend, the woman whose children I babysat growing up.
Susan wrote about how my mother – in her sixties – was finally asked to be ordained in the church and how she was finally going to get to serve communion. Then Susan recounted a time in her life when my mother had called her religiously every morning at 7:30 am. I thought back and vaguely remembered this time in my life. I thought that my mom and Susan’s friendship was awfully sudden and intense. Who called someone every morning at 7:30 am and often every evening too? What could they possibly have to talk about twice a day?
In the essay, Susan explained that she had had a major bout of post-partum depression and that my mother’s calls were to get her out of bed. Were to tell her to get her clothes on. Were to tell her to take a shower. Put on a new outfit. Pick up her baby. Hold her new child. My mother’s calls – often welcomed and more often not – were the thin string that kept Susan functioning for months. So, when my mom – years later – shared with Susan how excited she was about finally becoming an elder and finally being able to serve communion, Susan said, “No, Sally, you have been serving communion your whole life. Do you remember when you called me? Do you remember when you awakened me every morning so that I could care for my baby? Do you remember the years you spent volunteering at the School for the Blind? The years you were PTO room mother? The years you helped at swim meets? The years you spent driving cancer patients to treatment? Sally, you have been serving communion your whole life.”
And so it is with you. And with me. We can serve communion – we are bringing union, we are called to union – every day of our lives. When we take the body of Christ we are reminded to be the body of Christ. When we dip into the cup of salvation we are reminded to be a salve in this world. We can be the gifts of God, for the people of God. We are the gifts of God for the people of God.
So, let this year be a year of communing with yourself, with God, with those you love and even those who leave you for a loss. Let your epiphany be this: Put flesh on God’s love every day.
Communion. Today. What a great way to start this year. Do not fight it. Do not shake at the thought of it. When it is time in the service, just come on up if you can. Reverent, maybe. In awe, maybe. Or just hungry for God’s love. March on up like one of the Three Kings.
Take the bread of life and say amen. Take the cup of salvation and say so be it. Then smile at your sister, the one who served you. And smile at your brother, the one who anoints you. Then smile at your grand congregational family as you walk back to the pew. Then sit down and thank your heavenly father and God’s holy son, the ones who love you beyond love.
This is the New Year that the Lord has made. Let us feast. Let us rejoice.
Let us be glad in it.