(10) Evoking the Presence of God (10.7.07)

Theology Sermon #10—Ps 50:1-15; Amos 5:21-24; Lk 5:27-32; 1 John 4:7-12

Ted Grimsrud—Shalom Mennonite Congregation—October 7, 2007

Word associations: “sacraments,” “communion,” “eucharist”

One philosophy of preaching would say that you should never let your audience see you sweat.  If the preacher shows uncertainty, then people will not be likely to take what is said very seriously.  Why should I listen to this yahoo who seems just as confused or uncertain as I am, the targeted listener might ask.

Another philosophy we could call the “Columbo” approach.  Some of you may remember the TV detective who had this stumbling, dufus technique that would put people at ease and make his work more effective.  So the preacher can stand up and shuffle around and say, hey, I don’t really know what I’m going to say.  Then the audience feels sympathy and gives the preacher the benefit of the doubt.

Well, I’ve decided to lean toward the second option.  I’ve never tried to do a sermon on communion, or sacraments before.  I don’t really know what I should say. I do have kind of a hard time with communion, though.  Which is why I wanted to try to preach on it—to see if I could come to some sense of clarity and hopefulness.  It’s not so much that I have personally had bad experiences with communion—actually they have mostly been pretty good.

But I do know people who have had hard experiences—the denial of participation in the Lord’s Supper for my friend’s father back in the 1930s for owning life insurance that still hurts her, the gay man who was refused communion when he returned to his home congregation hoping to rebuild a sense of connection, the teen-ager told she was too young to take communion, making her feel like a second-class Christian even though she deeply desired to follow Jesus….These exclusions bother me.

As I reflect on communion, I find it helpful (though also troubling and confusing) to think about what this ritual symbolizes.  It seems to me that the meaning of communion varies according to what we think is behind the service.  What do these acts symbolize for us?  Well, lot’s of different things at different times.  For example:

Back thirty years ago, Kathleen and I were part of a non-denominational church made up of people in their 20s, many who were new Christians.  We took communion every week—in wildly varying ways.  Whoever wanted to could lead the service.  One Sunday we might have saltine crackers and cool aid.  The next would be grape juice and bread.  And every once in a while this one guy would try to get us to use regular wine—even though about half the people in the church were teetotalers.  Communion often symbolized people’s joy and enthusiasm in knowing Jesus, and in being with others who shared those feelings.  Everyone was welcome; I don’t think any of us had a very sophisticated theology of the sacraments—to say the least.

Another example would be when my parents retired and moved to a community with a Lutheran church.  This was the first time in 35 years my dad had a chance to be part of the kind of church he grew up in.  Their first Sunday in their new town, we had helped them move, and we all visited the local Lutheran church together.  When it came time for communion Kathleen and I hopped up and partook, even though the pastor said it was only for people who believed in the “real presence.”  But my parents stayed seated.  I found out later that in the church where my dad grew up, communion was open only to church members.  As I thought about it later, I felt that part of what was symbolized both by the pastor’s statement about the need to believe in the “real presence” and, even more, by my dad’s views, was that communion could represent the church as a kind of closed club—if you believe in the right thing, or if you have a certain kind of congregational membership you can take part.  It could be kind of like a lodge; the value of my membership is heightened by the fact that some aren’t members.

I noticed recently a letter in a Mennonite periodical from a seminary professor arguing against opening communion to anyone who is thirsting for God.  To open communion in this way, so that we “open the breaking of bread to people who have not made the covenant with Jesus,” is to jeopardize our understanding of the church.  Church, it would appear, is a place where it is important to make clear distinctions between who belongs or not.  The symbolism here seems to be, in part, that communion is one place where we must clearly draw lines between in and out.

Another element of communion symbolism comes to mind when I think of a good friend who models faithfulness to Jesus’ gospel of peace.  This friend works hard, both inside and outside the church, for justice and reconciliation.  He puts his very life on the line—in fact, he was nearly killed while witnessing for peace in Iraq in 2003.  For my friend, sharing in communion is extraordinarily important as a source of spiritual sustenance.  It symbolizes both solidarity with other peacemaking Christians and receptivity to the Spirit’s nourishment through the bread and wine.

It keeps getting more complicated, though, as I reflect more on the symbolism of communion.  Another very different possibility is hinted at in our text from the prophet Amos.  Here we have the image of people who share in religious rituals as a means of demonstrating their piety to onlookers while being blind to profound social injustice.  The rituals are ends in themselves; go to services, get blessed, and you are set.  God is in the holy sanctuary; God’s presence is mediated through the religious leader—the only demand on the believer is to show up, go through the motions, and go on with life as if God’s commands for social justice are optional.

Let me mention yet another, contrasting symbolic expression.  I just finished reading an encouraging book—Take This Bread, by Sara Miles.  Sara grew up an atheist.  She cared deeply for justice in the world, devoting years of her life to working in Central America.  She eventually ended up in San Francisco and found herself attending an Episcopalian Sunday service.  Sara went simply to watch, then in the middle of the service, when the priest announced, “Jesus invites everyone to his table,” she found herself caught up in the movement forward and took the bread and wine.

Sara was suffering in many ways at this time—her father had just died, suddenly, the father of her daughter had separated from her, she carried the pain of her experience in Central America.  Taking the bread and wine seemed to speak to her need, though she didn’t know how that could be.  She remained skeptical, but couldn’t stop going back to church and accepting the invitation to Jesus’ table.

About the time she accepted that she had become a Christian, an opportunity arose for her to begin a food pantry at this church.  So, as she grew in her faith and her understanding of what it meant to share at Jesus’ table—she found herself sharing food with others who also, as she had been, were hungry.

Ultimately, Sara links these two experiences inextricably together—Jesus’ table symbolized by the communion service at Sunday worship and Jesus’ table symbolized by sharing with hungry people at Friday food pantry. Both expressed God’s welcome: to all who hunger for spiritual wholeness and to all who simply hunger for food.

She found inspiration in stories such as Jesus feeding the 5,000, breaking bread and sharing it indiscriminately with all who were hungry for physical food; and such as today’s text from Luke’s Gospel where Jesus sits down for table fellowship with tax collectors and sinners, announcing that his message of healing was for all who needed their brokenness bound up.

I have to mention one last kind of symbolism.  This is the symbol pointed to by Psalm 50.  Christians may think of communion similarly to the ancient Israelites in the psalm.  Thinking that it is an offering to God of something God needs to be favorably disposed to them—maybe it’s thinking of Jesus offering this kind of sacrifice to a needy God in order to satisfy God’s holiness and allow God to offer forgiveness.  The psalmist, though, makes it clear that God is not needy.  Simply offer God a sacrifice of thanksgiving.  What God wants is gratitude for God’s bounteous mercy.

So where does this cacophony of symbols (that is, s-y-m-b-o-l) leave us?  Communion can symbolize God’s mercy, God’s empowerment for peacemaking, communities of generosity and support.  Communion can also symbolize boundary lines between insiders and outsiders; communion can symbolize human efforts to find easy assurance of God being on our side.

Let me suggest this.  No human ritual is in and of itself sacred.  God is not to be evoked mechanistically, through the performance of some specific ritual that guarantees God’s presence when the correct words are recited or the appropriately credentialed leaders officiate.  We may say, instead, that rituals can provide a context for in ways that empower us to love.  As Abraham Heschel wrote, “Above all, the Torah asks for love—love of God and love of neighbor—and all observance is training in the art of love.”  I believe that our task is to work at making the rituals work in this way.

How do we evoke God’s presence in ways that serve the call to love?  I don’t think there is a set formula.  But, as 1 John 4 helps remind us, we can count on God’s presence as we do find ways to love.  “Since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.  No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us.”

Rituals serve the call to love when they make us aware of God’s presence.  With our doctrine of the Holy Spirit, we affirm that God is always everywhere present.  But we don’t always realize that.  Rituals can remind us, open us up, heighten our awareness.

This is basically what I understand “sacrament” to mean, some act that makes us aware of God’s presence in ways that serve our call to love.  Some have said that singing together is a quintessential Mennonite sacrament.  Maybe a potluck is too.  Certainly sharing generously with a person in need or finding reconciliation in the face of damaged relationships—these fit the definition of “sacrament.”

Maybe then we could say that to live “sacramentally” is not so much about constantly sharing in official church rituals—those these surely do have the potential of heightening our awareness of God’s presence when practiced with care.  More so, though, living sacramentally has a lot to do with an openness to perceiving God in all our social interactions.

Sara Miles’ book is full of examples of such sacramental living.  She tells of one Friday at the food pantry.  As is usually the case, she feels a bit overwhelmed at the needs represented by the several hundred hungry people and the stress of making sure everyone gets food in an orderly manner.  She steps outside to catch a breath of air.  He coworker Paul spots her and sympathizes with her weariness.

Then two regular pantry clients spot Sara and Paul.  “The two old women started over to us,” Sara writes.  “Miss Lewis was a regular at the pantry, a tiny lady with gnarled, arthritic hands.  Every week she came to get groceries so she could go back to her room, cook on her hot plate, put the meals in rinsed-out plastic containers, and take them down to feed the beggars who lived on her street.  She hugged me, and Miss Pollen kissed me on my chin.  ‘How are you?’ asked Paul, beaming.

“‘Blessed,’ said Miss Pollen.  ‘I’ve had a little flu, but I’m blessed.’

“Miss Lewis smiled at us all.  ‘Are you thirsty?’ she asked her friend.  ‘You need to drink plenty of liquids.  Wait a minute.’  She rummaged in her shopping cart and pulled out a bottle of cranberry-grape juice and a Dixie cup.

“ ‘Here you go,’ she said, filling the cup for Miss Pollen.”

Sara thinks to herself, this is the sacrament. (p. 240)

Amen.

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