Some of you remember the dark times at the beginning of the 1930’s. Fascism, communism, economic depression. In 1933 the folks at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh launched a proposal that eventually became Worldwide Communion Sunday, now celebrated each year on the first Sunday in October, an expression of unity among Christians amidst all the forces that would tear the world apart.
The case could be made that we are living today in no less dark times–do I need to list the forces tearing at us today? The rise of Islamism, climate change that seems to be moving us inexorably toward a very different planet, the spread of ebola, the growing chasm between the world’s wealthiest minute percent and the majority of the poor and diminishing middle class, a U.S. congress riddled and paralyzed by blind partisanship, persistent racism that imprisons and kills African American youth, the list goes on, you know the drill… This year’s Worldwide Communion celebration lifts up the plight of Christians throughout the world who are persecuted and killed, in greater numbers now than ever before, in Africa, in the Middle East, in Asia.
For the first followers of Jesus, sharing the bread and wine was a way of gathering together, in times as dark as ours. “Join us for the meal,” they would say to one another or to strangers who asked about their fellowship. It was the meal of sharing that set them apart, that defined their reality and their relationship to one another and with Jesus. [Richard Rohr, “The Living Body of Christ” blog, 9/22/14]
Later, as the persecutions increased, communion “became the secret ritual by which the community defined itself and held itself together in its essential message.” [Rohr, op cit.] “The Lord Jesus gave us this meal,” they said. “We become his body and blood when we share it. He is present with us and present in us.” “We are who we eat!” St. Augustine wrote in the 3rd. C.
So today, in many different traditions, in many different places and settings with many different kinds of bread and drink, we remember who we are. We are one; we are broken; we are to be poured out and offered for others. God is incarnate, enfleshed, present in earthly things like human bodies, bread, wine, juice, creation. Over the centuries, the church has debated what “actually happens” in this ritual–do the molecules of the bread and wine become actual molecules of flesh and blood? How is Christ “really present”? Does it matter if the celebrant–the minister or the priest–is flawed and sinful? [Thankfully, the church decided it didn’t, otherwise we could never celebrate communion!] Who can take communion? Only “believers”? Only adults who understand what’s going on? You can see how these kinds of discussions have a tendency to go in circles.
But the power of this sacrament–these ordinary things made extraordinary–goes way beyond chemical or intellectual reactions. Its effect is deeper than data. Not only do we, in some way, “re-enact” what Jesus shared with his disciples, — he blessed, he broke, he gave – but we also become–in all our many different parts and expressions–we become one body–His body–one loaf, one cup. And around this table, there is always room for another…and another…ad infinitum… All are welcome.
A young widow writes that mealtimes are among the times she misses her husband most–”his empty space at the table is too stark and too raw just now,” she writes. “In this long and sorrowing season, I am thankful for the solace of other tables, for those spaces of welcome where there is always room for me.” (Jan Richardson, paintedprayerbook, “The Solace of Other Tables,” 9/30/14)
How many others–how many of us–long for a place at the table, a place of welcome, a place of nourishment, where they–where we–belong? The fictional Boston bar Cheers knew this–”you wanna go where everybody knows your name.” When too many churches exclude and condemn, is it any wonder there are more regulars to neighborhood bars and pubs than there are to neighborhood churches?
Nadia Bolz-Weber, 6-foot tall, tattooed Lutheran pastor of House for Sinners and Saints in Denver, tells the story of a young woman who had found a welcome, a place at the table, at ). When you walk into the meeting place of All Sinners and Saints, even for the first time, you may choose to be assigned a part in the service–a reading, taking up the offering, greeting people, even helping with communion, which is celebrated in the Lutheran tradition every Sunday. So this young woman came to treasure the weekly gathering around the table where she was welcome. And just as she had become accustomed to looking forward to that weekly celebration, she had to travel home for some family obligation. It happened to be on World Communion Sunday, so she looked forward to celebrating the sacrament in her home church, knowing that her friends and church family at Sinners and Saints would also be celebrating.
But Nadia reports that she received a desperate text message that Sunday from the young woman, saying that she had been refused communion in her home church. She wasn’t one of the them, it seemed, she had gone too far astray, she had joined an “unwashed” denomination, maybe she was gay, I can’t remember now what the reason was that she was refused the bread and the cup. But it had literally torn her apart. When Nadia shared the news with her congregation, they immediately responded. “We have to go to the airport with communion tonight,” they agreed. “We have to let Rachel know that she is part of the Body.”
And so that evening, at the Denver area, a group of tattooed, pierced, motley folks from House met their sister Rachel with some of the communion bread and wine from their service. And they all wept and embraced.
Come to the table. Take and eat. Take and drink. You are welcome here. What more gracious and welcome invitation than the offer of “abundance to give solace to our sorrow and to stir our joy”? [Richardson, ibid.] We are not to linger here forever, but are to be sent out to offer this welcome, this nourishment, to those we meet. People are hungry for hope, hungry for meaning, hungry to be known and accepted, hungry to be helped to become all that they are meant to be. Hungry for blessing.
So come “as children who trust there is enough.” Come “unhindered and free,” where your “aching will be met with bread…and your sorrow met with drink. Let us open our hands to the feast without shame…and turn towards each other without fear. Let us give up our appetite for despair. Let us taste and know of delight. Let us become bread for a hungry world and drink for those who thirst. So may we be blessed. So may we become a blessing. May the feast be everywhere. [from Jan Richardson’s “A Blessing for World Communion Sunday”–And the Table Will Be Wide] Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark