Eat This: Eucharist as the End of Consumerism

I noticed this week how the word “consume” appears several times in today’s Scripture readings. The first is in the gospel, just after Jesus’ disciples have been snubbed by the residents of a Samaritan village. They ask Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But Jesus “turned and rebuked them.” I imagine him giving them a look and huffing, “Seriously, you guys?”

The other appearance of the word “consume” is in the epistle, when St. Paul cautions the Galatian Christians, “If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.”

This recurrence of the word “consume” got me thinking about the culture we live in. We call it a “consumer economy” because we don’t produce much anymore. We consume things. Comedian Aziz Ansari points out the ridiculousness of this. Talking about a popular ice cream shop, he notes that they no longer serve in sizes Small, Medium, and Large. Instead, they have: Like It, Love It and Gotta Have It! That’s the kind of idolatrous thinking we’ve been brainwashed into believing in this addicted culture. We think the ultimate good can be measured by “More, more, more” for me, myself, and I. We know that money can’t buy happiness, but that hasn’t stopped us from trying.

We don’t just relate to consumer goods and services this way. We do this with people too. We objectify each other. We treat each other like things instead of people. And once we do that, it is not long before we begin to consume each other in our lust for violence.

I think this is precisely what we see happening in today’s gospel. The disciples feel that they have been wronged by the people of this Samaritan village, so they react with a violent impulse that has been born out of years of prejudice and objectification of the Samaritan other: “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But Jesus is having none of their racist nonsense. He rebukes them and moves on.

In the same way, Paul writes to the church in Galatia about the results they can expect if they continue to treat one another like objects. It’s quite a heavy list: “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.”

In some ways, I find this list comforting because it sounds so familiar. I bet if you were to flip through the TV channels for ten minutes during prime time, you would find an example of everything on Paul’s list. America has built a very successful economy around it.

But Paul warns us that this way of life has consequences: “If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.”

The end result of the objectification of our fellow human beings in this consumer economy is that we will eventually, inevitably begin consuming (and being consumed by) one another. Left to our own devices and desires, we the members of the human race will sow the seeds of our own self-destruction. We, the consumers, will be consumed.

The good news is that God is not content to leave us to our own devices like that. God intervenes in the person of Jesus Christ. In the mystery of the Incarnation, God takes on flesh and dwells among us (“moves into the neighborhood,” as Eugene Peterson says). Living among us, Jesus loves us and shows us that another way is possible. We do not have to consume and be consumed by one another.

And when we, the consumers, can stand to hear no more of this wisdom, we turn on Jesus in a final, desperate attempt to shut him up and silence forever this voice of truth. And Jesus, much to our surprise, offers himself willingly as the target and scapegoat for all our blind rage and violent hatred. He absorbs it into his body.

Jesus Christ did not have to die on that cross because of God’s wrath toward humanity; he died because of humanity’s wrath toward God. God didn’t need Jesus to suffer and die. We did. We couldn’t stand to believe that a love so holy and pure could exist, so we did everything in our power to silence him. And Jesus took it willingly.

On the night before he died, Jesus sat at table with his disciples. He took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me.”

In the same way, after supper, he took the cup of wine and said, “Drink this, all of you. This is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Whenever you drink it, do this for the remembrance of me.”

In the sacrament of the Eucharist, Christ offers his broken flesh and spilled blood to be consumed by us in an act of ultimate, cannibalistic violence. When you think about it, it’s really offensive and gruesome that we do this.

Jesus took our sins upon himself by offering himself as the willing target for our rage. He died for our sins. He died because of our sins. In the Eucharist, Christ offers the divine Body and Blood to be consumed by us, so that our violent consumption of one another might stop forever. Christ says, “Eat this instead. Eat me!” Christ absorbs our violence into himself, so that the cycles of violence might end once and for all.

But that’s not all. The story doesn’t end there. There’s a Trojan horse in this epic tragedy.

Jesus didn’t stay dead. He couldn’t. The saving work of God wouldn’t be complete otherwise. We know that, on the third day after these things took place, Christ rose from the dead, triumphant over the powers of death and hell.

Jesus willingly absorbed our violence into himself and, by rising from the grave, proved that the love of God is stronger than the power of death. All the hate, violence, sin, and consuming selfishness in the world was not enough to keep Jesus in the grave.

This is why I believe that no matter who you are, what you’ve done, or how evil you’ve been, you cannot out-sin the love of God for you.

Whatever tomb you try to put Jesus into, he comes bursting out.

In the Eucharist, we consume the broken Body and drink shed Blood of Jesus. But the Trojan horse is this: you now have Jesus inside of you. The crucified and risen Lord of the universe is being absorbed by the cells of your body. His Blood now flows in your veins. The divine resurrection energy now electrifies your nervous system. As Paul writes in Romans 8:11, “The Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you.”

This changes everything. Not only has Jesus stopped the old cycle of violence by his death; he has begun a new cycle of life and peace within us, his people on earth, the Church. Remember what they say: “You are what you eat!” And so are we: we are the Body of Christ.

Christ’s resurrection calls the Church to become a new kind of community in the world. Our calling is to stand in solidarity with victims of violence and degradation wherever they may be found in the world. The “little ones” who are being consumed by the powers-that-be of this world are our brothers and sisters. We listen to their voices and work alongside them to create a community where people are not consumed, but all of us live out the call of God to the Jewish prophet Micah: “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”

Here at North Church, we follow that calling, we build that kind of community by listening to the voices of people who live with mental illness. For us, there is no dividing line between Giver and Receiver. Every needy person among us has a gift and a ministry to offer; likewise, every donor, volunteer, and minister has a need: an empty space inside that cannot be filled with the consumer products this world has to offer. So, we work together, hand-in-hand, to build a new world right here, where every person has an opportunity to be seen, known, and loved for who they truly are: the Image of God, the Body of Christ, and the Temple of the Holy Spirit, to the glory of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Introducing The Sacramental Imagination

Reblogged from The Anglican Pastor.

The Eucharist is Christianity’s first and ultimate church planting strategy. It’s not just a sentimental moment to recall our Lord’s sacrifice. The Holy Eucharist is the celebration and realization of God reconciling all things through Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 5:19, Col 1:20). If this is true, then our participation in the sacraments also enlists us as midwives, assisting the birth of a fresh movement of God’s work and presence in our lives and our neighborhood. 

Click here to read the full article…

Come to the Table: The Body of Christ

ImageAnd Then it Hit Me…

If someone was to walk up right now and randomly punch me in the arm, the first question I would think to ask is, “Ow! Why did you just hit me?”

Me. “Why did you hit me?”

Notice that I didn’t ask, “Why did you hit my arm?” That wouldn’t even occur to me. If that person was to say, “I didn’t hit you, I just hit your arm,” I would think that person was crazy. My arm is a part of me. When someone hurts a part of my body, they are hurting me. I know that instinctually. I could never think of it in any other way.

My arms and my legs form part of the same body. It’s the same with you and me. We are parts of the same body as well: the Body of Christ. Whatever affects one of us, affects all of us. When one of us hurts, all of us hurt. This is the truth we’re telling today.

Series Recap

Today marks the fourth in our five-week Lenten series on the sacrament of the Eucharist. On the first week, we talked about what it means when we say that the Eucharist is a “symbol.” On the second week, we reflected on the Eucharist as a remembrance of past events. Last week and this week, we’re talking about the Eucharist as a present reality. Next week, we’ll wrap it up by talking about the Eucharist as an anticipation of the future.

For now, we’re talking about the Eucharist as a present reality. Last week, we looked at the vertical aspect of that reality: the Eucharist as spiritual nourishment. Today, we’re looking at the horizontal aspect of that reality: the Eucharist as Communion. As we partake of the one bread and the one cup, we are being reminded that we are members of one body: the Body of Christ.

A Church in Crisis

I’d like to tell you the story of a church I heard about a while back. This church was located in a large, wealthy, cosmopolitan city. They were a pretty successful church, by most accounts. They were young, having been planted in the last generation or so, but had been around long enough that their founding pastor had moved on and they had recently called a new pastor. This new pastor was also young, charismatic, and highly skilled at his job. He was known far and wide as an excellent preacher and folks just loved to listen to his sermons. The church had experienced a period of intense growth, numerically speaking. They now had some prominent, wealthy givers in the congregation. Spiritually speaking, this church was a place where many people had experienced the power of God touching their lives in a deep, personal, and meaningful way.

Sounds pretty good, right? But all was not well.

This church had everything going for it, but it was extremely dysfunctional beneath the surface. Internally, they were all split up into factions over silly stuff. For example, some folks liked the new pastor, some liked the old one better, and others were getting all excited about this other pastor they had heard about from friends out-of-town. There were differences in theology and worship-styles that were tearing the church apart. In order to appease the wealthy new members, they intentionally started holding services at a time when they knew it would be more difficult for some of the poorer church members to get off work. When they did manage to get there, the church was arranged so that the wealthiest members had a special VIP section where they were allowed to sit and worship, while the lower-income members who were coming straight from work had to sit in the back and only got to eat leftovers from the church’s potluck supper. To make matters worse, there was a family in the church that was caught up in a pretty serious crisis, but the pastor and the elders were so caught up in dealing with the quarreling factions that this family’s problems were being ignored and they weren’t getting the kind of pastoral care they needed. That’s pretty messed up, right?

Things got so bad at this church that they had to call in an outside consultant to help them fix these problems. As it turns out, that consultant turned out to be none other than their former pastor, the one who first started this congregation and knew them all very well. Given the deep trust and relationship that they already had with him, this pastor decided not to mince words and cut straight to the heart of the matter: he showed them that their problem was not with their location, their demographic, their pastor, or the depth of their spiritual experience. No, their problem was in the way they treated each other. No matter how many other signs of success they might possess, a church just isn’t church unless its members love each other as if they were parts of the same body. That’s what a Christian church is: the Body of Christ. Any congregation that doesn’t live that truth as its raison d’etre is not really a church in the eyes of God. Those are some harsh words, eh?

Corinthian Communion

Well, it’s time for me to pull back the curtain and reveal this church’s name. It’s not a congregation from our area, our denomination, or even our era of history (although it could easily be all three). The church I’ve been describing is the church in Corinth that St. Paul wrote to in the middle of the first century CE. Paul was that founding pastor who was called in to help fix this mess the Corinthian Christians had got themselves into.

In today’s New Testament reading, we get a snippet of Pastor Paul’s first round of advice to the Corinthians. He’s offering them some constructive criticism about the way they celebrate the sacrament of the Eucharist.

His words are harsh: he tells them that their Communion services do more harm than good. In fact, it doesn’t even really count as the Lord’s Supper because they are eating the bread and drinking the cup of the Lord in an “unworthy manner”.

What does that mean? It’s not a problem with the ritual they use, nor is Paul upset over their theological interpretation of what is happening to the bread and wine in said ritual. No, Paul’s problem has to do with the way they treat each other as they partake of the Body and Blood of Christ. In other words, their dysfunctional relationships are what render the sacrament invalid, not their rituals or their theology.

As I mentioned above, the Corinthian Christians were doing church in a way that made it difficult for the poorer members of the community to participate in worship. Their celebration of the Eucharist took place as part of a full meal where people were divided according to social class and status. The wealthy members would eat together in one room and get the choicest food, while the poorest Christians would get whatever was left over. Their feast was reinforcing the kind of social barriers that Christ had worked so hard to break down. In Paul’s eyes, this exclusive practice was a slap in the face to the gospel itself. Any Communion service celebrated in such a way could never be a true sharing in the Body and the Blood of Christ.

Discerning the Body

Pastor Paul’s advice to this wayward congregation is simple: “Discern the body.” For him, that does not mean “look within yourself” to decide whether or not you are morally worthy of receiving the sacrament. Likewise, “discerning the body” does not mean looking at the elements of bread and wine, as if something magical were about to happen to them. For Paul, “discerning the body” means looking around, at the other faces in the room, the people coming to Communion with you. These are your brothers and sisters in Christ. We are members of one body: the Body of Christ. Our sharing of the one bread and the one cup reflects that reality. Likewise, our celebration of this unifying sacrament should change the way we relate to one another, outside church as well as inside. The Eucharist bestows upon us a serious commitment and responsibility: each of us is our brother’s (and sister’s) keeper. This sacrament should remind us that we are all vitally connected to one another and are therefore responsible for each other’s well-being. When we realize this truth and embody it in our lives, we begin to look like the kind of church that Paul (and Jesus) had in mind.

Forgetting What Matters

I saw a headline in the news this week that reminded me of this truth. A certain faith-based international relief organization called World Vision made a change in its hiring policy that made many of its donors uncomfortable. They announced that, for the purposes of hiring and bestowing spousal benefits upon employees, World Vision would recognize legal marriages between two people of the same gender.

There was a fierce and sudden outcry among several prominent conservative Christian leaders in this country. Many of World Vision’s donors immediately pulled their financial support from the organization. These donors, of course, have a right to not support a charitable organization whose practices do not line up with their conscience and personal beliefs.

However, there is another element to this story. World Vision’s primary support is built on a sponsorship model, meaning that individual donors make a commitment to sponsor a particular child in a third world country for about $40 a month. Their money goes to feed, clothe, educate, and give health care to that child. Over time, a relationship develops between these kids and theirs sponsors as letters are written back and forth. A deep sense of spiritual connection is nurtured across the barriers of culture, distance, and poverty. This is the kind of Communion that Paul was hoping to see in the Corinthian church.

But last week at World Vision, when these outraged Christians raised a voice of protest against a policy change they disagreed with, they didn’t write letters or try to negotiate with the board of directors. Instead, they went straight for the jugular by cancelling their sponsorship of particular children. They cut off the support that makes the difference between life and death for some of these children. According to World Vision’s director, the number of canceled sponsorships was “less than 5,000” (but I presume that to mean it was more than 4,000).

These angry Christians decided that keeping married gay and lesbian people out of their “personal bubble” was more important than the lives of these particular children, with whom they had a relationship and to whom they had made a personal commitment. They used the lives of these children as leverage for their personal agenda.

I believe Pastor Paul would have some choice words for the Christians who did this: “They have failed to discern the Body of Christ.” They have forgotten what is most important, what Communion is all about, and what it means to be the Body of Christ. Just as Paul said to the Corinthian Christians, he would say again: “Being a Christian is not about having an airtight theology, a superior spiritual experience, or ensuring that one’s faction emerges victorious in whatever conflict happens to be engulfing the church at the moment. The mark of an authentic Christian faith is in the way we care for one another. Do we treat each other like members of one body? Do we love one another as Christ loves us?” In their opposition to marriage between people of the same gender, these angry Christians (the ones who pulled their sponsorship of World Vision kids) have lost touch with the deeper Communion that connects us to one another and makes us morally responsible for one another as members of the Body of Christ. And it is children who are now paying the price for that forgetting with their lives.

Restoring Communion

The Eucharist reminds us of this forgotten truth. When our own personal agendas and prejudices threaten to divide us into tribes of culture warriors in the perennial battle of Us vs. Them, the Eucharist has the power (if we let it) to bring us back into Communion with one another, where our eyes, minds, and hearts can be re-opened to the truth that binds us together at the deepest level: we are members of one body—the Body of Christ.

When we realize that truth and embrace it with our whole being, then we the Church will truly begin to act like the Body of Christ on earth and we will more faithfully fulfill our Christian calling.

St. Teresa of Avila (14th Century Mystic)

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

Come to the Table: Bread of Life

ImageMaslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Do you have a favorite food?  What makes it your favorite?  When you choose it over other foods, are you simply satisfying your body’s need for nourishment, or are you feeding something else inside you?  Any edible substance can keep us from starving to death, but our favorite foods also feed our needs for comfort, for variety, and for pleasure.

We humans have all kinds of needs (hungers) and just as many different ways of meeting those needs (feeding those hungers).  There was a 20th century psychologist named Abraham Maslow who specialized in studying human needs.  He developed a very famous, pyramid-shaped chart called Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  On this chart, Maslow outlined the different kinds of needs that people have to get met in order to be healthy human beings.

On the first, lowest level, are our Physiological needs.  These are our basic needs for things like food, water, air, and sleep.  Without these things, we physically die, so it’s easy to see how they are genuine needs.

The same is true for the next level, which has to do with our need for Safety.  Without shelter from the elements, protection from threats, and reliable access to resources, our physical well-being will likewise be threatened, just as much as if we were deprived of water or air.

After that, we start to get into a little more abstract territory because the next three levels have to do with our emotional needs.  Our biological existence is not likely to be threatened if we don’t get these needs met, but they are still needs.  And it’s fair to say that something inside of us suffers and dies when these emotional needs aren’t met.

The first of these emotional needs is our need for Belonging.  Human beings need love, intimacy, friendship, and family.  We are social creatures who have evolved to be connected to one another.  We meet this need most often through group-identification: membership in a family, church, club, or movement.  When this need goes unmet, loneliness begins to set in.  We begin to feel unloved and unlovable.  Over time, a person’s social skills begin to break down (or never develop): their ability to relate to others becomes diminished.  This is the saddest part of all because this is where the disease of loneliness becomes a vicious cycle: loneliness impairs one’s ability to relate to others, which causes more loneliness, etc.  What is needed at this point is for some person(s) to reach out and break the cycle of loneliness, but they have to be willing to work with those whose social skills are impaired.  It takes no less than an act of grace.

North Church’s primary outreach ministry, the Togetherness Group, was designed specifically around this need for Belonging.  There are plenty of places in Kalamazoo where people with mental illness can go to obtain food, shelter, or medicine, but so very few places like the Togetherness Group, where we can come to just be together and have fun.

Our next emotional need on Maslow’s list is the need for Esteem.  People need to feel valuable, that they’re good at something.  We need to have respect in the eyes of others.  Nobody likes to feel like a charity case; everyone has a gift to give.

Finally is our need for Self-Actualization.  As the old Army commercial says, we need to “be all that we can be.”  Humans need to feel like they are fulfilling their potential in some way: as an athlete, inventor, parent, etc.  We need to accomplish something significant in some way.

So, that’s the Hierarchy of Needs, as Maslow first wrote about it.  It seems comprehensive enough.  It accurately describes the various kinds of needs (hungers) that human beings try to meet (feed) in various ways.  It’s been a trusted guide for therapists and social workers for decades.

Tiger Woods

But if Maslow was right, and this guide is comprehensive of human need, then how do we explain the kind of major public meltdowns that so many accomplished celebrities seem to go through?  I’m thinking particularly of Tiger Woods, although I’m not trying to pick on him.  Tiger is one of the most accomplished golfers in the history of the sport.  He achieved unprecedented levels of success very early in his career. 

It’s easy to see where Tiger falls in Maslow’s hierarchy: he obviously lacked for nothing Physiologically.  He could buy whatever necessities or luxuries his heart desired.  As for Safety, his “shelter from the elements” cost $39 million and was located on an exclusive, upscale island in Florida. I have little doubt that his body guards did their duty in protecting him from other dangers.

What about his emotional needs?  When it comes to Belonging, Tiger was married to a supermodel and they had a family together.  As for Esteem, he was known and admired all over the world.  And for Self-Actualization, he had achieved greatness as a record-breaking golfer.  By Maslow’s standards, Tiger Woods had it made.

But then, in 2009, it all seemed to come crashing down for him overnight.  Rumors broke about extramarital affairs.  That same week, Tiger left his house at 2:30 in the morning and tried (unsuccessfully) to drive down his street, crashing his SUV into a fire hydrant, a tree, and multiple hedgerows before he gave up and his wife helped him out of the car.  A short time later, Tiger admitted to the infidelity, went on an indefinite hiatus from professional golf, and was soon divorced from his wife.  Sports companies pulled their sponsorships and stopped asking for his endorsement.  It took years for his career to recover.

What happened?  This is what Tiger himself had to say: “I thought I could get away with whatever I wanted to… I felt that I had worked hard my entire life and deserved to enjoy all the temptations around me. I felt I was entitled. Thanks to money and fame, I didn’t have to go far to find them. I was wrong. I was foolish.” 

It seems that Maslow must have overlooked something.  In spite of all his needs being met, there was still something missing in Tiger, some inner hunger that wasn’t being fed by anything on Maslow’s chart.


Well, before we leave Maslow, I want to give him credit for one last thing: At the end of his career, he realized that something was missing.  He tried to add it to his famous chart, but the old one was already too well-established and in-use by psychologists.  That unaccounted-for need, according to Maslow, is the need for Self-Transcendence: the need to be part of something larger than oneself, something meaningful, something that gives life itself a purpose.  That’s what Tiger was lacking. 

The 17th century philosopher Blaise Pascal called it “the God-shaped hole” inside every human being.  It is the deep hunger we carry within us.  Nothing we own or accomplish for ourselves can ever fill it.  Our consumerist culture doesn’t know what to do with that.  It’s got products or programs to fill every other need we can imagine.  Whatever you need… “There’s an app for that!”  But for this “God-shaped hole”, there is no product you can buy, no program you can get with, no club you can join, and no diploma you can earn.


This need for Self-Transcendence, this God-shaped hole, this deep hunger for that which gives life ultimate meaning is the hunger Jesus is referring to in today’s gospel reading when he speaks of himself as “the bread of life.”  For almost two thousand years and counting, Christians have found in this person Jesus the answer to the question, “What is the purpose of my life?”  The answer we find is: “To follow this person and do as he does: to love the world, to heal the sick, to feed the hungry, to open blind eyes and deaf ears, to set the captive free, to forgive the sinner, to welcome the outcast, and to give one’s life for the sake of the world.” 

We discover the meaning of life and satisfy our need for Self-Transcendence when we discover that life is no longer just about us and our needs.  And Jesus shows us the way.


In the Eucharist, this truth is brought home to us in the most direct and visceral way.  It is a ritual meal where our most basic hunger for physical sustenance is fed by bread and wine.  But Jesus invites us to look past the surface and see with the eyes of our hearts that this is the “true food” that satisfies our deepest hunger with the eternal, loving life-energy of Christ’s own self. 

“This is my body,” Christ says, “Eat your fill and never be hungry again.”

“This is my blood,” Christ says, “Drink deeply and never be thirsty again.”

When we say “Yes” to the invitation to participate in this meal and come to the table of Christ, we are saying:

“Yes, Jesus.  I am hungry.  I am starving with a hunger that this world’s products and programs cannot satisfy.  Help me satisfy my deepest need by realizing that life is not about getting my needs met.  Feed me with your Bread of Life.   Fill me.  Let my body be your body.  Let your blood flow in my veins.  Make me like you and send me back out to feed a hungry world in your name.  Amen.”

Come to the Table: In Remembrance of Me (or ‘The Eucharist for Time Travellers’)

By John Snyder (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

I recently had the privilege of officiating at the funeral of a rather unconventional saint named Gloria. She was a rough-around-the-edges kind of grandma who exuded a kind of exuberant joy to those who loved her. Her home was an oasis for weary travelers who knew they could stop by any time and find food on the stove and drinks in the fridge. My favorite part of the funeral was when her grandson, Donald, got up and said as much about her. He spoke affectionately and off-the-cuff. It meant a great deal to everyone who came. Honestly, I think Donald’s brief remembrances of his grandmother did more to comfort bereaved family members than anything I said or did in the service.

What is it about the act of remembering that people tend to find so valuable? Obviously, the good feelings we get from fond memories help to offset the pain of loss, but I suspect there is actually much more to it than that.

When we remember something or someone, we saying that we want that thing or person to remain a part of us in some significant way.

For example, Donald sharing memories of his grandma’s hospitality and humor on behalf of his family was a way of saying that they want those same qualities of love and laughter to live on in them. We do this with negative things too, like the Holocaust. The great, resounding refrain that we hear again and again from the lips of Holocaust historians is: “Never again.” When we remember the Holocaust, we are not celebrating its existence, but stating out loud that we want the pain of twelve million lost lives to remain with us, so that future generations of human beings will never know the horror of genocide. This too, is a powerful kind of remembrance.

We’re talking about remembrance today. This is the second in a five-week series on the meaning of the sacrament of the Eucharist in the life of the church. Remembrance is the part of this sacrament that we Protestants are most familiar with. We eat bread and drink wine in accordance with Jesus’ command, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

This sacrament is obviously a great memorial to Jesus’ love and sacrifice. When we celebrate it, we are saying that we want those same values of Christ-like love and sacrifice to live on in us. But there’s even more to it than that: when we remember Jesus in the sacrament, we are saying that Christ himself lives in us. As we eat the body of Christ, we become the body of Christ; as we drink from the cup, his blood flows in our veins. To put it simply: you are what you eat.

This truth becomes especially pertinent when we consider how ancient humans thought about time.  We modern folks have been trained to think of time as a straight line, moving in one direction, from the past to the future.  Two fixed points in time can never get closer to one another.  Once an event has taken place, we can only get farther and farther away from it.  Memory fades and sooner or later, everyone is forgotten while the universe goes on.  That’s the modern, linear view of time.

But our ancestors in the ancient world didn’t see time that way.  They saw the world operating in cycles: every day, the sun would rise and set; every month, the moon would go through its phases; every year, the four seasons would come around again.  Time, for them, was a great big circle.  Every time a certain moment in a particular cycle came round again, they thought they were repeating that moment.  This is the cyclical view of time.

This way of looking at time is important for us linear, modern folks to understand because it helps us make sense of why certain holidays were so important to ancient people.  When our Jewish ancestors would celebrate the Passover, they really believed, on some level, that they were taking part in the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt.  By taking part in the ceremonial meal, they thought they were joining their ancestors on that journey.  (For all you science fiction fans: it’s kind of like time travel.)

This is how Jesus and his disciples would have thought about the Passover meal they were sharing on the night before he died.  So, when Jesus starts adding elements to the story, saying “this is my body” and “this is my blood” over the ceremonial bread and wine, it was a big deal.  It meant that what was happening through Jesus was as important to history as the Exodus from Egypt.

Later on, as Jesus’ earliest followers started celebrating this remembrance on a weekly basis, they brought with them that cyclical view of time.  The truly believed they were joining Jesus and the apostles around the table at the Last Supper.  (Again: time travel!)

For them, the Last Supper was not a single event, fading slowly into the distant past, but a recurring one in which Christ is perpetually present.  According to the linear view of time, we can only ever get further and further away from Jesus, who lived on earth approximately two thousand years ago.  But according to the cyclical view of time, he is ever present: we meet him again and again as we gather around this table in this act of remembrance.

Why is this important?  I think it matters today more than ever.  You and I live in the age of the Information Superhighway.  Infinite bits of data whiz by our heads at all hours of the day or night: news headlines, sports scores, stock prices, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.  Our culture launches ahead with each new discovery, each new technological innovation.  We’re obsessed with “bigger, better, faster, more!”  We call it progress.  But is it really?  But have these fancy, hi-tech toys really done much to improve who we are as human beings?  We’ve landed robots on Mars, but have we yet touched down on the surface of our own souls?  I’m not so sure.

We have a wealth of information at hand to keep us abreast of what’s happening in the world, but very little wisdom to tell us what it all means.  Without that kind of deep guidance, I fear that our rocket ship toward progress might actually leave us falling head first into meaninglessness.

Our ancient ancestors may not have had the kind of scientific knowledge that we moderns do, but they knew about wisdom.  I am continually amazed when I read the great spiritual classics like The Dark Night of the Soul and The Cloud of Unknowing and I find their messages just as relevant today as they were when they were first written, hundreds of years ago.

At no time is this truer for me than when I sit down at the table next to Jesus.  I hear his words, eat his bread, and drink his wine.  And suddenly, I find myself time travelling: looping around to connect again with the One who gives life meaning.  Jesus Christ is not a distant memory, fading slowly into the past; he is alive and present with us in his body and blood.

Taking time each week to remember this truth gives us the perspective we need to see the world aright.  In the act of sacramental remembrance, we step outside the constant stream of information and feed back repeatedly into this moment around the table with Jesus.  We remember once again what Jesus showed and taught us.  We remember what life is all about and then step back out into that data stream again, but maybe this time we’ll have the wisdom to see, not just what is happening in the world, but what it all means.

The answer we come up with, as people of faith, to that question of meaning will be fundamentally different from the answer handed to us by (so-called) modern civilization.  The challenge Jesus leaves us with is to remember in our souls and bodies where we truly come from, where we are going, and where our allegiance lies.

It’s a difficult challenge, one that we’re sure to fail at in the long term, which is why it’s so important for us to keep coming back regularly and participating as often as possible in this act of remembrance.  May this bread and this wine, the body and blood of Christ, nourish you with all the strength you need to make it through this week faithfully… and I’ll see you again next Sunday.

Abiding in the Vine

Symbolic enactment of Ubuntu by African school children. Photo taken at Nazareth House Apostolate in Sierra Leone

John 15:1-8; 1 John 4:7-21

This past week, I was glad to wrap up another semester in my teaching job at Utica College.  I have to say that one of my favorite things about this academic year has been my daily walk from the parking lot to my office.

When I first arrive on campus in the morning, I like to sit in my car for a few minutes.  With two young kids, it’s hard to find a quiet moment to myself at home.  During these few minutes in my car, I like to close my eyes and pay attention to the natural rhythm of my breathing.  This is an exercise that I learned from a doctor named Jon Kabat-Zinn.  You would be amazed at the effect that it has on my day.  I feel so much more relaxed, focused, and “tuned in” to the present moment.

When I get out of my car, I am so much more aware of my immediate surroundings.  I feel the wind blowing my hair back as the soles of my feet hit the ground rolling and propel me forward, I smell the dirt emerging from beneath the snow, I hear the sound of birds chirping and cars going by, and I see blue sky meeting red brick and green grass that stretches as far back as the eye can see.

I’ve become particularly good friends with the two deciduous trees who flank the front entrance to White Hall, where my office is located.  I don’t know my botany well enough to name their species, but I’ve enjoyed watching them change with the seasons.  The brilliance of autumn gave way to the stark bareness of winter.  The buds of spring have now given way to new green leaves that seemed to burst forth overnight.  I suppose they have been right there for at least as long as I have been teaching at the college, but I never really noticed them before this year.  I guess you could say that, because of this new meditation practice, I’m literally “coming to my senses” in ways that I hadn’t before now.

I’m tempted to label this effect as a “spiritual experience,” except that it lacks so many of the characteristics that are often associated with mysticism.  There are no visions of angels or voices from heaven.  There is no intuitive sense of a supernatural presence within or around me.  I am simply aware of the present moment and caught up in what I like to call the “is-ness” of everything.  If I am experiencing God at all through this meditation exercise, it is as the “Ground of all Being” and the great “I Am Who I Am” that Moses encountered in the burning bush at the beginning of the book of Exodus.  If God is present at all, it is in the overall wholeness of “the big picture” and the natural lines of connection that weave us into “the interdependent web of existence.”

I said, “if God is present,” but of course I do believe that God is eternally present in all places and at all times, whether we perceive God’s presence or not.  Our moment-to-moment existence, as creatures, is forever dependent upon that which is greater than us.  For example, we do not “take birth,” our mothers give birth to us.  To illustrate further: imagine the finely-tuned delicate balance of creation that allows for life to exist on this planet.  If Earth were just a little bit closer to the sun, the oceans would boil and we would burn up.  If she were just a little bit farther away, we would freeze.  If Earth’s rotation on her axis were just a little more tilted, the seasonal conditions would be so extreme that the Arctic Circle would reach all the way to the tropics and vice-versa.  If the moon floated only a few miles closer to the Earth tidal forces would decimate our coastlines.  I could keep going, but I think you get the point.  We do not create or sustain ourselves.  Life cannot be taken for granted.  Existence is a gift that is given freely to all.

All of this has been in the back of my mind this week as I’ve been thinking about Jesus’ words from John’s gospel: “I am the vine, you are the branches.”  He goes on to talk about “abiding” in the vine and “bearing fruit.”  This is a powerful image.  It speaks beautifully of the grace of being, which connects us to each other and to the greater whole.  Christians from the first century to the 21st century have come to believe that the great Source of Life and the Ground of all Being was revealed to the world through Jesus, not just in his words and accomplishments, but in his very person.  Other religions have noble sages and prophets who delivered the will of God or the meaning of life to people, but it was always the message and not the messenger that was most important.  Christianity is unique in our belief that the messenger is the message.  Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches.”

Each of us is begotten and sustained by our connection to this vine, the Source of Life.  This truth is so easily forgotten by people who live in the modern age.  We are trained to be rugged individualists.  In spite of our rational disdain for all things superstitious, we retain our belief in the ridiculous myth of the “self-made man (or woman).”  I think you can ask anyone in a hospital maternity ward and they’ll tell you that there’s no such thing.  We are all branches off the same vine.  Our lives intertwine and intersect with one another.  Our separate identity as branches presents us with the illusion of independence, but we can only keep that idea up so long as we persist in living what the Greek philosopher Socrates called “the unexamined life.”  The minute we start asking questions about who and what we are, it becomes self-evident that we are all connected to and dependent on each other and the whole.  Scientists have identified this inherent connection in their study of ecosystems.  Individual species are mutually supportive of each other in symbiotic networks that form the engine, if you will, of evolution.  Plants feed animals, who feed other animals, who die and return to the earth, where their bodies become fertilizer for plants.  The food chain, it seems, is not so much a line as a circle.  One of my favorite illustrations of this point comes from the process of breathing itself.  We animals inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide as waste.  Plants, as many of you already know, inhale carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen.  What a wonderful coincidence!  What beautiful symmetry!  We are sustaining one another through the very air that we breathe.

As Christians, we have come to understand and interpret our connection to the whole through the person of Jesus.  To us, he is far more than our favorite philosopher and an ancient wise man.  What we celebrate during this Easter season is our experience of Jesus as an eternally living reality.  Christ is alive in our hearts and the world around us.  He may not be visibly present, but he lives nonetheless.  We’ll say more about that when we celebrate Ascension Sunday in a few weeks.  Christ is alive.  He is the vine of which we are all branches.  This is the Christian’s fundamental understanding of the universe.  You might even call it our most basic principle.

In response to this truth that we believe, Jesus instructs his followers in John’s gospel to “abide in” him so that they might “bear fruit.”  What is that all about?  If we’re all branches on the same vine, wouldn’t we just naturally “abide in” (i.e. “stay connected to”) the vine?  On one level: yes.  We can’t cut ourselves off from the source of existence any more than one of us could willingly disconnect ourselves from an arm or leg.  But the vine analogy breaks down when we consider that human beings have a quality that plants do not have, to wit, consciousness.  We are able to think and make decisions in ways that other life forms cannot.  Through the choices we make and the lives we live, we are able to either honor our connection to the whole or not.  We can nurture the common life that is in us all or not.  We can water the seeds of faith, hope, and love in our souls or not.  That much is up to us.  To the extent that we choose well, our lives will tend to flourish.  To the extent that we choose poorly, we will wither and die.  Jesus’ words in today’s gospel reading make it clear that we are meant to flourish.

How can we do this?  How do we, as branches, abide in the life of the vine?  I think there are many ways that this is possible.  Personally, I have found my aforementioned meditation practice to be most helpful in this regard.  It reminds me of the significance and sacredness of the moment in which I find myself.  There is no day but today.  There is no place other than here.  Here and now is where I live.  Simply recognizing and respecting this reality goes a long way in nurturing my connection to the vine.

If you want to try it sometime, I recommend that you set aside a quiet place and time (I find that early in the morning, after my first cup of tea, works best, so that I don’t fall asleep).  Sit upright in a comfortable position with your back straight and your feet flat on the floor.  Close your eyes and try to become conscious of the fact that you are breathing.  Don’t try to breathe more deeply or slowly than usual, just notice this unconscious act that is happening in us all the time, whether we realize it or not.  Stay in this place for a while.  As thoughts pop into your head (and they will), don’t fight them or get angry at them, just simply acknowledge them and then gently direct your attention back to your breathing.  Do this as often as you need to.  It doesn’t matter if thoughts pop up one time or a hundred times.  Simply recognize the thought and redirect your attention.  You’re not trying to accomplish anything in the moment.  There are no “altered states of consciousness” that you are trying to reach.  You’re just trying to be fully aware of the present moment.  If you want to, try this exercise for five minutes a day.  When you feel ready, try increasing it by another five minutes at a time.  Some people stay at five minutes, some go for fifteen or twenty, and some sit like this for as long as an hour at a stretch.  It’s your practice.  Do what works best for you.

Another way that we can “abide in the vine” is through the Christian sacrament of the Eucharist (a.k.a. Communion).  Just as we’re about to do in a few minutes, we gather as a community around one table, breaking bread and drinking wine.  This ritual reminds us that we are part of one another through Christ.  We are what we eat: the body of Christ.  The wine reminds us that the blood of Christ flows in our veins.  They say that “blood is thicker than water.”  This blood is thickest of all.  As we eat and drink in this sacramental ritual, the branches abide in the vine.

Finally, and most importantly, the best way to “abide in the vine” is to nurture our relationships with each other.  This is the true mark of our religion and the true measure of our spiritual health.  Jesus continually told his followers that the “fruit” of this vine is love.  The community that first published John’s gospel also published his epistles, which we also heard from this morning.  They offered additional advice to flesh out what Jesus meant by “abiding in the vine.”

They remind us that “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”  If you want to know how spiritual a person is, don’t look at his/her church attendance or theological beliefs.  Look at the way s/he treats other people.  I once heard someone say, “A person who is nice to you but rude to the waiter is not a nice person.”  The size of your waiter’s tip says more about the quality of your Christian faith than the Bible you leave on the table.  In fact, your life might be the only Bible that another person ever reads.  What does that Bible say about what you believe?

I was talking to someone just yesterday about politics.  I know that’s a dangerous topic for preachers to broach in church (especially in an election year), so I’ll choose my words carefully.  I’m not going to tell you how you should vote.  Frankly, I don’t care what your ideological stripes are: conservative/liberal, Democrat/Republican, whatever.  That doesn’t matter nearly so much as the way we treat each other.  I care very much about that.  We live in a time of intense polarization in this society where those labels (conservative/liberal) are thrown around and used as insults.  We slander each other with names like “fascist” and “socialist.”  We categorize and demonize those who think differently from us.  We paint them as stupid or evil.  This, rather than the particular views we fear, represents the real threat to our democracy.  We’re so busy attacking each other that we’re unable to make any real difference in advancing the common good.  It’s high time that we learn to “abide in the vine” and nurture the life of the whole plant, so that we might bear the fruits of peace and justice.

There is an African word, Ubuntu, that refers to a particular character quality.  A person who has Ubuntu is conscious of the interconnectedness and interdependence of all people and all life.  We might say that a person with Ubuntu really knows how to “abide in the vine.”  We need more Ubuntu in our common life today.

Evolutionary Thoughts: You Are What You Eat

Photo by Dr. Gregory S. Neal

The Eucharist is a supreme moment of cosmic, planetary, spiritual, and human embodiment.  All the elements meet as one in a ritual engagement from which nobody, for any reason, should be excluded.  Radical inclusion is at the heart of every eucharistic enactment, subversively modeled by the Jesus of Christianity, who welcomed everybody to the eucharistic table, including those who were totally prohibited according to the religious rules of the day: tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners…

The Eucharist acclaims and celebrates unashamedly the radical relationality that characterizes every form of embodiment, from the cosmic to the personal.  And it also pronounces that God is totally at home in the immediacy of that encounter; stated in the affirming assertion of Sallie McFague: God loves bodies!  God is present precisely in the moments of intense bodily encounter, whether in the erotic passion of sexual embrace, the intensity of human intimacy, or the inexpressible wonder of childbirth; God is also present in the memorable moments of being at one with nature, the expressionless bond in which people of grief can be united, or the mysterious unity that brings people of every race, creed, and color around a eucharistic table.  In all these situations and many more besides, God is at home and radically present to us.  Words may fail to say how, but the heart has its wise and unspeakable intuitions.

– Diarmuid O’Murchu, Evolutionary Faith, p.136-137

Elements of Worship: Sacrament

This week’s sermon from First Presbyterian, Boonville.

The text is I Corinthians 11:23-26.

Click here to listen to this sermon at


“Bless you!”

Gyula Derkovits, 'The Last Supper'

Do you know why people say that when someone sneezes?  The practice goes back almost to the time of Christ, but nobody knows for sure how or why it got started.  There are a number of interesting theories out there.  Some think it started during an outbreak of the bubonic plague as a way of commending people to God’s care when nothing more could be done for them (i.e. “It’s been nice knowing you”).  Tibetan Buddhists believed that sneezing provides a moment of “clear consciousness” (like dying, falling asleep, or meditating) during which one might be able to achieve Enlightenment.  But my favorite explanation is this one: when you sneeze, your soul is temporarily dislodged from your body.  The blessing makes it go back in so that the devil won’t come and possess you.

That’s just one example of the kinds of crazy superstitions that we got rid of at the end of the middle ages in western society.  We might still say “bless you” when somebody sneezes, but I seriously doubt that anyone still believes that it’s your soul trying to leave your body.  We needed to get rid of that superstition (along with several others).  I, for one, am glad that our society no longer burns women at the stake because “they might be witches.”

The light of reason brought us out of those dark ages and into the modern era, where humanity has grown by leaps and bounds.  We’ve landed on the moon and created a global communication network so efficient that I could just flip out my phone and have a conversation with someone in India if I felt like it.  Letting go of these old superstitions has, on the whole, been a good thing.  But, like everything else in this world, our so-called Enlightenment has its dark side.  We now live in a world that is “disenchanted”.  We’ve lost that sense of meaning and connectedness with the world around us.  We no longer see spirits and fairies in the trees and rivers.  If we think of God at all, it is as some distant and abstract Creator who has little or nothing to do with the world as we know it.  Naïve superstition gives way to cynical materialism and we see ourselves as random collections of atoms that just conveniently happen to make consciousness possible.  The world around us becomes an empty shell of resources just waiting to be exploited for profit.  Human life becomes equally meaningless under this mindset.  What matters is gaining the upper hand in the ongoing battle for survival (which we all eventually lose).

In reaction to this sinister cynicism, some religious folks have chosen to side with the aforementioned distant Creator.  They gather round their campfires and sing, “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through” and “Some bright morning, when this life is over, I’ll fly away.”  These folks want to save their souls from this wicked world in order to enjoy the blessings of some far-off heaven for eternity.  This perspective may seem more like faithfulness at first, but it nevertheless leaves this world looking just as empty and meaningless as cynical materialism does.  It is the advocates of this kind of escapism who shout things like, “Drill, baby drill!” and figure, “This whole world is going to hell anyway, so why bother to take care of it?”

We needed to drop the ridiculous superstition of the middle ages, but I wonder if maybe we threw out the baby with the bathwater?  Secular and religious folks alike have lost all sense of connectedness to God, the earth, and each other.  Both sides are saying that this earth just doesn’t matter.

Is there some way to reconnect with that larger sense of meaning and mystery in the cosmos without going back to that ridiculous superstition?  I think so.

We’re currently in the middle of a five-week sermon series on the Elements of Worship.  We’ve already looked at the Word, prayer, and service as Elements of Worship.  Next week, we’ll be talking about relationship.  This week, we’re talking about sacrament.

The word sacrament comes from a Latin word that means mystery.  When Christians talk about sacraments, they’re typically referring to one of two church events: Baptism and the Eucharist (a.k.a. the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion).  A few weeks ago, we had a service where talked about the sacrament of Baptism at length in the sermon.  We even baptized three new people into our congregation.  So this week, I’m mainly going to focus on sacrament of the Eucharist (which we happen to be celebrating in our service later today).

In the sacrament (mystery) of the Eucharist, we celebrate three realities.  First, we remember Jesus: who he is and what he did.  Jesus revealed the heart of God to the world in a way that no one else ever has.  He “gave himself for us” in a life of service and love.  We participate in that act of self-giving when we remember him and receive his gift of himself, his body and blood, into our own bodies.

Second, we participate in a present reality.  Remember the old saying, “You are what you eat”?  Well, it’s true.  We are the body of Christ.  Through him, we are also part of each other: one loaf, one cup, one body, one family.  They also say that “blood is thicker than water”.  In this case, the blood of Christ is thicker than our own blood.  The blood of Christ flows in our veins.  Gone is any illusion of pedigree, race, nationality, status, or caste.  As Christians, this is where our loyalty lies.  This is where our true identity is to be found.  Blood is thicker than water and this blood is thickest of all.  When we target, discriminate against, or otherwise antagonize those who have been to the table of Christ with us, we are turning our backs on our own kin.  This is a truth worth remembering whenever we are next tempted to divide the world into “us” and “them”.

Finally, Christians at the Lord’s table anticipate the future with hope.  Christ told his disciples that he would drink wine with them next when the kingdom of God comes in its fullness.  The end of history is often described in the scriptures as a fully-catered wedding reception.  The bread and wine we now eat and drink around this table is a foretaste of that coming celebration when all things are made new, justice and equality are established on earth, and (as it says in Revelation) “God will wipe every tear from [our] eyes.  Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.”  When the tides of despair threaten to overwhelm us, we have these edible tokens to hold onto.  They are the aperitifs of the heavenly banquet.

In the Eucharist, we are fed with spiritual food.  This sacrament, I think, holds the key to reconnecting us with our lost sense of wonder and mystery.  Without it, Christian faith too easily becomes just one more product for sale in the modern marketplace of ideas.  With it, we are able to “taste and see that the Lord is good.”  Through this sacrament, we touch the mystery of Love that springs from the very heart of the universe and reaches out to its edges.  Just as we say in the Great Thanksgiving, I invite you to “Lift up your hearts” to see that “heaven and earth are full of [God’s] glory”.

How do we do this?  How can we “lift up our hearts”?  Well, I think we can start by simply celebrating the sacrament as often as we can.  As recently as the 1970s, most Presbyterian congregations celebrated the Eucharist only four times a year.  Since then, the frequency has increased.  Most of our churches celebrate it monthly.  More and more, there are churches in our denomination that are beginning to celebrate the sacrament on a weekly basis.  In our church, that is a decision for the session of elders to make.  I would like to encourage those of you who are currently serving as elders to meditate on this and consider increasing the frequency with which we celebrate communion.  In our Book of Order it says that the Eucharist “shall be celebrated regularly and frequently enough so that it is clear to all that the Lord’s Supper is integral to worship, and not an addition to it.”

We Presbyterians are used to thinking of our Sunday worship as revolving around the central event of reading and preaching God’s Word.  This is true.  But it’s also true that we worship in a binary system.  Our liturgy revolves around the twin stars of Word and Sacrament.  They are meant to go together.  John Calvin, one of the founders of our tradition, urged his churches in Geneva to celebrate Communion weekly.  Calvin told them that, yes, the scriptures make up the foundation of the church, but the sacraments are its pillars.  The church won’t stand up without both to support it.  Let’s make sure that we are not starving ourselves of Christ’s spiritual food and drink.

The moment of real transformation comes when we begin to see the presence of Christ, not just in this bread and wine, but everywhere we look.  This is what it means to “lift up your hearts” and see that “heaven and earth are full of [God’s] glory,” as it says in the liturgy.  The more regularly we honor the presence of the sacred mystery in this bread, the more we will begin to see it in all bread.  And we will see that, like this consecrated bread, all bread is meant to be shared.  So let’s share our bread with those who are hungry.  And I’m not just talking about literal bread either: let’s share the bread of freedom and equality with all.  Let’s learn to share the bread of work, education, healthcare, and housing with those who are also our brothers and sisters.  They are God’s children and we are one family.  This sharing is a sacramental sharing.  It’s an integral part of what we do here on Sunday.

This whole universe is sacred.  It is infused with divine glory from stem to stern.  Our celebration of the sacraments helps us reconnect with that mystery.  Let’s make that connection as deeply and as often as possible, so that it might stay with us as we go out from this place to share our bread with the hungry and be the body of Christ in the world.

Lift up your hearts.  Heaven and earth are full of God’s glory.  Let us give thanks.