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

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By John Snyder (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, 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.

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 fpcboonville.org

“ACHOO!”

“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.