“Who do we think we are, anyway? – Table”
Rev. Melanie Harrell Delaney
November 24th, 2013
1 Corinthians 11:23-26 The Institution of the Lord’s Supper
For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
I watched the bread and cup pass from hands to hands. Some of the hands were wrinkly with sun spots. Some of the hands had skin the color of dark chocolate. Some of the hands shook and nearly dropped the plate of bread, and some gripped so firmly I could see white knuckles. Youthful hands held the bread while unsure hands broke off a piece and dipped the delicious chunk into the red grape juice. A pair of bright eyes sparkled as the little girl spoke the words, “this is Christ’s body, broken for you.” Then, a pair of dry lips opened to whisper back the words, “Amen,” before receiving a mouthful of moist bread. A sigh of relief and then a smile exchanged showed the understanding now connecting the young and the old. Then, the wrinkly hands turned to hold the bread for yet another one of God’s beloved: “This is Christ’s body, broken for you…”
I have seen the Lord’s supper shared hundreds of times, in so many different ways. Passed through pews in golden trays; in a woven basket and plastic cup on a mission trip; handed pre-packaged from an Elder to the homebound; touched to the lips of a dying man; offered to an eager child for the first time or an elderly woman for the gazilionth time. The type of bread or the age of the juice may differ, the means of serving may be familiar or not, but the power of the words, “this is Christ’s body, broken for you…”
the power in that memory and declaration is never diminished.
The Lord’s supper, our weekly ritual of coming the table for communion, is one of the oldest traditions among Christians. As Disciples of Christ, we trace our weekly ritual all the way to Christ himself, when he gathered one last time with his disciples to share the Jewish tradition of a Passover meal with them.
The Gospel of Luke describes in chapter 22 how Jesus took his place at the table for the Passover meal and the apostles joined him. As they settled in for the ritual that they would have known so very well, Jesus broke from tradition to say words that would have caught them all off guard. ‘I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer,” he said, “I tell you, I won’t eat it until it is fulfilled in God’s kingdom.” Then Jesus raised the cup and gave thanks, passing it around for everyone to share. Then he took a loaf of bread and gave thanks again, breaking it in two and passing it around, saying that this was his body; and he took the cup and passed it around again, calling it the new covenant in his blood poured out for them.
These words, so familiar to us, would have seemed upsetting (if not crazy) to the first disciples. These words weren’t part of the expected tradition, the regular liturgy remembering the liberation and exodus of the Israelites. Instead, these words pointed to suffering, broken bodies and blood spilled. What was Jesus talking about, they must have wondered?
Today, with the blessing of our holy scriptures and hindsight, we know precisely what Jesus was referring to – his forthcoming unjust arrest, death on the cross, the pain of cruelty at the hands of people who didn’t understand his mission, but then, ultimately, the joy and freedom proclaimed in his resurrection. Jesus life, death and resurrection became a witness to God’s power of love triumphant over the forces of death!
And so, the memory of that quiet night in the upper room, when Jesus shared the broken bread and cup of salvation with his disciples became symbolic of the power of Jesus’ entire life poured out for all of creation. “Do this in remembrance of me,” Jesus said. So they did.
Early Christian communities of all shapes and sizes began to form after Jesus’ death and resurrection, many under the leadership of Paul. The church in Corinth, the recipients of the letter to the Corinthians included in scripture, was one of these early Christian communities. They had been worshipping together and trying to follow Jesus’ way for some time, but as of late they had been slipping. They had been partaking in the Lord ’s Supper regularly, as Paul taught them, but the way they were doing so was becoming a bit problematic. Some were coming first and eating the bread and drinking the wine (some were drinking a bit more than their share it would seem, for Paul points out that they are drunk before the others even arrive), while others were coming in later and having communion on their own. The meal was not being shared as one unified community, but as individuals. Paul is concerned that they have lost the meaning behind what they are doing and so he writes this part of the letter to remind them.
“For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you,” Paul says. The ritual and meaning in the Lord’s Supper comes from Christ himself, not Paul. Paul then goes on to relay the story of Jesus’ last meal with his disciples – how he took one loaf of bread and shared it with everyone at the table and the cup in the same way, all at once. Paul tells the story again for the Corinthians and us to hear once more – in order to remember, as Jesus requested, and to tell it again and again.
Again and again we pass one loaf of broken bread and one cup poured out in order to remember and to “proclaim” Christ’s death and resurrection. The word “proclaim” here can mean “preach,” to tell and declare, Paul means it in a much wider sense. Paul considers the act of sharing bread and cup at the Lord’s table to be an action that through our very practice of it “proclaims.” Paul is saying that when people live fully in the new life of Christ, when we live and act in the way that Christ teaches us, we live our faith in a way that is visible and real to other people. When we come to the table all together, we remember Christ through our actions – by making his love real in the world.
Just like the Corinthians needed to remember, so we “remember” every week, the whole story of redemption in Christ and the life we are called to live together. We come to remember and proclaim the unity of Christ’s church. Here at Good Shepherd, we come to the Lord’s Table every week, to remember who we are and whose we are, to rehearse God’s story and our part in it.
“We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the one body of Christ, we welcome all to the Lord’s Table as God has welcomed us.” This is the identity statement of our denomination, a glimpse of who we are as part of the movement for unity among God’s people. Over the past four weeks, we have been looking deeply at this identity so that we can remember and understand who we are and how we have come to this point in our wider faith journey. A few weeks ago we talked about what it means to be a “movement,” to be moving forward in our faith and toward a goal: God’s Kingdom and peace on Earth. We have remembered our commitment and passion for unity (not conformity) among God’s people, and our efforts to bring wholeness and healing to broken places in our world. Last week we considered what it means to be a people of welcome – that we welcome all people to God’s table because it is God who first welcomes us. Today, all of these pieces of our identity meet us at the Table. We are a people moving toward unity, welcoming others to join us as we meet to live out Christ’s vision and promise at the Lord’s Table.
Sharing communion as often as we gather is a practice passed down to us from the founders of our denomination. Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone, among others, were united in their passion for Christian unity and their commitment to the Lord’s Table as a place where this unity and God’s grace is poured out. For them, the Lord’s Supper was the glue that held God’s people together despite our tendencies to divide and separate ourselves from one another. Campbell, in particular, felt passionately that we should break one whole loaf every time we have communion, for in the breaking and sharing of one loaf we are saying to each other, “You my brother [or sister], once an alien, are now a citizen of heaven; once a strange are now brought home to the family of God.” Campbell affirmed what Paul claimed to be true: that the one table and one loaf symbolize the oneness of the church and God’s people as the community of Christ.
Each time we gather at the communion table, something incredibly holy happens. As the trays pass from wrinkled hands to youthful ones, between various shades of skin or unique personalities and passions, or as we come out of our seats to stand with one another in line to share in our piece of the broken bread and our taste of the cup poured out, we are remembering something important. Each time we do this, we are living something crucial. We are being God’s people and proclaiming good news.
At the Lord’s Table, we are proclaiming that the story of Christ’s life, death and resurrection still has power in our lives today; that Christ’s sacrifice and promise made so long ago continues to be real and true for all and forever.
We are proclaiming that through the one body broken and one cup shared, Go pours out an abundance of sustenance and grace for every single person who might show up to share communion with us. We remember the story of the loaves and fishes, how when Christ is present, there is always enough.
We are proclaiming that no human-made barrier can keep us from God’s presence and Table. We remember that at God’s Table, the barriers that we build around ourselves and between ourselves come tumbling down. Here, there is no Hebrew or Greek, male or female, young or old, rich or poor, gay or straight, faithful or sinner or doubtful. Here, we are simply human; each and every one a beloved child of God covered in abundant grace.
Here, at God’s Table, we remember.
We remember the story and our part in it.
We remember the grace and the love that God offers us despite ourselves.
We remember God’s joy in welcoming the least and the lost – God’s persistent love for us.
And here, we commit ourselves to living the way Jesus lived, loving the way he loved serving the way he served.
“We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the one body of Christ, we welcome all to the Lord’s Table as God has welcomed us.”
When we do this, we have truly remembered.
Who do we think we are, anyway? – Welcome
Rev. Melanie Harrell Delaney
November 17th, 2013
The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, ‘My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.’ So they said, ‘Do as you have said.’ And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, ‘Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.’ Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
I remember staring at a menu without a clue what I might be about to order. Coming to the end of a summer study-abroad in France, my language and comprehension had grown, but I was tired. I had been living with a French couple who were instructed to always, no matter what, only speak to me in French. My French lessons back in the U.S. had covered a certain dialect of the language and technically I was considered “intermediate,” but the equivalent classes in France were far over my head. The past four weeks had been wonderful and beautiful, but I couldn’t count how many times I’d been lost, confused, unsure, and even embarrassed by my inadequate understanding of the language and culture.
A friend and I had just returned from a train ride to a nearby town where we had been completely lost and unable to find someone to speak enough English to help us find the right train home. It was long past dinnertime and we were starving. I found myself longing for a McDonalds or a Subway – a familiar place where I could order anything from the menu and know it’d be okay. But here I was, in the last café still open in town, staring at a menu with words that my exhausted brain could not comprehend. The waiter must have known I was a traveler before I even opened my mouth. “You look tired,” he said in the first English I’d heard in weeks. “Can I help you choose something to eat?” I just about fell out of my chair in gratitude. It wouldn’t have even mattered if the waiter brought me liver and onions at that point – I was just so grateful for his hospitality and welcome.
Although travel can still be exhausting, especially when you find yourself running a half-marathon across the Chicago airport, toting a pair of toddlers through security lines, or sitting dead-locked in traffic on the interstate, in many ways we have it pretty good. Cell phones, rest stops, Holiday Inn and even the beloved Golden Arches are all fairly recent amenities that we take for granted. But it hasn’t always been this way. Some of you here might even remember a time when you had to use a (gasp!) paper map in order to find your way from place to place.
Most likely, the travelers in our scripture passage this morning didn’t have a paper map with rest areas and inn’s highlighted in yellow. As author Diana Butler Bass points out, “Through most of history…travel has been hard. Being a traveler meant putting oneself at risk, exposing oneself to the perils of unknown lands. The early Christians knew this, and developed their language of pilgrimage and journey against this dangerous landscape. Those same early Christians—eventually followed by medieval monastic communities—also developed their practices of hospitality as a way of caring for God’s wayfarers.” If a stranger came knocking at your door today, asking for food and a place to sleep, I imagine you’d look at him strangely and point to the nearest hotel. But back then, if someone came knocking at your door, it was expected and a social requirement really, that you’d provide him with something to eat and a place to rest.
So when Abraham looked up from his resting place just outside his home and saw three strangers standing nearby, it wouldn’t have been unexpected for him to get up quickly to greet them. Now, the author of Genesis has the benefit of hindsight and knows that one of these three men is the Lord – and so we, as the readers hear that bit of info right away – but Abraham doesn’t recognize God and only sees three travelers in need of a place to rest and some food to eat. Abraham goes to them and bows down in respect, offering water to wash their feet and some bread. Abraham refers to himself as the travelers’ servant, because he is a faithful Jewish man and this kind of hospitality is very important to Jewish and Christian faith.
Scripture tells us that Abraham goes into his tent to find his wife, Sarah, where he asks her to make some bread. Meanwhile, Abraham asks his servant to prepare a calf so that they might also have some meat for their meal. This act, of preparing and serving meat, is where we begin to see the gracious extent of Abraham’s hospitality. For, while it would have been expected that he offer bread and water to the strangers, the gift of meat would have been above and beyond.
We witness Abraham giving of himself – by running, honoring, inviting, refreshing, preparing and serving the best that he has, remaining nearby and attentive to these strangers taking up his time and eating his food. If this were to happen today, it’d be like a homeless man asking a CEO on his way to a busy day at the office whether he’d be willing to spare a dollar for a hamburger – and the CEO not just handing the man a dollar and running off to his responsibilities, but walking with the man into a restaurant, sitting down at the corner booth, ordering two hamburgers to share while they talk about life and the Browns latest football game, and then asking the man whether he’d like to order another meal “to go.” An unexpected gift of both time and welcome.
Hospitality, the gift of welcome, is perhaps one of the most prominent themes of all our scripture—second only to love. They go hand in hand, really, as we hear Jesus say in Matthew 22:39 that the greatest of God’s commandments is to love God and the second greatest is to love your neighbor as yourself, then just a few chapters later, in Matthew 25:31-46 Jesus warns that the way we love others – how we welcome them—is one of the ways by which we are judged. He says, “the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come…inherit the kingdom prepared for you…for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me…Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?...and the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”
It’s as if Jesus is hidden in all of the people we might be least likely to think of as God’s chosen one – the man with no shoes desperately needing a haircut and a job; the child with ADHD who can’t stop fidgeting, talking loudly and running around the restaurant when you’re trying to have a nice dinner; the veteran just returning from Afghanistan, needing a place to live and time to get used to a “normal” way of life again; the immigrant family next door always asking for help; It’s as if Jesus is inviting us to take a risk and love all the strangest people in the boldest of ways…
Because, hey, you never know when it might just be Jesus’ scraggly beard you’re grossed out by, or God’s tired brown eyes asking you for yet another favor, maybe an angel’s quiet sigh in the corner sitting completely ignored and forgotten.
The wisdom of Hebrews 13 says, “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” It would seem that Abraham is not the only one who has served angels or even God, without even knowing it. Chances are pretty good we’ve all done the same…I just hope it was the time I said ‘thank you’ to the man bagging my groceries and not the time my sour attitude snapped at nurse about how long I’d been waiting to see the doctor.
Over and over again through scripture and my grandma, God has reminded me that hospitality is not an option. Welcoming both friends and strangers into my life is not a choice, but a charge. Welcome is what we do because it is who we are – people already welcomed by God, who follow a savior who calls us to welcome the stranger. Through hospitality, we imitate God’s welcome.
As part of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), within the greater whole of Christianity, we take welcome and hospitality even more personally – for welcoming people into God’s presence at the communion table is part of our very identity. “We are disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the one body of Christ, we welcome all to the Lord’s Table as God has welcomed us.” (Do you have this identity statement memorized yet? I’ve certainly said it more in the past 3 weeks than ever in my lifetime!) Today is the third in a worship series on this identity statement. We have already considered how being a “movement” means we’re moving forward, that we’re moving toward “wholeness,” for unity and peace among all of God’s creation, and today we’re looking more deeply at the word… “welcome.” Welcome is the only word, other than Christ’s name, that appears twice in our identity statement. That’s how important it is to who we are. Welcome is also the only word that moves us away from an understanding of who we are to what we do.
If you only have 3 seconds in an elevator to explain to someone what makes our church different from the other Protestant church down the street – tell them that we are a church who welcomes everyone to the communion table every week. If you haven’t heard me say the entire identity statement so much you know it by heart, at least remember this – (and repeat after me…) we welcome everyone to the communion table every week. Now, turn to your neighbor and say it!
Welcome is part of who we are because it’s what we do – week after week after week. When Stone and Campbell started this movement on the American frontier over 200 years ago, one of the reasons they left their prior churches to start this new thing is because they believed there should never be any human-made obstacles placed between God’s people and the communion table. They didn’t think it should matter whether you had sinned, how much money you gave, how long it had been since you last came to worship, how strong your faith or however many doubts…God’s grace is sufficient and covers us all. Through Jesus Christ, God has opened this table to each and every one of us – despite ourselves—and so it is our responsibility and our joy to share this kind of radical grace and welcome with others. It is not our job to judge anyone’s worthiness, including our own, for that is God’s job. And truth be told, I feel relieved knowing it’s not my job to judge others, and even better knowing God is the one waiting at the table to judge us all worthy.
In this day and age we are all travelers on a journey. We may have more than enough electronic gadgets to guide us on a road trip from here to Texas, but there’s no downloadable app to get us a straight shot to God. Although the malls blaring Christmas music are already trying to tell us otherwise, you can’t buy love and grace for $2.99.
In fact, although God’s grace is free, it’s also costly; and following Jesus’ way of extending welcome to strangers is risky. I think that’s why so few people can actually do it. I’m not talking about the risk of picking up a hitch-hiker –that’s not risk, that’s stupidity in today’s landscape. I’m talking about the risk of not just giving someone a cup of coffee when they show up in your day unexpectedly, but sitting down and having a real conversation. I’m talking about the vulnerability of welcoming the unknown into your life. Welcome for Christians is more than just setting out a plate of cookies—it’s taking the chance that meeting and opening yourself up to a stranger might actually change something in you for the better. Welcome is inviting God to open your eyes to the depths of God’s love for each and every one of us, despite our differences. That’s why it’s so hard and we struggle with it so much. Many times we don’t want our eyes opened or we think they’re just fine the way they are. We’d rather avoid the challenging, messy parts of the faith journey. I don’t know a single person who wouldn’t prefer a non-stop flight to their destination over a 5-day car ride with a screaming toddler in a car that keeps breaking down every 500 miles.
But as so many of you have already discovered, there is joy in the journey. A non-stop flight may seem quick and painless, but the 5th car-breakdown might just lead you to an amazing view you might have missed, or appreciation for the waiter who brings you that extra-hot cup of coffee. You might just learn something freeing about yourself, or at the least, you’ll have a really great story to tell later on.
What we didn’t read in the story about Abraham from this morning is that he did all of this welcoming without even knowing he was in the presence of God. Welcome was just so much a part of who he was, that he opened himself and his home to these strangers without even knowing that he was about to be blessed. But the rest of the story, the part we didn’t read, is that right after the three strangers finished eating their meal out under the tree, they gave him the best news of his life: at 99 years old, he would soon be a father for the first time! (Now, if that isn’t complicated and messy good news, I don’t know what is.)
Welcoming the stranger into our mist isn’t the easiest thing to do – it if was, scripture wouldn’t have to be so repetitive and Jesus wouldn’t have to show us how to do it in so many ways. But it’s an important part of our faith journey. Because in welcoming the stranger, by risking something valuable to you in order to provide space for me (the stranger) in your life…
…we both might start to understand just how deep God’s grace flows.
Pastor Melanie is a preacher, mother, singer, and too-much-coffee-drinker. She is passionate about creative worship and finding God in the midst of our every-day.