“Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” John 6:52-54
One can only imagine the argument that broke out when the
people gathered heard Jesus say that he was giving them his flesh to eat. Let’s
face it; this would be rather startling to hear today, let alone two thousand
years ago. But here is Jesus telling those within earshot that unless they eat
his flesh and drink his blood, they will not have eternal life. So let’s unpack
this a little.
Last week I happened upon a sermon delivered on the Feast of Corpus Christi, June of 2019 by Canon Mark Birch at Westminster Cathedral. In that sermon, Canon Birch compared the use of the verb “to eat” as used in the passage from John I have quoted above. In the first instance, those arguing about eating are using the Greek verb phagow, which is a more delicate form of eating sort of nibbling as one would do on a small sandwich at a garden party. When Jesus speaks, he uses the Greek verb trowgow, a word that means to gnaw and eat like it was your last meal. The verb that Jesus uses implies that we are to eat of his flesh as if our very life depends upon it, and, as he says, it does.
But, I want to move away from the physical manifestation of
what Jesus is saying here to focus on the spiritual. Obviously, Jesus is not
giving us his actual flesh and is actual blood. Even in the elements of the
Eucharist, considering the real presence, it is not actual flesh and blood but
Jesus, as John’s Gospel tells us, is the Word made flesh that dwelt among us. Jesus has left us with a new commandment to love God and love our neighbor (we also need to love our enemies and ourselves), and Jesus also left us a way to follow. When we feast on Jesus, when we trowgow Jesus, we are devouring the flesh of his word, we are taking that word into our very being, so it courses through our veins. We are feasting on his Word like it is the last meal we will ever eat. Jesus is the very bread of life, and if we feed on his, we shall have eternal life.
This past week, the New York Times reported that former Vice President Joe Biden was refused communion at a Roman Catholic Church in South Carolina. It is important to note that the only mention Biden has made of this is to say that it was a personal matter. The priest, in a statement to the media, said he refused communion based on Biden’s support of abortion rights “something the church cannot condone by way of the sacrament.” I am not sure when it was decided that this priest or any human being was the judge of God’s grace, but he felt he was given that power.
In Roman Catholic Theology, the Eucharist is a sacrament.
Sacraments provide grace to the faithful, so refusing to commune someone denies
them of the sacramental grace. Roman Catholic Theology also teaches that Jesus
Christ is present, in a very real way, in the elements of bread and wine, and
so refusing to give communion to someone is to deny them the presence of Jesus.
I am not sure that is what was intended.
On that Thursday night, in the Upper Room, Jesus gathered
his closest friends around him for one last Passover meal with them. Scripture
tells us that after supper, he shared bread and wine with them and said to them
that these elements were his body and blood that would be shared for them and
all so that their sins may be forgiven.
He then gave them the command to “do this in remembrance of
me.” It is important to note that sitting around that table was the man
that would three times deny Jesus and also the man that would betray him, which
would ultimately lead to his death.
That’s right; Judas was present and, as far as we can tell, received
communion from the hand of our Lord himself.
This denial of communion is certainly not the first instance
of the faithful being denied communion; this practice has been going on since
the day after that first Eucharist. Who
is and who is not in communion with the church is a powerful weapon that has
been used by Popes, Priests, and Bishops in all times and places of history.
This action that is meant to unify and bring grace and peace to people is
continuously being used as a weapon to divide, and now it has been reduced to a
prize one gets for being “the best in class.”
Although Pope Francis believes that abortion is a sin, he
had this to say about withhold communion from people, I think this is from
2013, “The Eucharist … is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful
medicine and nourishment for the weak.”
Another point I will raise is what has the action of this
priest done in the eyes of the faithful? Sure, some will applaud him for taking
a stand, but there are far more that will be hurt and divided by his actions.
With the belief that communion is the real and actual presence of Jesus Christ
when one comes to receive communion, they stand before the very presence of
Jesus. What this priest has done is tell Biden and others that Jesus has told
them no, go away, you are no worthy of my grace, something that Jesus NEVER
did, remember, Judas was at that table.
When I decided to leave the Eastern Orthodox Church for the
Reformed Church, it was partly around this idea of closed table communion that
somehow, this life-giving sacrament was reserved only for those who followed a
particular set of rules. My spiritual and theological understanding of the
sacrament, real presence or not, is that it was a gift given by Jesus to
everyone as a way to help them, through grace, to be better, to act better, to
love better. By denying communion to people, we deny them God’s grace!
On a personal theological note, I do believe that Jesus is
present in the elements of communion. I think that something happens when the
community gathers around the table and that community asks the Holy Spirit to
come. A transformation, a sanctification of those elements takes place and they
become something different, not in the physical sense but in the spiritual
sense. And when we receive them into our
bodies we become sanctified and grace-filled. How can we possibly deny that to
I am not sure where the arrogance comes from that makes one
believe they are the judge of God’s grace, but I thank God that he sent his Son
Jesus so that all who believe in him might have eternal life, not just those
who follow specific rules.
On a beautiful spring day in May of 2018, Bishop Michal
Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, stood in Window Chapel and
preached a sermon at a wedding. Of course, the was no ordinary wedding for it
was attended by the Queen of England and over a billion people watching on
television around the world. Bishop Curry was invited by Prince Harry and Megan
Markle to preach at their wedding, and boy did he preach.
I will admit that before that sermon, I had read or heard
very little about Bishop Curry, but since that sermon, I have followed him with
great intensity. The Bishop and I preach the same message, and that message is
In Bishop Curry’s wedding sermon, he reminded those
listening that the reason they were all there was because two people fell in
love. Love was the prime mover of all the events of that day. Sure, it was an
affair of state with all the grandeur of a Royal Wedding, but it was love that
set all of that in motion.
Since listening to that sermon, I have followed Bishop Curry
and what he calls “The Way of Love.”
Bishop Curry often says, “The way of Jesus is the Way of Love. And
the Way of Love can change the world.” In his wedding sermon, he quoted
the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, “We must discover the power of love, …
the redemptive power of love. And when we do that, … we will make of this old
world a new world, for love is the only way.”
I believe that love is what is central to the life and
practice of a Christian. Jesus taught us that love of God and love of neighbor
was the summation of all the law, and he left us with a new commandment that we
are to love one another as God has loved us unconditionally and without
questioning whether or not that love is warranted.
The Gospel teaches that there is power in love, there is a
power to transform our lives and to transform the world. “There’s power in
love. There’s power in love to help and heal when nothing else can. There’s
power in love to lift up and liberate when nothing else will. There’s power in
love to show us the way to live.” (The Power of Love, pg. 8)
If this unconditional love that Jesus taught is the
summation of all of the law and the Prophets, then we, the followers of Jesus,
have no other choice than to practice this radical love in our own lives.
Humility is a word that has gone out of style in our
21st-century vocabulary. Our world teaches us to look down on those who are
humble, to step on them to get to where we think we need to be. We are taught
that our self-worth is tied to our status in life, and thus we are called to
propel ourselves ahead of others not only with our talents but with our cunning
ways and our political savvy. It has become acceptable to not only disagree
with someone but to make fun of them and destroy them on a personal level for
no other purpose than it makes us feel better, and we get a good laugh. We have
become so numb to all that is going on around us that we believe that if
something does not directly affect us, then we do not have to worry about it.
That, by the way, is the very definition of privilege.
But we read in Micah, what has been called the Micah
Mandate, “And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love
mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8). And we heard at the end of
the Gospel passage this morning, “For all those who exalt themselves will
be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (18:14b).
Being humble is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit and, in my mind, anyway,
one of the things that is most lacking in the Church today.
Jesus paints us a picture. Two men are in the Temple,
praying. One is exalted by the Church and is the proper and perfect parishioner
if you will. He attends church every
Sunday. He serves on several committees and volunteers for everything happening
around the Church. He places his envelope in the tray each week and is the
first one to return next year’s stewardship pledge form, increasing his
previous years’ pledge just a little…. (a short subliminal commercial there).
But he comes to the Church, stands in the center wearing his most elegant
garments, raises his arms over his head and thanks to God that he is not like
others especially this poor wretch over here, and he points to the small man,
rolled up in a ball in the corner.
And there he is, the other man in the story whom the
grandiose one labels as a Tax Collector. If there is anything more despised in
the 1st century Palestine it’s the Tax Collector. I would venture to say that
the Tax Collector is more despised than the Samaritans that we always hear
about. But here he is in the church standing, as we read, afar off. He is
beating on his chest and saying over and over again, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” So burdened is
he with his sin that he cannot even list his eyes to God. These two are quite
the contrast between confidence and humility.
The great thing about parables is that those who hear it can
place themselves inside the parable. There have been times when we have been
the proud one, and there have been times when we have been the poor wretch in
the corner. Perhaps we twinge a little when we think of ourselves as the
self-righteous one, and maybe we get a little inspiration from the humility of
the Tax Collector, either way, we are both people in this story.
But this parable also tells us of the God of mercy and the
God who redeems through self-sacrifice. It is also a reminder that our
justification comes not through our doing things, even good things. In fact, it
is not achieved at all, at least by us. Justification comes through God’s
reaching out in mercy to helpless sinners. There is a saying in recovery that
“the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem.”
Recovery does not work if one is forced to go, recovery has to come from
within, and the same is true in our spiritual life. Acknowledgment that we are
sinners is critical. Now, we do not have to be like the Tax Collector in the
story but, a recognition that we have fallen short and we need the help of God
in our lives is what we are being asked to do.
1st century Jews believed that strict adherence to the Law
was what was needed for their salvation. If they obeyed the Law and followed
the Law correctly, they would be justified before God. Of course, that was
impossible to do, no one could follow the law accurately, and this caused a
great deal of pain. We have seen a similar thing play out in the modern Church
with all of the rules and regulations. All of these rules led to corruption in
the Church, which, some would say inevitably, led to a reform in the Church. Guilt
is a powerful tool that can be used to good and evil, but guilt is never a way
to help someone in their spiritual life.
So Jesus came to show us another way. Jesus told us that he
was the fulfillment of all of the law and all of the prophets and summarized it
all with “love God and love neighbor.” We no longer have to make a
sacrifice on some altar in atonement for what we have or have not done for God
made that ultimate sacrifice for us by sending Jesus to show us the way and to
chart the course for us. We no longer have to wander in the darkness, for God
has shown forth his light to lighten the path before us. And yes, we will stray
from that path, and we will fall in a ditch or two along the way, but
thankfully, that light never goes out, and we can find our way back perhaps
with a little more humility.
The humility of the Tax Collector does not require us to wallow in self-pity and regret. The liberation of knowing that God is a God of mercy, and a God of love means we can leave behind our reliance on our achievements in our work or our faith community, These things have their place but not at the center of our spiritual life and our relationship with the God of the cross and the Friend of the poor.
Balance is key. We cannot trust in our ability to fulfill the Law, even the simple law of love God and love neighbor, but we also cannot abandon the Law. We humble ourselves before a merciful God yet are confident in the Lord’s promises. Whether Pharisee or Tax Collector, we all find welcome in God’s Temple, and for that, we can truly be thankful.
Recently I was asked if I thought the bible was the inerrant
word of God. What they were asking is whether or not I believed that the bible
could be wrong. I usually approach such discussions with much caution as I have
learned over the years that when asked such a question, it is typically a trap.
I responded by saying that the Word of God is not wrong, but how we interpret
that word sometimes is. Then I went on to clarify my position. First off, the
Word of God is Jesus Christ, and I get that from the Gospel of John right at
the start. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with
God….” “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Second, the
bible, as we know, it was assembled by a group of men trying to make a point.
Let’s fact check that last statement.
The bible as we know it today was compiled round about the
5th century but a group of people representing all of the Christian churches
known at that time. The Hebrew Scriptures, or what we would call the Old
Testament, began to be written around the 8th century B.C. The Books of the New
Testament began to be written around 50 A.D. with the Letters of St. Paul, who
was not, by the way, and eye witness to the events that took place and never
encountered Jesus. The first Gospel, that St. Mark, is believed to have been
written in 70 A.D. or roughly 40 years after the death of Jesus.
Before the Letters of Paul and Gospels being written, what
was passed along was oral tradition. This was not an uncommon practice in the
first century. The early Church would gather together, coming from the
Synagogue to someone’s home, where they would share a meal, and someone would
tell a story about Jesus and what he had done. As I have already mentioned,
these stories began to be written down round about 70 A.D.
Now, I want you to think about something. If I was to come
down and whisper something in the ear of the first person here and tell them to
pass it along, by the time it got back to me, what I said would be much
different than when I first said it. We all put our spin on things, and that is
not a bad thing, and the story gets adjusted and adapted over time by the
influence we bring to the story.
The other thing to keep in mind is those who assembled the
bible had hundreds if not thousands of writings to choose from, and they
limited their selections to the 27 books we have today. We know, for example,
there were hundreds of books and letters written by women but, none of those
made it into the bible. As far as we know, the Gospel of John is the only one
written by someone that witnessed the events that took place, and that Gospel
is very different from the other three.
Now, as we know, the bible, as much as we would like to
think it was, was not written in English. Greek and Hebrew are the original
languages with a smattering of Aramaic and other languages in there. So what we
read today is someone’s interpretation of what was written in an ancient
language someone 2,000 years plus ago — starting to see my point?
So, let’s take this little history lesson a little further.
The first English bible was written in 1604 and was translated from a copy of
the bible. Keep in mind that the first printing press was not used until the
16th century, so the bible was copied by hand. Some minor changes might have
happened along the way. But the interesting thing is, the 1604 bible is called
the King James Bible and was commissioned by King James at the behest of the
Puritan and Calvinist reformers. There might have been a little influence
placed on the translators to make sure that the English version of the bible
matched their theological position and went against others. The King James
Version is a literary masterpiece and ranks up there with Shakespeare for its
literary beauty and influence on the English Language.
All of this is to say that I do not believe that this book
that we call the bible is in any way shape or form inerrant I do think that the
folks who wrote all that stuff way back when had the right idea, but even John
was writing 70 years after Jesus died, so I am sure some of the things he
remembered were a bit fuzzy.
So, where does that leave us? I have said before, the bible
is not a history book, nor is it a science book. The bible is a book that
speaks of tradition and a way of life that can and should be a guiding principle
in our lives. It’s a book written to a
specific group of people at a particular time in history but can of application
for today. We heard from St. Paul today, “All Scripture is God-breathed
and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in
righteousness.” Keep in mind the “Scriptures” he was referring
to were the five books of the law and the prophets and not what we would call
the New Testament. When Paul was
writing, the first Gospel had not even been written yet!
As I mentioned, the bible is a guidebook that needs to be
interpreted and reinterpreted in the light of present-day circumstances. I believe that God is still speaking and
reveals himself to each generation in a new way, and it is up to us to figure
out what that way is. As a Christian, I believe that the “Word of
God” is Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth that left us with a way to
follow and that all theological and moral belief needs to be reconciled with
the words and deeds he left us with. When I or any other preacher and teacher
interpret these words, I do so not only in the present time, but I also want to
know what the Church has thought about this passage for the generations that
came before me. The challenge is taking a 2,000-year-old document and making it
relevant for today.
Last week I mentioned Thomas Jefferson removing the
supernatural stuff from the bible as he thought it was a distraction from the
moral message of Jesus Christ. These days, biblical scholarship has been
reduced to cherry-picking verses that prove me right and you wrong rather than
looking at the entirety of what has been written and making an application to
life today. Rather than use God’s words to soothe and bring comfort amid the
storm, we use God’s words as a weapon to divide and cause much harm to people.
St. Paul says this, “I give you this charge: Preach the
word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and
encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come
when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their
desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what
their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth
and turn aside to myths.”
So how do we know what is sound doctrine? Does it match up with the words of Jesus
Christ, that is my first and last arbiter of what is and is not sound doctrine.
Even though I stated before that God is still speaking, God speaks with the
same voice, and if it does not match up, it’s not God.
Our job is to be able to figure it all out. And with God’s
help and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we can do just that.
Have you ever been excluded from anything? Have you ever excluded someone from
A few years back, I was invited to pray in Gettysburg,
Pennsylvania, during the Annual Remembrance Day Weekend. These events take place in November of each
year and draw a rather large crowd of living historians and others interested
in the Civil War. Remembrance is focused on the dedication of the National
Cemetery in Gettysburg and the address by President Lincoln on November 19,
1863. I was invited to participate by the National Chaplain of the Sons of
Union Veterans of the Civil War and asked to pray at a couple of events and to
preach and lead the Sunday service.
As you can imagine, this was quite an honor. I have been
asked to preach at significant events in the past, but this one would bring all
of my passions together, history, history of religion and religious practices,
and of course, preaching. I began to work on the sermon and the prayers a few
weeks in advance of the event wanting to leave nothing to chance. One evening, about a week or so before the
event was to take place; the Chaplain contacted me to disinvite me from
participating in the event. Apparently, and I know some of you will find this
hard to believe, he thought I was too liberal.
As one can imagine, I was disappointed and a little upset. I
will not go into all of the details of what happened next just to say I am now
the National Chaplain of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, and I am
grateful to have that position.
In today’s Gospel from Luke, we see Jesus coming face to
face with ten lepers. Leprosy was and is a horrible disease that was highly
contagious, and so those unfortunates with this affliction were relegated to
cave and catacombs outside of the city. They were forced to beg for their bread
and only allowed to roam about at night and were often seen in the shadows.
They were also cut off from the worshipping community, which meant they could
not participate in the liturgical life of that community. That community
excluded them because the community was afraid of what would happen. Those
appointed to minister to the community did not even minister to them; they were
shunned out of existence.
But here they are, standing face to face with Jesus. They have
heard of his power to heal, and they have come to ask for help. He tells them
to “go and show yourselves to the priest,” and as they make their
way, they are healed. Notice, Jesus does not heal them straight away as he does
with others; he tells them to go and show themselves. Some would say it was
their act of obedience that did the healing but the interesting thing is, the
healing of these lepers is not the point of the story.
Sure, the healing is great but, and I often say this, the
miracle of Jesus is often just the match that lights the fuse, we have to push
past the magic to get to the root of the story and the message that it holds
and this is one of those times.
I am not sure if any of you are familiar with it, but in
1820 Thomas Jefferson complied with what is now called the Jefferson Bible. The
Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, its actual title, is a compilation of the
teaching of Jesus that Jefferson complied but taking a razor blade to Scripture
to remove all of the bits that he considered the supernatural. Jefferson
believed that magic stories just got in the way of moral teaching behind the
event, and he wanted to strip it all away. There is some sanity behind doing
what Jefferson did by trying to get people to focus on the moral of the story
rather than the magic of it all.
Back to the story.
We do not know how far they had gone before the healing took
place or if they went to “show themselves to the priest” or not, but,
along the way, one of them notices that he has been healed and so he turns and
goes back to see Jesus. He was praising
God, and when he came before Jesus, the man fell to his knees and thanked him
for what he had done. Remember, there were ten, and only one has returned to
give thanks. But, if that was not
astonishingly enough, the man, Scripture tells us is a Samaritan. If this was a
movie, this is where the dun, dun, dun music would play.
We all know how the Jews of Jesus day felt about the
Samaritans, so I won’t go into that here except to say, this is a big deal. The
one, the only one that came back to thank Jesus, was a foreigner, the despised
one, the least likely of all of them to return. But here he is, kneeling before
Jesus, giving thanks to God for what has just happened to him. He asks the man
about the other nine, but we do not know what tone of voice he used in asking
his question. But we do know this, this man, a double outcast the most unlikely
of all of them, is embraced by God and told that his faith has made him well.
This is not a story of healing; this is a story about faith
and a story about gratitude, and this is a story of acceptance. Jesus is
teaching about the nature of faith. To have faith is to live that faith and to
live that faith is to give thanks. It is living a life of gratitude that constitutes
living a life of faith; this grateful faith is what has made this leper, this
man from Samaria, well not just physically but spiritually.
It was the man’s thanksgiving that made him well, not magic
words from Jesus, and this thankfulness is available to all of us. Notice also
that the thanksgiving is directed toward God and not toward Jesus as everything
is done from God through others.
The practice of intentional gratitude changes lives, and as
we have seen in this story today, but gratitude can transform all of us, this
congregation, and through us to our community. It starts here and spreads out
from this place to places we may never even know about.
When Christians practice gratitude, we come to worship to
give praise and thanksgiving and not just looking for what we “can get out
of it.” The mission of the church changes from an ethical duty to the work
of grateful hands and hearts. Prayer includes not only our intentions and
supplications but also our thanksgiving for all of the blessings God has given
There they were, all gathered together for one last time.
Jesus had called them together from all walks of life. They were fishermen, tax
collectors, beggars, young, old, short, fat; you name it they were there. They
had been together for three years. They had walked thousands of miles, healed
the sick, fed the hungry, clothed the naked, made the blind see, the lame walk,
and even raised a man from the dead. No one was ever excluded from what they
were doing. They showed love and compassion to all, equally, and without
But here they are those closest to him, gathered in a rented
room on the second floor of a house having one last meal together. From Luke’s
Gospel, we learn that it was Passover, and so they had just finished a
wonderful meal, perhaps others were with them for that meal, but now, as we are
led to understand, it is only Jesus and his closest friends. Seated with Jesus
at this table is the one who would deny him three times. Also, sitting at this
table with him is the one that will betray him and turn Jesus over the
authorities that will eventually kill him. Jesus knows all of this yet, there
they are, all seated together.
He takes ordinary bread in his hands; he holds it up and
asks God to bless it. Jesus then brakes this bread into pieces and passes it
around so that everyone might have some. As he gives this bread, made from the
elements of the earth, around the table, he says to them that this bread is his
body that will be broken and shared for all.
Then he takes a cup, a simple cup perhaps one that he had
been drinking out of during the meal, Jesus fills it with wine and again, he
holds it up in the air towards the heavens and asks God to bless it. As Jesus
passes this cup around the table, he tells those present that what is in this
cup is his blood that will be poured out for all, why, for the forgiveness of
From St. Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians, we understand
that Jesus said to “do this in remembrance of me.” But what is this
that we are supposed to do?
There are many theories about what takes place during the
Lord’s Supper. Hundreds of thousands of hours have been spent is discussing
what happens. Does it become the actual body and blood of Christ? Is Jesus
really present in these elements? Is this just a memorial of what was done
during that Last Supper? I am not sure there is an answer or that there needs
to be one. I just know that something special happens during that sacred
So important was this time that the Lord’s Supper was
singled out, along with baptism by the Reformers as one of two sacraments. Just
as a reminder, a sacrament is defined as “the outward sign of an inward
grace and the means by which we receive it.” There is a grace given to us
by God when was take this bread and this cup into our bodies. We are literally
welcoming Jesus into our very existence. Not to be too crude about it, but the
normal body function converts those elements into something different, and in a
matter of time, it will be flowing through all parts of our body, providing nourishment,
not only in a spiritual sense but in a physical one.
There is a saying in Celtic theology and spirituality that
heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but there are, thin places where
that distance is even closer. There are those places or times in lives when we
close that gap between our existences here on earth, and that is heaven, I
believe when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we are in one of those thin
places. Spiritually it is as if heaven itself comes down and meets us, and we
are transported, spiritually, to another plane of existence in our lives for
the briefest of moments. This celebration of the Lord’s Supper becomes a sacred
space where something spiritually awesome happens.
But we still have not answered the question of what the
“this” is in the command to “do this in remembrance of me.”
Again, theologians have been trying to answer this question, and there are many
theories about the bread and the cup, but I think it transcends a simple meal
and again has to do with the thin places.
Let’s go back and look who was at that table; those closest
to Jesus, those he had called to “follow him” and work alongside him
in his ministry. Those gathered with Jesus were simple people, with little or
no education but with a desire to seek and find. Again, sitting around that
table was the one who would deny him and the one who would betray him. There
were those on both ends of the political spectrum and those in the middle.
Young and old represented at this table, I also believe, the Da Vinci painting
notwithstanding, that there were some women there as well. Surely his mother
would have been there and some of the others that followed him. The bottom line
is, no one was excluded from that table. So, perhaps the “do this” is
do not exclude anyone.
But what about the action of breaking and sharing of the
bread and cup? Jesus says that the bread represents his body and what is in the
cup represents his blood, does this mean we are to perform human sacrifice? I
do not believe so. Or does it mean that we are to sacrifice everything for
others, for those in need, for those on the margins, for those in cages, and
those in horrible places? Does it mean that we should share all that we have
with everyone, including our very lives? I think we might be getting closer
In the early days of the church, the communion elements, the
bread, and the wine would be brought forth from a room near the door of the
church. The people coming to worship on that day would place their offerings of
bread and wine and other things, in that room, and at the offertory, those
things would be brought forth and placed on an altar or table at the front of
the church. All of those items would be blessed and distributed as part of the
worship service. That “sacrificial offering” if you will be a large
part of what the early church did together. We read in Acts 4:32, “No one
claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything
they had.” They shared everything.
One of the beautiful moments for me, here in our little
corner of the world, is when the Sunday School children bring the bags of
donates food items forward and place them here at the table. In a genuine
sense, we bless what is brought, and we bring it to those who have less than we
do. This action of blessing and sacrifice is at the very heart and is the very
essence of what it means to “Do this!”
Today, we commemorate World Communion Sunday. World
Communion Sunday began as World-Wide Communion Sunday at Shadyside Presbyterian
Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1933. The Rev. Hugh Thompson Kerr and
his congregation sought to demonstrate the interconnectedness of Christian
churches, regardless of denomination. Rev. Kerr appropriately chose the
sacrament of Holy Communion to symbolize this unity. “The term Holy Communion
invites us to focus…on the holiness of our communion with God and one
another.” (This Holy Mystery, The United Methodist Church’s official
statement on the sacrament)
Today we are joining others around the world in
commemoration of what this command to do this truly means. People are
gathering, or have gathered in churches, cathedrals, back yards, beaches, or
any place where two or three come together and share from what they have with
each other and, for a moment, they bring heaven a little closer to earth. It is
nice to think that there are people all around the world, hearing those words
of Jesus to “Do this” Maybe, just maybe, the actions we take this day
will make the world a better place for all.
In a few moments, you will be invited to gather
around this table spiritually. The elements will be blessed, broken, and
distributed to all regardless of your relationship with God. Our table is open
to all who have the desire to become a little closer with God and to create a
“thin place” within themselves and allow God to work in and through
you. I hope you will accept the invitation.
I am not a fan of the horror movie genre for many reasons,
but the main reason is, why would you go into the haunted house in the first
place? A few years ago there was a
commercial for a car company; I cannot remember which one, where the actors
were in a scene from a horror movie.
They were running from something, and they have two choices, a barn with
all sorts of cutting implements and the safety of an automobile. As they start
to move towards the barn one of their number says, “Hey, why not get in the
car and drive away,” and the others are like, “no that barn over
there will be safer.” The commercial ends but your imagination takes over,
and we know what is going to happen next. If they had just listened to that
lone voice, crying in the wilderness, their lives might have turned out
For this sermon, I am going to leave out the references to
lakes of fire and whatnot as I do not find those descriptions of things
helpful. Sure, they are there to illustrate and confirm what the parable is
saying but, for me anyway, fear has never been a good motivator, but that has
not stopped the church from, over the centuries, using fear to attempt to
control people and their behavior. So rather than focus on the scare tactic
lets focus on the role reversal in the story.
At the outset, we see Jesus using, once again, a rich man as
the foil in his story. The use of rich people is not used to condemn rich
people but to show that, no matter how much you have or how together your life
is, things can still go wrong. I know the temptation, if I get that better job,
if I get that better car, if I make just a little more money I will finally be
happy. But as we have seen, happiness does not come from external things;
happiness comes from internal places.
The rich man in the story ignores Lazarus, admit it, we have
all ignored a Lazarus a time or two in our lives, and this is why Jesus uses
this illustration because we can relate to it. Sometimes we ignore the
suffering of another right in front of us by stepping over the beggar in the
street or crossing to the other side. How many times have we been stopped at a
traffic light, and someone is walking down the row of cars carrying a sign, and
we stare straight ahead, that is Lazarus.
But we also ignore Lazarus when we hear about injustice and
we do nothing. We hear about people needing help and we fluff it off by saying
things like, “they need to just pull themselves up by their
bootstraps,” or, “if they had not made that choice they would not be
in that situation.” Or we see or hear a teenager speaking about an issue
that she feels passionate about and rather than speak to the issue she is
raising we attack her for her looks and her disability. Or we see the way some
treat others, but we are willing to look the other way, and even call those
standing up against them evil, but because they are doing what we want them to
do we are willing to lower our moral standards and look the other way. That
teenaged activist, that mother and child at the border, that person being made fun
of in an early morning Tweet, that single mother in the grocery store at the
check-out in front of you fumbling with her keys, her children, and her welfare
card is Lazarus.
As a nation, we are entering a challenging period in our
history. Some historians say that the country has not been this divided since
before the Civil War. We have come to a point where civility has been tossed
aside for partisan rhetoric and morality has all but been thrown out the
window. We have come to a point where personal attacks have taken places of
reasoned, well researched, and thought out debate. We have come to the point
where we do not know who to believe, but if they are on the opposite side then
us, they are liars and cheats, and we attack them personally rather than with
facts and reasons.
But back to the story of the rich man Lazarus.
The Lazarus and the rich man die, and they go off to their
final reward, again let’s leave all the fire and whatnot to the TV preachers,
but the rich man is in despair. You see, the tables have been turned, the
afflicted, Lazarus has been comforted and the comfortable, the rich man has
been afflicted. He cannot figure out what he has done to deserve this; after
all, he is rich; he has everything. He tries to strike a deal, after all this is
what he has done his entire life, make deals. He tries to strike a deal; he
asks Abraham to allow Lazarus, the man he stepped over, to come and cool his
tongue from the raging fire. Just so we are clear, he is asking in death for
something he was unwilling to do for another in life!
As the story goes, Abraham refuses the request. So, the rich
man tries to make another deal; he asks that someone is sent to those who are
still alive and warn them to change their behavior. Abraham replies, they have
Moses and the prophets, in other words, they have the Scriptures and the Word
of God to teach them how to act in their lives, and they are choosing to ignore
what Scripture says, or maybe twisting it to suit their needs by saying
“if we just look the other way of this and that we can justify it because
we will get what we want.”
This is an extreme illustration that points to two things,
our religious belief and practice should be to comfort the afflicted and to
afflict the comfortable, not with lakes of fire but with the word of God. So
strong has to be our defense of those on the margins that we have to point out
when they are being mistreated. Our love of neighbor needs to be so strong that
we come to their defense whether they are next door or in another country. Our
religious beliefs and practice should not be to bring ourselves comfort at the
expense of others nor bending and twisting God’s word so that it becomes okay
for us to afflict others. God demands that if we are going to claim that we
follow him, we have to follow what his teachings are without compromise and
without putting conditions on that love. God loves us without condition, and
because of that; we are commanded to love without condition.
As I bring this to a close I want to draw your attention to the
last verse of what we heard this morning; “He said to him, ‘If they do not
listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone
rises from the dead.'”
Lazarus was raised from the dead, and Scripture tells us
that those in authority tried to kill him to keep him silent. They did not
believe…. I will leave the rest to you…
God of righteousness, hear our prayer for the life of our country. Bless all those in positions of authority. Bless the people: rule their hearts and encourage their endeavors for good. Help us to seek service before privilege, public prosperity before private gain, and the honor of your name before the popularity of our own. Give liberty, peace, and joy, and bind us in service to the community and in loyalty to you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Adapted from the Book of Common Order, Church of Scotland
For those celebrating the holiday of the autumnal equinox, Mabon we offer this prayer:
We have so much before us and for this we are thankful. We have so many blessings, and for this we are thankful. There are others not so fortunate, and by this we are humbled. We shall make an offering in their name to the gods who watch over us,that those in need are someday as blessed as we are this day.