Posts tagged ‘communion’

September 8, 2012

Communion with Cake

It’s always fun in my clergy circles to share stories about creative ways we’ve officiated and served communion. Especially during service trip experiences when the normal supplies are are rare to find, I’ve known colleagues who have served communion with elements like sweet tea, Cheetos or cinnamon rolls. I’ve even known colleagues who have even used chocolate wine when a red wine can’t be found.

The theology of switching up the elements from the traditional bread and wine (or grape juice) can be frowned upon or celebrated depending on who you talk to. It has been said that communion in the Protestant tradition is really about a shared meal, a common cup, and a collective community so what does it matter what you actually eat or drink? However, personally, I tend to be more traditional in my approach– bread and wine work just fine for me. Yet I understand why changing the approach isn’t so bad every now and then. It is easy for us to get caught going through the motions of hearing: “This is my body broken for you” and “This is my blood shed for you” that we forget the spiritual significance of what we are doing in the first place.

Two weeks ago now, when Kevin and I first arrived in Kenya and began spending time with the staff (all 220+ of them) gathered at the children’s center for a day of installation and celebration of Kevin as the new President of Feed The Children International, of course we ate together. It was like Christmas in August, we learned as we shared a meal of chicken, greens, rice,salads, arrow root, bread, potatoes and soda. It was the finest traditional feast they could offer.

But no festive gathering like this one we learned would be complete without a cake. A special cake for the occasion was prepared for us. And a cake cutting ceremony was in order. Kevin and I were invited to the cake cutting table in front of everyone as the community choir sang. Though Kevin and it felt a lot like our wedding (as they later made us feed each other while everyone took pictures . . a quite funny site! And, no I didn’t smear it on Kevin’s face), learning about the meaning behind the whole event made it all worth it.

Esther, the director of school feeding programs and the MC for the day, passionately explained to all of us, why we were cutting the cake. She said something like this:

If you think about the parts that go into making a cake . . . The eggs, the flour, the sugar, the water, etc you realize that none of these elements are very good if at all on their own. But when you mix them together, adding just the right amounts (and no more than is needed), you get a sweet dessert. You get something that tastes good that all people can enjoy.

In the same way, all of us today are a part of a larger family. We who are many believe that our fellowship is better and sweeter when it is shared. Let this cake today be a participation for you in knowing that each of us is part of a larger family. And when we come together in just the right way, our community and love shared among us is what we call the best life has to offer.

Then, Kevin and I (along with the two other US based FTC staff) were asked to take the plates of little chunks of cake on a plate and pass them out individually to the staff and children as they gathered in a semicircle around us. Simultaneously, everyone continued to enjoy their Sprite, Fanta and Pespi.

If this was not a communion like act, I don’t know what is!

As I served the cake from my hand to their napkin, chills ran down my spine and I caught myself saying “the peace of the Lord be with you” on several occasions though no one asked me to do so. It felt to me so much like what I do with my own congregation each Sunday when I give them the elements through hand to hand contact, looking them in the eyes and wishing blessing each participant. In the giving and receiving of the elements as a gathered community, we remember in gratitude the one who gave of his very life for us all.

While the traditions of the church and the communion liturgies that we’ve passed down from generation to generation are dear treasures in our spiritual lives, I believe, we can’t help but keep looking for God’s ongoing teachable moments for us. For sometimes the bread of Christ just might come to us in white coconut iced cakes and His cup to us in glass soda bottles. And as we partake, we’ll remember the expansive beauty in the Body of our Lord. And taste for ourselves that life in Christian community is very good.




August 13, 2012

This is Not the Life I Expected

This is not the life I Expected: John 6:22-40

I don’t know if you’ve been staying up late like me watching the Olympics every night for the past two weeks or not . . . but it has been so easy to do, even if I already knew who won the races. The drama, the personal narrative stories, the commercials about the athletes mothers that make me want to run for a box of Kleenex.

Throughout the games, no matter whom the athletes are and no matter from what country they’ve come, they’ve all seemed to share one emotion in common. And that is expectation.  Benjamin Franklin once said this about expectations: “Blessed are those who expect nothing, for they will not be disappointed.” And this is true of some athletes. Yet for others, they come to the games, expecting just to enjoy the moment of being at the games—who cares if there is 0% chance that they’ll win a metal?  Their expectation is just to compete and do their personal best.  But, for some, they traveled to London with greater expectations of making it to the finals or the quarterfinals of their competition, getting their feet wet so to say in Olympic completion so to be on top in four more years. And for other well-trained and talented athletes they came expecting gold.

But what has happened when expectations have not been met? What has happened when swimmers have slow starts off the blocks, or gymnasts fall off the beam, or volleyball players miss a dig and nose dive into the sand? Disappointment and tears of “This is not the Olympic games I expected” have sent athletes home deeply unhappy.

Several nights ago, if you were up late watching gymnastics or have seen the countless replays since, vault specialist on the women’s team, McKayla Maroney won the silver metal for team USA. This is of course a wonderful feat, being second best in the world after all. But to McKayla, her actions after the fact spoke louder than any interview she could have given to reporters.

Though hailed as the best vaulter thin the world prior the Olympic games with a world championship title under her belt, she made a mistake on her second vault—a fall on her butt which went on to cost her the top finishing spot.

However, instead of displaying sportsmanship after the fact, hugging back the girl who beat her and at least putting a smile on her face at the metal ceremony, McKayla pouted. She seemed to want to get out of the hug position from her competitor as soon as possible. And, displayed what is now her famous “I’m not impressed look” when her competitor’s national anthem and flag were raised higher than her own.

She expected to win gold and simply did not. Life did not go for McKayla Maroney as she planned. And, we all knew it.

In our gospel lesson for this morning, we also find a group of people gathered who were dead set on getting what they expected—searchers full of determination that in Jesus they’d get exactly what they’d be hoping for too. Though I can imagine different from the Olympic athletes, these members of the crowd, weren’t well trained for their moment , as recorded in John 6. They just stumbled upon it and soon expected a lot.

As John 6 begins, while Jesus has just crossed over the Sea of Galilee to spend some quality down time with his disciples after a crazy couple of days, soon they the peace and quiet they sought would be interrupted this crazy crowd of searchers—a crowd as a fired up and motivated as a collection of athletes from the home country of an Olympic games feel about winning metals.

With these crowds, though, why all the fuzz? What did they expect from Jesus all of a sudden? Hadn’t he been around for a while? The reason revels itself when you hear the back story.

It’s a story you know—Jesus has been teaching on the hillside and the crowds simply won’t go home yet. The gospel writer tells us those gathered expected food and none is to be found except from one, a little boy who offers all that he has. A disciple connects with a little boy and brings him to Jesus. Jesus takes the simple lunch–  bread and fish and  presents the food both to the crowd and to God, blessings it and as a result of this miracle all gathered around (at least 5,000 or more) have enough to be full with baskets of leftovers to spare.

Like you and I might have felt if we had just experience such a miracle, the crowds were amazed and stunned at the sight of what Jesus did for them. They more than just had their stomachs filled– this Jesus whom they had encountered was something else and they were ready for more. Was this Jesus too good to be true?

As we know from community dynamics, when a speech, sermon or action happens in a group, or in this case a miracle, there are as many different perspectives of what is heard as there are people.

Look with me at one response of the crowd found in verse 34: “Give us that bread every day of our lives,” was the corporate cry of one sector.  First, there were the folks gathered who really liked the food—they followed Jesus that next day because they liked the food he served (know anyone who feels that way about church here?)

For them, the bread tasted great.  And not only this, but the means of its coming to them reminded these types of folks of the stories they heard from their grandmothers that their grandmothers had heard from their grandmothers and so on, about the manna that came from heaven. It was religious comfort food at best and practically speaking what they’d seen Jesus do the previous day was like food stamps of modern times without end. Who wouldn’t want that?  If brother Jesus would just stick around and take care of them, they knew the expectations of their lives would be met.

And also among the crowd were those who complained. What’s a good communal gathering without a complainer or two, right? Well this group of complainers identified as “the Jews who began to complain about Jesus.” (What a way to be remembered, huh?).

This second group expected from Jesus the answers to life’s deepest questions that they did not understand. They were rational and so they wanted rational nourishment and rational teaching that they could take back to the synagogue and teach with three points and poem about what they had seen and experienced with this up and coming Rabbi.

And, they expected a Savior that they could rationalize. And in this expectation, they were very concerned that Jesus, “claiming to be the one coming down from heaven, was merely the “son of Joseph whose father and mother they knew.”  It seems from how the narrator describes this scene to us, we recognize the possibility of this sector of the crowd believing in Jesus as God’s Son after the miracle took place, but it wouldn’t come blindly or without clear scholarship about how the divinity of Jesus could be proven and proven in words they understood. Without such “proof” they’d be in search of Jesus no longer.

And, last, there were those that day who expected from Jesus exactly what they’d had in the past. These were the realists among the crowds—they were ready to believe, but only if what Jesus was saying or doing clearly lined up with what they knew.

These were the folks who reminded Jesus that Moses made sure their ancestors had manna in the wilderness, so more than looking for spiritual comfort food, they were looking for history. They wanted Jesus’ ministry going forward to look, taste and to feel like the stories of faith they’d been told happened in the past.

These were the folks who soon would be throwing the childish tantrums—either literally or just in their heads, asking why couldn’t Jesus produce for them the security and dependability in ways they could wrap their minds around? It would be nice.

The bread falling from the sky had worked well once before—when the children of Israel were wondering in the dessert—so why wouldn’t this same miracle work again every day.

But, in each of these types of expectations, problems would soon emerge. Problems would emerge because each expected for what could potentially fill them in the moment, what made sense and could be counted on in the short-term, but what could not always satisfy.

And we too in our modern context know how the folks gathered around Jesus that day felt. For we’d been there too—there have been countless times in each of our lives when we’ve wanted to throw up our hands too and say, “This is what I expected. . . . But why God did you not give me exactly what I wanted.”  And we use our lack of met expectations as excuses—excuses that keep us from intimacy with God.

Remember Jesus said to them here, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry and whoever believe in me will never be thirsty.”

Which was another way of Jesus reversing the expectation list of the crowd by telling them: “I’m glad you are here. But, in following me, remember that there is no gold and the end of the rainbow, win every gold metal when you compete in the Olympics or meet the man of your dreams the moment after you pray to meet him and live happily ever after scenario that you can demand of me, or work up on your own. Instead, come and taste and see that I am good. Know me.  As you get to know me, you are going to be fulfilled.

For no, I am simply not some hand-out bread kind of God.

Nor, I am not nor never will be rational or explainable nourishment for you.

Nor, am I nourishment like what you’ve ever tasted before, even at your finest spreads or most glorious spiritual moments in your history.

I AM the bread of Life.

But, why would you and I accept such nourishment from Christ? You might be saying, “Pastor, your sermon today seems kind vague to me.” But this is exactly the point!

For the more you and I live the more we realize that the best laid plans of ours are often fleeting moments. Life is in fact never full of “always” guarantees, even if every sports commentator says on paper, you’re going to win the gold. Not that having expectations is bad or that we shouldn’t have them—but if we are going to move forward in our lives in the ways of Jesus, then OUR expectations for our life must come under the banner of what God has already prepare for us, and where our God-given life seeks to take us, instead of what we think we want first.

For as much as we want to be folks who think we can get life together enough for ourselves, for as much as we think that our approach IS the way that will fix what is broken and as much as we want to rely on what seems like quick fixes, Jesus says, I am your living bread. And, I gave you a meal to remember me.

I know that last Sunday was communion day, according to the tradition of our church. And this is the second Sunday which means it is not communion Sunday. But, I couldn’t preach a sermon this morning about the Bread that gives Life and not give all of us an opportunity to receive our nourishment from Christ.  Because maybe just maybe as we receive it today, we can each participate by offering back our expectations to God for our lives. So that more of God’s expectations can be made known to us as we eat and drink together, and, as we take it:

It’s a meal that can give us the “I’m full” feeling like nothing else could . . .

It’s a meal that causes us to sit and hear this mystery of faith, each into our own ears. The mystery of “Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.

It’s a meal that says lay aside your struggles and your need for security for answer is here when Christ says to us, “This is MY body broken for YOU.”

So come my friends, the table is set, let the feasting begin. No matter if you are here today because you just are excited about the food after the service, or you are at a place in your journey that you are in need of some assurance and security in your faith, or even if this church is what has been a part of your past and you want to honor this but aren’t really sure to the Jesus talk we are up to here, the invitation to feast is still the same. Come just as you are. Keep asking your questions, but leave your expectations here with our Lord. For today, you are offered the bread, the bread that gives life.


September 4, 2011

The Community of Communion

Back to the Basics Series: The Community of Communion

Matthew 18:15-20

If there is anything that remains constant in the ever-changing world of publishing, it is that Americans will buy a book if they think it will help them be better at doing something.  Though, maybe, you are like me and browse the “self-help” or “non-fiction” aisle at Barnes and Noble every now and then thinking to yourself now that’s not really rocket science, I could have written that! Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus seems to be a title any of us could have come up with! (Because we already knew this, right?)

Ultimately, we are a people who like finding a life script which tells us exactly what we are to do.  Such is why books like The 17 Day Diet, The Wealth Cure, and The 4-Hour Body are currently on the New York Times Best Seller list. Achieving my financial goals, all while spending 17 days to achieve the body I want, spending only 4-hours a week doing it, sounds great to me, doesn’t it to you? Using one’s own brain and/or practical sense is highly over-rated, isn’t it? Just give me some answers in plain speech.

In the same way, when many faith seeking Christians read our text for this morning, which outlines a script, a plan if you will for how to deal with community relations when conflicts emerge, they jump up and down and say in delight, “Finally Jesus tells us exactly what to do! It’s the script we’ve been hoping for! So let’s get to it!”

And the script goes something like this: when there’s a conflict between two members of a church—presumably because someone “sinned” or is at fault for making a mistake of judgment against another, it is the job of the person who has been “wronged” to go and point out the error of ways to the other.

First, this should be done privately. The hope is that the sinning person will listen to the person who is calling them out, and so all will be well.

But, second, if this doesn’t work out, then, the wronged person is to gather support with two or three other witnesses, so to go back and confront the sinner again.  And, then if the person refuses to listen to this crowd, the entire church community should be notified of the wrong and if the offender refuses to confess their sin to even the church, it’s the ultimate insult.

 Verse 17 writes, “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” I.e. you are simply screwed. As Jesus was speaking to an entirely Jewish audience, he compares the unrepentant sinner to the worst type of person that a member of the crowd could think of—thus saying to them, you don’t want to be that person, so make up quickly!

Seems simple enough, but what happens when this comes to play in actual practice?

Pastor Deanna Langle, a Lutheran clergy woman, tells the following story from her congregation of the staff and church leadership seeking to live out these verses of scripture:

One afternoon Rev. Langle, an associate pastor at a large multi-staff congregation, found herself with a crying administrative assistant in her office. She writes:

The woman in front of me was a woman of integrity, deep faith and sincere commitment to the church. She had been hired to be a pastoral assistant, and in that role she had contributed substantial time and amazing gifts to the congregation. She had asked for a meeting with me only after trying to speak with her supervisor, the administrative pastor.

So when she noticed a problem, in this case the pastor’s misuse of power, she confronted the situation and challenged him. The senior pastor tried to silence her and ignore her.

Reluctantly, she asked the executive council to hear her concern, but council members refused.

The pastor had told them that the discussion must remain between the two of them. He quoted Matthew 18 in support of this decision: “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” By complying with the pastor and his use of a biblical directive, the council members allowed him to protect himself and them from the truth.”[i]

The pastor simply got a way with a huge error of judgment that would hurt the congregation in retrospect for generations—all because he used scripture to “justify” his actions.

Sounds twisted, but you and I know that stories like this are not isolated cases. I have experiences like this in earlier places of ministry, myself as well. For if there is anything that Matthew 18 has given the church a legacy of, it is not peace and reconciliation, but it is often one of abuse of power, domination of the strong over the weak, and Biblical literalism slammed in the faces of those who are seeking to do the right thing.

For if read literally, these verses seem to imply that if two or three people agree on anything, they have the right to be the bullies. But, if you’ve read any other stories of Jesus throughout the gospels, the concept of these verses seem to say the exact opposite of the message of Jesus we’ve all come to know.  The message of “the last shall be first” “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” and all of the turning the world upside down questions that Jesus proposed. So where is Jesus in all of this?

If we turn back a few verses to the beginning of chapter 18, what we find that our lection for today actually comes in the context of Jesus having a few teaching moments with his disciples when they came to him and asked the question: “Who then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

And, though I can imagine that Jesus wanted to knock the boys around a time or two saying to them, “Are you not listening? Have you not been listening this whole time? Why in the world would you ask a stupid question like that?”

Instead, of giving these fellas the quick snarky comment that they probably deserved, Jesus models the different approach to conflict that he was seeking to teach about.  Throughout this chapter, Jesus opens up the conversation about how important it is to pay attention to those in whom we usually forget such as the children, those who are lost from home, those in whom we have conflict and those who drive us so crazy that we can’t imagine forgiving them yet one more time.

And, thus, without directly saying it, Jesus answered the “Who is the greatest the kingdom of God?” question by reminding them that there is another question altogether to be asking in the first place: “What is the kingdom of God?” Saying, life in the kingdom of God is all about an inclusive vision of the world where those who would seem to matter the least are not left out.

So, getting back to our particular lection for today, we discover that the over arching message Jesus is teaches goes back simply the COMMUNITY he hoped his disciples would create—a community that would be the foundation of their lives together as their faith was shared with the world.  They would need to a pay attention to conflicts among them because it had EVERYTHING to do with how they lived out his mission on earth.

But, in our social networked everything world these days, community is a word that doesn’t strike our ears as that unusual. Dave Loose puts it like this, “Community, after all, is one of those feel good words that draw us into idealism—we imagine something out of Cheers, a place where everybody knows your name is glad you came. But the really difficult thing about community is that it is made up of people! And people—not you and me, of course, but most people—can be difficult, challenging, selfish, and unreliable. Which means that usually when we’re daydreaming about community we’re often prompted to do so because we don’t particularly like the people—i.e. the community!—we’re currently a part of.”

But, if we are going to take Jesus seriously here, and we know that how we treat one another when we don’t see things clearly really does matter, then you and I are going to have to think of community in more serious terms than the care free nature of the theme song from Cheers.

We’ve got to know that bitterness, unresolved pain, and gossip can kill any fellowship faster than the presence of a dead snuck can kill an outdoor party. And, protecting our fellowship, matters doesn’t it?

So, with this true, we have to pay attention to how we are getting along with one another in community realizing that as human beings a) no one is perfect (including your pastor)

b) communities are made up of these imperfect people

c) when problems arise and we’re involved, we are to do something about it, namely be a grown-up and go to the person with whom you have a conflict and work it out directly first, and

d) if that doesn’t work, seek wise counsel from within the community knowing that it is the community’s responsibility not to choose sides, appoint blame, but to care enough about all people to see the struggle through.

Because I’m sure I’m not telling you anything new when I say that as human beings, we will always face conflict because our nature is to act independently, write people off when they hurt our feelings, rather engage one another in the deep wells of community. 

Yet, the question remains then, what will we do with the conflict when it comes? And, how will the church community be any different from the average mom’s club, running group, knitting circle, wine tasting gathering or investment circle—what makes a faith community so unique?

When I think about how a faith community, that Jesus was teaching about, distinguishes itself from all others, I believe a good way to understand it, all goes back to what it is we do here every month at this table. For it is in communion, you and I say something together about what type of community we are.

I want you to take out your bulletin this morning and look ahead in the service plan about what is upcoming in the service after the sermon. You’ll notice that the first thing we’ll do after being invited to the table is to pray a prayer of confession together. It’s an act we partake in as an expression of our faith in this being a meal that is not of us, but of God. And because it is of God, we must be mindful of God’s holiness—saying to the Lord that we have fallen short of all the good things prepared for us, and before we receive the bread and cup of Christ, we must consider our role in purifying our own minds, hearts and souls as individuals.

And, second, we will pass the peace of Christ to one another. While I know this is one of the most enjoyable parts of the service for many of you, like a good intermission break of musical chairs to greet your friends with hugs and handshakes of peace—its practice says so much more than meets the eye.

 We greet one another in the peace of Christ as a remembrance that we are ALL a part of God’s body. We all matter to God and so we all are to matter to one another.  And, so if we are out of fellowship with ANYONE that we worship alongside, we out of fellowship with God .

Coming to the table, you see is not an individual driven act, it’s not a place where we come to get blueprint of what to do next, or even a place where we can come thinking we are in this alone.

Rather, it’s a place where we define our community as one giant messy experience of faith in something larger than ourselves with our brothers and sisters in Christ as companions on the journey.  So that we can’t ignore fussiness, gossip, bitterness or discord of any nature if we want to truly see God’s presence in our midst. We have to claim our work with one another in community building as a sacred, a very sacred act.

The type of community we are to create, according to Matthew’s gospel, you see, is not to be made up of some token inclusivity that means diversity guidelines, politeness, and political correctness—but rather a state of being where we take our cues from this supper: a supper of radical inclusivity. The supper where Jesus taught us who was the greatest, when he as the Son of God, sits among this followers and says, “This is my body broken for you.”

I know one of your favorite songs, like it is mine, is the one that exhorts us, “They’ll Know We Are Christians by our love.” Today, as we take this meal and live out the message of Jesus that all are welcome here and in this body, all people will know we are Christians by our love of how we treat one another. It’s as basic and complex as that!

Won’t you join me today at this meal of love and celebrate together in our worship the community of Christ from which our communion is shared?


[i] Langle, Deanna. “A Careful Read (Matt. 18:15-20)”  The Christian Century Online.


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