Bread for the Journey

September 23, 2007

Speaker

Summary

BREAD FOR THE JOURNEY

© Rev. Dr. Gary Blaine

University Congregational Church

September 23, 2007

Reading: “A Joyous Christmas Dinner,” from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.

His active little crutch was heard upon the floor, and back came Tiny Tim before another word was spoken, escorted by his brother and sister to his stool before the fire; and while Bob, turning up his cuffs – as if, poor fellow, they were capable of being made more shabby – compounded some hot mixture in a jug with gin and lemons, and stirred it round and round and put it on the hob to simmer; Master Peter, and the two ubiquitous young Cratchits went to fetch the goose, with which they soon returned in high procession.

Such a bustle ensued that you might have thought a goose the rarest of all birds; a feathered phenomenon, to which a black swan was a matter of course – and in truth it was something very like it in that house. Mrs. Cratchit made the gravy (ready before-hand in a little saucepan) hissing hot; Master Peter sweetened up the apple-sauce; Martha dusted the hot plates; Bob took Tiny Tim beside him in a tiny corner at the table; the two young Cratchits set chairs for everybody, not forgetting themselves, and mounting guard upon their posts, crammed spoons into their mouths, lest they should shriek for goose before their turn came to be helped. At last the dishes were set on, and grace was said. It was succeeded by a breathless pause, as Mrs. Cratchit, looking slowly all along the carving knife, prepared to plunge it in the breast; but when she did, and when the long expected gush of stuffing issued forth, one murmur of delight arose all round the board, and even Tiny Tim, excited by the two young Cratchits, beat on the table with the handle of his knife, and feebly cried, Hurrah![1]

I would like to propose to you this morning that this scene is one of the finest interpretations of the Christian’s Holy Communion as you will find anywhere. I believe that it faithfully represents the sacred elements of Eucharist, including the sharing of food, thanksgiving, sacrifice, and the lively fellowship that ought to permeate the Lord’s Supper.

I know this sounds preposterous! We think of communion as a rather formal affair with little mess and fuss. In some churches people process up to the chancel rail where they kneel. The minister and associates move down the rail distributing wafers and grape juice in small cups, droning, “This is the body of Christ.” Or, the elements are passed down the aisle. In some congregations the members walk to various stations of the church and are given a piece of bread that they dip into a cup of wine. This is called intinction. In most Catholic churches the laity only receive the bread or wafer. Only the priest and deacons receive the cup. And if you are not Catholic you are not encouraged to participate at all. But in all of these examples everything is nice and tidy, except for a few crumbs on the carpet for the sexton to vacuum up after the service. There is not the clatter of plates, slopping of gravy, or the slurping sounds of children and elders. The church service is staid and managed with scripted parts for celebrant and laity. There is no need to endure gossip, children arguing at the table, or awkward silences when taboo topics inadvertently slip from the college students who came home for the holiday. And finally, there is little clean up to bother with, especially if your church uses throw away plastic communion cups. No need to fight about whose turn it is to do the dishes. No guilt to lay on the man folk about abandoning the women to the kitchen while they watch football or nap.

What we forget is that when Jesus gathered with the disciples in the upper room, they were there to celebrate a major Jewish feast. The scene of the Lord’s Supper was a household meal with a religious focus. Celebrating the Jewish Passover, there were probably multiple loaves of unleavened bread on the table, roast lamb, horseradish, olives, nuts, dates, figs and wine. I will bet that someone sloshed their wine on the table and there was plenty of talk and speculation concerning the day’s events, religion and politics.

The Christian Communion is based on the Jewish tradition, made up of four basic actions. An offering of bread and wine is taken. There is a prayer of thanksgiving in which the bread and wine are blessed. The bread is broken. The bread and the cup are shared. But let me emphasize that the Passover is a family meal. And when we read the book of Acts in the New Testament we learn that the disciples spent time in the temple and “they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts.” (Acts 2: 46-47) The Jewish Shabbat is a family celebration where women open the service. In the Passover the children ask the most important questions.

The same themes run through Passover and Eucharist. The first is one of celebration. What is the party about? The angel of death passed over the homes of the Hebrew people, slaves in Egypt, and the great Exodus of freedom has been inaugurated. Likewise, Christians proclaim that death has no victory, it is not the last statement on our lives, and we live in the hope and expectation that goodness and truth will conquer our finitude and limitation. Free people celebrate with food, friends, and family. If someone is visiting invite him or her in. They are meant for freedom too and there is plenty of food for all.

Remembering is the heart of any celebration. When we go to a party we reminisce about the “good old days,” and former friends, and events that have bonded us together and no outsider can understand the same tired old stories. At the Passover we remember bricks made of mud and straw. We remember the lashes of whips at the hands of taskmasters, thin gruel for food. We remember the prophet’s voice that stood before the throne of oppression and demanded, “Let my people go.” We remember the warnings and the promises. We remember to bake unleavened bread and paint the lentils of the house with lamb’s blood. We remember the chill night of judgment and the bright dawn of freedom as we lined up at the gates. We remember the waters of death breaking away and making a path for our exodus. All of this, we recall, is the grace of God.

We remember a young prophet who stood in that same tradition and invited everyone to the table of freedom – tax collectors, whores, children, women, the poor and outcast, the sophisticated and the wise, and yes, even Egyptians would be welcome. The table of the Carpenter is a radically inclusive table. Everyone is invited to rise above every reason, excuse, rule, or law that separates us, belittles us, isolates us, or deprives us. Every religious, political, and social law has only one purpose and that is to serve human dignity. And the Nazarene understood that if there are religious, political, and social laws that degrade human beings one must offer a new way, set a new table, and expand the horizons of human liberty. If a radically inclusive table means that we must die on the cross of bigotry, hatred, and fear then so be it. That is not martyrdom. That is love. That is the freedom that God has always promised. This is the new covenant.

The Passover Feast and Holy Communion are celebrations and they remind us of the suffering, even death that grace requires. They invite us into that sacred story of sacrifice and salvation. They beckon us to Sinai and, for Christians, to Calvary to participate in the power of the work and person of the Christ. The invitation is to take the symbols of love and freedom and ingest them, partake of them, incorporate them into our body and being. And the challenge for us is to rise from the table in our own body and blood to be agents of justice and mercy.

Do you remember the old Jewish story when the Teutonic knights invaded our little town in Poland? Oh, they were ruthless when it came to the Jews. The first thing they did, of course, was to ghettoize us. You remember – they forced us into one tiny section of town. Some families had to double up or triple up. Then they cut our food rations. Soups and stews were cut with water many times over. Winter came and they cut the ration of coal that we used to heat our homes and cook our food. At first we thought we would get by, but they cut the rations in half again. As winter wore on our infants and elders became weak with dysentery and cold. Soon they began to die. We went to the rabbi and urged him to appeal to the knights for more food and coal.

Our rabbi was a very old man, but he stepped out into the winter night with purpose. He approached the great hall where the knights were feasting. The aroma of roast beef nearly buckled his knees. The tables were laden with hot potatoes, warm bread, butter and honey, fruits, and pies. The room was warm and the rabbi began to sense feeling in his hands and feet. A steward bent low to the ear of the chieftain who led the knights. He informed him that the rabbi wished an audience.

The knights, who had been talking and laughing, stopped their conversations. They turned to look at the wizened old Jew who stood before them. Their faces spoke of contempt. “What is it you want?” demanded the chieftain.

“With respect sir,” began the rabbi, “I am here on behalf of my people. Because they do not have enough food they have become weak. Because they have no coal they are cold. Without adequate food and coal my people are sick. Young mothers are miscarrying. The elders die before their time. So, I beg you, sir, please allow us more food and coal.”

The chieftain stood up with such force his chair scudded across the room behind him. He marched right over to our rabbi and smacked him with the back of his hand. The force of his violence was so great the old man was knocked to the floor. Teeth danced like dice across the floor. Blood gushed from his mouth and nose. Our rabbi was breathless. He lay on the floor panting, trying to surmount the pain that shocked his entire body. Finally he managed to rise to his knees.

“That sir,” he said, “is what you will do for me. Now I beg you. What will you do for my people?”

That was a Passover moment. That was the Eucharist in motion. And every time that each one of us insists that the hungry be fed, that the homeless be given shelter, or the ill be given medical care, or the illiterate be educated, we are breaking bread and sharing the cup of life. Every moment spent with a grieving friend, a dying neighbor, or a broken hearted teenager is a Eucharistic moment. Every time we write a letter to a lonely soul or just pick up the telephone and leave the message that we are thinking about them is a holy communion. The Lord’s Supper is celebrated when we break the body of pride and say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand, please forgive me.” Or, “I know you are very angry with me right now but I am wondering if we could meet for coffee and muffins at Starbucks. Let’s talk about this.”

It reminds me of an old Celtic prayer attributed to St. Nicander. Nicander was a physician of Alexandria. He was beheaded for giving aid and comfort to Christian slaves.

With the saints

I risked approaching

God’s altar. Bearing

My burden.

It is a table to feed the

Starving poor.

It is a table to strengthen

The weak.

There I could, as it were,

Touch

The broken body of holy

Jesus.

Suddenly my heart melted

Like wax before

The flame.[2]

That is the purpose of the Eucharist. We celebrate the table where people are fed and strengthened. Our hearts are melted with such compassion that we can no longer distinguish our lives from that of our neighbor or that of God.

It reminds me of the story about a young man nick-named “Moondog.” The story is from Jonathan Kozol’s book, Amazing Grace. Kozol wrote:

“A few doors away, my attention is arrested by one of the most unusual memorials that I have seen in the South Bronx. In bright white paint against a soft beige background is a painting of a large and friendly-looking dog, his tail erect, his ears alert for danger. Above, in yellow letters, I read, “MOONDOG,” which appears to be the nickname of the person who has died. “Gone is the face…Silent is the voice…In our hearts we’ll remember,” reads the epitaph.

As I am standing on the sidewalk copying the words, a plump Hispanic woman rises from the stoop nearby and comes up to my side.

“Is this where he died?” I ask.

“Yes,” she answers. “He was shot right there, inside the door.”

“Why was he killed?”

“He was protecting a woman who was pregnant.”

“Did the woman live?”

“The woman lived. She’s fine.”

“Did the baby live?”

“The baby’s doing fine.”

“How old was the man who died?”

“He was almost 21.”

I asked her how he got his nickname.

“He loved dogs. He used to bring them home.” Her voice was jovial and pleasant.

“Did you know him well?”

“He was my son,” she says.”[3]

When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper we are summoned to one of the most radical invitations ever extended to human beings. We are invited to take bread and wine, metaphors for the work and power of God’s grace – I call it bread for the journey – and after the meal to give ourselves over to the needs of the world. We are fed and now we are called to feed others.

Now understand how radical this is. We live in a society that dotes on American Idol, Who Wants to be a Millionaire, Wheel of Fortune, and Survivor. Over and against such values, the Lord’s Supper feeds us and then sends us to serve others – to give our lives away. Holy Communion teaches us that “we’re number one” totally misses the point. Rather, the first shall be last. Eucharist teaches us that the future of the human community will be better secured by loving our neighbors. No one is voted out of the community. To put it negatively, there will be no survivors on this island of life until we learn to deeply love and respect one another. And while that seems so simple it is the greatest challenge in my life and in our society.

I think that is reason to celebrate! Because that is the answer. There are no secrets, no de Vinci code to unravel. It is right before us. There is a model. There is a lifestyle that gives us a purpose and a vision of how we can all have an abundant life. There will be room at the table for everyone and there will be food for every soul. The pudding will be perfect, the little children will squeal with joy. Mothers and fathers will breathe a sigh of relief. And everyone can shout, “Gloria in excelsis Deo!” “Hurrah!”

Finis

[1] Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (New York: Oxford Press, 1996), pp. 45-46.

[2] Rev. Morris Williams, A Celtic Primer; edited and compiled by Brendan O’Malley (Harrisburg: Morehouse Publishing, 2002), 213.

[3] Jonathan Kozol, Amazing Grace as found in Spiritual Literacy edited by Frederick and Mary Ann Brussat (New York: Scribners, 1996), pp. 487-488.

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