If you are of a certain generation, odds are you’ve seen this little poem hanging on the wall of someone’s kitchen (or maybe it’s in your kitchen!): “No matter where I serve my guests, it seems they like my kitchen best.”
It’s true, I suspect, no matter what your generation or background happens to be; that wherever else gatherings are supposed to take place in any given home, it always seems like it’s in the kitchen – and specifically, at the kitchen table – where everything happens! This is certainly true of my in-laws’ house up in Maine: every time we visit up there, it’s quite literally a steady stream of family and friends who come to visit, drink coffee, indulge in a few sweets and get caught up with one another. It’s the place where dinner gets served, games are played and pictures get taken (in fact, I’ve been threatening for years now to go through our family albums to create a slide show of the multitude of photos taken around that table over the years, if only so we might have the dubious spectacle of watching ourselves grow swiftly older as the pictures – and the years – fly past!). It’s around the table, you see, where life “its own self” is lived; it’s where “the ties that bind” are bound; and perhaps above all, it’s the place where we’re always made to feel welcome.
I actually find myself thinking a great deal about that table – and several others just like it that I’ve sat around over the years – when we come together here on these Sundays to celebrate the Sacrament of Holy Communion. After all, what’s the very first thing we say when we begin that part of our worship? That’s right; “This table is open to all who confess Jesus as the Christ and who seek to follow Christ’s way.” (UCC Book of Worship) Whether you’ve come to this place today already steeped in the deep spiritual significance of our sharing communion, or if you’re still trying to figure out what the deal is with all the bread cubes and little glasses of grape juice, no matter; you are invited to come to this table before us so that you might have the opportunity to “partake and share” in this Holy Meal, that we all might know Christ in the breaking of the bread. You see, I’ve always had the sense that while, at least in this church, we usually serve this meal by bringing it directly to you and passing the trays from person to person, nonetheless this is a family meal eaten around a common table; and as we are fond of saying in the United Church of Christ, “no matter where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”
And at no time is that more relevant, and true, than on this particular day; which is, of course, World Communion Sunday, in which we join with Christians across the globe in celebrating this sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in worship settings of every size, shape and variety.
I was actually kind of curious about this, so this week I looked it up and found out that World Communion Sunday (or World Wide Communion Sunday, as it once was called) dates back to the 1930’s. The idea for it grew out of the Presbyterian tradition in a time when fascism was on the rise throughout the world and people were becoming very concerned in the face of much global uncertainty. It was meant as an effort for the wider church to express its unity in the face of all of that; the message that if the wide expanse of the church could share in this sacrament together, if only for one Sunday a year, then this proclamation that “we are one in the Spirit and the Gospel of Jesus Christ” would not only ring true, but also symbolize the effort to hold things together, at least in a spiritual sense. The custom really took off during the years of the Second World War, and it’s been part of the Christian calendar in just about every denomination and tradition ever since.
Of course, from the very beginning of this practice one could make the argument that one service of worship does not make for a wholly unified church, and that there have always been sharp divisions amongst many of those who would claim to be part of the “one body” of Christ; something that’s certainly true today.
It was very interesting, for instance, to note that for all the accolades received across the denominational spectrum for Pope Francis in his recent visit to the United States, there were also a fair amount of protests; a great many of them mounted by those of the Roman Catholic faith. Likewise, how do we reconcile the fact that those of us in a church that proudly proclaims that we are “open and affirming” worship the same God as those who would openly defy a Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage because they believe it conflicts with their Christian faith? My point here is not to get into that discussion, but to state that which is painfully obvious: that we church folk might well like to sing that “we are one in the Spirit, and one in the Lord,” but the truth is we don’t agree on everything! Hey, after thirty years as a church pastor, I can tell you that it’s hard enough for a congregation not to become divided over the color of a sanctuary carpet (!), much less to have the wider church agree on some of the finer points of Christian theology and practice! And the fact that we’re all breaking bread together today hasn’t changed that; at least, not yet.
Then again… maybe we’re missing the point of this World Communion Sunday. Maybe the unity we proclaim this morning isn’t about uniformity, constant agreement or what Debra Dean Murphy refers to as “the tolerant niceness of a shallow peace.” Perhaps this day – and this meal we’re about to share with one another and the world – is about affirming the gift… the gift we receive in the union we share with one another and with Jesus Christ through broken bread and a shared cup.
In the first of our scripture readings this morning, Isaiah tells of a promised feast on a mountain that “the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples,” with rich food, “well-aged wines,” and as the Message translates it, “lavish with gourmet desserts.” (my kind of meal!) But the food, as glorious as it will be, will pale in comparison to what else the Lord will also on that mountain: destroying “the shroud that is cast over all peoples… swallow[ing] up death forever.” The Lord, says Isaiah “will wipe away the tears from all faces,” and “remove every sign of disgrace from his people, wherever they are.”
Well, I can’t claim that what we’re serving this morning is as grand as what Isaiah describes, but I can say that this simple meal of bread and wine to which you and I are invited this morning is a foretaste of that great feast that is to come by God’s grace; it is a banquet of unending hope and love to which all are welcomed and none will be left hungry. As we share the bread and the cup that is the body and blood of Christ, we gather around a table that is ever growing, ever expanding to make room for all those whom Jesus loves; welcoming anyone and everyone who has ever felt mired from the darkest places of human life: the sick and the poor; the empty and disenfranchised; the cast aside and lost; the confused and searching, the ones who grieve the loss of something they have known and those who long for that which they can’t even name.
Like that promised feast upon the mountain, our table is set for the ones who speak gently; but also for the ones whose hearts have been so hardened by pain they cannot begin to understand that even their words are filled with anguish. This bread about to be broken is for all those who have been broken by the life of this world; this cup we’re about to pour is for those who yearn to embrace a new life, forgiven of sin, reconciled and redeemed. This is the joyful feast of the people of God, and as such it is not meant to be partaken solemnly, but with celebration, for in its sharing the shroud of darkness and death and hopelessness is pulled away and destroyed forever; our tears wiped away from our faces, “every sign of disgrace” removed from God’s own people, for this is who God is!
And whether or not this meal gets shared in a great cathedral in Europe or in a little white clapboard church on Mountain Road in Concord, New Hampshire; no matter whether it’s served to hundreds who have gathered together for worship, or it’s amongst only a few as the elements are passed from one to another; and however it happens with whatever tradition and etiquette that prevails, one thing is for certain: that the Lord is present in the bread and the cup, and that the great salvation that comes in Jesus Christ has been extended to you and to you and to me – to all of us who are God’s people – and that, indeed, makes us one.
In the closing moments of a wonderful film of some years back, “Places in the Heart,” starring Sally Field, the scene abruptly shifts to a church service in which the sacrament of communion is being shared; it remains amongst my all-time favorite scenes in the movies. Because as the camera slowly pans the congregation receiving communion, we hear those familiar “words of institution” that we heard in the Epistle this morning: “that the Lord Jesus on the night he was betrayed took a loaf of bread… broke it… and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’” And as we watch the tray of wine – a tray of tiny cups just like the one we use here – get passed from person to person in the pew, we begin recognize all the characters in this story we’ve just watched; the heroes and the villains, the good people and the very bad, the innocent and the guilty, the lost and repentant, the blind and those who see… the living and even those who are dead and departed. It’s an incredible and somewhat surprising depiction of the communion of saints; and, to quote Frederick and Mary Ann Brussat in a review they wrote about this movie, it is an image “in which the lambs and the wolves, the wronged and the wrongdoers, the betrayers and the betrayed, are all together as one.” It is a statement about the joyous hope that comes in Christ’s redeeming presence.
Beloved, you and I come to the this table today representing a small but vital part of that communion of saints; each one of us, regardless of where we’ve come from to get here, or what is happening in our lives and living at this very moment, receiving the gracious, unifying gift of infinite love that’s offered to us in the life, death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The bread and the wine set before us is truly a Holy Feast that represents the greater promise of life abundant and eternal; and each one of us is invited now, and welcomed to “come to the table.”
So let us come… with joy… to break bread together, for “all things are now ready.”
Thanks be to God.
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2015 Rev. Michael W. Lowry