Tag Archives: Sacrament of Holy Communion

FAQ’s of Faith: Why the Bread and Wine?

(a sermon for March 4, 2018, the Third Sunday in Lent; third in a series, based on 1 Corinthians 11:23-32)

She was a dearly loved member of the congregation who was in the final stages of an incurable cancer, and had just arrived home from a lengthy hospital stay out of town; and she’d asked if the associate pastor and I might come out to see her.  And while certainly we were both very glad to do that, we were also more than a little concerned about it!  After all, this woman was still very weak from her latest round of chemo therapy, her trip home had to have been exhausting and besides, we knew there was already this long list of family members, neighbors and friends who had prayers, best wishes and casseroles to bring to her; so maybe, we suggested, another day might be better for us to visit.  But she was insistent; and so that afternoon we headed out to a farmhouse on the edge of town to make this pastoral call, deciding that whatever else happened, we pastors would be sure to make out visit brief!

However, as we should have expected, this woman would have none of that!  In fact, every time we’d start to rise to leave, she’d have another question about something going on in the life of the church, or else she’d ask about our families.  And this would inevitably lead to another story about her growing up; about the trials and tribulations she and her husband faced raising their own children, or what was happening now with her beloved grandchildren.  And I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that nearly every story, spiritually and joyfully speaking, had us in stitches.  There was a lot of blessed laughter in that room, to be sure, and it went on and on.

But then, almost an hour later as we made yet another attempt to take our leave, she says, “Can we have communion before you go?  Since I haven’t been able to get to church lately, I’ve really missed communion.”  The associate and I looked at each other quickly; though a great deal of our ministries had involved bringing communion to shut-ins, for some reason this possibility had never occurred to either one of us!  “Well, we’d love to,” I answered, “but we neglected to bring the elements, so perhaps when you’re feeling better…”

“Oh, we can find those,” she interrupted, and quickly dispatched her husband to locate what we needed.  Okay, then… but soon we hear the husband wearily calling back from the kitchen, “You know, I don’t think there’s any grape juice; not much bread either!”   “Just improvise,” she calls back, rolling her eyes in no small manner of exasperation.  “My land, Dean, anything will be fine!”  And a couple of minutes and the rattle of cupboard doors later, he emerges from the kitchen with our “holy feast” set before us on the coffee table:  a not quite day-old hamburger roll on a dessert plate, and a wine goblet literally filled to overflowing with… orange juice!  “Not exactly what we’d have on a Sunday morning at church, but it’ll do,” he said, and his wife nodded in agreement.

Not exactly, indeed!  I thought to myself, quietly wondering if this could actually even be considered “official” communion; after all, we were just about to break every sacramental rule in the book!  Where was the wine (or in our case, the grape juice) poured into little glasses?  How about the carefully cubed pieces of bread placed ever so carefully on a silver tray?  A leftover hamburger bun and some orange juice might – might (!) – suffice as a last minute mid-afternoon snack; but as elements in the reenactment of the Lord’s Supper, in a worshipful remembrance of the events of the last night of our Savior’s earthly life?   This seemed at best altogether too casual and flippant, and, well, at worst sacrilegious; I remember thinking that my seminary professors would be aghast at the very thought of such a thing!

You see, in a situation such as that the question becomes, when is communion… not?  And by the same token, how does such a simple, utterly basic little meal as this become a sacrament, imbued with the presence and power of our Lord?  And why the bread and wine; why does that even matter?

What’s interesting about our text this morning, taken from Paul’s first letter to the Church in Corinth, is that Paul seems to be addressing much the same kind of an issue. It seems that the Corinthians, who were pretty much of a factious and divided people anyway, were letting those divisions affect their celebration of the Lord’s Supper; for some, sharing the bread and wine had become little more than an excuse for eating and drinking to excess, and moreover, an opportunity for excluding others from the meal by virtue of wealth and their own gluttony!  For all their talk of Jesus Christ, there was precious little consideration amongst the Corinthians as to the true meaning of this particular table-gathering; in fact, just prior to our reading today Paul says to them, “when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse.” (11:17) Basically there was nothing at all worshipful, much less sacramental, about what they were doing.  Rather than an act in which Christ is remembered, their coming together existed as little more than a private dinner party, and a very exclusive one at that!

And so, in light of all that, here is Paul now to remind them of the true meaning and reality of the Lord’s Supper: “that on the night when he was betrayed” – or “handed over,” which is probably the better translation – Jesus (and likely at the beginning of what we know to have been a Passover meal) “took a loaf of bread… broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is broken for you. Do this is remembrance of me’” And then after supper as the wine was being poured, he took the cup, saying to his gathered disciples that “this cup is the new covenant in my blood.  Do this as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.  For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

Do this in remembrance of me, says Jesus… Do this to remember me… do this!  And that’s what Paul was seeking to convey to the Corinthians in the midst of their partying: that more than some small, offhanded and soon to be forgotten ritual in the midst of an evening meal (or, for that matter, as simply one more thing that happens in the middle of a worship service) this particular partaking of bread and wine is no less than a sacred act, for it acknowledges in a palpable way what Jesus has done (or, on that first Maundy Thursday, what Jesus was about to do!).  I love how The Message both translates and actually expands this admonition of Paul to the Corinthians:  “What you must solemnly realize,” he writes to them, “is that every time you eat this bread and every time you drink this cup, you reenact in your words and actions the death of the Master.  You will be drawn back to this meal again and again,” Paul goes on, “until the Master returns.”

Why the bread and wine?  It’s because when Jesus broke that loaf of bread and said, “This is my body,” it was so we might always remember that his body was broken, and that he died for us; for the sake of our salvation and a life abundant and eternal with God.  It’s that ongoing reminder each time we break the bread that we participate in the broken body of Christ; because it’s our sin for which his sacrifice paid the cost, and which brings us new hope forged in forgiveness.  And that’s why the wine: because when Jesus shared the Passover wine with them, calling it the “new covenant in his blood,” he was proclaiming a brand new life for all who would believe; a life of fullness and holiness that starts here and now, but will come to its fruition at that “heavenly banquet” in the Kingdom of God at the close of history.

Now granted, it’s hard for us to wrap our minds and hearts around something so personal and yet so utterly cosmic as this with something as simple as a sharing a tiny piece of bread and a little cup of unfermented wine (!)… but that’s we “do this” as often as we eat the bread and share the cup; that’s the reason for the sacrament we share!

I’m reminded here of a story from Martin Copenhaver’s book To Begin at the Beginning, in which he tells the story of the great dancer Martha Graham, who had just completed an inspired performance and was approached backstage by an ardent admirer of dance.  “Oh, Miss Graham,” he said, “that dance was wonderful.  Can you tell me what it means?”  “Honey,” Graham replied, still out of breath from the dancing, “if you I could tell you, then I wouldn’t have to dance it.” Copenhaver goes on to say that “the same could be said of a sacrament.  If words alone were sufficient, the sacrament would not be necessary.  The nature of a sacrament is such that nothing can convey its meaning as well as the sacrament itself.”

In other words, I can speak to you theologically or historically or biblically about what we’re doing here today in celebrating the Sacrament of Holy Communion, but what’s really important is the experience that each one of us has in sharing this sacred meal; it’s in partaking of the broken bread and the cup of blessing in the same manner that Jesus himself gave it and as so many over the generations have continued to do; and it’s in knowing the wonder and the deep, deep love of Jesus’ presence in it; in the anticipation of what our Lord Jesus will be saying and doing in our hearts and lives as we “do this” today in remembrance of him.

How it all happens and why, well that’s a mystery of grace.  All I know is that every time we gather in this sanctuary and come to feast at this table we come into the presence of the Lord who can and does turn our lives and our world all around; and I also know that when the elements are as “non-traditional,” shall we say, as a hamburger bun and orange juice something sacred and miraculous is bound to happen.

I remember that day at the farmhouse when I finally decided that this wasn’t going to be your run of the mill communion service, the associate pastors and I began repeating those familiar words of institution… do this in remembrance of me… take this, eat, and be thankful… the same words we’ll share together here in just a few moments, words not totally dissimilar to those that have been spoken at countless other celebrations of the Lord’s Supper over the centuries.

And yes, that man was right: this was certainly not the kind of communion you’d likely find in a church sanctuary, the prayers certainly weren’t as formal as you might speak them in a traditional worship service, and, trust me, sharing the bread and cup certainly didn’t taste like communion as you’d receive it on a typical Sunday morning!  But then, in the midst of it all, I looked up and realized why none of this mattered:  the husband and wife had joined their hands and were deep in prayer, most certainly sensing the presence of a loving, caring, healing Lord who had already been with them through so much and would remain close in whatever was yet to come.  Truly, in the breaking of the bread and in the sharing of the cup, the remembered him and his peace… and his hope… and his comfort… and his healing… and his love.  By any measure, I can tell you that it “worthy” of the sacrament, and it was a sacred moment indeed.

As the song goes, “there’s grace to be found in the bread and the wine.”  I hope and pray that as once we again come to this sacred table that we’ll remember; so that we might truly experience all that our Lord has to give us by his presence and love.

So might it be, and may our thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry


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Word… and Sacrament

book-of-worshipIt’s called the Book of Worship, and for the uninitiated, it’s a collection of prayers, litanies and other liturgical resources for use in the worship life of congregations within the United Church of Christ, of which this pastor and the congregation I serve are a part.  From orders for weekly services of “Word and Sacrament” throughout the church year to the many other celebrations common to our shared ministry – Baptism, Confirmation, weddings, funerals and so on – the Book of Worship is, for clergy and laity alike, the go-to volume for worship materials that are both biblically and theologically sound, as well as rich in the history, tradition and diversity of our denomination.

As clergy and congregations we’re not required to use it in our services of worship (we’re far too independent and autonomous in the UCC for such a thing as this!), it is nonetheless one important resource that serves to truly unite us as the church, “linking the tapestry of the past and weaving the fabric of the future.” As I’m fond of explaining to those who ask, if you come to our church in New Hampshire this Sunday when we’re celebrating the Sacrament of Baptism, and then go to a UCC church in California next week where there’s also a baptism taking place, odds are you’ll hear pretty much the same service; and in fact, there’s great power in that.  Indeed, as the Book of Worship itself puts it, it’s a “means of praise and thanksgiving of the living God by [all of] God’s people in this time.”

I’ve had my copy (actually, two copies, but I’ll get to that in a moment) since shortly after it was published in 1986; and by any measure you’d care to use, it’s a book that’s seen better days! The binding is completely broken now (the book actually dropped out of said binding and on to the floor last year on Maundy Thursday, as I recall), the embossed printing on the cover has all but worn away, and a great many of the pages within are dog-eared, torn and covered with circles, arrows, and barely legible notes written to myself in preparation for literally hundreds of spiritual gatherings over the course of three decades. For me, it’s been a true “tool of the trade,” and truth be told, though I don’t always use it and over time have even come to know some of its liturgy by heart, there’s rarely a Sunday you won’t find me without the Book of Worship close at hand.

That is, you usually won’t.

A few Sundays back on what is always an occasion of great celebration at East Church, I had the joy and privilege of baptizing a bright eyed little boy who’s long been a part of the church family. The pews were filled with family members and friends, all was made ready for this blessed sacrament to take place, and our morning worship was about to begin… when I suddenly realized that my Book of Worship, which of course contains the proper liturgy I needed to do my job as pastor and “officiant” at this celebration, had been left in my office.  No problem; except that when I got to my office, the book as nowhere to be found!  And I do mean nowhere; after fairly well tearing apart my admittedly cluttered desk, as well as the surrounding environs, it was clear that it wasn’t going to be found before the call to worship, which was now five minutes away!

Again, no problem; because sitting on my office bookshelf is a second, loose leaf copy of the Book of Worship that I have kept for just such an occasion… except that somewhere along the line, that book had been dropped, all the pages had come loose and scattered, and in the process most of the baptismal pages had been misplaced, lost or destroyed! Frantically sifting through what remained, I managed to find a random page with part of the baptismal vows; but now, as the organ prelude had begun, there was no time to search for anything more.  I had to face the fact that I’d be doing this baptism pretty much on my own!

And the thing is, it went well!  Not perfectly, mind you, as I know I stumbled, and a lot.  I’m sure that as I nervously worked to pull key points of the liturgy from my addled memory, the language used was far less eloquent and graceful than what was on the printed page; likewise, my retelling of the story of Jesus welcoming the children came nowhere close to the New Revised Standard version!  But somehow, by the grace of God and the movement of his Spirit, it worked; there was laughter, some tears, and most importantly a child was formally and joyfully welcomed into the loving embrace of our Lord and into the care of a large and extended spiritual family.

In the end it was, in the truest and best sense of the word, sacramental. And it all happened without the Book of Worship.

This past Sunday, we gathered in worship for World Communion Sunday and once again I stood before the wonderful congregation that I serve, sharing in the simple yet manifold blessings of the bread and the cup.  And, yes, I did have with me the Book of Worship (that which was lost was indeed found, albeit a few days later; one of the groups using our Fellowship Hall had inadvertently stashed it in a cabinet), and together with other kindred spirits across the globe, we shared in a familiar liturgy of remembrance, faith and promise that’s been spoken across both miles and generations. And it was wonderful; though I must confess that on this particular day I was reminded that what made this service special happened way beyond what could ever be found in the pages of a worn book.  It happened both in the small and intimate ways we connected with one another as we shared in this holy feast, both eye to eye and heart to heart, and it happened especially in the multitude of ways that our Lord was being present to each one of us gathered together.

Don’t get me wrong; the Word that we impart as pastors and worship leaders is important, dare I say essential, as it’s part of what brings us together as a worshipping congregation.  But ultimately, it’s what happens in and through that service that makes it a Sacrament.

And surely God is present there.

c. 2016  Rev. Michael W. Lowry


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Come to the Table

kitchen best(a sermon for October 4, 2015, the 19th Sunday after Pentecost and World Communion Sunday, based on Isaiah 25:6-10a and 1 Corinthians 11:23-26)

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

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Posted by on October 4, 2015 in Church, Communion, Current Events, Jesus, Sermon, Worship


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