July 7, 2019
“A Daunting Task”
The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
Scripture Text: Mark 14.22-25
While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”
I want to be mildly unorthodox today. There should be no need for heresy, but the sermon is just getting started. You never know.
I want to talk about the table, the Lord’s table. But before we do, let’s talk about the cross.
I believe the cross reconciles us to God. On the cross Jesus made a way for us: to be forgiven, to be seen as beloved of God. This is the victory of the cross, the atoning sacrifice, the power of his blood. The crucified Lord makes our way to heaven on the cross. This is the once and complete sacrifice of Jesus for us as our messiah, the Christ, the anointed one. We preach Christ crucified says Paul. The cross is power; it reconciles us to God. It is all this, and yet, it does not reconcile us to each other.
The reconciliation of the world, the reign of the kingdom of God is not so much about the cross, as it is about the table. On the cross we are made right with God; at the table we are made right with each other.
You see, you can believe in the cross, believe in its saving power, and pretty much be a terrible person. You can be sure of heaven as you make hell of earth. You can if you fail to find the power of the table.
It’s an old movie now, yet, because I saw it in high school it always feels young. The movie is called Places in the Heart. Sally Fields, John Malkovich, Danny Glover embody three people who find their lives intertwined on a farm in the depression in the south. The plot of the story is that a woman needs to feed her family by running a farm after her husband, the sheriff, is killed. As she struggles to feed her family the mother needs to navigate betrayal and racism and sexism and bigotry and hatred, all the small-town virtues.
The movie is well done and powerful, but the plot is really not groundbreaking. Many, many stories have been made about our litany of woes, our hypocrisy and failures. Nothing too out of the ordinary in terms of common evil. And then, right at the end, the usual, the ordinary, is put aside. And in its place is one of the most profound visions of the kingdom of God I have ever seen.
The movie ends with a scene in a church. It is a communion Sunday. Yet, something is not quite right. The prostitute who should be shunned and far from the sanctuary is passing the plate to the straight-laced elder next to her in the pew; the young boy who shot the sheriff is passing him the cup; the Klansman is sitting next to the black farm hand; the adulterous husband is with his heartbroken wife.
What is so great about this scene is how it is about the earth. This is not a vision of heaven where everyone gets along after death – heaven fixes all our differences. What is so great is that this is an image of the world and the power of the table to reconcile the earth. The table has the power, if we find it, to make us right with each other here and now, in this time and place. The one we discarded becomes the friend when we say, the bread of Christ broken for you; the one who hurt us is forgiven and restored when we say, the cup of Christ for you. The divisions entrenched become bridges. This is the power of the table. Again, the cross gets right with God; the table gets us right with each other.
Let’s get to the unorthodox part, my favorite. There are four classic theories of the sacrament of the Lord’s supper, what it is and does. Yet none of them really create the image found in the movie. Each one is good and fine, but our theology of the table is quite powerless.
Let’s start with the simplest, the Baptist/Methodist memorial. The most basic belief about communion is this: it is a powerful memory. Mark does not record this but Luke does, “do this in memory of me.” Memories are powerful; the communion is where we are to remember the sacrifice of Jesus.
Next is the Reformed understanding. We add to the memory a dynamic exchange. When I give you the bread or you give the cup to the next person, we embody the powerful sacrifice of Jesus. We live it symbolically. The cup of Christ for you.
The Lutherans take the first two and add another layer. Not only is this a remembrance and an exchange, it is also a metaphysical transformation. The essence of the bread, the essence of the wine change in the sacrament. The Roman Catholics add the fourth layer. They have the first three and then they also have the belief that the physical substance of the bread and the cup change when the bell rings.
These are all good. Each has a truth to convey. We are supposed to balk at the Roman Catholic transubstantiation. But John tells us the word became flesh so maybe there is a power here we should consider. For me though despite the goodness of each of these, I want to say they all really miss the point. There is nothing here to reconcile us to each other.
Yes, we are bid to examine our hearts and reconcile with others before we come to the table. This is the instruction of Paul. But this is very much an echo of Old Testament sacrifice more than it is a vision of the kingdom of God on earth.
Leaving the four aside we can find great power at the table in two ways. The first is a powerful vision. On the night of his arrest Jesus is at table, and he calls all his disciples to him. They were all to be there with each other. The powerful vision in the sacramental moment is that Judas was at the table; Peter was at the table. They were all there even though Jesus knew full well what would happen in a few short hours. The table welcomes all.
The power is also found in what is given. With the bread and the cup we don’t find a transcendent truth so much as the most earthly image. The bread and the cup is supposed to be an image of life lived well, lived with each other, in peace. Bread is work; wine is joy. Find the balance of these. Six days work; one day rest. Bread and cup. That is not so much a metaphysical theory as it is a description of creation.
I dare say the Catholics get the closest in terms of earth, but then, not so much. The physical change should be in us as we embody the life of Jesus. We are the change; the elements are the symbols of what we should be.
The table has power when it is simple. No bells, no trinitarian transactions, no metaphysics or memories. The bread is work and toil and sweat of the brow (what we must have, but what is not enough). The cup is wine, joy, celebration, happiness (of this there is never enough but sometimes too much).
The table is a vision of a very simple life, a life of balance. Work and rest; toil and joy; labor and celebration. Six days; one day: the very structure of the earth. The table is the place where we are to find this simplicity, find this balance not only in the elements, but also in each other. Jesus offered both.
When Amanda Ripley came to us on June 6th to speak about civility, she also spoke about the Anns. She spoke of how these two lovely women in their 80s, who are dear friends, hold completely opposing views. One is the founding member of Life Right (a pro-life group); and one is a founding member of Planned Parenthood. Complete opposites. In spite of this, they have the same name; they sit in the same pew; they sing out of the same hymnal; and, have done so for fifty years. They are categorically opposed and the dearest of friends.
Amanda Ripley was so funny when I talked to her on the phone after she met them. She told me, “I thought you were being a bit over the top calling them the kingdom of God. I can see what you mean now.”
The Anns are for me a vision of the table. And then, almost as important, they simply are who they are. They are flesh and blood, laughter and tears, joy and sorrow. That they are all this together is the power of the table. Living a simple life of work and rest as friends. The cross reconciles us to God; the table reconciles us to each other.
Before I left Watertown the Anns gave me a gift. They gave me this stole. I love this stole. They were really nervous because black and gray are not really liturgical colors. Would this be appropriate? I told them, “absolutely.” This is such a living image to me of their humility. They recognize how each of their lives is fraught with limitations and misdirection and mistakes (the black.) But there is good and hope and truth and forgiveness as they come together. The two sides come together in the gray. They are friends; they come to this table together. The power of the table, so much more than the transaction of a metaphysical memory.
Like the communion scene in the movie, I see this stole as a vision of the earth, an honest hope for the world. The cross reconciles to God. This table can reconcile us to each other. Broken and full of faults, we are welcomed to each other. Peter was at the table hours before he said, I don’t know the man; Judas was at the table hours before the kiss. That is the power of the table.
After worship today we will hear from my friend Andrew, the Rev. Dr. Bush. He and his wife Karen have done so much in so many places. About twenty years ago they started a coffee shop in the West Bank, in Ramallah. Through the years I have heard Andrew speak of many moments when this mission has brought people together, people who live opposed to each other.
When I thought of him coming today, I wondered, how much of your life has been given to just making a table in Palestine? A table like Jesus made who welcome Judas and welcomed Peter. How much of Living Stones is a table for neighbors to be reconciled to each other? A place to be brought together. Such a simple hope, such a daunting task.
Near the end of the vows taken for ministry in the Presbyterian Church, there is a daunting question: will you work for the reconciliation of the world? That is quite a vow.
To this end we do stuff to help people. We embark on missions and we feed the hungry and bring shelter to the homeless. We do these things. And then there is the whole gift of beauty a church brings that offers healing and peace. We offer beauty and healing in worship and prayer. We do lots of stuff, yet it comes down to a table. We must call all to a place of friendship.
The table here is what must be born in us. This is the beginning, the seed. So much of the reconciliation we need is between siblings or spouses, parents and children, the neighbor and the one who was a friend. Our own Peter, our own Judas is the vision of the table. They were Jesus’ friends. With whom must we seek reconciliation?
This table, this house is where we find the power, learn the path, take the vow to reconcile the world to each other. What I find so helpful with this stole is the reminder of humility. The Anns who made this stole live the contradiction, the tension. In friendship the opposition finds compliment.
A church can be many things and accomplish great acts of mercy; we can craft beauty in prayer and in song. We are redeemed in these. What is left, though, is our need to be reconciled to each other. A simple hope; a daunting task.
Too often I believe we seek reconciliation as an ideal or an accord or a law. Yet, none of these come close to friendship. The cross reconciles us to God; as we become friends more and more around this table, we reconcile the world. We find the courage to prepare a table out there. As David said, you prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. The image at the end of the movie, the one who is shunned is welcomed, and the who hurt others is forgiven, this shouldn’t wait for heaven. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. A prayer for today. Amen.
- Leviticus 23:1 - 8
- Mark 14:22 - 25