The Invitation to Table Fellowship

invitation

The most oft ignored rubric in the Book of Common Prayer might also be the most important.  Unfortunately, it is mired deep in the “Additional Directions” of the Holy Eucharist portion of the Prayer Book, near the bottom of page 407.  “While the people are coming forward to receive Communion, the celebrant receives the sacrament in both kinds.  The bishops, priests, and deacons at the Holy Table then communicate, and after them the people.” (emphasis mine).  Whether I am in a seminary chapel, Diocesan liturgy, or Sunday morning worship, it is clear that neither celebrant nor the people know this particular rubric and the power of its intended imagery.

In order for the reception of the Eucharist to be a communal act, it must all be done together.  When the congregations watches as a single person, who has already spoken more than 90% of the words of our common prayer, receives a choice piece of bread and an unsullied sip of wine, something about the communal aspect of the Eucharist is lost.  the Holy Table is the place where we all gather as sinners redeemed to be nourished and blessed by the Body and Blood of our Savior.  We come to the Table whether we are 6 months or 106 years.  We commune next to this with whom we disagree politically and theologically.  We receive from those whom we have hurt and from those who have hurt us. We come, all of us, desperately in need of God’s forgiveness and blessing.  The act of Holy Communion is the living out of Jesus’ message to both guests and hosts in Sunday’s Gospel lesson.

And it all starts with an invitation.  For all the liturgical variety now available to us in as a people of Common Prayer, there is but one singular authorized invitation to the Lord’s Table.  The words are the same in Rite I and Rite II, and there is no provision for anything different in Enriching our Worship.  Whenever the Eucharist is celebrated, the Prayer Book directs the following action: “Facing the people, the Celebrant says the following Invitation The Gifts of God for the People of God. and may add Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith, with thanksgiving.”

This is not to say that this is the only invitation you might hear in an Episcopal Church, the Iona Invitation is growing in popularity, and might actually do a better job acting as an invitation, motivating people to live out the rubric on page 407 by coming forward, making the reception of the Eucharist a communal act for all four orders of ministry.  It is a true invitation because it actually invites people to do something rather than to simply stare at the now consecrated elements of bread and wine.

This is the table, not of the Church but of Jesus Christ.
It is made ready for those who love God
and who want to love God more.
So come, you who have much faith and you who have little,
You who have been here often
and you who have not been for a long time or ever before,
You who have tried to follow and you who have failed.
Come, not because the Church invites you;
It is Christ who invites you to be known and fed here.

It isn’t Prayer Book authorized, so I can’t suggest you use it this Sunday, but my Bishop uses it, so I’m thinking we can try it here.  A true invitation to the Lord’s banquet, where we gather as one to receive what we all need.  Y’all come.

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Happy Thanksgetting!?!

You can listen to my Thanksgiving Day sermon on the Saint Paul’s website, or read it below.


Happy Thanksgetting everyone! No, not Thanksgiving, Thanksgetting.  Haven’t you heard, the good people at Verizon have decided that giving thanks is way too antiquated an idea, so this year, they’re calling it Thanksgetting, as in, let’s all be thankful for the stuff we can get now that Black Friday starts on Thanksgiving Thursday.  Now, I’m not one who usually gets my feathers ruffled by what the great minds at high power ad agencies come up with in order to get me to buy things. I don’t get bothered by people lining up for a great deal… I think they’re weird,  but I don’t begrudge them. I don’t even get angry that the annual Thanksgiving Day Parade is nothing but a three-hour advertisement for Macy’s and NBC, but for some reason, this Thanksgetting ad campaign really got stuck in my craw, so I googled it to see what others were saying about it, and found that this actually wasn’t the first instance of the word Thanksgetting.

As far as I can tell, the first time Thanksgetting was used in the media was November 13, 2010 on a children’s show called Planet Sheen.[1]  Planet Sheen was a spin-off of the popular animated movie Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, that you’ve probably never heard of. It centered around Jimmy’s less-than-genius friend, Sheen Estevez, who snuck aboard Jimmy’s rocket ship and ignoring the “Sheen, do not press this button” note, found himself four million and one light years away on the planet Zeenu.[2]  While working to get the rocket ship repaired, Sheen begins to teach the Zeenunians about what life is like on Earth.

In the 7th episode, entitled “Thanksgetting,”[3] the Zeenunians celebrate their annual holiday, Zakmanus, which lasts for an entire minute.  Sheen is less than impressed with the puny holiday, and teaches them about the three month long holiday season back on earth.  The Zeenunians decide to try it out, and Sheen takes advantage, calling the season Thanksgetting and making it all about them giving him presents, presents, and more presents.  Sheen gets everything he could ever want and more, but as you might guess, there is no real joy in Thanksgetting.  Sheen learns that joy comes in giving.  Of course, we all know this already, which is why we are here taking the opportunity to pause and be reminded that true joy can be found not in getting, but in giving, especially in giving thanks.

In our Gospel lesson this morning, Jesus is speaking to his disciples on the side of a mountain, but he could just as easily be talking to the millions of people who are making plans to hit all the great sales that start as early as 6pm this evening.  “Do not worry…”  Don’t worry about that 55 inch Ultra HD TV.  Don’t worry about the interactive R2-D2 robot.  Don’t worry about that ugly Christmas sweater.  Strive instead for the Kingdom of God.  I honestly believe that the starting place in striving for the Kingdom of God is in the action of giving thanks.  That’s why the Church continues to call the weekly celebration of Jesus’ last supper by an ancient Greek word, the Eucharist; which literally means, thanksgiving.  Our central act of worship, the thing that Christians have been doing since the very beginning, isn’t about  getting bread and wine but giving thanks to God for all the gifts that he has given us: bread, wine, community, and above all, his Son our Savior, Jesus Christ.

And so today, we pause.  As Santa is preparing for his annual ride down New York’s famed Fifth Avenue, as turkeys are roasting in the oven, as family and friends begin to gather, as football games get ready to start, and as the stores make their final preparations for an onslaught of shoppers, we stop, if only for a few moments, to strive for the Kingdom, to do the right, and good and joyful thing, to give God thanks for everything he has done for us.  Happy Thanksgiving everyone, and thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Planet_Sheen_episodes

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planet_Sheen

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X-zUxNvjC3I

 

Again with the Flesh and Blood

You’d expect an Episcopal priest who walks the hallowed halls of the venerable House of Deputies dressed like this to have a fairly low Eucharistic theology.

Photo by Dave Drachlis, Diocese of Alabama

And you would be right.  My dear friend and colleague Evan Garner was picked up by the Christian Century yesterday for his post entitled, “Really Real Flesh?” in which he made it clear that he does not subscribe to a Eucharistic theology that worries about molecular changes in bread and wine into the DNA of a first century Jew named Jesus.*  It is a good read, and he even looks into the Greek, so you should take a minute and read it.  Here’s the link again.

Evan admits, right at the end, that we do need to deal with what Jesus means when he says, “my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink,” but he stops short of actually dealing with it.  He does dive into this subject a bit in today’s part two, “Eat Me!” but while I was waiting, I got to thinking, what does Jesus mean when he invites the crowd to eat his flesh and drink his blood?  And while Evan would point us beyond the Eucharistic Table to find our meaning, even in my very low churchmanship, I can’t help but be drawn right to our central act of worship, a communal meal of bread and wine.

We find these disturbing words in the midst of Jesus’ Bread of Life Discourse.  Here he is dealing with the grumblings of the Jewish leadership over his intentionally provocative language.  We also read these words in John’s Gospel, which is a vitally important thing to remember.  John’s Gospel doesn’t include the story of the Last Supper, which means there is no institution of the Eucharist.  However, we know from the Acts of the Apostles and from Paul’s writings that breaking bread in accordance with Jesus’ command was an integral part of the community of faith that followed in his Way.

So how does John highlight the importance of the dominical Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, he lifts up this discourse and makes sure we get the notion that Jesus thought that regularly partaking in a communal meal of bread and wine that symbolized his body and blood was really, really important.  The language is harsh.  It caused and continues to cause all sorts of misunderstandings and bad theology, but that doesn’t take away from the intent: to bring the faithful together as companions (literally, yes I mean literally, those with whom we break bread) along the way.

I will happily agree with Evan that Jesus probably didn’t only mean the Eucharistic celebration in this discourse.  We break bread with fellow disciples in many different ways: from the opening of Scripture to sitting down for coffee; but the Eucharist most certainly has to be included, and I would even list it as the most important understanding of Jesus’ Bread of Life Discourse.


* It has been brought to my attention that this is an unfair representation of the high church Eucharistic position, which it is.  It is a hyperbolic caricature of the doctrine of transubstantiation which with its nuanced treatment of words like substance and species is nearly incomprehensible to the average churchgoer.  So, if it gets your hackles up, relax and know I love my Anglo-Catholic sisters and brothers, even if I’m a Real Partaker at heart.

Flesh and Blood and Backpacks

In Baldwin County, where I live, school starts on August 17th.  As good Episcopalians, dedicated to reaching out to our community while meeting the needs of those already in our midst, Saint Paul’s in Foley will offer its annual Blessing of the Backpacks and Lesson Plans this Sunday, the 16th.  TKT will celebrate the Eucharist from an altar made of 40 cases of paper.  Children, teachers, staff members, and volunteers alike will be prayed over, asking God’s blessing and protection over another year.  Thankfully, the children will be out of the nave at Follow the Word as TKT reads the next piece of what seems to be a never-ending Bread of Life Discourse, this week featuring 10 mentions of “flesh” and “blood”!

This portion of John’s Gospel appointed for Sunday is one of those pieces of scripture that is dealing with more than one issue.  The question of the Jews, “how can he give us his flesh to eat?” is also a key question in the Roman world which John is trying to help his community navigate.  One of the chief complaints against Christians in the earliest days was that they were cannibals, and this flesh and blood soliloquy from Jesus was chief among their examples.

What seems like a terrible match – flesh and blood and backpacks – is actually a marriage made in heaven, however.  The action of blessing backpacks and lesson plans is a continuation of the incarnational ministry of Jesus that instituted a Eucharistic feast of bread and wine; body and blood.  As Christians, we are called to follow the example of Emmanuel, God taking on flesh and blood to dwell among us.  We are called to enter into our neighborhoods and reach out in real and tangible ways to meet the needs of those around us.  We are called to bless backpacks and lesson plans just as we are called to eat of Christ’s flesh and blood in the Eucharistic feast.  Both are about eternal life that is ongoing, even right here and right now.

Sir, give us this bread always

Over the weekend, I had the honor of serving as one of the Eucharistic Ministers for the Episcopal Ordination of J. Russell Kendrick, IV Bishop of the Central Gulf Coast.  I was partnered with a new priest in our diocese, who thankfully has a sense of humor similar to mine.  When faced with the question of who would distribute the bread and who would have the cup we used the only reasonable means to settle the issue: rock, paper, scissors.  I won, and chose to distribute the bread.  Being on sabbatical means that this was the first time I’ve distributed bread since the end of May.  I was a chalice bearer a couple of times while at Sewanee and once while at General Convention, but for the first time in my seven and a half years as a priest, I’ve gone more than three weeks without having the pleasure of sharing the broken body of our Lord with my fellow hungry souls.

Photo by Robbie Runderson

The logistics weren’t perfect, which meant there were several distractions (running out of bread not least among them), but there was, as always, a deep sense of connection and call as I took part in communing part of the crowd of nearly 1,500 who had come to celebrate, to offer thanks and praise, and to be fed by Word and Sacrament.  Together, we joined with generation after generation of disciples who have come to ask of Jesus, “give us this bread always.”

As we will hear repeatedly over the next several weeks, Jesus is the bread of life.  Those who are hungry for righteousness, justice, compassion, healing, and love will find their fill in the Eucharistic Feast.  The Bread of Life is broken and shared that the whole world might receive their fill now and always.  I miss my table ministry, and am excited to return to share the family meal with the good people at Saint Paul’s and our new bishop on August 9th.  I’m grateful for the chance to share the feast with so many on Sunday, and I look forward to many years of taking my part in sharing the bread of life with a hungry world.

A Eucharistic Aside

As I’ve said before, one of the classes I’m taking here as Sewanee is a preaching class called “Preaching the Feasts.” I signed up for it because, like most preachers, I find preaching the red letter days to be both a) more challenging and b) more exciting that the ordinary (pardon the liturgical pun) Sundays of the year. What I found as the class began, however, was that this wasn’t just a class about preaching the feast days, but preaching the theological and doctrinal questions that the feast days bring up. I guess one should read the course description before signing up rather than merely scanning the course title and professors names because as you might imagine, this class is not easy for me.

The description for this blog is, “A blog about the Bible.” My task, four days a week, is to relate some portion of the lectionary to my life and the lives of those around me. My sermons are, to use the well worn and baggage laden phrase, biblically based and applicable to real life. So, when I’m invited to preach a feast day without reference to the Biblical text, my brain hurts. I preached an ok, albeit vignette heavy, sermon on Holy Saturday for class this week. I was told by the professor that it was “more pastoral than theological,” but all in all it went all right. As I think about the challenge of this course, however, I’m realizing that in order to overcome my love of the Biblical text, I’m going to have to deal with a feast that is specifically doctrinal.

Which leads me to my Eucharistic Aside. Today is the feast of Corpus Christi, a feast that does not actually appear on the calendar of The Episcopal Church, but which is remembered in many Anglo-Catholic parishes. Perhaps in my low church context, it could be replaced by World Communion Sunday, which is also not an authorized feast, though propers are provided in the Prayer Book for “Of the Holy Eucharist” in “Various Occasions” and without a fixed date. What each of these “feasts” do, however, is invite me to look beyond Jesus’ institution of the Lord’s Supper or Paul’s recollection of it in 1 Corinthians 11 and instead think about my theology of the Eucharist. What does it mean that I subscribe to a theology of transignification? How is Christ really present in the Eucharist? What does it do for us? Why is it central to our life of faith and worship?  What does it mean to venerate something, as in the Collect for the Holy Eucharist:

God our Father, whose Son our Lord Jesus Christ in a
wonderful Sacrament has left us a memorial of his passion:
Grant us so to venerate the sacred mysteries of his Body and
Blood, that we may ever perceive within ourselves the fruit
of his redemption; who lives and reigns with you and the
Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Tonight, I’ll be attending my first Corpus Christi service: A Service of Solemn Evensong and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. Setting aside the 39 Articles and the rubrics of the Prayer Book for an evening, I’m actually excited to ponder the impact that the Eucharist has me personally, on us corporately, and on how we look at the world around us. As preparation, I’m re-watching the Eucharist edition of the New Tracts for our Times.

Poured out for Many

Each post this week will focus on the biblical account of the events that occurred in the last week of Jesus’ life.  Today’s reading is from Mark 14:12-25 (NRSV).

On the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, when it was customary to sacrifice the Passover lamb, Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Where do you want us to go and make preparations for you to eat the Passover?”   So he sent two of his disciples, telling them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him.  Say to the owner of the house he enters, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’  He will show you a large upper room, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.”   The disciples left, went into the city and found things just as Jesus had told them. So they prepared the Passover.   When evening came, Jesus arrived with the Twelve.  While they were reclining at the table eating, he said, “I tell you the truth, one of you will betray me-one who is eating with me.”   They were saddened, and one by one they said to him, “Surely not I?”   “It is one of the Twelve,” he replied, “one who dips bread into the bowl with me.  The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.”   While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take it; this is my body.”   Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, and they all drank from it.  “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many,” he said to them. “I tell you the truth, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it anew in the kingdom of God.” 


 

There has been some debate in high thinking theological circles about the Eucharistic Prayers we use.  Specifically in question is a portion of the Institution Narrative which we have here in Mark’s account of the last supper.  As Jesus shares the cup with his disciples he says, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.”  In our liturgical texts, we tend to mash these words with Paul’s version from 1st Corinthians, which gives us the well known, “This is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.  Whenever you drink it, do this in remembrance of me.”

The subject of the debate is the word many, polos in Greek.  Many is troublesome for some people because it sounds exclusionary.  Honestly, it is exclusionary, but the fact of the matter is that the Greek word seems to clearly indicate many but not all.  Smarter people than me might be able to tell us why, when The Episcopal Church published Enriching our Worship in 1998, they decided to forego the ancient tradition of “many” and instead use the word “all” in all three Eucharistic Prayers and both Eucharistic Forms.  My gut says that the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music didn’t like the exclusive nature of many, so they simply chose to change it, which I think misses the point of what is actually happening in the story of Jesus’ Last Supper.

You see, many includes a whole lot of people.  Those who were at the table with Jesus, part of the many who would drink from the cup of the new covenant and share in the forgiveness of sins, included Thomas, who in just a few days be uncertain if he could really believe that Jesus had risen from the dead; Peter, who in just a few hours would find himself denying that he even knew Jesus, let alone was one of his closest disciples not once, not twice, but three times; and, of course, Judas, who in only a few minutes will dart out into the darkness of the night to finalize the arrangements of Jesus’ betrayal to the Jewish authorities.  Many includes a lot of people who have failed in a lot of pretty significant ways.  Judas will take his own life before the night is over, but he drank from the cup, and I believe found his way into heaven.  Peter will come back to the faith, be the rock upon which the Church is built, die crucified upside down for his faith, and I believe found his way into heaven.  Thomas will, as legend suggests, take the Gospel all the way to India and die there at a ripe old age in the year 72CE.  Whether he died of old age, from an arrow accidentally misfired by a fowler, or as a martyr at the hands of soldiers (all ways Thomas is said to have died), I believe he found his way into heaven.

Many is a troublesome word, but it is the word that Jesus used, and, quite frankly, its meaning is a lot wider than most of us are really comfortable with.  As night falls and the events of Good Friday come swiftly upon us, we’ll find that the many from whom Jesus’ blood was poured out will include a criminal crucified beside him and the centurion and his detachment who took part in the crucifixion.  Many doesn’t mean all, but it sure comes awfully close.