Sunday’s Sermon from Community Lutheran Church, Sterling, VA.
With all these readings about bread, I’ve been thinking about Holy Communion an awful lot. In 2004, during my year abroad in Germany, I attended a tiny Lutheran church. That first day I was there, they had Communion, but I didn’t go forward because I didn’t know the rules. After the service, I asked the pastor in my slow German, struggling to pull together the right church words in another language, if I could receive communion. “I wasn’t baptized Lutheran,” I’d told him. I just remember the smile on his face as he said, “as long as you believe Christ is present there, you may receive.” I felt so relieved to be welcomed at that table, able to be fed with the others gathered for worship.
When I returned home in 2005, I didn’t go to church since I was nervous because I’d had a difficult experience at a church when I was in high school. But by 2007, I found myself really missing the community of faith. I was hungry and thirsty for God, and I knew the only way I could grow in my faith was to try going to church again. I needed Holy Communion – I needed to hear those words, “the body of Christ, given for you” and “the blood of Christ, shed for you.” So I found a church, was welcomed again at the table, and I continued to heal from my past experiences with the church.
In 2012, during seminary, I studied for three months in Munich, Germany, living in a wonderful ecumenical community. One night we gathered for worship in the small chapel, coming together from all different countries and denominations, singing, praying, listening to God’s word and sharing Holy Communion. When the time came to distribute the bread and wine, the pastor gave to one person, and then that person distributed it to the next person, saying, in German: “Nimm und iss. Christi Leib, für dich gegeben” (“Take and eat. Body of Christ, given for you.”). I think the non-native German speakers were a little worried because no one wants to mess up speaking God’s promises to another person. I know sometimes people get nervous speaking these words in English because they’re such important words of grace.
But then I saw the kingdom break in in a wondrous way. When the bread reached a man from Brazil, he closed his eyes and spoke in Portuguese to his neighbor. He spoke these words in the language that was close to his heart and said them the best way he knew how – authentically in his mother tongue. As we went around the circle, others spoke in their native language. But even with the variations in the words, you could tell that the words people used were the words that meant something to them. It was wonderful to hear these powerful words in different languages and voices. The variety brought such a richness to the experience and made me think about the feast to come – that colorful heavenly banquet, where people will be gathered from every corner of the world, from all different backgrounds and times, all speaking one language – the language of praise.
Running throughout my life, like a beautiful and life-giving thread, throughout various faith communities and around the world, Holy Communion has been there. It has been a meal of welcome, of healing and forgiveness, a sign of the kingdom, a foretaste of the feast to come, and a challenge. I would not have been able to make my journey without it and I hear that echoed in Elijah’s episode in the wilderness. Elijah has just had an epic duel with the prophets of the Canaanite god Baal to see whose god is truly God. Elijah and the Lord of Israel win the contest, and in a difficult bit of Scripture, Elijah has the prophets of Baal killed by the sword. Queen Jezebel is outraged and threatens to kill Elijah, so he flees into the wilderness.
There, under a lone tree, he’s scared, exhausted, overwhelmed, perhaps feeling like a failure, and wondering what the future is going to hold for him. Struggling with his situation and wishing for his own death, he lays down, tired of fighting, to get some rest. It’s then that an angel of the Lord wakes him up, saying, “Get up and eat.” He does, and then promptly lays back down for a nap after his holy snack. But the angel of the Lord returns and tells him, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”
Now, if I were Elijah, and I was exhausted and hungry, that angel would have to be awfully careful approaching me and telling me that I had a journey to get ready for! But he eats, and he’s sustained for 40 days and nights until he reaches Mt. Horeb where he will encounter God in silence and be called to go back into the fray. He’s fed to go back out to do God’s work in the world. He’s challenged not just to sit and be fed, but to use that sustenance and strength to be a part of God’s changing work.
Sometimes we find ourselves feeling wiped out, tired of all the rigmarole, and we don’t know how we’re going to make it. We face illnesses, aging parents, difficulties with raising children, stress at work, struggles with our finances, problems at school… Sometimes all we want to do is curl up in a ball and stay under the covers. And those first followers of Jesus felt the same way. Those who followed, experienced his healings, listened to his teachings, and were fed by him, were a people who were tired of oppression under foreign rulers, tired of struggling to eke out a living, and wondering when their circumstances would change. They knew all too well about poverty, discouragement, and hardship.
And when Jesus, a man whose family they know, says that he’s the bread of life – the one who will give life, not only now but eternally – well, that’s just too much for them! When he says – “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” – that must have sounded downright crazy to his listeners! They must have been thinking, “teachings are helpful. Healings, feedings, and miracles, we love! But this is going too far. How on earth can we accept this?”
I think as much as we may try to avoid talking about it, we, too, have these feelings. We hunger for God. We long to believe in God’s promises. We ache to know that things are changing and the kingdom is coming. But sometimes we feel like Elijah and those first followers: tired, weak and broken down by all of the pain of our lives and the world. And the thought of heading back out there is wearisome. We come to this place and we desire to be fed. We come to Communion and we wonder if a wafer and a sip of wine can change our lives. We ask, “Can such a simple meal change me? Will Jesus really meet me there in such simple food?”
Yes. Yes, he will. And this simple meal does change our lives. You see, the God we worship doesn’t work the way we think or expect God to work. God works through plain old water and every day, ordinary bread and wine. God’s voice is heard through normal people reading from a book, through fellow bumbling disciples called to preach, and through every one of us ministering to others. God’s presence and power are felt in praying for others, in unglamorously serving together in the community, in small acts of kindness and hospitality. The glory of God worked through frail human flesh, vulnerable and weak, to redeem the entire cosmos. Yes, Christ will meet us in bread and wine. It’s just the sort of surprising, outrageous and laughable thing that God would do.
It’s easy to get caught up in life. To be overwhelmed, even during summer vacation season. To find ourselves running every which way and dealing with all sorts of things we never anticipated. To find we have far too much on our plates, but realize we’re, ironically, not really being fed spiritually. So how do we slow down, stop, and eat? How do we make time to receive and participate in that which is life-giving and life-sustaining? How do we remember that when we open our hands, we’re not just going through the motions, but saying, “Jesus, I need you. I can’t do it on my own. Thank you for welcoming me. Forgive me for the things I’ve done or failed to do. Help me to follow you and strengthen me so I can serve you in the world.”
We are called to get up and eat – to receive the God who comes to us, the God who is continually drawing us to himself. We may, like those following Jesus so long ago, have a hard time swallowing that Jesus can and will sustain us throughout the bumpy journey of life with all it’s twists and turns, peaks and valleys. But the One who dwelt with us and experienced the hardships of life as we do, has conquered this world once and for all through the cross and resurrection. We have nothing to fear. He has promised to be with us and to meet us in broken bread and wine outpoured. While it may seem that a morsel of bread and a sip of wine cannot possibly keep us going, time and time again, they give us forgiveness, hope and strength. And as this food with God’s promise sustains us, slowly, but surely, Christ transforms us one little bit at a time.
God knows that it seems impossible. That it seems too good to be true. So we’re invited again and again to see, hear, touch, smell, and taste that the Lord is good. To keep meeting God at this holy table to that we can remember that Jesus is the Bread of Life – the one who nourishes us so we can go out and live. Because God knows we need this grace, we are invited over and over again to join the feast – young and old, rich and poor, no matter where we’ve come from. God draws us and calls us to come and be refreshed – to get up and eat so that our life’s journey will not be too much for us. Thanks be to God. Amen.
© 2015. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.