In our lesson from 1 Corinthians, Paul reminds us of Jesus’ words that final evening:
“...the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘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 (1 Cor 11:23-26).”
These familiar words have been held close and remembered in every generation. For the community in Corinth, these words were a reminder of how their divisions led them to lose sight of Christ’s teachings. For those leading the Protestant Reformation, they were a point of passionate study and interpretation, where some felt these words meant the bread and wine actually became bodily elements; for others they were a memorial meal; for still others they were bread and wine that somehow Christ is really present in. Each of us has likely experienced these familiar words in a wide variety of contexts--from different pastors, churches, and denominations. Each of these experiences plays an important role in shaping our understanding of why and how we approach worship.
My own understanding of the eucharist was largely informed by two rather different worshiping communities in the Episcopal Diocese of Maine. The first was the parish I attended in middle and high school. St. Mark’s was a church that had clearly enjoyed wealth and prominence at one point in time, reflected in the richness of the building itself and in the ornate way in which the community embodied high church practices--think smells and bells. Our Latvian priest would set the table with the assistance of acolytes, and then he would begin to chant the eucharistic prayer. At the invitation to receive communion we would make our way up to the high altar where the priest stood behind a locked altar rail. When we stretched out our open palms, the priest would place the bread into our hands. We would consume the round, strangely dissolvable wafer, and then discreetly shuffle back to our pews.
St. Mark’s Church did a particularly fine job of creating sacred space where divine mystery could flourish, using chant, bells, candles, and incense. Yet however intoxicating that mystery might have been, I was equally troubled by the community’s emphasis on children and youth being seen sitting still and not heard; by the long trek we had to make to the high altar where the priest stood guarded and locked up handing us something that we called bread. Somehow those aspects of the worship did not feel in keeping with the warm and intimate meal shared by Jesus and his friends all those years ago. How did this sacred meal become so strangely formal, with an almost private quality to the communal worship?
The second community which played a large role informing my understanding of the eucharist was the Diocese of Maine’s youth and young adult ministries. The environment we cultivated during our quarterly retreats was quite different from my home parishes’ formal and high church worship. When it came to worship, we always seemed to be sitting in a circle. We were a fairly unkempt group-- all unwashed teenagers, some dressed in their Sunday best while others remained in their pajamas. There were no vestments, and seemingly anyone willing to be trained in a couple of minutes could assist with worship. Youth and young adults were the ones giving sermons; serving as Eucharistic Ministers and actually distributing the bread and wine; teenagers gave all the readings and proclaimed the gospel.
Instead of the people helping the priest as the primary actor, it was the congregation, the gathered people who led the worship while being shepherded by the priest. Even as the priest led the eucharistic prayer, youth leaders stood nearby holding up the fragrant loaf of blessed bread and the pottery chalice of wine at the invitation. The community was not perfect, but gosh, did they do radical welcome at the eucharist well, with a deep sense of connection to fellow worshippers.
Little did I know how scandalous this way of worship was. Years later, when I switched roles and was hired as a Youth Missioner for the diocese, I quickly learned these practices were not normative, but rather were exceptions for special situations as approved by our bishop. While I understood it, I also always struggled to accept it wholeheartedly. Somehow those worship services felt more in line with what Jesus was doing with his friends in the Last Supper than what my home parish did on Sunday mornings. These two different communities within the Episcopal umbrella produced a bit of liturgical quirkiness in my own theology of worship.
Normally, I save my questions for the end, but I want to give you some right now...
Part of why it is so critical for us to do this work of reflection is because the global pandemic has lit a fire on our understanding of what it means to be the Church and how we approach our worship. And I think it is a Holy-Spirit-Kind-Of-Fire. In the early days of the pandemic, every faith community was forced to try and figure out what it might look like to be the Church when we could not safely be together in-person.
Churches like ours embraced the idea of virtual consecration, where we invited you to prepare your own altars in your homes as an extension of our community altar. We told you to bring your own bread and wine. The idea being if we engaged in this worship together, even if it was virtual, the community was still gathered together and that somehow, God would still become really and truly present in the bread and wine at our various altars. Many of you shared photos of these altars, and those images continue to move me as much as any experience of consuming the eucharist in-person. This communal act of faith was a poignant reminder of the ways the Spirit was with us and holding our community together, even as we remained isolated in our homes, scattered across Franklin and Hampshire counties, into Vermont and New Hampshire.
With time, virtual consecration was ruled out by the House of Bishops, and as your Rector, I worked with Molly and Ann to help our parish transition to spiritual communion and what would become more than a year long fast from the eucharist. Yet, speaking as a priest in the Church and as a follower of Christ, I will confess that I still remain a firm believer in virtual consecration. Virtual consecration speaks to our belief in what is possible when a community leans into God together, and I hope our tradition will return to the conversation in the coming years or we risk limiting our understanding of God by putting her into a box.
Other churches experimented with Zoom Worship, and found people actually liked looking at one another. Folks in those parishes have begun asking if those forward facing pews are really as helpful as we once thought they were. The list of things that were experimented with during this last year across denominations is pretty vast. The Spirit set our hearts on fire for finding ways to keep being the Church, to keep embodying this intimate sense of community we witness between Jesus and his loved ones during the Last Supper.
As our Church prepares to resume some in-person worship at the end of the month, I hope we will ready our hearts for what is possible in the future. And as we make our way towards the grave and then Easter, this seems like the right time to do the working of readying our hearts...
The procession probably felt similar to when we have watched floats and marching bands pass by the church for the Franklin County Fair parade; or the parades held in Boston after one of our regional teams won a national title; or like the crowds gathered for a presidential inauguration. We know what that energy and fun feels like in our bones. This kind of procession has an air of triumph and provides a common bond amongst the gathered people.
Yet we know where this journey through Holy Week will take us. It will be this same crowd, or a very similar one, who days later will be crying out, ‘Crucify him’. After the storming of the capital on January 6, we know all too well how a crowd’s purpose can shift in an instant, from boisterous enthusiasm to deadly violence.* Maybe because of our own recent experience, it is easier for us to imagine how the crowd could have shifted from one extreme to another so suddenly.
It is also worth remembering the larger power dynamics at play in the wider culture. Just as Jesus is making his own triumphant entrance into Jerusalem, the Roman governor is arriving into the city with all of the pomp and circumstance of a royal parade.** The governor did not normally hang out in Jerusalem, but it was clear to those in the city why he was there that week: Passover.
Passover is one of the most significant holy days for the Jewish people, where they remember, and tell the sacred story of how God saved them from a similarly oppressive empire. The best way to squash any potential revolutionary ideas was to make the empire’s presence overwhelmingly known. And that is exactly what the governor was doing.
While there is much to reflect on with regard to these competing processions into the city (and I will post a link to Molly’s sermon from last year which covers this subject more thoroughly) or even to play with the dynamics of the crowd, I’d rather spend the rest of our time today focused on a different, maybe more subtle, part of the story.
What drew me in this year was that darn colt. After Jesus and his disciples arrive in Bethphage and Bethany, just outside Jerusalem, he sends two disciples ahead of him to collect something he needs. A colt. Jesus says to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately’” (Mark 11:2-3).
When the two disciples arrive, they find a colt tied up outside on the street (Mark 11:4). When some bystanders notice what’s happening they ask, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” (Mark 11:5). The two disciples told the bystanders what Jesus had said, and “...they allowed them to take it” (Mark 11:6).
This section of today’s gospel lesson begs the question:
What does God need from us right now?*
Surely, Jesus could have provided his own colt. After all, we know that earlier in Mark’s gospel, Jesus:
At this point in the game, present day readers and disciples alike have a pretty good sense that Jesus of Nazareth is somehow God’s love made incarnate. Jesus seems to be able to do things the rest of us could not even imagine trying. So why on earth does he need his disciples to commit the antiquity equivalent of grand theft auto?
The gospel lesson begs us to consider:
What does God need from us right now?*
For many this question might be a tinge uncomfortable. Maybe it pokes at the outer edges of our struggle to understand our own self worth. After all, what could the Creator of the cosmos need from any one of us? What could the Architect of the universe possibly need from our parish family? The colt is a poignant reminder that relationships with God are not passive, whether they be personal or communal.
Genuine relationships demand that all parties are actively engaged, with real give and take. God is not a spiritual soup kitchen dishing out enough spiritual soup for us to get by until next week. God is living and breathing and engaged with us, even when we are tuned out. Our Creator yearns for us to be fully present with God and our community.
Think of one of the most valued and important relationships in your life. What makes it work so well? What makes you feel seen, loved, valued, and cared for in that relationship? How can you tell the other person feels the same? Healthy relationships require all parties to show up, to be there for one another through all the joys and challenges of this life. There is give and take, and it is beautiful when done well.
This darn colt is a reminder that God needs and wants us as much as we need God. It also means we each have something of value to offer God and her Church. Which begs the question, what does God need from us, right now?
And when we ask this same question in the context of community life, it is even more powerful.
What does God need from James & Andrew, right now?
In the coming week, you’ll be hearing from the clergy and vestry about when we hope to begin resuming some limited in-person worship. Meaning we are on the cusp of another transition, and transition is a holy time for collectively leaning into God and simply listening.
What does God need from James & Andrew, right now?
What might God need from our community at this particular moment?
We might begin exploring this question by simply noticing.
As a community of faith, we are uniquely poised to help the wider community during this tender moment, and there are any variety of ways the Spirit may call on us to engage.
As we make this journey through Holy Week, and prepare in the coming month to resume some limited in-person gatherings, I invite us to engage in the pregnant pause of this very moment and ask God:
What do you need from me right now?
What do you need from James & Andrew right now?
* This connection was first drawn for me in the Spreading Our Cloaks: Preaching Palm Sunday episode of Prophetic Voices: Preaching and Teaching Beloved Community Podcast.
** Marcus Borg & John Dominic Crossan, in The Last Week: What the Gospels really teach about Jesus’ final days in Jerusalem cover this topic thoroughly.
I sometimes imagine God’s dream for creation is like a very large piece of marble, and that as stewards of God’s creation, we have been charged with doing the sculpting. As stewards, our job is not to decide what the marble block will become, but to faithfully chip away at the marble so the sculpture, God’s dream, might become fully unveiled. Each generation has slowly chipped away at the marble. As the block takes on different shapes, we sometimes believe we have figured it out. Surely this is God’s dream. Yet as we chip away, the block begins to show a fuller picture, and we find ourselves once again saying surely, this is God’s dream. From generation to generation, when we show up to sculpt, we gain new insights into God’s dream and our faith evolves.
When we have texts like today’s gospel lesson, I think it’s particularly important to remember all that we’ve learned about God’s dream in the nearly two thousand years since this text was written. Our understanding of God and the world has shifted immensely, and yet, we know God is still speaking to us through this text.
Here are some learnings we need to take into our reading of the text, as they inform the context with which we read it:
I realize that is a lot for us to hold as we meet today’s lesson. Yet I walk us through these shifts in understanding as a reminder that we must meet the scriptures and traditions we hold dear with reason. We are called to take and apply all that we have learned about God’s creation and dream every time we meet them. And maybe most importantly, that we must never stop learning. Our posture towards God must remain open and willing to grow as a people of faith.
Alright, now to the text itself (and I promise I’ll try to keep it short).
Today’s gospel lesson takes place early in John’s gospel when Jesus is in Jerusalem for Passover. During a visit to the temple, Jesus was so upset by the busy marketplace that he began flipping tables. Following this stunning display, one of the high ranking Jewish leaders named Nicodemus visited Jesus in the middle of the night.Nicodemus recognized something of God within Jesus, and he was heavily confused by it all. In the verses that lead up to today’s gospel, there is a pattern of Jesus speaking and Nicodemus misunderstanding. Then in today’s portion of the encounter, Jesus shifts into a monologue.
At the core of the speech is Jesus challenging others to see his role as God’s agent to save the world through the way of love:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his Child, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Child into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (3:16-17).[modified Son to Child]
In the eyes of God, we are beautiful, we are beloved, and yet we are also broken. An eye opening and humbling reminder that we are in need of God’s saving love. The passage addresses both who Jesus is and the complexity of who we are. As God’s Child, Jesus is the embodied manifestation of God’s love. Through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, followers of the way of love are invited into an encounter with divine love.* The point of the encounter is not our happiness or solving our problems, it is about a transformational encounter with divine love that will turn this world upside down and right side up again.*
Meanwhile, we are imperfect; and selfish at times. One of my favorite quotes from Presiding Bishop Michael Curry is the opposite of love is not hate, but selfishness.
This passage, this Lent, we are invited to examine our own complexities. In the last year, when have we chosen ourselves over God, creation, and our neighbor?
And please note, I’m not talking about self-care. That is not selfish--that is good stewardship of God’s creation.
I am talking about the times we know we were in a position to be a force of love in the world, and instead we chose not to.
These questions are not meant to make us feel horrible, but rather to invite some rigorous self-awareness and honesty about where we need God’s love to keep growing as beloved, beautiful, broken children of God.
As we continue our journey towards Holy Week, I invite us to make time this week for self-reflection and prayer as we examine our own complexities and follow the way of love. Amen.
*Inspired by Rolf Jacobsen in Working Preacher’s weekly podcast.
A long time since we broke bread together. Since we felt that peace which passeth all understanding as it spreads throughout our entire body as we receive communion alongside our fellow parishioners. Such a very long time since we harmonized a favorite hymn or embraced one another in a hug or handshake at the Peace. For the first time in our lives, we may now have a glimmer of understanding for what it was like for the Israelites wandering or for Jesus wrestling with his identity in the wilderness. Before it was just a story, and now, as a community we understand the quality, the feel in our bones, of what it means when we say a very long time.
When we began the season of Lent last year, we had no idea it would come to be so different from every other Lent in our lives. We entered the wilderness, and we have remained here. Don’t get me wrong, we have observed other liturgical seasons, marking Easter, Pentecost, Ordinary Time, Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. Yet the quality of this time has been of a year long Lent. No one needs to tell us about the meaning of fasting this year. We understand in our core what it means to fast from communion. Both the communion we experience when we are in-person worshiping together as well as the communion we experience when we break bread together and receive the Holy Eucharist.
We also know that while this wilderness seems to drag ever onwards, that there really is an end insight. Vaccines are being distributed. Case numbers are lowering. The vestry is working on fixing our sound system so we will be able to offer streaming and in-person worship sooner than later.
As we climb this mountain, we might imagine that soon we will be greeted with a beautiful vista; then we will descend down the mountain to the way things were. Right? We can go back to the way things were, and finally sit back and relax.
That’s what usually happens isn’t it? I mean, when Jesus emerged from the wilderness, it was to go have lunch at his mom’s house, right? And the Israelites, they got to set up camp and relax, right? Unfortunately, the version of these stories where people get to relax after their time in the wilderness, did not seem to make the canonical version of the holy scriptures. Instead, when people reemerge from the wilderness it tends to be when the real work sets in. For Jesus, it is when his public ministry began. For us, it will be a time to reimagine what it means to be the Church.
A wise colleague said to me recently that once all of our churches have reopened to in-person worship, churches will choose one of two paths. Some will return to in-person worship, take a deep breath, relax, and in their exhaustion, stop actively being the Church, which will ultimately lead to their decline and closure. Some churches will return to in-person worship, take a deep breath, and double down in their efforts to reimagine who they are and what their mission is NOW, having lived through this experience together. It is these churches who embrace the work before them that will survive, and even thrive, in the ever shifting sands of the changing Church. This will happen across the Episcopal Church and every branch of the Jesus Movement. This will happen across every kind of institution, period.
I realize, this is not what anyone wants to hear. We are tired, and ready to resume what we once thought of as normal. But that’s now how this faith business works. When we emerge from the wilderness, our most vital work will just be beginning.
Some of you have heard the story of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. In 1804, President Thomas Jefferson hired the team to explore the newly acquired territory of the unexplored west. At the time, there was a working assumption that the geography of the west would be similar to what folks knew of the east. The team carried canoes, presuming they would be a vital tool as they relied on waterways to make their journey. Instead, when they reached Lemhi Pass, the view they beheld was not a river that would take them further west, but rather an endless and terrifying range of mountains (Bolsinger 27). It was here that Lewis & Clark were forced to shift the mental model they had been working with. They abandoned their boats, found horses, and shifted gears (Bolsinger 93).
Tod Bolsinger reflects on the journey of Lewis & Clark in his book, Canoeing the Mountains.
He writes something that I think is pertinent for all of us to sit and pray with:
“And at that moment everything that Meriwether Lewis assumed about his journey had changed. He was planning on exploring the new world by boat. He was a river explorer. They planned on rowing, and they thought the hardest part was behind them. But in truth everything they had accomplished was only a prelude to what was in front of them.
Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery were about to go off the map and into unchartered territory. They would have to change plans, give up expectations, even reframe their entire mission. What lay before them was nothing like what was behind them. There were no experts, no maps, no ‘best practices’ and no sure guides who could lead them safely and successfully. The true adventure--the real discovery--was just beginning” (Bolsinger 27).***
We know that in the not-so-distant future we will emerge from this wilderness and begin our own true adventure. Which is why these last weeks in the wilderness could be a gift if we shift the mental model we have been working with to see our situation somewhat differently. It is also why this is the Lent to double down in our spiritual practices. This is the Lent to embed scripture into our daily life. This is the Lent to pray every day. This is the Lent to meet regularly with a spiritual companion and share what is happening in our lives and pray together. This is the Lent for us to double down in our efforts to be still, and know that I am God, as the psalmist writes.** This is a season of preparation.
When we finally emerge from this wilderness, this year long Lent, we will have our most important work together to date. And we are a merged congregation, who already knows and understands a thing or two about change, grief, resilience, leaning into our faith and onto one another. Remember, when we tell our story, we always say we emerged. This idea of ever-evolving into something new, stronger, and more whole. This might be an important time for us to remember we did not only emerge on Emerging Sunday on April 23, 2017. We did not just emerge in our first year together. We are the people of Saints James and Andrew, and we are an ever emerging Church, as we seek to follow God’s ongoing call.
As we begin Lent this week, I invite us to lean fully into our faith and embrace this season in the wilderness. May it prepare us for the vital and important work of mission and ministry that lay before us. Amen.
*The number of days since COVID-19 was identified as a global pandemic on March 11, 2020.
*** Bolsinger, Tod. Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Unchartered Territory. InterVarsity Press, 2015, Downers Grove, Illinois.
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