A sermon preached by the Rev. Kit Lonergan on Sunday, March 18, 2012
Christ Church Andover
Lent IV, Year B
March 18, 2012
For this week's Readings, click here.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts together always be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. AMEN.
As many of you might know, Jeff and I recently attended a conference down in Charlotte, North Carolina. It was exceptionally interesting and formative, but one of the highlights for me was the chance to reconnect with a number of other priests from this diocese and from my seminary. After attending a program for Assisting Clergy, a few of us went out to lunch—all of us ordained three years or less. We spent the lunch talking and exchanging ideas. Somehow, the conversation turned to our experience of celebrating the Eucharist. At first, we mainly spoke about how we did things—what words we used in our blessings, what gestures we use during the Eucharistic prayer, you know, professional and practical talk for new priests. Then we started telling each other about the missteps we made—dropping bread or wine, forgetting people, mispronouncing words, you know, all the things we would never want our congregations to know about.
Then, the conversation morphed again, but this time to funny experiences at the altar rail, usually always with younger children. One priest told us of a young child who would write messages on her hands so that she could read them as she was giving the child communion. Another told of a child who for some reason would only receive the chalice from one particular woman, and would find her during communion, even if she wasn’t the Lay Eucharistic Minister that day. Another said that apparently a child had been told to not drink wine and so yelled ‘NO!’ loudly every time the chalice came near him. But then, as funny stories usually do in the church, those moments of hilarity and of pious chaos during communion gave way to the theological considerations of what that moment at the altar rail truly meant. They were visceral reminders of what happens when our humanity meets holiness—all surprises, all out of our control. The conversations we had, thinking about how holiness can manifest itself in the most wonderful and bizarre ways during that intimate moment at the altar rail, reminded me of one of my first celebrations of the Eucharist in this renovated church.
It must have been a Sunday during Advent—because I believe the children were making Advent wreaths during the liturgy of the Word. They all trooped in with their wreaths cut out and filled with paper and color— that weekly rush of energy every time those kids enter into this space. At the Eucharist, I noticed that it must have been a very creative time for the children—hands were colored with marker and crayon, there were bits of glue and perhaps some stray sparkles here and there. And all of those hands were outstretched at the rail, open and messy and inviting the body of Christ to lay there, to be received.
Of course, there were parents who tried to clean their child’s hands off before receiving the host. A few of you even apologized. But that wasn’t necessary. What was lovely—what was transfiguring for me to watch, and perhaps you all as well—were those hands, those lovely, messy, searching, chaotic hands, reaching up and out to receive Christ.
Today we celebrate our parish’s Communion Enrichment Sunday. We have twelve young members of our parish who have spent time together, and their parents as well, learning about communion, listening to stories of God’s love for us, for God’s searching for us, and how we in turn learn to reach out for God as well. We talked of reconciliation while we were together. Of cultivating the life-giving sap which flows through us, connecting us to one another. We talked about the gifts God offered us, and how to notice when we have a blockage in our relationship with God. And then we learned together how to ask God to help us with those blocks, to help remove them, to help us learn to know and recognize how we felt when we were blocked. And then, we learned together- some for the first time, some for the umpteenth time, it didn’t matter—how the Eucharist is a reminder of that love—a nourisher of the sap which flows from God through us—which comforts, or strengthens or absolves or reminds us of the abundance of God’s love for us. All this in the hands of our eight year olds.
I tell you all this now, not because I don’t think that you know it. I don’t tell you all of this Eucharist stuff because I think that you need a report on the success of one of our programs. I tell you (and remind myself of) this because some days we forget. Some days we don’t know why we go to the communion rail and offer up our hands. Some days we aren’t entirely sure why we come into this place on Sundays. Some days we aren’t sure that we believe any of this at all and wonder if it makes a difference. Some days, it’s just too far-fetched, too irrational, too hokey, too hippie dippie, too time-consuming, too irrelevant for us at that moment to believe in all that stuff.
Luckily, we are not alone.
The Israelites felt that way. Our first reading from Numbers catches the Israelites at their most vulnerable time— most of the way through the forty years in the wilderness, in their search and journey to the promised land. Many of them had been there from the escape from Egypt—and witnessed the parting of the Red Sea, the jubilant celebration on the other side as they were no longer slaves. They received the Ten Commandments, and tasted their first miraculous manna. They had had their ‘it’ moment, their epiphanies, their thunder and lightning. And now? They were still in the desert. Now they were tired. They were cranky. Even the manna had lost its meaning as the sign of God’s abundant grace. And then the snakes came. They grumbled not just against Moses, their leader, but against God.
Nicodemus came at night to see Jesus in the Gospel passage. Our reading this morning starts halfway through their conversation, but a few verses before, we hear that Nicodemus, a learned scholar and scribe, has questions for Jesus. He has seen the signs that Jesus has done, the healings, but doesn’t know what to make of them. He has heard the teachings, but still has questions. He doesn’t want to approach Jesus during the day. Too dangerous. So he comes to Jesus at night—which in the Gospel of John also has other meanings. It means in doubt. In fear. Away from God’s light.
The Israelites have lost sight of their covenantal relationship with God. Nicodemus doesn’t even know quite where to begin. All of us have been in those places of faith before. God doesn’t do away with the wilderness that both the Israelites and Nicodemus are wandering in—those times will come. Snakes will bite you. You will walk in the dark not knowing where to turn. God is not in removing those aspects of life, but found in our response to them. Looking to God again and again when we fall into those places of murmuring dissent, forgetting the One who set us free to begin with when things start to get hairy. Reminding ourselves of God’s abiding love for us, even on a cross—and in the Gospel of John, especially on the cross—through Jesus, God’s Son. Phyllis Tickle, a noted Episcopal author writes this about our lesson from Numbers:
…the story recognizes is that all of us are going to be bitten—painfully bitten—in this life. Most of us learn that truth fairly quickly just from experience. But, according to the story, it is not the being bitten that we in this imperfect world can do anything about; it is only the how we respond to being bitten that we can control. When we look up, usually we are saved by that very act of faith for it is when we look down and struggle with what is tormenting us that we most often empower it by the very attention we are going to give it. (30goodminutes.org)
We remind ourselves of that abiding relationship through our willingness to come to the table. We have done nothing to earn what we receive there—we cannot. Just as Paul writes, it is the gift of God. We all fall short, but it is in the Eucharist that we are reminded of the grace which still welcomes us, grumbling Israelites, fearful Nicodemus’ and all. The bread and the wine, as this class of Communion Enrichment kids and families know, is the way we remind ourselves that we are creatures of God’s love, and missioners of that same love. And we are reminded week after week, every time a chance for repentance; for reconciliation; for renewal.
Our Collect for today reminds of the true bread, which is Jesus: “Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him.” God gave us God’s Son so that we might know love. God loved us, God’s creation, that much. Nothing was asked in return other than our faithful response to that love—to walk as people of the light, and to return when we stumble and forget. We open our hands, messy, markered, uncertain—to receive this love. We take it into our bodies, that we might be carriers of this love to others, to the world that God so loved. We partake in the feast so that we might remember to look to Jesus raised up, exalted, even on a cross, and know that we are God’s own.