I didn’t preach this Sunday, so there’s no new sermon today. This is an old one that I preached at the United Church of Christ in Medina, Ohio, sometime in 2009.
For those who don’t know me, I am a communion junkie. Communion is where it all comes together for me, where the entire phenomenon of ‘being church’ is transformed: where a group of people coming together in a brick building is changed into a community of the holy spirit. That’s not to say that the rest of it – the hymns, the sermon, the passing of the peace, and so on – isn’t meaningful. I know some people get it all in those parts of the service, and I get little glimpses there. But, for me, communion is the lynch pin that makes it all come together.
When I was young, though, I did not – and I mean emphatically did not – like communion. Like plenty of kids, I didn’t want to be in church in the first place. The hymns seemed dowdy, the prayers seemed blase, the sermons were often just long and rambling… it was a Sunday morning wasted. Communion was just another bit being tacked onto the end and costing another fifteen or twenty minutes.
In other words: I didn’t get it. I didn’t understand it. I didn’t see how radical it was: how it demanded a fundamental change in the way I lived – in the way we live.
I’m not surprised now that I didn’t get it then. I wouldn’t be surprised if I didn’t get it now. Communion, in a way, is hidden by its difference. It doesn’t fit into the way we usually do things. It’s the weird kid who always eats alone: different, and therefore invisible.
The way we normally do things is the way that makes the weird kid always eat alone. Imagine the cafeteria of your high school: which table were you at? I sat with the band geeks, and I remember that there were tables for the jocks from the first tier sports and their associates, and tables for the jocks from the other tiers, and tables for the theater people, and tables for the gangstas, and for the goths, and for the computer geeks, and so on. We all, I’m sure, know the routine: everyone has their clique and, while there might be some crossing of borders, for the most part those cliques stay separate.
That didn’t end after high school, either. When I was in college, one of the art classes was assigned the project of doing an installation piece: a site specific, three dimensional piece that changes the perception of a space. One of the students went into the cafeteria with a few rolls of masking tape and a marker and installed the cafeteria borders: here was the jazz table, here were the tekes, here were the international students, here was the lacrosse team, and so on. The artist had simply made physical all of the boundaries that were already there. While we might have all been more comfortable in our cliques – and while our cliques might have been a little more open – than in high school, the basic set up remained the same.
After college, I had a few jobs. One of these was in a warehouse. When I first took the job, I was told that it was one big happy family, everyone was treated like equals, and so on. They even, around Thanksgiving and Christmas, had holiday meals in the cafeteria, where everyone ate together. Of course, this wasn’t a nice cafeteria: all plastic benches attached to plastic tables. The executive staff didn’t normally eat in there – only the warehouse workers and lower level office workers. Imagine my surprise when, near Thanksgiving, I walked into the cafeteria to discover that one new banquet table had been set up and executive chairs arranged around it. All of those people who didn’t normally eat in the cafeteria would be joining the rest of us in the cafeteria, with their own private table and comfortable chairs. It was still high school: just the cliques didn’t normally see each other. When we all did, though, the lines were very clear.
Even when I was in a position not to have to eat any meals in cafeterias, normal was still there. In Chicago, there were borders around neighborhoods, around apartment buildings, around grocery stores, and around restaurants. There was a huge difference between shopping at Whole Foods (posh) and shopping at the Save-a-lot (not so posh). There were even areas where there were no groceries, and where fast food was the only option. There was a real difference between eating at Frontera Grille or Topolobampo (remarkably posh, genuine Mexican cuisine) and eating at any given taqueria in Humboldt Park (genuine, incredibly cheap, and the opposite of posh). Neighborhoods were sometimes separated by physical borders: there were parks and highways that had been built to make sure neighborhoods stayed separate.
Even here in Medina, borders separate us, just like everywhere else. There’s a real difference between living in an apartment at Forest Meadows or Mallard’s Crossing and living in one at Autumn Run. There’s a difference between those of us who can do at least some of our grocery shopping at Buehler’s and those of us who have to do all of our grocery shopping at Marc’s or one of the big box stores. There’s a difference between those of us who can eat out at Longhorn some of the time and those of us for whom McDonald’s is a special occasion. And, of course, there are those who don’t have kitchens, for whom fast food is the only real option. It’s the same everywhere: there are real borders between communities, real differences that affect where and how we live, what we eat, what kind of medical care we get, what educations are available, and on, and on, and on. In a lot of ways, the world is the high school cafeteria on a much larger scale and with much bigger, life or death, stakes.
The ancient world was no different. At various times and in various places spanned by the Bible, people were divided by gender, income, caste, profession, ethnicity, religious affiliation, and a thousand other things. The world of the Bible, like our own, is a world full of divisions and borders. The Bible itself reminds us of these borders: as when Joseph tells his brothers that shepherds are detested by the Egyptians (Gen. 46:34), or when John is accused of being possessed by demons or Jesus is accused of being a drunkard and a glutton for associating with the wrong people (Matthew 11:18-19), or even in Leviticus, where the Israelites are repeatedly admonished to be set apart from other nations. Separation and division are part of the reality of the Bible.
And yet there’s another strand that runs through the Bible, captured in the two passages from today; a strand that rejects the separation that is so normal and, importantly, rejects it through food. Where God is, there is abundant food: God rains down bread from heaven (Exodus 16:4) on the Israelites in the wilderness while they are on their way to a land of milk and honey; during the sabbath year, we are told that there will be enough food for people to eat off the land without sowing or reaping (Lev. 25:1-7); Elijah has food brought to him by ravens, and performs a miracle where a jug of flour and a jug of water – for making cakes – last for years during a famine; Isaiah promises us that in the future there will be “a feast of rich food for all peoples” (Isaiah 25:6). God provides food to all people: “defending the cause of the fatherless and the widow, loving the alien, giving them food and clothing” (Deut. 10:18).
Moreover, we are commanded to do the same: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.” (Isaiah 58:6-8) Or the more memorable “I was hungry and you fed me” (Matthew 25:35).
Neither Isaiah’s vision of the holy feast nor the commands given to us are about separation. Neither the feeding performed by Elisha nor the one performed by Jesus are about separation. Neither checks to make sure that only the right people are present or that people are sitting in the right groups. They have the food and it is distributed and there is enough for everyone and there is some left over. If the stories seem awfully similar, I think it is because the point of the stories is that this is what God does and this is what the kingdom of God looks like. This eating with abundance and without division is what is supposed to be normal – and thus we see the story again and again, whenever God shows up, as though it is normal.
And so we have the two ways of eating: the high school cafeteria and the feeding of the five thousand. One of these is normal, and one of these is supposed to be normal. One of these is the way of the world, and one of these is the way of God. This is what makes communion so important to me: communion is not its own thing sitting off in the corner, by itself, something encountered only on a special occasion – whether that occasion is once a quarter or once a month or once a week or once a day. Communion sits in relation to the way Jesus eats. Communion sits in a tradition of God’s feast. Communion is how we’re supposed to eat not just on Sunday morning, but all the time.
Think about what a radical demand that is. Think about what the world would be like if, every day, there was enough food for everybody. Think about what the world would be like if, every day, there was more than enough food for everybody. Think about what the world would be like if, every day, no one was turned away from the table. Think about the what the world would be like if, every day, regardless of your race or color or creed, regardless of your religion or nationality or ideology, regardless of your age or gender or sexuality, regardless of your popularity or abilities or education, regardless of your profession or class or appearance, regardless of anything… there was food and drink and company and celebration. Imagine that world. That is what the kingdom of God looks like.
Of course, we’re not always good at living in that world. God knows I’m hardly ever good at living in that world. I get ground down and cynical and selfish just like everyone else. I don’t always look toward God. I don’t always have the eschatological hope of the messianic feast in my mind or in my heart. But I do this: I come here. I practice.
I show up and eat at this table as a reminder of how I should eat and, when I’m good, I try to go out there and eat the same way.
I show up and drink from this cup as a reminder of how I should drink and, when I’m good, I try to go out there and drink the same way.
I show up and sing these songs as a reminder of how I should sing and, when I’m good, I try to go out there and sing the same way.
I show up and pass the peace as a reminder of how I should pass peace and, when I’m good, I try to go out there and pass that peace to others in the same way.
I show up and pray as a reminder of how I should pray and converse with God and, when I’m good, I try to go out there and pray and converse in the same way.
I show up here and live as a reminder of how I should live and, when I’m good, I try to go out there and live the same way.
“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.” (Matthew 13:33) I come here to, as it were, get my yeast up. I come here to, as it were, get yeasty. I come here not to be separate, not to be set apart. I come here to by holy as God is holy: the God who is willing to empty himself into a human vessel and spread a kingdom not through conquest and human glory, but through eating and drinking with Pharisees and tax collectors alike, through healing and serving all who came near, through washing the feet of his disciples, through being led off to the cross and hung upon it, and through rising again.
And so, today, I want to try something. We’ve switched things around a little today and put the message a little earlier in the service than usual. I want us to be mindful today that this is not a time set apart to be different from other times, but to treat it as a rehearsal for the rest of the time. And, perhaps even more important, I want us to be mindful for the rest of this week of those things that get in the way of our living this way: both our own personal obstacles and the institutional and systemic obstacles that get in the way of living in the kingdom of God.
As a start, let us rise and greet one another with the peace of our Lord, Jesus Christ.