Sunday, October 3, 2010

There Is No "Kid's Table"

This is the sermon for World Communion Sunday, and I am addressing one of those passages in the New Testament that has always scared me. As a result, I'm only including that text with the sermon; however, if you'd like complete readings for the service, you can add Isaiah 58:3-8 and John 6:1-15.

Did you know the first meal ever eaten on the Moon was Communion?

1 Corinthians 11:17-34

Now in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it. Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine. When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that 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 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.

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgement against themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.

So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation. About the other things I will give instructions when I come.

This is the Word of the Lord.

When I was growing up, we’d spend Thanksgiving with Mom’s family in Shelbyville, Tennessee. The whole family would be there at Helen and Clay’s, driving in from Atlanta, Huntsville, and who knows where else. The kitchen table would be groaning from the weight of the food, and by the time Thanksgiving dinner was served, the smell had driven us half crazy with hunger. Then it would happen: the grownups would sit at the nice table in the dining room, and all us kids would have to go and sit on the carport! At the Kid’s Table!

Don’t get me wrong, now. It was an enclosed carport, and it was warm, and there was plenty of food, and I really enjoyed spending that time with my cousins and all my extended family. But every year, I’d be jealous of that dining room table. The Grownup’s Table. Oh, how I’d dream of the day when, at long last, I was finally old enough! Old enough to sit at the grownup’s table.

Funny thing is, as we all got older, we found that we didn’t really want to sit at the grownup’s table. We preferred sitting out on the carport, where we could talk about the things that interested us. Sure, one or two of us tried the grownup’s table, but we always ended up back down on the carport.

The years have passed, and we don’t go to Shelbyville anymore. We gather in Huntsville, and the kids’ table is for our kids, and the grownups’ table doesn’t have to be as large as it was to hold us all. But we’re all there, still the same cousins, at the table with our parents and aunts and uncles, the same conversations, same jokes, same massive amounts of food.

And yes, the children who sit at the Kids’ Table still dream of the day they’ll sit at the Grownup’s Table.

I start here because I think, though Paul never sat at the kids’ table for an American Thanksgiving meal, he understood the feeling of close, familial fellowship – the familiarity, comfort, and joy among those who share a common bond of blood and history. He understood this, and what’s more, he saw that this level of familiarity, love, and the bonds of blood and experience was an integral part of the Christian worship experience.

If you think about it, we can trace the history of Christianity through Christ to the earliest experiences of the Hebrews becoming a nation by way of meals. The night that the Angel of Death visited the Egyptians, passing over the Hebrews because of the smeared lamb’s blood on the doorposts, the soon-to-be-freed slaves ate a final meal in captivity. As they sojourned in the desert, God fed them with manna. As they entered and settled the Promised Land, their calendar was populated by feasts and celebrations.

And Jesus used the unleavened bread and the wine of the Passover meal to start a new food-centered tradition, Communion, Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper.

It was a common practice among many cultures to begin a meal with a ceremonial breaking of bread, and to conclude it with a ceremonial offering of wine. Since Jesus had done the same thing with the Seder meal, beginning with the bread before supper and using the Cup of Blessing afterward, it made sense that the Lord’s Supper be celebrated as part of what came to be known as the Agape Meal.

The idea was that the church, which met in those days in the houses of believers, would break the bread of communion, then sit down to a common meal, sharing food and familiarity, telling jokes and stories and singing songs around the table, growing in love for one another through the language of food and drink, and conclude with the sharing of the Cup.

Well, that was the plan, anyway. In the church at Corinth, things got a little out of hand.

We aren’t sure what all was going on, but it seems to have started out innocently enough. Like I said before, these churches met in the homes of believers, and usually these were the homes of the rich folks. The homes would have been built with rooms opening out into a courtyard, and the main dining room would have only been large enough for perhaps 20 people. The rest of the church would have gathered at tables in the courtyard. It was simple logistics, you see.

Now, either everyone at the Corinthian church was expected to bring their own food, or the food was being served first to the people in the main dining room – and, of course, in a society where class mattered, the friends and affluent associates of the home’s owner, the elite, the preferred were the ones seated in that room. Those in the courtyard would have been much poorer; in fact, many of them would have been slaves. If they were to bring their own food, there would have been little or none; if the food was being provided by the homeowner, by the time it got to the poor folks there was none left. Either way, you see, those with the influence, money and power were gorging themselves and drinking too much while the poor could only look on. The common loaf, which was to break through the barriers of race and class and gender and privilege, had been thrown aside in favor of the status quo of Corinthian society. The common cup, meant to be the lifeblood of community, of love and support and a common history, had been kicked aside while the privileged people became drunk, and the marginalized felt their throats parch.

Seeing this, Paul knew that this was no more the Lord’s Supper than a snow-cone in July is Thanksgiving dinner. His words were harsh, because they needed to be harsh. They were frightening because the Corinthian elite needed to be scared into seeing, perhaps for the first time, just how far they’d come from the pure joy of fellowship into the seedy loathing of class envy.

I have to tell you that, even knowing all of this, Paul’s words in this passage have always scared me. “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgement against themselves.”

I’ve always worried about what it meant, in our context, to eat the bread or drink the cup in an unworthy manner. How is it we are to discern the body? Does God require perfection before we can approach the Table? And what does it mean for the person who stands behind the Table to officiate the sacrament? Surely there is no way that I am worthy to do this thing!

Of course, there isn’t any way I am worthy. There’s no way any of us can be perfect enough to “deserve” the sacrament. That’s kind of the point, isn’t it? The Lord’s Supper isn’t about being worthy – it’s about being family.

I’ve been in churches all of my life. I’ve seen the Lord’s Supper performed as an ordinance and a sacrament, I’ve been welcomed to the Table and, in some churches, excluded. I’ve seen plates passed around as we sat, I’ve stood in lines and I’ve knelt at altar rails, I’ve drunk from the little cups and from a large common cup, I’ve had grape juice and I’ve had wine, I’ve dipped communion wafers and chunks of French bread and sections of pita bread into a cup, I’ve had communion with Ritz Crackers and Dr. Pepper once. I’ve even seen a church run out of bread and juice, but the elders scrambled to find more so all could take part.

I have never, even once, seen a Kid’s Table. I have never, even once, seen the “in” group take communion while others sat in the courtyard, hungry. Even where I was not allowed the elements, I was able to receive a blessing from the priest, which was, in its own way, taking part in the sacrament.

On this World Communion Sunday, we gather at this table as a family, and we gather in the presence of the Body of Christ. Not here, in these elements, but here, in this gathering. We are the Body… and not just us, but every church in every city in every country on every continent, as the bread is broken and the cup is passed in whichever way that congregation chooses to do it, all of us, every one – we are the Body!

In the ancient cathedrals of Europe, we are the body. In the mud huts of the Congo, we are the Body. In the sleek, modern churches of suburbia, we are the Body. In the cinderblock home churches of the inner city, we are the Body. In the well-known churches that broadcast their worship services, we are the Body. In the underground churches in China and the Middle East, we are the Body.

And there is no Kid’s Table, no benches in the courtyard. All are welcome. All are family.

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