11.5.23 Sermon Transcript: Greater Than - Communion of Saints
[Conclusion of Holy Communion, where we also tied ribbons to trellises to represent our great cloud of witnesses]
By your spirit make us one with Christ one with each other and one in Ministry to all the world until Christ comes in final Victory and we see him at his heavenly banquet through your son Jesus Christ with the Holy Spirit and your holy church all honor and glory is yours Almighty father now and forever. Amen
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things seen not seen. Indeed by faith our ancestors received approval by faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.” (Hebrews 11:1-3)
The author of Hebrews in chapter 11 then goes on to magnificently summarize the entirety of the Old Testament in a few verses, evoking the stories of the patriarchs and their families; of the people of God; the Israelites and those beyond the borders of Israel that were yet drawn into the story like Ruth. Stories of faithfulness. Stories of flawed humanity that stumbled and turned away and a God that again and again and again surrounds them with Grace calls them back into fellowship and wholeness and after that magnificent recounting, at the beginning of chapter 12, the author of Hebrews writes: “therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfector of our faith. Who, for the sake of the joy that sat before him, endured the cross, disregarding its shame and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” We gather in Christ's name! We gather because of what Christ has done with for us; in us; through us. Christ calls fishermen and tax collectors, zealots and lepers, men and women. He confronts them. He convicts them. He heals them. He challenges them. He equips them. He sends them forth in His holy name. They are not perfect. They do not have all the answers. They fall short, just like we do and yet the church persists.
Our parents, our grandparents, our great-grandparents… very quickly there is a whole host of people who made us possible. One of them takes a different path, we are not who we are. We're not perfect. We don't have it all figured out. We fall short… and yet Christ calls us together as the church. Christ equips us and sends us out.
Our bulletin cover, by an artist named John August Swanson, represents people coming together in peace from different understandings and backgrounds; enduring different tragedies; choosing to overcome hatred and division and become one people. It's not about a specific place in time, although it is inspired by many. El Salvador and Honduras and Northern Ireland and South Africa… the Festival of Lights is about that time when people come together and seek harmony and justice and wholeness and forgiveness. That's what the church is! Over and over in scripture, even after passages full of threat and dire prediction, grace and hope win the day and the image is so often of renewing waters, of great Banquets and feasts. In the midst of persecution, the early church buried its members with signs and symbols of the great banquet, of the great feast a feast of love a renewal. Christ's communion bread, the blood of the cup of Salvation. The visions that prophets like Isaiah and John of Patmos had over and over, of all the peoples coming together to form one great church, the people of God, from every age and nation and race. “What are humans,” the psalmist asks, “that God is mindful of them?” and yet God has willed us into being, given us dominion, put up with our shortcomings again and again. Calling each of us to wholeness; to joy, to the breaking of the bread that is Christ's body, that fills us and renews us. We are the church!
The building is an important place, but the building isn't the church. The church is those people who put their hands up and say: “yes, I am a part of this group! I am a Christian.
I have a fellow Pastor who often talks about the churches he served as “the perfect place for imperfect people.” The perfect place for imperfect people! - that's the church! Those of us who are willing to make a commitment to one another, knowing that we will fall short, that we will disagree, that we will stumble, but that we “can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.” That we are on our way to perfection, that we are on our way to wholeness and justice and peace -= and God is waiting patiently for that day. Holy Communion is a symbol of that; of following Christ despite our differences.
One of the most powerful experiences of Holy Communion I ever had was at a church that celebrated almost every week and I had a member who was a retired Pastor who had been Air Force, who had worked in Henry Kissinger's office before that. He had been a minor player and present in all kinds of incredible history and he and I butted heads occasionally and we affirmed each other occasionally too. He was fond of quoting the passage that says iron sharpens iron. (Proverbs 27:17).
I didn't call him this at the time, but he is certainly one of my mentors and my memory of Don is… he developed Parkinson's about the time I was appointed there and it proceeded horrifically quickly. He went from this vibrant sharp, intellectually engaged person and just dwindled before us. But oh, Don loved communion! And he would come and he would walk forward down the aisle to receive. One of the last times I served him… it was painfully slow. Don was coming down the aisle… slowly… and we usually had two stations and basically everybody else has come and went and Don is still coming down the aisle… and that church waited. Because we knew how important it was and so we waited, and Don eventually got there and his wife Viola was with him and I think she was a little embarrassed.
But that church waited, and I had the great privilege, the unearned privilege of handing him a bit of bread and saying the body of Christ, given for you. He looked at me and he said thank you and then, oh so painfully slowly, he made his way back to the back pew - like all good Methodists he sat in the back pew but he made his way back.
A couple weeks later, I knew we were going to do communion again and he was able to come, despite declining further. I made a point before the service of going back to Don and Viola and saying “I will bring communion back to you if you would like” and Don looked at me and said “yeah, (sigh) I think that might be best.”
And so we made arrangements and we came to communion and we proceeded and I went, first thing I did was go back to Don's pew. I took a little bit of bread and I handed it to him and he held his hand up and he took the bread… and he looked past me… through me. I'm not convinced he saw me at all… and he said “thank you.” It was one of the holiest moments I have ever experienced, because Christ was present. It wasn't Don and it me… it was Christ, present to him in that moment… and he said “Thank You.”
Don taught me a great deal about following Christ about what can happen when we trust Christ at the mountaintops and in the darkest valleys. As we were preparing, a few weeks later for his funeral, his wife said “it's really hard to find a picture of Don smiling” because he was always so serious in life and then Parkinson's robbed him of the ability to communicate emotion with his face. Really hard to find a smile, she said and I realized my mental image of Don was smiling. He had such joy and gratitude and conviction and trust. He knew what eternal life is. He knew it starts here and now. He invested all that he was and all that he had in sharing the good news and the light of Christ as he understood it. Of building others up. Of challenging them when he thought they needed to be challenged, but always to make them better not to make them like himself, but to build up the body of Christ. To learn and to grow, knowing that Christ gives the growth. Being willing to be formed into this flawed structure, the church, as living stones. “Offering ourselves as a holy and living sacrifice in union with Christ offering for us!”
That's what we're about. Very truly I tell you, Jesus said, whoever believes in me will do the works that I have been doing and they will do even greater things than these because I am going to the Father and I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. Tou may ask me for anything, in my name, and I will do it.” Don taught me a great deal about how to ask in Jesus name. How to recognize Christ among us. How to build up the body of Christ in the act of breaking bread. Thanks be to God. Amen!