Gathered at the Table
I Corinthians 11: 23-26
For many months I have been thinking about what to say to you during this, our last month together, the last month of my full-time ministry. I always planned to talk about the importance of the Lord’s Table; what it means to us as a church, and what it means to me personally. I pictured this Sunday a bit differently than what we are experiencing. It would have been a large service where all were encouraged to attend. Jenny and I had planned to serve you all, this last time. What we have is my sermon about communion, you seeing this at home or in the parking lot. If we had known what we now know we would have done things differently in March, the last time we shared this feast of heaven together. I am not going to dwell on what cannot be changed but instead move on to what is and what is to come.
Our scripture today was a discussion by the Apostle Paul concerning communion practices in Corinth. We get these beautiful words of institution because the Corinthians had been doing things wrong. From their mistakes, we get a broader and fuller understanding of the meaning of this meal and its importance in our lives.
Paul saw it first as a symbol of unity. One of the concerns he had with the goings-on at Corinth was that, instead of a shared meal, a sacramental potluck, the wealthy were coming with their baskets full of food while the poor came bringing a few scraps. In the early church, the worship ended with a meal followed by communion. Because there was no sharing, some left the service stuffed while others left with hunger gnawing at their bellies. Instead of a symbol of unity, the meal had come to symbolize the differences between people. For Paul, this was a great abuse of this meal. No prayers, words of institution by a pastor, or beautiful music by a choir can make such a meal holy. We are reminded anew that when we gather, whether in church or recently virtually, we are to remember we are one. We are a family.
The family table is the place of welcoming, of belonging. I think of two Thanksgivings that remind me of this thought. While we were in Colorado attending seminary, Jenny and I planned to go to Nebraska to be with my grandparents for the holiday. Many of the family were planning to gather and we were excited to be a part. It was to be the first time I had ever had Thanksgiving with my grandparents, since I had grown up away from them in Washington. Then life happened. There was a great blizzard and all the roads were shut down. Many others in our school housing were also stranded. None of us had planned to be there for the long weekend. We were all feeling a little down when someone suggested we pool what little food we had, because we had all cleaned out our refrigerators in preparation of being gone, and gather together. It was the strangest assortment of food ever for a Thanksgiving meal but in our shared dislocation we found unity. We laughed, played games and ate! There was more than enough for all. That impromptu meal has always been a reminder of how we can find community even in the midst of adversity. Fortunately, the next year the weather held, and we could go to my grandparents.
Another image comes from the Thanksgiving right after my father passed away. Up until then, dinner was always at the folk’s house. Dad had the honored spot at the head of the table. He died just a few weeks before Thanksgiving and mom’s heart was not into having us gather at her place, so Jenny and I invited the family to be with us. As we were getting ready to sit down, I realized that they had reserved the seat at the head of the table for me. Taking my father’s place was one of the hardest things I had to do as I dealt with my loss. But it was also healing. It was a reminder, just as the Lord’s Supper is a reminder, that life goes on. At the table we tell the stories of the past and, through them, we initiate new people into the family. We shed tears as we recall those who are not there, and we celebrate new ones added through birth and marriage. Through it all, the stories, the laughter, the food, we recall God’s love with us.
For Jesus, heaven was like a wedding feast where all were invited. We see this communion table as a little taste of what that heavenly banquet will be like when we all sit down together, with Jesus presiding. We remember, in the Gospel of John, that Jesus gave us a new commandment, at the last meal with his disciples, that we are to love one another. This was why Paul reminded his listeners to not partake of communion inappropriately for to do so is to profane the meaning of this meal. The sense of disunity was what made the meal so inappropriate as a symbol of heaven. We need to, this day and every time we take it, remind ourselves of the need to be open, non-judgmental to all, welcoming and inviting as we celebrate God’s love for us by offering love to others.
Years ago, when I had just turned 18 and had been licensed to preach in the United Methodist Church. Dad asked me to help him serve communion. That was a big deal back then because lay folk in the United Methodist Church were not allowed to do this. It recognized that something special had happened in my life. Fortunately, things have changed. This was one of the wonderful aspects of our becoming more connected with other denominations in the early ’70s. As we saw how many denominations used lay servers to assist the pastor, we became open to doing so as well. But back then there was a clear understanding that serving communion was only for those set apart for ministry.
I still remember the thrill that first time, sharing the elements with the worshipping congregation. I think about how a few years later, after being ordained I actually got to share the words of institution and consecrate the elements. I was now the head of the family of whatever church I was appointed to because I presided at their communion table. I have had the joy to serve in that role for over four decades. One of the things I realize is that as I move into retirement this role is ending. In retirement I will be asked to give communion, it is something we do as retirees. But there is a difference between filling in and being the host. I have treasured this role, not so much for what it means to me personally, but through it, I am reminded each time of the love and strength of God. As I have shared the elements with you, I know some of what you have experienced since last we met; just like the one at the head of the family table knows what has been happening in the family. I hurt with some of you as you took communion alone for the first time after the death of a beloved spouse. I knew the scary medical stuff you were dealing with, and how you needed the reminders of God’s presence, as symbolized in these elements. And yes, I also knew how some of you at times were struggling to forgive a hurt done to you and in remembering Jesus’ call to forgiveness, and in receiving those elements you were challenged. It is a holy meal that we all should celebrate.
I am proud that we, as United Methodists, have an open table. John Wesley believed that communion was a means of grace. He understood that in the act of receiving the elements, of hearing the message of forgiveness, and being told again of God’s love and sacrifice for each of us we might come to know God in a new way or be transformed anew by God. So, we have always welcomed all, without reservation or requirement. For me, this is part of the power of this meal. I have often had people come up to me who are new to our church family and ask if they can have communion. Often, they have a story to tell as to why they might not be welcomed. I love smiling and saying, “It doesn’t matter. You are invited.”
To me, coming to the table is like what Jenny experienced when we were newly married. We were headed to school and stopped in Nebraska to visit my grandparents. This was Jenny’s first time to meet them. Granny had to run an errand downtown and asked Jenny to go along. They stopped to visit with one of her friends and this is how she was introduced, “This is Jenny, my granddaughter.” There was no, my grandson’s wife, or new member of the family. It was as if she had always been a part of the family. She was new to the clan but as far as my granny was concerned, she was loved and part of us. That for me is a vision of heaven.
My challenge to you is to welcome the newest members of your Sequim TUMC family like Jenny was welcomed by my grandmother. Brad and Dorothy are going to be feeling a little overwhelmed and they are going to need all the love they can get. As uncritically as Jenny was made a part of my family, do the same for them.
The next time you receive the bread and cup of the Lord, Brad will be presiding. It will be a time of new beginnings for all of you. Know I will be surrounding all of you with prayer as you become a new family grouping. And most of all, remember the meaning of the table, all are welcomed, all are loved, and all are forgiven through the life death and resurrection of Jesus who commands us to love one another as we have been loved.