Sunday, August 7, 2011

First Communion

Text: Mathew 14:22-33 (loves and fish)

Do you remember your first communion? Perhaps you were just a young child at the time and you don't remember. Perhaps you're like me and your first communion was part of a Confirmation Service when you were 13 or 14. For some of us, it might not have seemed like an important event. For others, it may have been life-changing.

Two summers ago on a Thursday evening, I sat beside a 14-year old boy named Mitchell in a worship service, and it was the first time that he ever took communion. Mitchell lives in London  Ontario; and though he seemed like a real live wire, I quite liked him. He was restless and sceptical. He kept up a running stream of critical comments all throughout the sermon. But he took communion.

The service was with 600 people, mostly teenagers, in a gym at Brock University in St Catharines Ontario. It was part of a 5-day youth conference of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, and I was there as part of a credit course on youth ministry given by the Presbyterian college of the University of Toronto -- Knox College.

The first thing Mitchell noticed when he sat down beside me in the bleachers of the gym was the table set up on the stage. I told Mitchell that the table meant we were probably going to have communion on this, the fourth of five evenings. The stage was beneath huge video screens; and each night of the conference, an evening worship service of 90 minutes to two hours happened there.

Overall, I thought the worship setup was pretty cool. Before the Thursday service, the video screens were devoted to a display of text messages, which people in the gym broadcast from their cell phones to a number displayed on the screen. I watched Mitchell as he text-ed "I am amazing!" on his cell, and then about two minutes later, I pointed out to him when his little quip finally joined the huge scroll of messages unfurling on the screen.

When the service got round to communion Mitchell was sorry to hear that they were serving juice and not real wine. And when the minister directed us to to not dip our fingers into the chalice of grape juice, he blurted out "Gross!"

Mitchell told me that he didn't believe in God. He had come to this event simply as another week at summer camp . . .  except that this Presbyterian camp had a steady drumbeat about Jesus going on in the background.

Most of my ancestors were Presbyterian. Many of the original members of the United Church of Canada in 1925 were Presbyterians. And the church I attended for most of my childhood and where I first took communion was a Presbyterian church that became United.

But despite my Presbyterian roots, two summers ago at the Presbyterian youth conference at Brock, I sometimes felt like I was in an alien land.

Not that I didn't enjoy the conference or the course of which it was a part. I learned a lot from our two teachers -- one a young Lutheran professor from Minneapolis who is married to a Presbyterian minister, the other a former Presbyterian who now worships in the United Church of Christ in California. I also got along well with the 13 other students, all but one of whom were Presbyterians from Knox College. But I was a little turned off by the tone of the raucous worship services: there was so much emphasis on the triumphal side of Jesus as King and not as much on Jesus as the Suffering Servant or on the Way of the Cross. I thought that my grandparents might have felt at home there (well, not at home with the praise band, the huge video projectors, the strobe lighting, and the rock music, but perhaps at home with the theology!) Not me, though.

I worried about Mitchell encountering Christian worship for the first time with such an exclusive focus on Jesus as a powerful King. We sat through a rap video called "That's my King: do you know him?" A bass voice asked if we knew the King of Kings, the King of Israel, the King of the Jews, the King of Heaven, and the King of Righteousness. Added to this was an endless string of rhythmic superlatives. "He is endlessly merciful. He is enduringly strong. He is entirely sincere. He is immortally graceful" and on and on. Perhaps shamefully, I turned to Mitchell and said, "Who is he rapping about: Michael Jackson? Harry Potter?"

When the service was over, I told Mitchell that I was glad to have met him. I wished  him a good year in London and said that my hope for both of us was that -- with or without God -- we might live lives filled with lots of love. And then we said goodbye.

So while I was impressed by the size and ambition of this national Presbyterian youth conference, and I learned a lot, I fear that this was not a perfect first communion experience for Mitchell. My fear is that he may have found it to be phony or forced.

On the other hand, worship involves lots of hard work and luck; and theology is an ongoing challenge for many of us. So who am I to criticize this worship service? I know that it didn't really "work" for me, but maybe it was a moment of grace for young Mitchell. I pray that it was . . .

Our Gospel reading this morning echoes the Last Supper that Jesus had with this friends, which is where the sacrament of communion began. The miracle of the loaves and fishes is the only one that is found in all four of the Gospel narratives in our Bibles.

Both at the Last Supper and in today's wonderful story Jesus takes bread into his hands, looks up to heaven, blesses it, and breaks the loaves.

In today's story, the miracle of Jesus gives physical food to his many followers. And in the Last Supper, Jesus in the gift of the bread and wine, gives spiritual food to his friends, and to his millions of followers for almost 2,000 years hence.

The passage can remind us that we often come to worship hungry. We are searching for the bread that always satisfies, the bread of eternity, the bread that is God/Christ/Spirit -- the bread and the wine of communion. In churches like ours, we satisfy this hunger in many ways: in hymns, prayers, and sermons. And I get all of that: but I also like it when worship is accompanied by a real meal of food; when communion is part of the service.

When communion is a part of worship, our hunger is made plain as is God's ability to satisfy it  -- and this happens regardless of the quality of the singing, the beauty of the prayers, or the power of the sermon.

Can communion make a difference? I imagine that most of us here today would say yes. In that frame, I will now read an account of another first communion experience, which was momentous for the author, and which occurred when she was middle-aged. I am reading from Sara Miles' 2007 memoir, Take this Bread: a radical conversion.

Her book begins like this: "One early, cloudy morning in 1999 when I was forty-six, I walked into a church, ate a piece of bread, and took a sip of wine. A routine Sunday activity for many -- except that up until that moment I'd led a thoroughly secular life. At best I had been indifferent to religion; more often I was appalled by its fundamentalist crusades. This was my first communion. And it changed everything.
Eating Jesus, as I did that day, led me against all expectations to a faith I'd scorned. The mysterious sacrament turned out to be not a symbolic wafer at all but actual food -- indeed, the bread of life . . .

She continues: "Mine is a personal story of an unexpected and inconvenient conversion, told by an unlikely convert: a blue-state, secular intellectual; a lesbian; a left-wing journalist  . . .  I stumbled into a radically inclusive faith centered on sacraments and action . . . I discovered a religion rooted in the most ordinary yet subversive practice: a dinner table where everyone is welcome, where the despised and outcasts are honoured." (pp. xiii-xiv)

That's how Sara Miles begins her book. All four of her grandparents had been devout Christian missionaries, and early-on both of Sara's parents had rebelled against their parents and become militant atheists. This explains Sara's surprise and awkwardness when she became a Christian at age 46. And today she is a paid minister in the radical San Francisco church that she first stumbled into 10 years ago. I recommend her book. I don't know if my friend Mitchell would get much from it, but I think that many people here today might enjoy it.

Here is some more that Sara Miles' wrote about her first communion.

Quote: "When I walked into St. Gregory's Episcopal Church, I'd never heard a Gospel reading, never said the Lord's Prayer . . . On many walks, I'd passed the beautiful wooden building, and this time I went in . . . A man and a woman in long tie-dyed robes stood and began chanting in harmony. There was no organ, no choir, no pulpit: just the unadorned voices of the people, and long silences, framed by the ringing of deep Tibetan bowls. I sang, too. It crossed my mind that this was ridiculous . . .

'Jesus invites everyone to his table' a woman announced . . . and someone was putting a piece of fresh, crumbly bread in my hands, saying 'the body of Christ,' and handing me the goblet of sweet wine, saying 'the blood of Christ,' . . .

I was in tears and physically unbalanced . . . I wanted that bread again . . . It was a sensation as urgent as physical hunger . . . the pattern went on for a while -- me going to St. Gregory's, taking the bread and bursting into tears, drinking the wine and crying some more. I knew I couldn't say a word about it to my mother: the very idea of her scorn filled me with dread. Communion? Jesus? What was I thinking?" (pp 57-62)

Finally near the end of the book, Sara tells how at last, she confessed to her atheist mother that she had become a Christian. She writes, quote, "it turned out that I had to cook for my mother to do it . . . the table was set with bread and wine and lamb . . . I broke the bread and lifted my glass and said, 'Ma, I have to tell you something. I'm a Christian. I've started going to church.'

I can't remember exactly what the two of us said, but as our conversation spilled out slowly, then in little rushes, I felt fear evaporating -- not just mine but hers.

My mother was kinder than I deserved. 'I guess I'm a bigot,' she said. 'It's just that I had to fight so hard against my parents' religion. It cost me so much. I can't believe in it.'
I blurted out the stuff that I loved about Jesus. 'It's about food,' I said. 'And being with people who aren't like me.'

She looked at me. 'I get that,' she said slowly. I could see the rigid, frightened mother and the rigid, frightened child. 'But,' she said, 'I told my mother when I was ten that I didn't believe in God, and I haven't believed ever since.' She took a bite of her meat. It was dark outside now, the last light gone down over the hills to the west, and I thought of my mother listening, unbelieving, to her missionary parents pray in Baghdad, in Damascus, in Baltimore and New York, until they too were gone, and she was left with her yearning and her refusal.

'I loved the hymns, though' she said. 'I bet I still know all the verses.'

And I remembered my mom singing to me, long ago. 'Time like an ever-rolling stream' she'd croon, 'bears all our cares away.' And the Handel tune about Zion, and 'Love Divine,' with its amazing flourish at the end, proclaiming that we would be 'changed from glory into glory.'

'Do you know this one?' I asked. It was a clean, odd Shaker tune. I'd learned it at morning prayer, and I loved the minor, shape-note harmonies. I sang, 'For happiness I long have sought, and pleasure dearly I have bought. I missed of all, but now I see, it's found in Christ the apple tree.'

'Christ as an apple tree?' my mother said. 'Huh.'

She poured me some more wine.

It wasn't official Eucharist. It was real communion, with the incomplete, stupid and aching parts still there. Made by human hands, out of meat and hope, incarnate: what the Russian mystics called 'a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, where none are left behind.'" (277-8)

As the Psalm says, Taste and see that God is good.


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