Sunday, February 23, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "In Vino Veritas"

1 Corinthians 11:23-26

23 I received a tradition from the Lord, which I also handed on to you: on the night on which he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took bread. 24 After giving thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this to remember me.” 25 He did the same thing with the cup, after they had eaten, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Every time you drink it, do this to remember me.” 26 Every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you broadcast the death of the Lord until he comes. (Common English Bible)

“Adventures in Churchland: A Visitor’s Experience of Mainline Worship,” Week Five

The 20-year-old firefighter who also served as an EMT had just completed a 24-hour shift, with a whole 30 minutes of it spent asleep.  He did exactly what you might expect someone in that state to do, something we may well have feared doing ourselves at one point late at night—he fell asleep behind the wheel.

And in doing so, he struck the car of a 30-year-old wife and mother of one girl, who was then pregnant with her second child.  The daughter survived the wreck, the mother and her unborn child did not.  The firefighter was charged with felony vehicular manslaughter, and being a county officer, was facing a stiff prison sentence.  He also “expected hate from” the husband whom he had suddenly made into a widower and a father of a dead child.

But then a remarkable thing happened.  This bereaved husband—who, as it turns out, was (is) a full-time pastor—saw this as “his opportunity to practice the forgiveness he had preached so many times before.”  As he himself put it, “It wasn’t an option.  If you’ve been forgiven, then you need to extend that forgiveness.”

Forgiveness, yes.  But friendship?  Well…for this kind of authentic, from-the-soul forgiveness, yes.  This lethal wreck took place in the fall of 2006, over seven years ago.  And to this day, every two weeks, the pastor and the firefighter go to church together and have breakfast together.  And I find that amazing, not really for the pronouncement of forgiveness (although it is) or even for the continued friendship (although it is as well).  I find it amazing because that relationship takes place over a meal, because like the Passion narrative itself, out of the crucible of someone’s death comes a holy meal and a chance to proclaim not only death, but resurrection.

This is a sermon series that will take us all the way up to Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the church season of Lent.  And this is a series about something that may or may not be new in the slightest to us: Sunday worship.  For those of us who were born and raised in the church and have lived in the church our entire lives, worship may be second nature to us by this point: some tunes, some prayers, some preachin’, some bread and juice, and it’s off to Sunday brunch.  But for those of us for whom church is an entirely new experience, this may all come across as one tin-foil hat away from something utterly bizarre to you.  I think I can safely say that after reading Dan Kimball’s 2013 book, “Adventures in Churchland,” in which at one point he conveys, in vivid detail, his initial worship experience at a church that I instantly recognized as a mainline Protestant church—a church like ours with a pastor in robes and an organ in the sanctuary and the serving of communion—none of which are typical trappings in many evangelical churches.  And Dan, having come in off the street, was both bemused and confused by everything this church did as a part of its worship…but we do some of the exact same things, and so it stands to reason that perhaps our worship is confusing for newcomers as well.  So, the point of this sermon series is to not only explain why we worship the way we do, but hopefully to equip you to do the same when other folks ask you why we worship the way we do!  We began by simply talking about where we worship—our sanctuary, the church building—before talking about how we worship, and though we lost a week of the sermon series to the Snowpocalypse of 2014, we continued on by moving from talking about worship music two weeks ago to talking about the whole listening-to-a-sermon bit, and now we arrive at a ritual intimately familiar to all Disciples of Christ churches: holy communion, or the partaking of the Eucharist.  Dan writes:

The man in the robe held up a big golden goblet and said some words.  At first I thought he was going to do some sort of magic trick and pull something out of the goblet.  But then I realized it was a formal prayer he’d memorized.  I wondered if he was praying to the goblet, since he was staring at it and speaking directly to it.

After the prayer, he (then) whispered to the person at the end of the row and handed him the golden cup.  This person dipped a tiny little cracker in the cup, pulled it out, and ate it.  Then he whispered something to the guy on his left and passed him the cup.  This guy also dipped a tiny little cracker in it and ate it, passing the cup to the person on his left and whispering something.  The process repeated itself down the row until it was my turn.  The woman next to me handed me the cup and said something about blood and “this is for you” and something about flesh.  I did what I had seen the others do, not understanding what it meant or why I was doing it.

And I imagine that is probably true for all of us at some point in church—we participate in some ritual or some exercise and don’t fully understand what it means or why we are doing it.  Maybe for you that was watching a baptism for the first time and wondering why we dunk people in a pool of (sometimes very cold water)…after all, church isn’t a college fraternity, it isn’t like baptism is supposed to be some sort of hazing ritual.  Or maybe for you it is wondering why we serve coffee at every single possible church function, but for that one, I’ve got nothing for you!

But Paul writes in 1 Corinthians that the practice of holy communion—of participating in the re-enactment of the Lord’s Supper the night before He died—should hold no such mystery for us: we should do it to proclaim Jesus’ death until He returns to us again in the Second Coming.

Now, that does not mean that holy communion should hold no mystery for us whatsoever, otherwise there would have been no debate over all of those different substantiation theories: transubstantiation, which dictates that the bread and the wine literally become the body and blood of Jesus, or consubstantiation, which says that the body and blood of Christ are present alongside the bread and the wine, but that the bread and the wine do not literally turn into the body and blood, or transignification, which posits that the bread and the wine take on the significance of the body and blood, even if they do not take on the actual physical properties of flesh, and so on and so forth.  If your head is spinning right now, that is because I just condensed several centuries worth of theological bickering into a single sermon paragraph, for which I am sure I shall be roundly condemned by the saints in heaven for not doing their particular interpretation justice, because, quite frankly, the whole practice of arguing over holy communion defeats its very purpose: this is a meal that was meant to draw the disciples together, not apart.

Think about the Passover like you would a typical modern holiday, like the Fourth of July or Thanksgiving: throughout the week you are busting yourself for your job or whatever work you do, and you might feel tired and beaten down, but then, the world steps in and says, at least for this one day, “STOP.”  Stop, and grill some burgers with your buds while you watch the fireworks.  Stop, and enjoy some stuffed bird with your loved ones while you watch football.  Or…stop, and remember from whence your people came: from a context of slavery and bondage in Egypt until God, through Moses, liberated you and guided you to your home in Israel.

That’s how religion is, at its most basic level, countercultural.  It is where religion derives so much of its power.  When everything else in the world gets to be too much—the deadlines and the burdens and the stresses—religious holidays are what allow us to stand up and say “STOP” to that tweaked-out world.  They are what give us an opportunity to keep our heads above water.

And that is something that we may be apt to forget with holy communion—what we are really doing by participating in it is we are remembering a religious holiday, the Jewish Passover, during a time when, in the midst of a hated and unwelcome Roman occupation, most Israelites probably wanted to stand up and say “STOP” that terrible, oppressive world as well.

It is also why, I believe, why we should—and do—end our worship services with holy communion rather than with my message.  Ending the service on me puts at least a little of the focus back on me, not on God.  We spend the other six days of the week focusing on what other people say, and this is supposed to be the one day a week when we are really supposed to focus on what God is saying.  And what God is saying—through Christ—is what Paul relays to us here in 1 Corinthians: that every time you consume the bread and wine of the Eucharist, you are proclaiming that Jesus has died and risen and that He will return once more.

And why bother proclaiming that at all?  Because, quite simply, that desire for a returning Christ is what keeps us going.  It is what keeps the church going.  It is what keeps Christians going, the gnawing, fervent, wildly hopeful belief that one day, maybe not tomorrow or the next day, but that one day, God will become flesh again simply because He loves us that much.

There is a Latin saying, in vino veritas, that literally means, “in wine, (there exists) truth,” and it comes from the observations of the Greek historian Herodotus and the Roman historian Tacitus, who observed that the Persians and Germans respectively would engage in decision-making while drinking or inebriated, under the belief that one is not an effective liar while intoxicated.  In other  words, wine—or any alcohol—brings out the truth in all of us.

But I have to believe there is another dimension to this saying, because in this wine, in the wine (or juice, in our case) of the Eucharist, there indeed exists truth, the truth of God’s grace and mercy, poured out to the point of overflowing.  There exists the truth that over a meal, the unlikeliest of relationships can be formed—a friendship between widower and firefighter, an engagement between fiancĂ© and fiancĂ©e, or even the rescue of a sinner, called and redeemed, whose task when they get up from the table has become to call and redeem other sinners.

There are a great many reasons why we take holy communion every single week without fail here, but perhaps the greatest for me is that it is what sustains that unlikely relationship between myself and God.  Because in His wine, there is grace.  There is mercy.  And there is surely truth.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
February 23, 2014

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