Grace Presbyterian Church

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Sermon: Why We Sing

Grace Presbyterian Church

September 15, 2019, Pentecost 14C

Colossians 3:12-17

Why We Sing

I am compelled to confess, before this sermon even gets started, that the title given to it is not completely honest. This is so because the reasons we sing as a part of our worship are far too numerous and prolific to be covered in one sermon that hopes to land somewhere between ten and fifteen minutes. There are probably too many to be covered fully even in a much longer sermon, but the point is that this will not be exhaustive; you may well think of plenty of other reasons we sing in church that I don’t mention, and that’s perfectly fine.

What this particular reading from the letter to the Colossians prompts us to do, though, is to consider some of the reasons we sing in worship that we don’t necessarily think about consistently. The instruction here takes the role of song in the Christian gathering in directions that may not regularly cross our minds these days, accustomed as we are to song and music largely treated in our society as entertainment, something done solely for pleasure. There is plenty of pleasure to be found in the act of singing, to be sure, but that’s not necessarily all that there is to it.

This instruction about singing, for example, comes in a larger context that concerns what, exactly, it looks like (or should look like) to live in Christ. Apparently the Colossians had gotten caught up in more legalistic or rule-bound ideas of what it meant to live as a Christian, as described in Chapter 2’s admonitions against being caught up in “philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition” (2:8); being condemned “in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or Sabbaths” (2:16); or being bound to “submit to regulations, ‘do not handle, do not taste, do not touch’” (2:20-21). As the author says of such rule-bound living,

All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings. These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence. (2:22-23)

The Colossians are being urged not merely to submit to a new set of rules, but to live a new life in Christ. Chapter 3 takes up the task of describing what such a life looks like, beginning with the admonition to “set your minds on things that are above” (3:2). There are emphatically things that simply cannot be part of such a life, and the chapter continues with such traits as cannot be compatible with life in Christ – traits such as greed (which is called out as idolatry), lying, malice, and many others.

Then comes the good stuff – literally, the things that are good to do as part of living in Christ, or more directly that good things that happen when one is living in Christ. First come characteristics such as compassion, kindness, humility and such. The pinnacle seems to be in verse 14: “Above all, clothes yourselves in love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. “ Following upon this is the instruction to “let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts” and “to be thankful.” Then (and only then) comes the instruction about singing that catches our attention today. In other words, all of this forms the context for the instruction that is to come. Therefore this instruction needs to be understood as not merely an extra or frill, but as a major part of the life we live in Christ.

The instruction of 3:16, unfortunately, is one of the most easily mangled verses in all of the Greek New Testament literature. Sorting out what the participles do and how they are directed, or determining which clause is connected to which clause and how they relate to one another, is quite enough to send even the most committed and determined grammarian over the cliffs of despair. Sadly, I have to conclude that the NRSV in our hands and pews today missed the mark, to some degree, and that of all things, the good old-fashioned King James Version comes closer to the intended sense of this verse:

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.

(Nine out of ten times the NRSV is going to come closer to the sense and meaning of the Greek, but this is time number ten.)

So this really is saying that singing is a significant part of living in Christ, and more precisely living together in Christ. But this isn’t just any old instruction to sing. The singing is instead directed, fulfilling two different purposes at the same time.

First, the singing is directed to us as instruction. When we sing we really are being taught to do so as a part of “teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom.” It’s not a stretch to argue that in the era in which this was written, one in which not everybody could read, “teaching and admonishing” through song had a highly practical aspect to it – as we’ve noted in a previous sermon on music in the church, we’re a lot more likely to remember what we have sung than what somebody has preached at us.

This practical component of singing as instruction continued in the church for quite some time, as long as literacy was not a commonplace phenomenon among the people. A major church figure like Ambrose of Milan, the fourth-century bishop and teacher of Augustine, found the creation of hymns an effective means of teaching doctrine and even of combating heresy. (Indeed, even at a time when hymns were not sung by the congregation in worship they were still being created for people to learn to sing.)

[NOTE: Two of Ambrose’s hymns are in our hymnal even today: #102, “Savior of the nations, come,” an Advent hymn originally translated into German by no less than Martin Luther, and #666, “O splendor of God’s glory bright,” a morning hymn in which the image of Christ as “light of the world” is played out among various images of light.]

Perhaps we don’t take this aspect of our church’s song quite so seriously today. We’ve already noted that we are culturally conditioned to think of song as primarily for pleasure. No matter what style or genre of music is our favorite, first of all we tend to listen to it rather than sing it, and alsw we tend to listen to it primarily as a commodity, whether we bought it as a CD or download or purchased a ticket to hear it live.

And if we are honest with ourselves, we often bring a similar attitude to the music we sing or hear in church. We’re often concerned mostly with the fact that the song was “so beautiful,” or that it was a “favorite” from years gone by (which is really another form of listening for pleasure, isn’t it?). But this instruction to the Colossians challenges the notion of the song we sing being only for pleasure. It quite insists that the songs we sing do more than give pleasure; they give instruction, they give learning both of the positive and negative kind (both teaching and admonishing, remember). Given what we now understand about the psychology of song and singing, we can say that the songs we sing do instruct us, period. We can then ask ourselves whether those songs teach and admonish us for good, or otherwise.

Another factor is that if our songs really do teach us, it does require us to listen to what we sing. It doesn’t do to sing mindlessly. This is a fearfully challenging thing; it pushes us to realize that if something we are singing is no longer instructing us, is no longer something we actually hear when we sing it, we may need to reconsider it.

There is one more clause in that verse that we do need to address; the verse wraps up with the instruction about “singing with grace in your hearts to God.” The business about teaching and admonishing does not rule out or supersede the act of singing to God; rather, the two go together. We teach and admonish one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, and we sing to God with grace in our hearts. To do one is to do the other.

For example, we might look to the hymn we will sing after this sermon. The very first words are pretty direct about who is being addressed here: “Lord Jesus, you shall be my song as I journey” (as translated from French in this case). It’s pretty clear we are singing and addressing Christ in this hymn, and Jesus’s name does return in the second and third verses as well, enough to keep Jesus in focus as the one to whom we sing. At the same time, though, we are being taught about how to live in Christ; “I’ll tell everybody about you wherever I go; you alone are our life and our peace and our love.” You could find more throughout the hymn, but maybe the fourth stanza is worth emphasizing: “I fear in the dark and the doubt of my journey, but courage will come with the sound of your steps by my side.” What a wonderful thing to remember as we sing. We are singing to Jesus, and we are teaching one another as we sing, doing so “with grace in our hearts.”

There is one more part of the verse we haven’t addressed specifically yet. The church at Colossae is being instructed to teach and admonish one another with “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” To some degree these terms can be said to have particular meanings. “Psalms” seems an obvious enough reference to that collection of songs found in Hebrew scripture, from which our responsive readings usually come. “Hymns,” on the other hand, seems to refer to the songs not necessarily found in scripture, but which (for example) make up the bulk of our hymnal, what used to be called ‘hymns of human composure’ (as if David and Asaph were somehow not human when they wrote all those psalms).

It’s harder to discern “spiritual songs” as a separate and distinct category from the other two. Nonetheless, what does seem clear from this instruction is that songs of many differing kinds are to make up the repertoire by which we teach one another and sing to God. Next week’s sermon will have more to say about this, but at minimum we might need to consider that when we get trapped or caught up in singing only one particular style or type of song as part of our worship, it might be a danger sign: our singing might be less about singing to God and instructing one another than about, well, something else.

In conclusion, I might need to take back something I said towards the beginning of this sermon. I demurred on the accuracy of the title of this sermon, claiming I could not hope to speak to all of the reasons we are to sing in one short sermon. That might not be completely accurate; maybe, in fact, all of the other good reasons one might argue for singing in worship actually do fall under one of these two reasons for singing in worship – reasons which as we’ve already seen actually go together anyway. A song that takes the form of lament; does it not also sing to God, and does it not also teach us about grief and suffering? A song of testimony certainly can be directed towards God and instruct us on living in Christ.

Even so, there’s still a lot more that could be said. Hopefully this does make the point that is needed here; we sing to God, and we sing to instruct one another, and this is good, and this is what God wants us to look like, as part of life in Christ.

For song to God that teaches us as well, Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #267, Come, Christians, Join to Sing; #17, Sing Praise to God, You Heavens! (Psalm 148); #737, Lord Jesus, You Shall Be My Song; #804, Rejoice, Ye Pure in Heart!

 

Note: I am much indebted to David Detwiler, “Church Music and Colossians 3:16,” in Biblioteca Sacra 158 (July-September 2001), 347-69, for guidance in formulating how to express the ideals that are found in this passage. 

Second note: The featured image is the alternate cover of The Presbyterian Hymnal (1990) created for sale to churches or organizations that are not Presbyterian. The current hymnal, Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal, is also available with a similar alternate title, Glory to God: Hymns, Psalms, and Spiritual Songs. 


Sermon: Make Themselves Heard

Grace Presbyterian Church

September 8, 2019, Pentecost 13C

2 Chronicles 5:11-14

Make Themselves Heard

The book of 2 Chronicles (or its partner book 1 Chronicles for that matter) doesn’t show up in Sunday morning services that often. This book only appears once in the Revised Common lectionary, for example (and it’s not this passage), and 1 Chronicles doesn’t show up at all. Even if one were inclined to recount one of the stories included in either of these books, one would be more likely to find and use that story from the books 1 and 2 Samuel or 1 and 2 Kings, since the Chronicles books are in essence recapitulations of the accounts found in those books. For example, the event of which today’s reading is a part, the dedication of Solomon’s Temple, is also recounted in 1 Kings 8. One might almost wonder why the two books were preserved in canon at all.

However, the Chronicler (that’s the clever name that biblical scholarship has given to the unknown author of these two books) sees these events with a different eye, from a different historical perspective. Among other things, the Chronicler seems to have a fondness for the ritual and ceremony that surrounds major events in Israel’s history, a fondness which provokes him (or her, you never know) to include details and touches that escaped the eye of the authors of Samuel and/or Kings. It is this eye that provokes the inclusion of this short passage that constitutes today’s reading, one not found in the 1 Kings parallel reading. It’s a passage that carries a lot of weight (or should) for anyone who cares about the practice of music in the worship and ritual of the church.

A little context: as noted before, this episode takes place during the dedication of what is most commonly known as Solomon’s Temple. Indeed it was built under Solomon’s reign, and that king himself offered the dedicatory prayers that constitute most of the reading that follows this excerpt. This is the Temple that would go to ruin when the eventually split kingdoms of Judah and Israel were conquered and led into exile; it was the Temple that was rebuilt after the return from exile that would be prominent in the stories we find in the New Testament.

But this is Solomon’s Temple, the one that King David had so longed to build only to be put off by God, who declared that it would not David but David’s son who would build it. The first chapters of this book (also the earlier chapters of 1 Kings) are taken up with the preparations for building the Temple, including description of the furnishings that would be placed in the Temple; finally in chapter 5 we get to the dedication of the Temple. The chapter begins with an account of what must have been a moving moment for the people of Israel: the placememt of the Ark of the Covenant itself, the very vessel that had contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments, the source of the Law itself. At long last, after its many years of wandering with the Israelites and being kept in a tent, the Ark was taking its place in what was meant to be the holiest site in Israel, as King David had envisioned.

The 1 Kings account details this event, in which all the priests and Levites and elders of Israel were all gathered to bring the Ark into the Temple, and it even includes the fascinating scene in which a cloud, representing the glory of the Lord filling the holy place, billows up and fills the Temple, an obvious echo of what happened when Moses first erected the Tabernacle for the Ark as directed by God in Exodus 40. But the Kings account leaves out something that the Chronicler doesn’t miss, and that is what happened right before that cloud billowed up.

The Kings author left out the music. The Chronicler didn’t.

At this point the Chronicler veers from the Kings account to record what he (or she) saw as a vital portion of the dedication ritual. After the Ark had been placed and all those who had borne it withdrew from it, another assemblage did its work. In this case an assembly of what the Chronicler calls “liturgical singers” took their position to the east of the altar and sang, with the accompaniment of one hundred and twenty trumpeters, along with cymbals, harps, and lyres. Personally I can’t imagine trying to sing and be heard over one hundred and twenty trumpeters, but at least this was apparently outside instead of in a confined space.

It was the duty of these singers and trumpeters, as the Chronicler notes, to “make themselves heard.” No sweat for the trumpeters, but that sounds like a mighty large job for the singers. Nonetheless they were charged with the task of making themselves heard in singing  a particular hymn of praise and thanksgiving to God, part of which is recorded in verse 13:

For he is good,

For his steadfast love endures forever.

It’s a pretty simple refrain, and one that is heard more than once in scripture, including earlier in this book. It also appears with frequency in the Psalms; you might remember it from last week’s responsive reading from Psalm 118, in which “his steadfast love endures forever” briefly becomes a repeating refrain. This phrase actually happens forty-one times in Hebrew scripture, including as a repeated refrain in Psalm 136. It occurs earlier in 1 Chronicles as this same sung refrain at the dedication of different holy sites built while in waiting for the Temple; it comes up again in the book of Ezra, as the foundation is laid for the rebuilding of the Temple after the return from exile; it even pops up in the book of the gloomy prophet Jeremiah.

God’s “steadfast love” also shows up in that Song of Moses that was last week’s reading from Exodus, and even makes an appearance in the text of the Ten Commandments from Exodus 20. In other words, the choir is singing something that has been known as a key signature of God’s relationship with the Hebrew people from the earliest parts of their history.

The choir sings, the trumpeters play, presumably the players of the harps, cymbals, and lyres also play…and in the Chronicler’s telling this is when “the house, the house of the Lord, was filled with a cloud” meaning nothing less than that “the glory of the Lord filled the house of God,” so profusely that the priests had to back off from their priestly duties for a bit.

Choirs get a bad reputation sometimes. The history of music in the Christian church records a few occasions in which the choir was perhaps a little disruptive or detached from their duties in the service of worship. One of the funniest things I ever had to read during my music history studies all those years ago was of an incident recorded at the cathedral of Cambrai, in France, some time during the fifteenth century, I believe. One of the priests recorded a complaint about the choir (which might have included boy sopranos as well as men at the time) being particularly disruptive during one service to the point of throwing chicken bones back and forth at one another across the divided choir chancel of the cathedral, presumably while the bishop was giving his homily. Certainly that’s an extreme instance of bad behavior, but there is always the danger when any person or group of people is set apart for a particular activity in worship. You don’t think that preachers have succumbed to pride and vanity across the church’s history? Sure they have. Preachers can succumb to it, choirs can succumb to it, organists can succumb to it. Heck, ushers can succumb to it.

But that danger doesn’t stop preachers from being called to preach, and it doesn’t mean that choirs should not be formed and prepared to sing forth God’s praises as part of worship. Despite the tired arguments of a few heavily pedantic types over the centuries, and even the fearful banishments of choral song in worship even by otherwise intelligent figures such as John Calvin himself, the song of the choir can and does perform a good and worthy function in Christian worship.

Another point to ponder: we read, a few weeks ago in the prophet Isaiah, a stinging denunciation of the worship and rituals of Isaiah’s audience, a close parallel of the more famous passage in Amos 5:21 in which God says through the prophet that “I hate, I despise your festivals, and take no delight in your solemn assemblies.” This displeasure, you’ll remember, had to do with the failure of the church to live up to its call to care for the poor, the oppressed, the “widow and orphan,” and all those disfavored by the world but favored by God. It does remain true that no Christmas Lessons and Carols service or Easter cantata can make up for the failure of the church to live in obedience to God’s call upon it, which may come as a shock to churches out there that pour untold resources into their music programs while ignoring the world around them. But, when the church is “living right,” so to speak, the music of the church – including the music of the choir – can be and is pleasing to God.

Notice that this scene from the Chronicler takes place very early in Solomon’s reign. The kingdom of Israel is still united. This is still the Solomon who, when given the opportunity to choose what God might bestow upon him, asked for wisdom to lead his people. This Solomon hasn’t yet gone off the rails of obscene riches and extravagant living and seven hundred wives tempting him to go after false idols.

In short, Israel and its king are still living at least somewhat close to God’s instruction to them, in a way that is pleasing to God. In that context, the musical offering of this large choir and orchestra of trumpets, singing of God’s “steadfast love,” was also pleasing to God. Likewise, when the church remains faithful to God’s call to serve and to love, holding fast to God’s mission for us in the world as demonstrated in the life of Jesus and the prompting of the Holy Spirit, our worship, including our musical worship, is also pleasing to God. God may not fill up the church with a cloud of the glory of the Lord every time the choir sings, but God can be pleased with the musical offering so given.

One last caveat: the music of the choir is never a substitute for the song of the church as a whole. You will eventually notice that the hymns and songs of the congregation will actually get two Sundays worth of attention compared to this one Sunday given to the choir and its role in worship. In fact, one of the most valuable roles of any choir is to lend support and even a little education to the singing of the congregation, which you’ll see this choir do on occasion by introducing a hymn or song we’ve not sung before in a way that helps teach it to everybody. In that sense the choir truly takes the role of leading in worship as surely as any preacher or liturgist does.

Now the public service announcement: the choir began its rehearsal schedule this morning, meeting at 9:45 to prepare music for worship for today and for Sundays to come. It’s open to all. It doesn’t even require a separate night of the week for you to get out and come. And as the Chronicler reminds you, it is (when we’re doing church right) pleasing to God.

So, for the song of the choir, Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise noted): #689, When the Morning Stars Together; #550, Give Praise to the Lord (Psalm 149); #—, The Priestly Choir Came Forward; #385, All People That on Earth Do Dwell


Sermon: When They Had Sung the Hymn

Grace Presbyterian Church

September 1, 2019, Pentecost 12C

Psalm 118:1-9Exodus 15:1-8; Mark 14:22-26

When They Had Sung the Hymn

Obviously I am no longer part of the church or church tradition in which I grew up, but I should acknowledge that it did do some good things for me. It taught me to know my way around the Bible and encouraged me to sing early and often, among other things. But boy, it left me with some confusion for sure. For example, for years I was convinced that the song Jesus and the disciples sang at the end of the Last Supper was “Blest be the tie that binds.” Seriously, once the Lord’s Supper had been completed, the pastor always offered up the rough quote “and the scripture says that they sang a song and went out,” and then we would sing “Blest be the tie that binds.” Always. I promise you the first time I went to a church that sang something other than “Blest be the tie that binds” at the end of communion, I was as confused as I had ever been to that point in my life. If we had observed the Lord’s Supper more than four times a year I might never have unlearned that.

Of course I did eventually figure out that since that hymn wasn’t written until 1782, it couldn’t possibly have been sung at the Last Supper. In fact, most likely anyway, what they sang was some portion (or maybe all) of what came to be known as the Hallel, or in some cases called the Egyptian Hallel. The Hallel consists of Psalms 113-118, and had come, from a very early time in the observance of Passover, to be a significant part of the ritual. You might notice if you go back and look that the two hymns we’ve sung so far in the service nod towards that practice; the first one being an extremely amplified and expanded paraphrase of Psalm 117, and the second a paraphrase of Psalm 116. While it’s not certain, some suggest 113-114 were sung before the meal and 115-118 after.

That would make Psalm 118, a portion of which was our Responsive Reading, the last thing they sang before going out. Think about that. Jesus knows darned well what he’s headed into. He knows what Judas has been up to. And going into the darkest night, the night to come of corrupt trial and deep rejection and physical abuse and scorn, ultimately to culminate in crucifixion, this song is ringing in his ears: his steadfast love endures forever…with the Lord on my side I do not fear. What can mortals do to me?…the Lord is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation…I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord…the stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone…O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.

Many of the times that song is recorded in scripture the song is all about triumph. Psalm 118 has that quality; the “song of Moses” after the crossing of the sea and escape from Egypt in Exodus is another. But here is not a scene that seems all that triumphant. Of course, we know how the story turns out; triumph does come on the third day. It’s hard not to wonder if any of the disciples caught on to this when that third day came. Did any of them remember the song, either on that dark bleak night or on that third day?

There is something about song and singing that cuts through the darkest of fogs of memory. It is a well-known phenomenon now, the way that a person long lost to dementia or Alzheimer’s or some similar condition can awaken to vibrant life at the catch of a familiar song. Of course, preachers have known for a very long time that things sung stay in the memory a lot longer than things heard. Why do you think we sing four hymns in the service? With any luck, one of those hymns will stay in your mind far more and far longer than anything I say in this pulpit or from this table.

Song is a gift. It keeps popping up throughout scripture, not even so much in the form of instructing to sing or forbidding to sing, but simply in singing. Those experiencing triumph sing a song of praise; those in trouble sing a song of lament. It’s there, and it keeps on sounding in the church despite the worst efforts of some in the church’s history to stifle it or constrict it or rob it of its power. Song is a gift, and absolutely a gift of God to the people of God, and we need to cherish it and hold on to it and not rob ourselves of the comfort and strength it gives.

When they had sung the hymn, they went out. They went out into a night that was darker spiritually than it was physically. When we sing the hymns today, we go out into broad daylight, but indeed there is a storm on the horizon. God gave the gift of song for both the nights of darkness and the brightest of days. How dare we not live out that gift, no matter what we face?

For the song to sing; Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #327, From All That Dwell Below the Skies; #655, What Shall I Render to the Lord; #641, When in Our Music God Is Glorified; #611, Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee

 


Sermon: Sabbath, Healing, and Not Healing

Grace Presbyterian Church

August 25, 2019, Pentecost 11C

Isaiah 58:9b-14; Luke 13:10-17

Sabbath, Healing, and Not Healing

To some degree we get a break this week, or so it seems, from the seemingly relentless demands for justice and righteousness and care for the poor and oppressed that has been characteristic of the readings from Luke and Isaiah that have been read these last several weeks. Of course, that isn’t really true; Isaiah is still sounding the clarion call, and the story related in Luke is actually an account of Jesus putting into practice what he has preached, in the face of a hyper-legalistic opposition that insists that rules about Sabbath must somehow overrule God’s call to do justice and to liberate those bound, in this case by her own body.

The story starts innocently enough. Jesus is teaching in a synagogue somewhere, on an otherwise unidentified Sabbath. The woman in question, who we will learn had been crippled for eighteen years by this condition that kept her “bent double,” appeared – it isn’t clear whether she showed up late, which might be understandable, or she simply first came into Jesus’s sight at this point. Whatever it was, note that the woman herself did not do anything to call attention to herself; this isn’t a case (as were many recorded in the gospels) of someone approaching Jesus begging to be healed. As far as we are told, she simply showed up at the synagogue, presumably expecting to listen to the teaching of, as far as she knew, whoever was teaching that day. She took her place, presumably at the back of the room, as women were supposed to do according to the rules of the synagogue – men in front, women in back – and listened. Indeed, there’s no indication she had any idea Jesus was the one teaching or knew about Jesus at all.

No, in this story the initiative is fully and intentionally Jesus’s. Jesus calls her over; Jesus speaks to her telling her she is “set free from your ailment”; he lays hands on her. At that she is able to stand up fully, and does so with rejoicing. One might imagine the crowd in the synagogue also rejoicing at the sight.

What happens is possibly a little like the scene after your team scores a touchdown, only to see that some highly zealous official has thrown a penalty flag on the play. In this case, an official of the synagogue throws cold water on the proceedings with the charge that curing on the Sabbath violated the rules of the Sabbath as handed down in the Torah and in its interpretation (possibly an illegal procedure penalty, to extend the metaphor). You’ll note that today’s reading from Isaiah also placed a premium on how the Sabbath was to be kept, mandating that God’s people “refrain from trampling” the day and not pursue their own interests instead of God’s.

Like any good coach in the face of a bad call, Jesus argues back – but in this case Jesus has the rules, the interpretation of Sabbath law from Torah in this case, on his side, and indeed the official has blown the call. His answer might sound a bit obscure to us, but it makes perfect sense in the culture of the time and place. As interpreted by scribes and scholars over the centuries, the seemingly strict law about observing the Sabbath – going back to that commandment, number four of ten, which instructed to “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8), followed by possibly the most detailed interpretation of any of the Big Ten as to what exactly it means to do that – do your work for six days, but not on the seventh, neither you nor anyone in your family nor the alien who lives among you, nor your beasts of burden.

If you know anything about working animals, though, even if they aren’t being used for work on a given day, they still need to be fed and watered. Particularly in a hot and dry climate, oxen or donkeys would very definitely need to be given water or else, at the very minimum, they would not be much good for work the next day, and maybe much worse.

So the ongoing and extensive tradition of interpreting the Law included what amounts to an exception for the sake of compassion; the “work” of leading a work animal away to be given water, and then presumably leading that animal back to its lodging, was not forbidden on the Sabbath. Besides being good for the working of the fields, it was a basic interpretation of compassion for those beasts who were, after all, fully a part of God’s creation, for which humanity was charged to be good stewards and caretakers. So you might say that the command (direct from God) about the Sabbath was being interpreted in light of the even older mandate (also direct from God, in Genesis) to care for creation.

With this compassionate exception to Sabbath law in hand, Jesus then confronts the official with a call for more compassion. If we can show such compassion to an ox or a donkey on the Sabbath, Jesus asks, how can we withhold such compassion to this woman, a “daughter of Abraham” as Jesus names her, as to leave her bound to her deforming condition because it’s the wrong day of the week?

You don’t always see Jesus’s opponents in these disagreements described as being “put to shame,” but that’s how Luke describes the response to Jesus’s defense of his healing. They are silenced, apparently, and the crowd does engaged in full-throated rejoicing – not just at this one healing, Luke says, but at “all of the wonderful things that he (Jesus) was doing.” Apparently his reputation had at least kept up with him after all, and this story really does have a full-fledged happy ending.

Now there are a couple of things to note about this particular story. The woman had been in this condition for eighteen years. What this suggests is that while this condition was no doubt painful, and made the woman’s life extremely difficult and challenging, it was not a life-threatening condition. The act of healing that Jesus performs here was not what we might think of as an “emergency” healing, like so many of the healings attributed to Jesus in the gospels. Healings of those who are very ill, on the verge of death, or even believed to have died seem more common across the gospels than a healing of this nature.

This offers us a clue to a fuller understanding of Jesus’s acts of healing. Restoration of life, it turns out, can have more than one meaning. Surely the healing of one on the verge of death is a “restoration of life,” but here also is a “restoration of life” even in the woman in the synagogue was not on the verge of death. To be so severely bent over as to be unable to look others in the eye was indeed a life-diminishing condition, even if not a life-threatening one.

And this is important enough for Jesus to single out and heal this woman, Sabbath or not. Being healed by Jesus is about being healed “all over,” so to speak; healed from that which threatens life, to be sure, but also healed from that which impinges or hinders life. A woman who couldn’t look her neighbors in the eye could stand up tall and walk proudly among her neighbors, and apparently to Jesus, that matters, even enough to tick off a synagogue official on the Sabbath.

As with bodies, so with souls. Healing is about more than the preservation of life. As Jesus says in John 10:10, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Just barely living isn’t the point; living fully, living abundantly, “living out loud” (to use a modern turn of phrase); this is the desired outcome of Jesus’s acting in our lives. To the degree that we don’t do that, we shortchange what God through the Spirit is moving in our lives to do.

But there’s a flip side to this, and I freely admit it is one I might not have appreciated it in this passage had I come to it before what happened to me three months ago.

How many others in that synagogue that day were suffering their own afflictions, their own life-impinging conditions that weren’t necessarily seen before the world?

How many others, in how many other settings across the gospels, did not receive healing?

Let’s get personal; how many do we know who did not receive healing?

It can be hard – painfully hard – to read such stories in the gospels when one suffers one’s own need for healing. You cry out, you pray, you beg and plead and make promises and make vows and everything you can think of, and yet your illness doesn’t go away, your condition doesn’t improve; or your loved one dies anyway.

I’m going to guess that most of us here today have had some variation of that experience, whether we or a loved one was in need of healing that somehow didn’t happen.

Why? Why???

Clearly I can’t give you an answer. Even if my own health were perfect I wouldn’t be able to give you an answer.

Only just yesterday I heard about an old friend, from back in high school days, who has suffered cancer and been undergoing treatment. Some of you know just how difficult and challenging and painful that can be, from firsthand experience. Why? Why???

Yeah, it can be really hard to read one of these healing miracle stories now. Harder, frankly, than I expected.

And yet, we are still called children of God. We are still called the body of Christ, even with all the brokenness and illness in our own bodies. What kind of body Christ must have now, made up of us broken and hurting bodies and souls? And yet this is who we are.

I wish I had some easy answer. I don’t. I only have Jesus, the moving of the Holy Spirit in us, picking us up and carrying us along sometimes when all else seems to have broken down and quit. Maybe in the end, that really is enough to live.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise indicated): #393, O Day of Rest and Gladness; #620, Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven; #—, With Our Earthly Bodies Broken; #797, We Cannot Measure How You Heal

bent woman

 


Sermon: Sour Grapes

Grace Presbyterian Church

August 18, 2019, Pentecost 10C

Isaiah 5:1-7

Sour Grapes

While we mostly think of “song” in Hebrew scripture as principally contained in the book of Psalms, there are other examples scattered throughout the literature that can also be identified as song-like, or which identify themselves as song in some way. For example, the book of Exodus contains passages described as “song” surrounding the event of the Exodus itself, such as Miriam’s triumphal song after the defeat of the Egyptian army.

While the prophetic literature is not necessarily thought of as being terribly poetic or songlike, there are still occasional examples to be found here as well, such as the passage that constitutes today’s reading from Isaiah. It self-identifies as song, as the author begins with the rather obvious clue “Let me sing…” and continues from there. It turns out not to be much of a song, though, as it gets interrupted very quickly (by the very subject of the song, no less), and ends up turning rather bleak and dark before finally being revealed as much more an extended metaphor than a real song.

The song, such as it is, sings of one who plants a vineyard on what is described as a “very fertile hill.” The work this planter did is laid out in meticulous detail; the land is dug out and cleared of any stones that might interfere with the nurture and growth of the vines. A watchtower is erected, in order to keep watch and guard against any who might seek to bring harm to the vines in the vineyard or to poach its fruit. A wine vat is installed, so that there is as little time or space between vine and wine as possible. In other words, the planter and tender of this vineyard has done everything right, everything possible to ensure the best possible results for this vineyard.

Nonetheless, in the end the vineyard produced “wild grapes.”

Here is a case in which our ability to translate the Hebrew idiom being used is a bit lacking. “Wild” grapes is a technically correct term, but doesn’t even begin to capture all of the negative connotations of the fruit of this vineyard. Personally I’m a fan of “sour” grapes in this case, if mostly because the modern slang idiom it represents isn’t a bad representation of the result by the time this song is done, but even that term – pungent as it is – doesn’t fully capture the impact of just how bad these grapes are. They’re not just “sour.” They don’t just taste bad, they smell bad too, even still on the vine. One could almost say these are “rotten” grapes. They are utterly offensive, fit for consumption neither for human nor beast.  Heck, maybe they’re even poisonous. They sure taste poisonous.

It is at this point, once the “sour” grapes have been revealed, that the voice of this passage shifts and the original singer is usurped by the planter who was ostensibly the subject of the song. You can tell by the way the pronouns shift to first person: “judge between me and my vineyard.” The language, far from poetic now, has turned prosecutorial, an echo of the language from last week’s reading from the first chapter of this book. While it’s a little bit odd to be asked to pass judgment on a vineyard, our questioner is not much concerned with such niceties. “What more was there to do…?” he asks. “Why … did it yield wild grapes?” You can imagine the questions, possibly from different parts of your own life. Where did I go wrong? What didn’t I do? Whether it’s over a child who seems to have gone off the path or a career that turns south, it’s not unheard of for us to find ourselves asking questions like “what more could I have done?”

This situation is a little different, though, as it turns out, and the narrative takes a darker turn at this point, as our vintner announces his plan for dealing with the sour grapes that have infested his vineyard. It comes as a bit of a shock, does it not, to hear how he plans to – in effect – engage in passive destruction of the vineyard? “I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. … it will not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns…” And then the final clue about the planter: “I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.” That gives the game away, doesn’t it? Commanding the clouds not to rain is rather beyond the capacity of most any planter of most any vineyard or orchard or farm or whatever you might imagine.

No, this is no ordinary vintner and vineyard. Isaiah jolts his readers that the vineyard is nothing other than the nations of Israel and Judah, the divided remnants of the Israel that had first been planted in that land by the Lord centuries before. Suddenly that talk of removing the hedge and breaking down the wall and being overgrown with briers and thorns becomes all the more ominous as Israel and Judah see themselves in that spot. It’s another opportunity for Isaiah’s readers and hearers to respond as last week’s oracle might have prompted them to do: “oh, no…we’re in trouble.”

And yet again, the sins of the people come back to the theme of injustice. The vineyard was planted, as it turns out, to bear justice and righteousness as its fruits. But instead of justice, the Lord saw his “pleasant planting” produce bloodshed, violence against his own people. No righteousness, but instead the cries of those persecuted, punished, suffering. Rotten grapes, indeed.

Now what we are to make of this particular song requires some qualification and clarification. We modern Christians are clearly not the “house of Israel” or the “people of Judah.” We just aren’t. We are not in a position to apply the lesson of this song-cut-short in any kind of direct way to our own individual selves, nor for that matter to our country – the United States is not Israel or Judah by any means.

On the other hand, we do share one thing in common with the “house of Judah” or the “people of Israel”; we do claim (or are claimed) to be the children of God. And that does put a burden of responsibility squarely on us.

And notice that it is “us” here. This is not a prophetic oracle directed at any one individual. No king or priest gets singled out here. The “house of Israel” and the “people of Judah” are the only addressees of this message. The responsibility for the bloodshed and the “cry” of the oppressed is corporate: all of the people bear responsibility together.

In this we do share in the message given. Not even as a country, necessarily, but as the “church” in the broadest sense of the world, we are held responsible. And it is we as the broader, corporate body of the children of God, who face the frightening removal of protection that the vintner plans for the vineyard.

God is faithful to the believer. Whether it is framed in the language of “once saved, always saved” popular in certain circles of the church or in some other framework, God does not abandon any child of God. Period. End of discussion.

Human institutions, on the other hand (no matter how much their origins may be divine), have and can expect no such guarantee. Even a cursory reading of Hebrew scripture makes it clear that Israel and Judah were not remotely spared the ignominy of conquest and exile despite the whole extensive history of God’s call and exodus from Egypt and “promised land” and all of the seemingly “special” status that came with it. Once it came down to the two kingdoms straying from the call to justice and righteousness that had been their birthright, the hedge was indeed lifted and the wall broken down. The kingdoms were conquered and subjugated.

Likewise with any human-structured institution that strays from God’s mandate: if we fail to live up to God’s instruction to practice justice, to defend the oppressed, to protect the widow and orphan and all of those who have been named in countless scriptures we have read for these several weeks – if we produce nothing but “sour grapes” instead of good fruit – then there’s nothing at all to stop God from tearing down the hedge and breaking down the wall around us.

There is no reason for the Presbyterian Church (USA) to continue to exist if it fails to do justice, to do righteousness, to help the poor and defend the widow and orphan and all of those things. The same holds true for the Southern Baptist Convention, the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Church of Christ, the Roman Catholic Church, the Episcopal Church, or any other body bearing the name of Christian. Any such body that fails to live up to God’s call to that body cannot rely on the continuing guardianship of God.

One might even argue that such a process has already begun on a large scale. We are hardly the only church that has shrunk over the decades. Declining church participation is a large-scale phenomenon in this country (and even more so in Europe), one that cuts across lines of denomination or theological orientation. Trust of the church and of clergy in particular is at long-time lows. And while it’s a popular sport to blame millenials for “killing” this or that established institution or tradition, the decline in church membership and participation has been a long time coming, with roots at least as far back as the baby-boomer generation (long before millenials were even born). To the degree that the church writ large has strayed from its call and borne sour grapes, the outside world has looked at it and said, “no thanks.” God is under no obligation to protect any church from the consequences of bearing sour grapes.

Mind you, that decline may not always be obvious in every church. Such a church or institution that has thoroughly strayed from God’s mandate can actually look quite strong and healthy from the outside, by the standards of the world. It can go on for quite a long time seemingly with great success from that worldly point of view. That does not, however, mean at all that it is succeeding as a body of God’s calling. It’s important not to confuse the two.

All of that does put a burden on us as individual members of the body of Christ. We are responsible for the bodies of the church to which we are drawn. Anything that draws such a body away from God’s call needs to be laid aside. God calls churches and church bodies for a purpose, and whenever that purpose is not being carried out, that body no longer has any claim on God’s protection.

Let us be very careful, then, upon hearing this vineyard song. How we as a church, writ large or writ small, bear our witness and do our work in the world matters, and profoundly so. Let us not forget, and let us never settle for less than righteousness and justice, and let us never be guilty of bloodshed, or of causing “a cry”.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise noted): #475, Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing; #738, O Master, Let Me Walk With Thee; #—, Our God Did Plant a Vineyard; #265, Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun


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Sermon: Let Us Argue It Out

Grace Presbyterian Church

August 11, 2019, Pentecost 9C

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20

Let Us Argue It Out

The Civil War on what was then the western frontier of the United States was characterized as much by violent operations by what might be called “irregulars” – not official military personnel – as by more organized or formal operations. The Union Army in that region was vexed by such guerilla operations, whether they favored the Confederacy or the Union. One such raid, a massacre against the city of Lawrence, Kansas, finally pushed the top Union general in the region to the breaking point and led to the issuing of General Order No. 11.

That order directed that four counties in Missouri, south of Kansas City, be completely evacuated, cleared out altogether, under the belief that Confederate-sympathizing guerillas would be deprived of civilian support if they were deprived of civilians. Those who could prove Union loyalty were granted more lenient terms of relocation, but otherwise the area was emptied. In the effort to do so, much of the region was overrun and trampled, and in many cases homes or other buildings were burned to the ground – giving the effect of a “scorched earth” policy. Eventually those areas, though ruined, would be repopulated, but they remain to this day less populated or developed than comparable surrounding areas.

Now take that, multiply it by about a hundred thousand or so, and you get what came to the mind of the average Judean at the mention of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah in Hebrew scripture, such as in today’s reading from the book of Isaiah.

As recorded in the book of Genesis, during the time of Abraham, the two cities were utterly destroyed by God in return for their great wickedness. We heard a few weeks ago how Abraham bargained with God for the cities to be spared if as many as fifty, or ultimately as few as ten, righteous people could be found in those cities. The cities, to be clear, were not spared.

As a result those cities had become code names, of a sort, for scenes of total and utter destruction, as in Amos 4:11. Zephaniah 2:9 refers to them as “a land possessed by nettles and salt pits, and a waste forever.” In Isaiah 13:20 and Jeremiah 49:18 and 50:40, they are noted as still uninhabited, even all those centuries later.

So, seeing those two cities invoked as Isaiah invokes them here in verse 10 – not merely recounting a history but using them as direct address to his audience – carries a force Isaiah’s readers probably weren’t expecting. It’s “you rulers of Sodom!” and “you people of Gomorrah!” It isn’t about the past; it is an accusation here and now.

“Accusation” is a pretty good word, indeed, for much of this first chapter of Isaiah. After the introductory first verse, most of the next eight verses are accusation against the people of Jerusalem and Judah. Not only are Jerusalem and Judah accused of forsaking the Lord or rebelling against God, they are named as continuing to rebel against God despite the suffering they have endued for doing so – see in verse five the almost playground-like taunt “why do you seek further beatings?

In the face of this accusation the Judeans are seen responding in verse 9, “If the Lord of hosts had not left us a few survivors, we would have been like Sodom, and become like Gomorrah.” And that’s when Isaiah springs God’s condemnation on them in the starkest terms possible: “Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teachings of your God, you people of Gomorrah!” You can almost imagine the response of hearers or readers to that: “…uh-oh, we’re in trouble.

What follows is a type of diatribe found in a few of the prophetic writings in Hebrew scripture, in which the people’s offense against God is so great that God is now revolted by their religious rituals. Perhaps the most famous example of such a diatribe is found in Amos 5:21-23, in which God proclaims to his faithless people:

I hate, I despise your festivals,

         And I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.

Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not

         accept them;

And the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon.

Take away from me the noise of your songs;

         I will not listen to the melody of your harps.

 

We don’t practice sacrifices, but I still suspect you can understand the thrust of this condemnation. I hate, I despise your worship services, and I take no delight in your congregational lunches … you get the idea.

Now there are some who would like to take this as a blanket condemnation of all religious ritual, but the broader range of scripture makes it pretty clear that this, like today’s chapter from Isaiah, is a condemnation of religious ritual carried out in the face of some great rebellion or wickedness on the part of the people of God; no matter how solemn or sincere or powerful the religious practice may be, God will not accept it as long as this disobedience continues unrepented.

So we have so far God’s displeasure with the people of Judah and Jerusalem, to the point of invoking the ruin of Sodom and Gomorrah on Judah and Jerusalem; we have the very strong condemnation of the ongoing solemn practices of the people despite some kind of rebellion or wickedness (from the first nine verses), to the point of rejection of the worship of the people of Jerusalem and Judah altogether. What we don’t have, yet, is exactly what this rebellion or wickedness is.

We might think we do, because of that Sodom and Gomorrah reference, but we probably don’t.

You might remember in that sermon a few weeks ago, in which Abraham was bargaining with God for the sparing of those cities (in which his nephew Lot lived, remember). In that sermon I suggested you might go look at Ezekiel 16:49-50 before you decided you knew what it was that brought on God’s condemnation. So, what exactly does Ezekiel say?:

This was the sin of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease; but did not aid the poor and needy. (emphasis mine)

They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it.

Ouch.

The “sin of Sodom” was that they “did not aid the poor and needy.” Apparently they even did abominable things to them. Can you imagine?

Let that sink in.

God’s anger was so provoked against Sodom because they “did not aid the poor and needy” and were “haughty” and behaved abominably. Let that sink in.

Oh, and by the way, that bit from Amos goes in a similar direction, in 5:24: “but let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

And look at how this passage from Isaiah ends up. If anything, the charge is even more elaborate:

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

If it feels like this theme has been coming up a lot lately, well, it has. And there’s a good reason for that: this theme, the basic mandate of how we as God’s people care for the poor, the needy, the oppressed, the “orphan and widow,” the neighbor, the “alien” or stranger in the land does come up a lot in scripture. It is the basic core of the two great commandments named by Jesus as he is about to tell the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the story of Abraham and Sarah’s encounter with God, the hospitality of Martha and Mary to Jesus, the Lord’s Prayer itself, and the accompanying Parable of the Friend at Midnight, just to note those scriptures that have been invoked in recent weeks in the lectionary. I promise you I didn’t plan this: I’m not that clever a preacher at my best, and in the weeks leading up to being back up here I was far from my best. But scripture keeps coming back to this basic command, all these variants of “love your neighbor as yourself” that so confound us with their boundless definitions of “neighbor.”

Pretty clearly the people of Jerusalem and Judah had resources. All of those rituals of sacrifice and offering did not come cheaply. Not only was the animal itself costly, but the fattening required to make that animal worthy of sacrifice was even more expensive. Clearly the people of Judah and Jerusalem could do justice for the oppressed, the poor, the widow and orphan, but they just don’t. And for that God is as angry at them as God was angry at Sodom and Gomorrah. Even the lavishing of expenses upon the act of worship could not make up for the failure to live up to the commandment to love the neighbor, care for the poor, release the oppressed, to do justice.

With the evidence presented, God turns prosecutor – “let us argue it out,” he says. The old King James Version was so much tamer – “come, let us reason together” – but tameness is not an appropriate mood here. God is ready to get into it with the people.

Even with all of this, though, there is still promise. Blood-red sin can still be cleansed. The thing about repentance, though, is that it is so much more complicated, so much more demanding than just saying you’re sorry. Repentance demands change; confronting evil and getting rid of it, not just saying we don’t like it. “If you are willing and obedient,” God says through Isaiah – “If you will do these things I have commanded you over and over, these things that are inscribed in the Law and proclaimed by just about every prophet I have” – “you shall eat the good of the land. But” – and this is a very ominous-sounding “but” – “if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword.” God won’t even need to bring down fire from heaven; Judah’s enemies can do the deed just fine as soon as God lifts any protection from Judah.

For God to invite us to “argue it out,” then, is our hope. We can still repent and change and stop doing the evil and start doing the good. The people are not doomed yet. But failure to repent and continuing to do evil…that has consequences, no matter how sincere or spectacular our worship. Let us not test God to find those out.

For the God who calls us to “argue it out…” Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise noted): #749, Come! Live in the Light!; #13, The Mighty God With Power Speaks; #—, Let Us Argue It Out; #739, O for a Closer Walk With God

 

argue

I’m not going to guess who’s who here in relation to the scripture… 


Sermon: Lord’s Supper/Holy Communion/Eucharist: What’s In a Name?

Grace Presbyterian Church

August 4, 2019, Pentecost 8C

Deuteronomy 16:1-8; 1 Corinthians 10:16-17Luke 22:14-20

Lord’s Supper/Holy Communion/Eucharist: What’s In a Name?

It is one of the quirks of the church’s history that one of its central practices has come to be identified by not one, not even two, but three different names.

After all, baptism is … pretty much “baptism.” You can argue about how it should be done – by immersion or by sprinkling, the two main methods – but either way, you typically call it “baptism” (“christening” technically refers to a different practice and does not carry the same force of membership and initiation as baptism). But as to the sacrament being observed today there is no such unity; depending on the tradition you’re in, it can be called one of three different names.

To be clear, those names historically have been taken at different times to refer to a specific part of the sacrament – the moment of the breaking of the bread, for example – but (again, depending on your tradition) all three have come to be used to refer to the sacrament in full. You can call it the Lord’s Supper, you can call it Communion (or even Holy Communion), or you can refer to it as the Eucharist. Each of these names can be found in common use in some corner of the Christian tradition today. Sadly, some folks in one tradition get bent out of shape if a pastor or other leader uses the “wrong” name for the sacrament, if you can believe that.

This is particularly sad because all three of these names for the sacrament have something important to say about the sacrament, things we really should bear in mind whenever we come to the table. We can learn something from all of these names.

I’m guessing “Lord’s Supper” is most commonly used among this congregation and many others in town. It’s a good name, and points to the founding event that prompts us to observe the sacrament even today. As recorded in three of the gospels, including in our reading from Luke, during the observance of Passover Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to his disciples with the instruction to “do this in remembrance of me,” and followed with similar blessing of the cup. It points to God’s initiation of the act we practice as sacrament, much as the passage from Deuteronomy – that great recapitulation of the Law that finishes the first five books of scripture known as the Pentateuch – reminds that the Passover itself was initiated and commanded by God.

It’s good and right to remember that our Lord gave us this sacrament, but that’s not all there is to remember. And worse, taken as the only “legitimate” name for the sacrament, it leads to a distorted and potentially even harmful view of the sacrament as a memorial and nothing but, distorting and weakening the sacrament’s power and meaning. My wife can tell you about the time when we were living in south Florida, and she got in trouble for not wearing black for serving the Lord’s Supper. I’m not kidding.

No, there is more to the observance, and one of those things is indicated by the term “communion.” You can probably work it out from the word itself; in observing this sacrament, we – and that’s all Christians, not just those here in this church – are in communion with Christ and with one another.

However, in some corners this word refers only to the specific sharing of bread and cup, which (to be honest) is the main if not only thing most Christians associate with the sacrament, leaving out the act of remembering God’s love and provision for us and offering of praise to God that also come with the sacrament, and that can also be a problem.

Still, though, that fact of sharing with the whole body of Christ – indeed being or becoming the body of Christ in the sharing of the bread and cup, as Paul describes to the Corinthians – is a good and vital thing to remember in coming to the table. We do not come to this table alone; the body of Christ comes together and is made one at this table. But it may be challenging to remember just who else is calling to the Lord at the table; maybe parents desperate for their children to be released from that detention facility in Homestead; maybe folks who were only yesterday desperately seeking shelter from a terrorist with a murder weapon in El Paso or Dayton; or millions of people around the world who, to put it bluntly, do not look or talk or act like us. Pay particular attention to the hymn we sing after this message; it is a wonderful poetic evocation of that joining together at Christ’s table, being made one with Christ and one another in the sharing of the bread and cup.

There’s also a verse in that hymn that points to the final name for the sacrament and what it teaches us: the gratitude and praise that are evoked in the word “Eucharist.” That’s not commonly used in most Protestant circles, to be sure. It is, however, probably the oldest word for the sacrament, coming from a Greek word that roughly translates as “to give thanks” or “to be grateful.” It would have been a word for saying grace at a meal, for example. We could stand to be reminded of this aspect of the table; we are here not out of rote obedience but out of gratitude for the God who provides for us and sustains us at this table and in all our daily living.

They’re all good words, in other words, and all speak to good things about this sacrament we are about to receive. It’s a lot to think about, to be sure. Still, all of these are things to remember whenever we come to this table. Remember the Lord who calls us here; remember the body of Christ of which we are a part; and be grateful.

For the Lord’s Supper, and Communion, and Eucharist, Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

*Note: David Gambrell, Presbyterian Worship: Questions and Answers (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2019) provided initial ideas and themes for this meditation.

 

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #515, I Come With Joy; #498, Loaves Were Broken, Words Were Spoken; #506, Look Who Gathers at Christ’s Table!; #529, Draw Us in the Spirit’s Tether

Last Supper

Yes, this, but not only this.