Texts: Psalm 137:1-6, Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4, Luke 17:5-10, 2 Timothy 1:1-7
I bring greetings from sisters and brothers of Central District Conference. Twice a year the committees and board of the conference meet up at Camp Friedenswald in southern Michigan and Gwen R, Phil H, and I were a part of that Friday and yesterday.
One of the reasons these gatherings are so intensely good is that we are a geographically far flung conference and we get to see each other so rarely that when we are together, we have to pack a lot of humor and catching up and business into a very short amount of time. I roomed with James R from Atlanta and Matt M from Milwaukee. Plot the three of us on a map and you start to get the picture.
Today is World Communion Sunday, which makes that gathering up at Friedenswald look local. Today Christians around the world gather around the table, and partake in this ritualized meal that carries with it such significance and spiritual depth. Communion is always primarily about Christ – it wouldn’t be much of a meal without the food – but it’s also about this far flung global community, coming from such different life experiences, that gathers together for the bread and cup.
The four lectionary scriptures give us a way of exploring who all it is who gathers around this table. Each scripture speaks to a different aspect of the faith journey. And since there just so happen to be four sides on our communion table, we can imagine each of the four scriptures, and the people they speak for, representing the way we gather around this table as a diverse family. Who are we eating with? Who is making their way to this table today?
We’ll look at each of these four scriptures, and the first is Psalm 137:1-6.
Psalm 137 is a poem that comes out of an experience of profounc upheaval and disorientation. A song of the Jewish exiles in Babylon. Torn from their homes, their land; their temple destroyed, carried off to Babylon and now beginning to establish new lives in a foreign land. Their traditions and culture and songs have now been reduced to sources of amusing entertainment for others. Their captors, quite the cosmopolitan cultural connoisseurs, want to hear one of those exotic joyful songs of Zion that they’ve heard about. But they’re not in Zion, and all they can do is hang up their harps on the trees and weep. “How can we sing a song of the Lord in a foreign land?”
Typically when this Psalm is read in a worship setting, only the first six verses are included, as we have just done. This is probably because the remaining verses are not at all worshipful. The poet is not only mournful. The poet’s people have been wronged are they are seething with fresh anger toward those who have wronged them. Verses 8 and 9 are usually censored out of church readings, but they were not censored out of the Bible. They say this: “O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little children and dash them against the rocks.” Imagine, if you can, this level of rage. It’s a little scandalous to have words like this considered Holy Scripture. There’s certainly nothing holy about this kind of vengeance. The words here are unfiltered, unedited raw human emotion, like the pages of some communal journal venting irrational feelings.
But can there be something holy about voicing one’s deepest angers and having them heard by others, even if they’re as ugly as this? Maybe being able to express unresolved rage is a step toward letting those feelings go and start toward healing.
At the Communion table today, throughout the world, are those who are just beginning to work through profound pain and anger in their lives, just starting to confront a great loss, a deep sorrow, a wound that has barely begun to heal. Those who are not yet ready to forgive, not yet at the place where they can talk of reconciliation. The pain is too fresh to be able to see very far beyond it. At the table are refugees from places of conflict – Syria, Iraq, Columbia – upset and disoriented. At the table are victims of abuse who are struggling to stay sane. At the table are those who, for different reasons, are living with pain and loss and still carry unresolved anger. For some coming to the table is an expression of hope for that which still seems far out of reach, a trust that their pain is held and shared by Christ. There is a place at the table for those struggling to sing in a foreign land.
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
The prophet Habakkuk would like for God to get a message loud and clear: There’s too much violence, and God should do something about it. Habakkuk feels like he’s been leaving God voicemail after voicemail and getting no response. Violence continues, injustice prevails, the wicked are getting away with murder and nobody’s doing anything about it. Surely God must have at least some interest in these developments.
Habakkuk is also writing around the time of the Babylonian takeover of Judah. He refuses to let God off the hook. He vows to stand at his watch post until he gets an answer. “I will keep watch…to see what God will answer concerning my complaint.”
God has a message for Habakkuk. It does not involve God resolving the violence problem. It does involve something that needs to be heard far and wide. Habakkuk is instructed to write the vision down on tablets so that the reader can carry it and run with it. This is a message that can’t wait to be lugged around on the old school heavy stone tablets. It needs to utilize new light-weight tablet technology, so it can be as agile and mobile as possible. A runner is going to take this urgent message from town to town and can’t be slowed down. The message is plain and simple “The righteous, by faith, shall live.”
Since Habakkuk was such a questioner, it would have been nice if he would have asked God what exactly God means by “faith.” But this isn’t part of their conversation. Faith, it appears, it that which enables you to live humanly when surrounded by violence. By faith you will live, really live. Not just survive fearfully. Faith is what enables us to live abundantly, open to possibilities, even if the world is not as it should be.
This was a message many of the captives in Babylon needed to hear. Faith was that core of their being that even the Babylonians couldn’t destroy or take captive. It was what enabled them to live meaningful lives, even if they were in Babylon.
At the table are those are who are just beginning to explore a life of faith. Who aren’t even sure what it means to live with faith but who refuse to let their lives be defined by self-centeredness or despair, and who won’t go along with violent living. At the table are those who are curious about accepting the challenge of living with hope, of living an other-centered life. There is a place at the table for those who are searching for faith and who want to live, really live.
The disciples thought faith was such a good thing that they wanted more of it. As much as they could get. “Increase our faith” they say to Jesus. This sounds like a fair enough request, especially to us who know that bigger is always better. If we can supersize our hamburger and fries, why not our faith?
Jesus offers another logic. Think small. Think tiny, like a mustard seed, barely visible, basically a speck of dust. That’s all the faith you need and if that’s what you have, then you have plenty. While we get focused on quantity and size, Jesus is focused on authenticity. The seed carries the whole life of the plant in it. It’s all there. Everything that’s needed. I love my mom for teaching me to be in awe of seeds. Gardening every year she’s familiar with seeds doing impossible kinds of things, like turning a patch of soil into a season’s supply of produce. She comments often on how she loves to let seeds do their work. If you have faith as big as a seed, you don’t need more faith, you just need the right conditions for letting the seed do its work.
At the Communion table are those who have lived with faith for much of their lives. Ones who have seen it grow and whither, and grow again. Sometimes discontent with their faith, wanting it increased. Sometimes as content as a seed surrounded by dark soil. Those who do the works of faith even though it doesn’t always elevate the spirit to a new level of intimacy with God. There is a place at the table for those who have lived with faith and who live with that grain of authenticity that is really all that is needed.
At the table so far we have those barely holding on to their humanity, filled with pain, Psalm 137. There are those just beginning to explore faith as an alternative to despair – Habakkuk. And those who have settled into the seasons of the faith journey – Luke 17.
2 Timothy 1:1-7
The Second Letter to Timothy completes the circle, or in this case, the rectangle. Also around this table are those who are learning faith from the previous generation and passing it down to the next. Paul is writing to Timothy who has a sincere faith that he got from his Grandma Lois and his mom, Eunice. Paul would like for Timothy to continue in faith well after he and his mother and grandmother are gone.
Communion has its origins in the Jewish Passover Seder meal. It is very likely that the “Last Supper” was a seder meal. This meal was a household ritual that intentionally gave the children an important role. It was a teaching tool for passing down the meaning of faith, and children were encouraged to ask questions. The scripted question that the youngest child of the family is to ask is: “Why is this night different than all other nights?” The meal was a way of retelling the story of the exodus from slavery and handing off faith to the next generation.
As I am coming to learn, this congregation has had a number of discussions throughout the years regarding children’s involvement in Communion. There’s a folder in the office with documents from these past discussions held together by the largest paper clip I have ever seen in my life. One of the documents states, “For some time we on the Worship Commission and the Leadership Team have been discussing whether or not our children ought to take bread and juice during the Lord’s Supper.” The date at the bottom of the page is February 25, 1992. More recently, a couple years ago, a Communion Study group was formed and did careful study and listening and arrived at the recommendation that Columbus Mennonite Church practice a Communion Table open to all, regardless of baptismal status, with each family deciding when it was most appropriate for their children to begin receiving Communion.
This is not an issue that will resolve itself quickly, but, no matter what the practice, it’s still a key opportunity for encouraging questions from our young people and addressing them in such a way that allows for exploring the meaning of our faith. “Why do we do this?” “Why is this morning different than other mornings?” An inherent part of our Communion, which completes the table, is looking beyond ourselves to the next generation. From Lois to Eunice to Timothy and Paul. Passing along faith. Engaging the curiosity of our children, either through their direct involvement, or through having them come forward to receive a blessing. We come to the table as ones who desire to be a part of the good news that will surely outlive us and be carried by the next generation.
We bring such different experiences and faith journeys to this meal, from locations all around this world, and we trust that God’s vast embrace is wide enough for us all. We come not because we have earned it, but because we are hungry, we are thirsty, and Christ is for us living bread and wine.