Thursday, August 11, 2011

Sermon for Proper 13

On July 31, while on vacation, it was my joy to preach at St Timothy's Church in Salem, Oregon. This is the parish where our family was active for ten years (1976-1986), where two of our children were baptized, and from which we were sent off to seminary. It remains a remarkable worshiping and serving community all these years later. Here's what I shared with them about the feeding miracle in Matthew's gospel.

Matthew 14:13-21

Have you ever noticed how the most wonderful experiences that are available to us in this life are often best appreciated if they’re not talked about? It is, rather, in the doing of them that we know their meaning and feel their power. So, in a sense, I’m hesitant to be even giving this sermon, because what I want to talk about is one of those things. And, moreover, I want to talk about it while we’re in the middle of doing it, which is to say, I want to talk about the Eucharist, which is clearly one of those things that is at risk for being spoiled if it’s talked about too much. The power and meaning of the Eucharist is found in the doing of it, not the talking about it. Jesus’ own words at the Last Supper were “Do this for the remembrance of me.”

Nonetheless, I proceed, because, while it may be dangerous to talk about, neither can something like the Eucharist be left completely “unsaid,” and today is one of those occasions when it is “meet and right” to speak the mystery of the Mass. So, hopefully without treading on the teaching prerogatives of either your rector or your bishop, and at the risk of seeming presumptuous by saying all this in a parish that is more formed by the Eucharist than any I know, let’s begin to unpack this.

So… why today? Well, if we scratch the surface of this familiar gospel story of the miraculous feeding of thousands of people in the wilderness from five small loaves of bread and two fish, we find the Eucharist in all of its glory. Our earliest Christian ancestors understood this passage, alongside the Last Supper narrative and the long discourse in John’s gospel about the “bread of life,” as a primary eucharistic text. It provides a virtual template for the liturgy we celebrate every time we come together.

Let’s look at it more closely. What’s the first thing that Matthew tells us Jesus did there in the wilderness? He sees the people and he calls them together; he gathers them and presides over them. This is what the celebrant, the presiding priest or bishop, does in the liturgical celebration of the Eucharist, gathering and presiding over the people of God. Then Jesus spends some time healing those who were sick. In other accounts of this incident, Jesus is said to have taught the people. These activities correspond to what we know as the Liturgy of the Word, where we read scripture and someone interprets and applies the scripture, and we offer our prayers of intercession and petition for those who are in need.

Then what does Jesus do?  Matthew tells us that “taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven, and blessed, and broke and gave the loaves to the disciples…”. There are four significant verbs in that sentence I just read, which—if we put them all in their basic present tense form—are: take, bless, break, and give. This also corresponds very closely to what we’re about to do. When the bread and wine are placed on the altar, we’re “taking.” When the celebrant—in this case, Father Brandon—offers the eucharistic prayer on behalf of the gathered congregation, we’re “blessing.” After the Lord’s Prayer, he will “break” the bread, just as Jesus did at the feeding miracle. And then Fr Brandon, along with those who assist him, will “give” the consecrated bread and wine—now become the body and blood of Christ, the “gifts of God for the people of God”—we will give Holy Communion to the people. Take, bless, break, give—this is the essential fourfold action of the Eucharist, and we have the pattern for it right here in this gospel story.

The Eucharist is a complex subject, and there is certainly more that we could say about it than we’ll be able to say today. After all, we’re primarily here to do it, not talk about it! Nonetheless, I do want to suggest to you three levels of understanding the Eucharist. Actually, it’s the third level I really want to talk about, because it’s a key element in the feeding miracle story from Matthew. But it’s like the top rung of a ladder—we can’t get to the third level except by means of the first two.

The first level at which we understand the Eucharist is the level of food. It involves the literal eating of bread and drinking of wine—food for our bodies and food for our souls. Knowing Holy Communion as a source of spiritual nourishment makes an obvious connection with our sensory experience—the whole reason we’ve come together in this place is to share a meal. Whatever else we do, we’re at least doing that much. We receive the bread and wine as Body and Blood—food for the journey through this life and into the next.

The second level at which we understand the Eucharist is the level of sacrifice. The theme of sacrifice has received heavy emphasis in the western Christian tradition, and the Eucharist is closely identified with this theme. On our behalf, Jesus offered himself to the Father—in his birth and life, in his death on the cross, and in his resurrection from the dead—Jesus offered himself to the Father as the atoning sacrifice that makes our reconciliation with God possible. In the Eucharist, we share in that sacrifice. Not just in receiving soul-nourishing grace in the sacrament, but in the whole offering of the liturgy, we participate in Christ’s self-offering, we make it our own, we “cover” ourselves with it as we approach God’s presence.

So we know the Eucharist to be sacramental food. We know the Eucharist to be a sacrificial offering. And standing on those two pillars (if I can switch my metaphor from rungs on a ladder!) we are in a position to know the Eucharist as a mystical participation in the eternal heavenly banquet. We find the sign and clue for this in what might at first strike us as an incidental detail in the feeding miracle narrative. I’m talking about the leftovers. Matthew tells us that after everybody ate their fill, the disciples collected twelve full baskets of broken pieces. There weren’t just a few scraps left over, something to take home to the dog. The leftovers were abundant, and this little detail is intended to put us in mind of visions like the one we find in Isaiah: “On this mountain the Lord will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.” It also puts us in mind of the “marriage supper of the Lamb” in the book of Revelation, the party to end all parties, the eternal celebration of God’s final triumph over sin and death.

In the Eucharist, in the Mass, we participate in this celestial banquet. Holy Communion is certainly food for the journey, but it is also food at the end of the journey. And unlike the manna that the Lord provided for his people in the wilderness in the time of Moses, which was new every morning but spoiled overnight, the mystical food of the eucharistic banquet never spoils. The Eucharist draws us into the realm of Eternity and plops us down right in the middle of the heavenly banquet. In the midst of this very liturgy, we are transcending time and space and joining our praises with the songs of the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. In the midst of this very liturgy, we are transcending time and space and entering into deep communion, holy communion, with our Lord Jesus Christ, as well as deep and holy communion with all the members of his Body, living and dead—those we know and those we don’t know, those we like and those we don’t like.

This is precisely why baptisms, and weddings, and funerals all find their clearest expression in the context of the Mass. When the newly baptized make their first communion just a few minutes later, they are dining with the company of saints into whose number they have just been initiated. When the first act of a married couple is to receive Holy Communion at their wedding service, they become breathing icons of the church as the bride of Christ in union with the Son of God. When we bury our loved ones from the church, after having offered the Mass for them, we not only plead the sacrifice of Christ on their behalf in a wonderfully effective way, but we also join them at the heavenly banquet table, and we have a tangible sign that while death changes life, it does not end life.

To quote the great Anglican liturgical scholar Dom Gregory Dix, “Was ever another command so obeyed?”  “Do this for the remembrance of me.” Do this. For more than a hundred thousand consecutive Sundays and countless other occasions, the people of God have faithfully done “this.” In talking about “this” we receive relatively little. But in doing “this” we receive the spiritual food of our Lord’s very life—his body and his blood. We participate in the single yet eternal self-offering of the Son to the Father on our behalf. And we feast at the heavenly banquet table with the entire communion of saints. Amen. Amen.

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