Year A, Easter 3
As many of you know, I first heard a call to ordination when I was a member of the Roman Catholic Church. I felt it so strongly that I attended seminary, as a Roman Catholic, hoping to either discover some other way to follow a call outside of ordination, or find some kind of hidden loop hole. One of the reasons that I eventually left the Catholic Church was that I feared that if I stayed, I would just be angry and bitter and no help to anyone. I remember sitting in mass, watching the Catholic priests celebrate communion and thinking, if only they knew how lucky they are. If only they knew what it was not to be able to follow a call because of the gender that you are born into. I was incredibly envious. I am not proud it. But what was weird, was that there was no other part of the ministry that incited my envy. I knew I could help people without being ordained. I even knew that if I could not preach, I would find some way to express myself and my faith. But what I grieved, was not being able to celebrate communion.
When I learned more about how the Episcopal Church viewed the sacrament of Holy Communion, I knew that I had found a new home. When I celebrated my first Eucharist, I remember telling myself, never forget how much this means. Never forget what it felt like to yearn for this. But I did. There were certainly moments when I could remember that feeling and felt rather proud of myself for remembering. But I also took it for granted. It stopped carrying the same weight as it once did. It stopped feeling like a gift and started to feel like a right. I am ashamed to admit it, but there it is.
So this time away from the sacrament has been good for me. I have taken it for granted for too many years now. Now I yearn for it, not in the same slightly bitter way as before, but the way we yearn for home when have been gone on a long trip. This time away has also made me wonder what it is I miss about it. And I think what I miss the most is the act of simply placing it in people’s outstretched hands, seeing a young child reach for it before they even know what it is, bringing it to someone who has been away from church, sharing it with someone in the hospital who only has days or hours to live. Because it is in the context of you—the church–where it has the most meaning for me. Had you asked me before all of this what I valued most about communion, I might have given you a proper theological answer—about sacrifice or how the host does or doesn’t change. So much has changed in the last 6 weeks.
These changes have caused Episcopal clergy all over the country to question what we believe and what is most critical as part of our worship. Because for so long, it was all around the celebration of communion—coming to the table together. Now that we cannot have that, how are we the church? This is not the first time the Christian community has needed to shift how we think. This reading from the Gospel is all about how we encounter the risen Christ. Typically, when we have interpreted this text, it has all seemed painfully obvious. The disciples recognized him after he broke and blessed the bread, an obvious allusion to the Last Supper and one of the reasons that the earliest Christians interpreted scripture and then broke bread together. When this Gospel has come up in the past, it has seemed a perfect opportunity to talk about the importance of celebrating communion together, as a community. It’s a great time to remind people that this is why we come together in church.
Of course this is not just any Sunday. We will not celebrate communion together. Now what is this text about? It’s about two disciples encountering the risen Lord. These disciples had learned how to be disciples by following Jesus, in the flesh. What they had to figure out now was how they can follow a God who is not present with them as a human. That must have been a hard transition for them. They knew how to be followers when they could literally follow Jesus, listen to Jesus, break bread with Jesus—but how could they do so after his death, resurrection and ascension? By interpreting scripture and breaking bread together, Jesus was showing them a new way to be followers of Christ. It doesn’t seem very new to us, but it was new to Jesus’ followers and the first Christians.
For the last ten years, every church event, every conference has talked about how the church needs to change. And I took that all in and talked to you all about it. But I didn’t really want to change and the urgency was not yet there. Now, we are faced with a change that has been forced on us. We have no choice but to change. We can grieve the loss of what we once had much like the disciples grieved the departure of Jesus. It’s ok to mourn that. Yet what we cannot mourn is the loss of faith or God, because God is still present and faith—while perhaps more challenging, is that much more critical.
One day, we will share communion together. We have no idea when that will be. It could be many months and it might look different than how it looked 2 months ago. However, this is an opportunity for each one of us to discover a new way to connect with God. It might be centering prayer, journaling, reading the Psalms or an online Bible study. These are things we will be talking about more in the coming months. We will provide resources and direction. This is a time to do something Episcopalians rarely talk about….develop your relationship with the one true God. Much like we are all finding new ways to relate to one another, this is an opportunity to relate to God in another way, perhaps a more intimate way. And if you don’t—that’s ok. This experience isn’t a test sent by God to determine who could find ways to come out of this with stronger faith. It is an opportunity.
When we initially cancelled services, I thought, well Conor and I can celebrate communion together. That will be nice. Then I realized I had no desire to. That concerned me as I worried it meant it had lost its importance. Now I long to have communion. I pass the aumbry with the reserved sacrament in our sanctuary and look at it longingly. But I am determined to reserve communion for a time when we can share it together. When we do, it might be in a small group. It might be with tiny cups (gasp). God will be present. God will be present and I will once again remember how precious communion is. For now, we lament our loss and we talk to God about that loss. We wait and we pray. One day we will gather at the table again.