Delivered by Rev. Colleen Fay
Sunday, August 12, 2018
“May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, O God, my rock and my redeemer”
- Psalm 19:14
Are we busier now than we have ever been? It won’t surprise you to learn that not only do we think we are, but so has every generation for as far back as polling data has been collected – and busier than any and every generation before it as well.
Where am I going with this, you say? Well, it begs the question, if we are as busy as we say we are, why would we set aside as much time as we do each week to come together and worship? If we do ask ourselves that question, I’m sure that there are as many reasons as there are people in this church. But that, in turn, begs an even deeper question: “doesn’t this coming together to worship, whether there are a five hundred people here or five, mean something special in and of itself?” The answer is a resounding YES! And it means that YES even if we don’t all agree on what that “yes” is.
People used to ask, and as trite as it may sound, they still ask, “What do I get out of going to church?” It may sound trite, but it is a serious question. The facile rejoinder, “Well, what do you put into it?” just dodges the issue. In spite of the fact that church attendance and membership are both down, according to recent studies, and bucking the trend of “I consider myself spiritual, but not religious,” people still come. They come even if they don’t like “organized religion.” Why is that?
What does that say? What does it mean? I’m certainly not going to suggest that I have the answer, much less all the answers, but I do think that I may have a clue to what these observations point to. Also I think that I can suggest something that this Universalist Church – in fact many different churches – can offer by way of an answer. It’s something that we really take for granted, but it is important, in fact far more important than it seems.
There is one other thing that has been repeated so often these days that it, too, has become trite, so trite, in fact that when we hear it we pay scant attention to it. With all the social media like Snapchat, Reddit, and Twitter and the newer ones that are making even email and Facebook seem old-fashioned, more people are connected and yet feel lonelier that ever.
Connected electronically, but disconnected personally. And it’s not just a phenomenon of the under-30 crowd either. Using electronic media pervades the generations; just look at the commercials on TV or the ads in magazines targeted to people of my generation. We can’t escape it – these are phenomena that affect us all. We are all disconnecting from the very things that we get when we are connected with other people singly and in groups.
Social trends of the last century notwithstanding, there’s another reason why people go to church. It’s the same reason why people have come together to worship since the very beginnings of Christianity. Jesus told us “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I also.” It’s not just a rhetorical flourish, but a statement of religious fact. Now, you’re going to tell me, “Colleen, in our post-Enlightenment age; quasi-mystical statements like that just don’t fly any more.” Yes, ours is the era of the scientific method and all its progeny and most of us are dubious about anything that we can’t quantify. At the same time, there is something special that almost all of us agree is “here” among us when we come to church. We may not all agree on what it is, but we are not willing to dismiss it either. Yet few of us would deny that special something touches a corresponding something deep inside of each one of us.
I’d like to talk for a minute or two about that hard-to-pin-down reason we come together to worship. The very first thing that I should, that I must say about it is that it is a mystery and it will remain so. By mystery I mean that the proper explanation for it exists beyond where our language can reach. I should also say that by using the term “mystery,” I don’t mean to imply that it is some sort of abracadabra magic, because it isn’t. If you and I can agree that we can’t fully explain why it is that we come together to worship, then we are getting down to the heart of the matter.
We know that be humans are social beings – in a word: we need each other: even those rugged individualists we read so much about. Beyond that basic need, however, lies that very special need that we can only satisfy in the presence of others, and not just any others, but those who have come together for a special, collective purpose – something that none of us could achieve on our own.
Because language is so limited, as I said a moment ago, we can’t fully articulate what that “special collective purpose is” Oh, we can say we go to church to worship God, but can’t we do that just as well in the privacy of our own homes? Why do we do it together. What is our communal purpose?
Communal is the key word, or the closest thing we’re going to find in any language. In many languages, the word is little changed. Oh, the Germans have their gemeinschaftlich and the French communautaire, but the sense is the same. They all hint at something that has both a common, and simultaneously a higher purpose. The whole is most certainly greater than the sum of its parts. And that is true whether we are a congregation of 400, of 40, or of four. When we worship, we get back to that mystery, back to that which is greater than ourselves, that very something that we share.
And now I’m going to go out on a limb. In the reading we heard just a few minutes ago, we heard something unusual, Jesus getting frustrated with people that he was trying to help. Earlier in the same chapter, we had the miracle story of the feeding of the multitude with the loaves and fishes. The crowd was very excited, later they wanted to make Jesus into a king, but he wanted no part of that so he climbed to a remote place to get away from the crowd. A day or so later, some of the same people found him again and tried to pick up where they had left off. They want more of that special, maybe even spiritual food.
Jesus does something – he lays down an virtual ultimatum. I’m only aware of two other times in all of the gospels of his ever doing this so clearly. The first is when he listens to the rich young man tell him all of the good things that he’s done since he was a child, then Jesus tells him, with love, “then sell all you have and come follow me.” The young man is crestfallen and leaves Jesus. The other ultimatum is to Nicodemus, a devout Jew and a member of the Sanhedrin the Jewish religious court, but secretly a follower of Jesus. “What must I do to be saved?” Is Nicodemus’s burning question; Jesus’s perplexing answer is that “You must be born again.” Their night-time dialogue is the basis for the understanding of spiritual rebirth – for many Christians it’s the underpinning of Baptism.
But with the “loaves & fishes” crowd Jesus, is chiding them for asking for more. They taunt him saying “Moses gave our ancestors manna to eat on the Exodus from Egypt; why can’t you give us food like that?” Jesus reminds them that the manna didn’t come from Moses, but from God. Well then, give us,” they demand, “some of this spiritual bread as well.” Then Jesus drops his bombshell.
“Jesus said to them. “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” The people are clearly not satisfied with his answer. They grumble. They complain. What’s he talking about anyway? A little bit further on he tells them, “ Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me has eternal life. Your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that comes down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” It’s a zinger no doubt about it.
Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox have been arguing about just what this means for more than the last 500 years, so I’m certainly not going to wade into that argument. What I do want to do is to get back to my original point – why do we come together to worship God? For my money these two ideas: “when two or three are gathered together…,” and “I am the living bread. Whoever eat this bread…” are really bound up together.
Let’s put ourselves back in that time and imagine walking around, following and listening to Jesus – this astonishing teacher-prophet-Messiah person. We’re all trying to make up our minds about him. We’re hearing Jesus come out with these amazing statements and we’re certainly not sure what to make of them. The only thing that we can be sure of is that we’ve never heard anybody talk like this before.
Now, back here in 2018, you and I can transport that little vignette right into our own time. We know that there are as many ideas about what Jesus meant about “eat my flesh,” as there are theologians in seminaries. Instead of that theological controversy, I think that what Jesus is really all about is transforming people’s ideas of what it meant to be good. The standard Jewish idea that performing good deeds and avoiding committing sins was the recipe for a good life was not enough for Jesus. For him, the promise was not about accomplishing an elaborate series of commandments – a combination of “do this, but don’t do that” – , but rather living that good life because you believed in him and everything he stood for – changing what was in your heart. This is the essence of “eat my flesh and drink my blood” – digesting Jesus’s message of love and truly making it a part of you, right down to the marrow of your bones. Jesus exemplified this when he brought all his closest followers together that night before he died for that Passover Seder meal.
He began with the washing of their feet and finished with that shared meal. “This is how you are to be,” he tells them, “Come together in love, a love that transcends your differences. Let down your defenses, let nothing come between you, let the kind of love I’ve shown you, the love without any barriers be so strong that it’s the thing that people get to know you by. Share this, do this together. And whenever you do it, I want you to remember me and what I have taught you.” To me all of what Jesus was saying, whether breaking the bread for the multitude or with his closest friends was always the same. “Come together, believe in me, believe in each other, love each other as I loved you.” This is the meaning of communal experience.
Sure, the bread and wine are important and very real parts of the communion, but it’s the coming together part that is the key. You can’t have communion with just one person. It’s a contradiction in terms. Nor is this about belief statements, those Creeds – we know Universalists don’t make them a test for membership anyway. This is way beyond that. Whenever we worship together like we’re doing right now, right here in Jesus’s name, it’s more than something amazing; it’s sacred, something holy. Together it is we who are making Holy Communion.