7-21 Presentation from Christianity 21 Conference

82797896_2d35aee187There are some stories that we tell often enough that they become central to who we are. Whether we mean for that to happen or not.

What are they, for you? For your family? In mine, one is that I’m a terrible cook. There’s a lot of supporting evidence for this, all of it from about twenty years ago. I have more than redeemed those early disasters.

Still, my family delights in retelling the stories, in making my mistakes come alive again, so that, however much things change, I will always be … a terrible cook. There’s no getting out of that identity for me. The story makes it stick.

There are stories we tell in the church that do much worse damage than this.

There’s a story we tell about Jesus. Some of us, every week. Scripture readings change and music changes and our own lives change but regardless of what else we say and what else we pray, we come to a particular point in a worship service and we get serious, we get reverent, and we tell the story that Jesus was betrayed.

Body broken; blood spilled. We tell that story often enough that it has become central to who we are. Whether we meant for that to happen or not. Whether Jesus meant for that to happen, or not.

Maybe he didn’t. Mark gives us just a few words about the betrayal – it’s a story interrupted, even, by another, a story about anointing…

We ritually tell the betrayal story. Some youth I work with were preparing to serve one another communion and trying to remember the words of institution, and it was so telling: of this ritual they participate in every week, all they knew for sure was that it began, “On the night that Jesus was betrayed…”

But the other story is gorgeous, filled with luxurious detail: Jesus is reclining; he’s a guest in a home and he’s laying back, after the meal, and a woman comes into the room and she releases this exquisite fragrance into the air, she lovingly pours this expensive perfume on his head.

The disciples harass Jesus about it, and he tells them that wherever the Gospel is preached, this is the story to tell: her courageous generosity. Wherever the good news goes, he says, say also that there was this woman, who offered what she had, who did what she could, and it was beautiful.

But we don’t tell the story that way. We tell it like whatever else there was –  whatever beauty, whatever faithfulness – whatever other details help fill it out, the center of the story is betrayal, and brokenness, and blood. That’s what churches tell, ritually, when we gather for communion.

We took a rebuke from the apostle Paul, and made it liturgy. When he offers the language we still use as sacred, he’s telling the church at Corinth they’re doing this ritual wrong – they bring private meals, and at the end of what should be communion, one person goes home hungry and another leaves drunk. He’s chastising them for this when he says, “This is how it happened, ok? On the night that Jesus was betrayed…” I’ve tried to imagine how that language might have come about. I wonder if there’s some conversation the disciples have about the meal. They’re mourning, they’re trying to be faithful, and maybe one says, “How does this go?” And another answers, “Well, there was bread, wine. Like always.”

And another asks, “When was it? The last time we ate with him? What’d he say? It’s all so blurry…” And another says, “Don’t you remember? It was … that night we were all there. The night he was betrayed.” Others nod. “Right. Right, that’s when it was. What an awful night.”

I can imagine that happening. But the betrayal is not the only story told by the early church around this table. Broken body and spilled blood are not the only images used for this meal.

Ephrem would say, “The Fire of compassion descended and took up residence in the Bread. See, Fire and Spirit are in the womb of her who bore You; See, Fire and Spirit are in the river in which you were baptized; In the Bread and the Cup are Fire and Holy Spirit.”

How did we lose that? Why do we use Paul’s context of betrayal every week?  What if we came to communion and said, “When a hungry crowd followed Jesus, he told them, ‘I am the bread of life. Come to me – never hunger; believe in me – never thirst.”

Or we said, “When people gathered around Jesus, to hear him teach, he promised, ‘Blessed are you who are hungry; you’ll be satisfied.’”

Ritual language matters because rituals are acts of re-creation. What is it we speak into being when we share story and bread and wine?

*

There’s a story we tell in this country, over and over again. Thirty-one times since the year 2000, we’ve told a new story about mass murder. They’re each unique – a movie theatre, a workplace, an elementary school, a temple – but there are similar threads, and we respond similarly.

We respond with shock and sympathy, with prayers and promises to be more diligent. We try to understand, and explain. We collectively deny that these stories shape who we are. We buy more weapons. And we defend them more fiercely. We argue whether violence will save us from violence.

And I wonder how much all of that is connected to our practice of ritually telling a story of redemptive violence. I wonder if repeating a story of betrayal and horror – even one that ends in awe – might breathe more of that into the world.

As it is, there’s a terrible disconnect between the abundant life we preach and the violent liturgy of our sacred moments. It’s as if because the table ritual is ancient, we can’t touch it. Banners, hymns, prayers can reflect liturgical seasons, or congregational concerns, or world news, but we can’t imagine another way to share bread and wine.

But this story, of betrayal and blood, is not really what connects us to Christians across all time and space. … We know now earlier Christians used life-giving images, spoke of sacred identity – Augustine told his congregation, “You are Christ’s body; it is your own mystery that lies here upon the table of the Lord…”

Early Christians did not deny the realities of violence and suffering and sin, but they did tell more than just one story.

And if we did, too – if we loosened the hold the story of betrayal has, and began to ritualize stories about abundance, and care — what else might we do?

It may sound far-fetched – this idea that the words we say become the worlds we inhabit, that if we make sacred stories if courage and beauty and generosity we’d breathe more of all of that into the world, but… we are people of faith. The story about us is that we believe impossible things. Do we?

(This is excerpted and re-worked a bit from a longer sermon, The Stories We Tell, that you can find here.)

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slogan and sacrament

My family spent last week in the mountains, in Colorado, and we made the long drive back across Kansas on I-70 yesterday. I always try to pay attention to the signs on that road – the details change but the home-cooked Christianity remains the same: now, there’s one of Jesus holding up a few fingers, with the line, “Jesus, I trust you” across it… There’s one that just proclaims, stark, italicized capital letters on a plain backdrop, that “JESUS IS REAL”… There’s one with no words at all, just a long-haired Jesus head peeking out over a golden field of wheat, and holding a few stalks of it in his hand…

I was playing this game in my head, wondering about what a suburban equivalent of these rural highway signs might be, thinking about what Saint Andrew’s message, boiled down to billboard-slogan style, might be…

And then we came upon another. Not as polished as the others; it wasn’t professionally done. Just some hand-painted block letters on a big white sign posted in some central Kansas farmland. And it said, “I Need a Kidney.” And across the bottom, the phone number.

I looked it up when we got home – James Nelson, who used to paint murals, rented the sign after he got the idea from a nurse at the Mayo Clinic. He drug a ladder out into the field where it stands and and hiked his 70-year-old self up to paint the message for his wife, Sharon. They’ve had lots of calls, but so far none of the offers have worked out. They’re still hopeful that some kind soul, with the right blood type and enough time to slow down and copy the phone number, will find them.

I’ve never felt like those other signs are particularly loving – those theological arguments posted along I-70. I’ve thought they were sometimes clever… sometimes threatening… but this one, that just spoke of the woman’s need – something about it reached off the painted wood and into my spirit as we drove by. Her acknowledgment of her need forges a connection between her and all who see that sign. And in that way, I think, it says more about God, about faith, about love, than any of the others out there. It says, honestly, this is who I am. I am, literally, broken. I need you. For healing. And it opens up the possibility that maybe, we need each other.

It’s the same thing a communion table says, right? This table is not clever, or threatening. It is not a theological argument. It simply invites us to be who we are. To acknowledge where we are broken. And maybe when we do, and we come — broken selves to broken bread — we begin to find wholeness.