Sunday, August 16, 2009

Eat My Flesh?

Sheepscott Community Church August 16, 2009

1 Kings 2: 10-12; 3: 3-14

John 6: 51-58

Eat My Flesh?

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The reading from First Kings sets us up nicely for today’s message. The young Solomon, who has succeeded his father David as King of Israel, has a dream in which God tells him to ask for what he wants, and God will give it to him. Solomon points out that he is a mere child and does not know how to govern such a great people as these are. He asks God for a discerning heart, for wisdom to distinguish between right and wrong and thereby to govern this people effectively. Solomon recognized his own poverty, not in relation to the wealth of the world––he had plenty of that––but in relation to experience. Because he knew himself poor, God could work with that. Solomon knew that he needed the wits and wisdom of God in order to do his job.

We need that wisdom of Solomon, the patience of Job, and the generosity of imagination of Jesus to consider today’s gospel. This is that outrageous gospel wherein Jesus says to the disciples, “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him.” We’ll hear in next week’s gospel how disturbed many of Jesus’s followers were to hear him use such language. What he was saying was the basis of one of the hot-button issues in the late medieval church: transubstantiation. And for good reason it was a hot-button issue: it defined an idea that conjured cannibalism or vampirism in some minds.

The term transubstantiation means the change of the substance of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, a literal understanding of Jesus’s words at the Last Supper. “Take and eat; this is my body. Take and drink; this is my blood.” The term itself, which was not used until the eleventh century, was codified in its meaning at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 and later at the sixteenth-century Council of Trent, called to counteract the Reformation. As a result of the Protestant Reformation, Many of the reformers and the reformed refused to accept this literal interpretation of the words of Jesus and rather saw them as figurative. They also compared the words of Jesus with other quotations in scripture that broadened understanding away from that literalness. However, even the general Protestant view does not regard the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper as common bread and wine, but respects them as symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

When I was doing background reading for this sermon, I was struck by the thought, What difference does it make whether we view the Communion as this or as that? How important is it that one belief prevail over another?Just as each of us has our own ideas about God, depending on our backgrounds, including religious upbringing––or not––cultural mores, and world view, so each one of us acts out of a given understanding of communion, that may have been learned through instruction, experience or by osmosis. We may call it Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, or the sacramental meal. Might not God, who is myriad and yet One, might not God be glorified in these myriad expressions of belief that are finally one under the headship of the chosen One, Jesus? Indeed in whose name we share the communion, whether commemoratively or transubstantively at all?

The endless discussions, arguments and writings on the question of communion raised by Jesus’s language in today’s gospel and at the Last Supper, are all valuable because they provide an opportunity for the clarification of our own personal thought and belief. To clarify thought around this extraordinary idea of eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ, I’m going to employ the wisdom of a good doctor, the poet William Carlos Williams. In last week’s sermon, I discussed faith healing and the reluctance of some who depend on that to admit the opinions and practice of medical doctors. As I stated then, all healing in all its forms, from all its sources, finally comes from God. 

Also in the sermon, I asked that we be willing to face suffering, alleviating it where and when we can, and recognizing that we cannot always alleviate it. Recall King David weeping on the floor in the room above the gate of the city, when his insurrectionist son Absalom was killed. Remember too the image of Mary holding the dead Christ in her arms, the Pieta of Michelangelo. Too late for David and Absalom, too late for Mary and Jesus. All those grieving parents could do was to face and be in and hold the suffering.

This is where William Carlos Williams comes in, where he can be viewed as a kind of bridging figure, providing focus on one hand for the communion and what constitutes it, and on the other hand, about suffering and how to view it. Dr. Williams, who won a Pulitzer for his poetry collection Paterson, was a general practitioner and pediatrician in New Jersey for many years. When asked how he could be both writer and doctor, both of which are all-consuming professions, he answered that as a writer he had never felt that medicine interfered with him, but rather, it was his very food and drink, the very thing which made it possible for him to write. Interesting use of food and drink in that context of healing and artistic expression. Communion maybe?

Before I go on, I should note for those younger members of the congregation that in Dr. Williams’ days of practice, through the late ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s, doctors made house calls. Many of us remember our doctors, knocking at the door with their black bags with the dreaded hypodermic needle inside. 

In Williams’s own words, “It’s the humdrum, day-in, day-out everyday work that is the real satisfaction of the practice of medicine; the patients a man has seen on his daily visits over a forty-year period of weekdays and Sundays that make up his life. I have never had a money practice,” and here I would guess that he means he had never been a specialist, which is pretty much where all the money in medicine lies, “it would have been impossible for me,” he said. 

“But the actual calling on people, at all times and under all conditions, the coming to grips with the intimate conditions of their lives, when they were being born, when they were dying, watching them die, watching them get well when they were ill, has always absorbed me.” It sounds like Dr. Williams partook of the same wisdom of God that Solomon shared, except his was bent in the direction of healing and poetry, while Solomon’s, by his request, was bent in the direction of governing.

Just a few more sentences of Williams himself. In speaking again of his patients, he wrote, “I lost myself in the very properties of their minds: for the moment at least I actually became them, whoever they should be, so that when I detached myself from them at the end of a half hour of intense concentration over some illness which was affecting them, it was as though I was reawakening from a sleep. For the moment I myself did not exist; nothing of myself affected me. As a consequence I came back to myself, as from any other sleep, rested.”

That sounds so much like communion to me because it sounds like the hands-on application of the theology of the Body of Christ. When we forget ourselves and are fully with another, we are communion for one another. We become, we are the flesh and blood of the Body of Christ. 

On Wednesday night at the community supper at Second Congregational Church, where Sheepscott Community Church serves on the second Wednesday of the month with membrs of South Bristol Congregational, Clara Fagan dropped a line that opened up my own understanding of this sermon I was working on, and I share that line with you. By the way, the choir sang for the first time at the supper, for their supper, under Carroll’s direction on Wednesday. Anyway, Clara, speaking of one of the pieces of the choir’s music, said she had left [the music for] “All the Riches of His Grace” in church. I thought, No! No! Here you are. Here you all are, the riches of his grace, out through the church doors and in the street, so to speak. You have become the flesh and blood of Christ, fed to the folks at the supper at Second Congregational in service and in song, as surely as the chicken legs, hot dogs and sald are fed out.. Are you transubstantiated, as it were? Changed into the flesh and blood of Christ, to be fed to others? That’s one way to think about it.

Another story along that line is one I overheard Lily Mayer telling someone following the service last week. It concerned Vernon, a physically challenged older man who walks daily along Route 130 in the Damariscotta-Bristol Mills area. He doesn’t hitchhike, but folks, like Lily, often stop to give him a ride. When we talked about this at the supper the other night, Peter, one of the patrons of the supper, said that he too had picked up Vernon and given him a ride more than once. This is the practice of community, knowing who is out there and what the needs are, and responding to those needs, and the only way we can know that is by being out there.

Anyway, back to Lily. She engaged Vernon in conversation, and found out that he has two bad knees, and the walking is getting more and more difficult. I’ve heard Lily say before how she experiences the Body of Christ: it is in one another. Surely she was that to her companion in travel that day, as Peter has been as well. And Vernon was the same for them. How different is that from Doctor Williams, so completely absorbed in his patients that he entirely forgot himself. Another quotation of his that seems applicable here in relation to Lily and Peter and their passenger: “Let the successful carry off their blue ribbons; I have known the unsuccessful, far better persons than their lucky brothers.” Our poverty before God comes in different forms.

Like Elijah waiting to see God in the cleft of the rock where God has placed him, we do not experience God usually in the all-consuming fire, in the great wind that crushes the rocks, but in the still small whispering voice. There is God. As Williams has it, and as I would suggest Lily does as well, “We catch a glimpse of something from time to time, which shows us that a presence has just brushed past us, some rare thing––just when the smiling little Italian woman––or Vernon with his bad knees––has left us. For a moment we are dazzled. What was that? We can’t name it,” says Williams. Never one to shirk a challenge, I would counter that we can name it: it is the presence of Christ in the world, his very flesh and blood in us, as we are with one another. 

Psalm 27 includes the lines, “Come,” says my heart. “Seek God’s face.” In fact, show me your face has been the cry of mystics to God through the ages. Look at one another. There is the face of God. There is communion, the body and blood of Christ in its fullest and realest sense. 

It seems so simple, and yet synods and conferences and councils through the ages have constructed dialectics, which are arbitrary systems, which since all systems are mere inventions, is necessarily in each case a false premise, upon which a closed system is built, shutting those who confine themselves to it away from the rest of the world. All people in one way or another use a dialectic of some sort into which they are shut. It can be any country, any group of people. So each group is limited or maimed even by this shutting up and off from others. Each group is enclosed in its own dialectic cloud and for that reason, we wage wars and have pride over the most superficial things and ideas. 

Even as I say that, I recoup what I said earlier about the value of arguing and positing positions on all matters, including and perhaps especially theological matters. There’s value in delineating our beliefs, even if it’s just for ourselves. It’s fun and important for the clarification of thought. However, when those arguments result in entrenchment and division of people, one from another, then it is necessary to return to the source, who is One, to be replenished and further enlightened. We do that with one another in worship and especially in the communion, and we do it in our private prayer where God listens and responds and restores. Let us seek the renewal of our own minds, to unstick ourselves from the ruts of our thinking. Let us become new.

This morning, following the service, Maia Alexandra Clancy, this precious little baby will become new––a newly baptized member of the Body of Christ. We would do well, as we thank God for this little one in our midst, we would do well to ask God to renew us, even as we pray for Maia and for her family. What an opportunity we have to celebrate together another sacrament, that of baptism.

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