This Sunday I walked into a new church. I’m not a stranger to church. But this was different. I wasn’t just visiting, I was looking.
I’ve worshiped from the same evangelical pews all 25 of my adult years, following another 20 as a pastor’s kid. But for the first time, I was checking out one of those, you know, liberal churches – the mainline kind that maybe doesn’t even preach the bible.
I had recently become aware of my own biases, and it freaked me out. I had been comfortably looking at God through familiar stained glass when a glint of sunlight caught the corner of my eye. I started seeing a multiplicity of colored glass panels, all rendering God’s light into a brilliant kaleidoscope. I soon longed to hear other voices, join other groups in worship, and see what parts of God I had been missing.
That in itself was a long process, but it’s the story that brought my feet to this day, stepping into this new church.
From moment one, the differences were stark. The welcome area hosted rainbow flags and Black Lives Matter signs. There were flyers for Yoga classes and a community garden to feed those facing food insecurity.
By the time the Tibetan bells rang out the call to worship, I wondered if my prior church experiences would be of any help here.
But when the service started, the bible reading was familiar – the psalms. That was followed by an old testament passage, then a lengthy gospel reading. Why had I thought the scriptures wouldn’t be here?
There were songs. Lively Americana with violin and mandolin, and later a Beatles song to guide reflection time. Churches have always battled over musical styles, so I expected the unexpected and took it all in.
Then came the homily. Compared to my past experiences, this was a shorter, but more focused talk delivered by the vicar. This was based on the same Lectionary scriptures – sourced from a 3-year cycle of bible readings shared by mainline churches around the world. Afterward was a time when anyone could share reflections on what we’d heard.
The homily and community announcements really made me think, because the same scriptures I’d always known were being used to guide us to very different actions. This church offered an invitation to house undocumented immigrants in the name of Jesus. My former pastor had invited us to spend Lent praying outside a Planned Parenthood center. This homily positively re-appropriated the word “queering” while the prior had opened the bible to restrict “queerness”. The former church’s feeding programs insisted on an explicit gospel message, while this church treated the food as the message.
Amazingly it all came from the same source: the life of Christ as told in the Scriptures. How could each church reach such different conclusions? I used my mad PowerPoint skills to illustrate this:
I used the cross for the drawing because both the right and the left claim Jesus as their own. I’ve spent enough time on one side of that cross to know how hard it is to look past my view of Jesus and see the people on the other side. When I was more on the right, I would look at Jesus and see him on my side. Now my worldview seems to skew left – and this too was driven by gospel Love (though it took me awhile to understand that). But can both sides keep their eye on Jesus and see over him to the other side?
(Listening to some people talk, you’d think that Jesus’ separating the sheep from the goats was actually about Democrats and Republicans. Though… he does refer to putting the sheep on his right and the goats on his left, so….hmmm… 1 point for the red states?).
Of course, this is normal, we are a tribal people and it makes sense that our God would be on our side. We’re human. We’re trying to understand the infinite. There will be misunderstandings.
We live our days under a rich star. The sun we revolve around is layered, complex, radiant. Its power is produced by nuclear fusion, its temperatures vary moment to moment, its magnetic field extends well beyond Pluto. And it shines onto us prismatically, which is to say varied in rich color. The sun’s light looks different on you than me. A summer afternoon is quite distinct from a winter sunset; the same Sun powers them both.
So also, we live our days under a Rich Love. Such manifold radiance works its way out in different people in different ways, during different seasons of life. Even if we each enjoy the sun in a unique way, none can claim it exclusively.
Sitting in this service, I was far from understanding how all these differences made sense. But it wouldn’t matter, because all these forerunners – scripture, singing, sermon – began to culminate in that deeply deliberate walk to the communion table. Christ’s body and blood await all who would come – “wherever you are on your journey” as they so strikingly said at the Episcopal church. Making the journey from our solitary seats, the lot of us – deliberately casual students in hipster glasses, couples of various ethnicities, toddlers in well-worn pajamas, shuffling seniors, and me – joined the streaming flow of humans. An energetic child even rode his Big-Wheel in from the playground to check us out.
Forward, forward, forward we stepped, taking our place at the table. The bread of life nourishes us, and we are hungry – our very walk forward declares it. Our humanity meets heaven’s humanity, and the divine body is broken into bite size portions for we who can only understand piece by piece, week by week. Christ’s outstretched hands await and we look into them. Seeing nail scars that speak to our own life-is-hard narratives, we let our hands touch his and smear the blood, taking the cup. It’s the soul of the service.
No one mentions politics during communion. No one has a cause to champion or a group of others to correct. The Eucharist becomes very personal in a way that cannot happen when we’re alone. People stream forward and kneel, or join into a circle, or genuflect, or receive a blessing of prayer, and for one moment at least: we are common humanity in need.
Is Eucharist like attending a mini-funeral every week? Death has the power to bring squabbling relatives together, laying aside their sermons to remember the goodness of the loved one. Perhaps the universal shortness of life comes to us as we remember a particular death: “as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
After communion, the service ended with a call to action, and we’re back to the differences: this church urging me to prayerfully support the March for our Lives rallies while another presses me to tell my neighbor about Jesus, to serve the poor or meditate, to help with the kids or the church garden. And I will, because there’s too much trouble in this world to do nothing, and my soul itches to do something (see Helpless).
But first I need to slow down. Let me hold on to that moment of peace. I want to stay at that common table: at the center of the service, at the center of the cross. Where divinity touches humanity. Where death reminds us to live. Where light emanates across colorful hues. Where the rights and lefts are forgotten and there’s only the centrality of the common table.
♦ weekendswell ♦
See more of my powerpoint figures and get notified of next post by clicking “Follow”
Footnotes for the overachievers:
Communion and Community both come from the same root word: common. For further reading, look at the three definitions of communion here, making sure to expand the section that says “Translations, word origins and more definitions”.
source for lectionary: https://disciples.org/resources/lectionary/what-is-the-lectionary/
Featured image: The First Supper by Susan Dorothea White, Acrylic on Panel, 1988 http://www.susandwhite.com.au/
The Last Supper, John August Swanson, 2009. See Artist’s Notes
The Last Supper, Frederick J. Brown, 1983, oil on linen. More on Artist
The Last Supper Oil Paint by Numbers Kit, Amazon. I dare you.