Saturday, August 2, 2008

12 Pentecost

August 3, 2008
All Saints Episcopal Church
Valley City, ND

Matthew 14.13-21

Today we encounter this amazing scene. Jesus, seeing the crowd of people who had been following after him, has compassion on them and heals them. As evening draws near, he commands his disciples to feed them.

“You give them something eat,” he commands them.

The disciples are amazed by this statement. How would they be able to feed this group of thousands with only five loaves of bread and two fish? But with Jesus, all things are possible, as I hope we’ve discovered. And certainly that’s what those disciples and those people gathered there discovered on that day. Somehow, those five loaves and two fish fed the whole crowd, with twelve basketfuls left over.

It’s a beautiful and wonderful story. But we are no doubt wondering what it means to us.

What is interesting about this scene is that, although we find this miracle concerning food, it is not like the Last Supper, where Jesus institutes the Eucharist. This meal doesn’t have anything to do with a cup of wine. Instead, it has fish as a prominent part of the story. Unlike the Passover meal which Jesus celebrated with his disciples, this meal is more in line with a kind of bread-breaking meal. This bread-breaking meal, which would later feature prominently in the lives of early Christians, had a deeper meaning than just breaking bread.

It also was a glimpse into the future—toward the end times. It gives us a glimpse of the Kingdom of God breaking through in a very real sense. Because this is what the Kingdom of God is like. When we are hungry, we will be fed, even when it seems like the odds are against us. When we long for great things to happen in our lives and it seems like those great things will not, or cannot even begin to happen, they do. In the Kingdom of God, God breaks through whatever barriers the world throws at us and gives us what we deeply desire and long for.

Probably the most potent example of the Kingdom of God breaking through into our lives happens here, every Sunday. It happens here, at this altar, when we gather here to share in Jesus’ coming to us in the elements of Bread and Wine. This Eucharist—this Holy Communion—that we share is truly a glimpse into what awaits us in the Kingdom of Heaven. It is a clear and visual sign of God breaking through to us in this world and bridging this world in which we live and that place in which God exists.

For a moment, when we gather here, the veil is lifted. For a moment, we are able to see what “Angels and Archangels” and “all the company of heaven” sees and glories in. The Eucharist that we share here should truly be a shared experience.

It is not only just here for our personal edification. Yes, we should be personally edified by it. Yes, we should find center our entire spiritual lives around the Eucharist and find in it the source of our spiritual sustenance. But, the Eucharist is always, always, always, to be shared.

As you may know, in the Roman Catholic Church, a priest can celebrate the Eucharist alone. No one else has to around except the priest. And until about forty years ago, it was the priest’s obligation to celebrate Mass at least once a day. That meant celebrating the Mass whether someone was with you or not.

I had a good friend who told me the story of a Roman Catholic Bishop who, while flying back from Rome, realized he had not celebrated Mass that day. He simply lowered the little folding snack table, laid out a napkin, ordered a little bottle of wine from the stewardess and took out a small host for himself. And there, on the airplane, over the Atlantic, he celebrated Mass for himself.

We Anglicans cannot to do that. Our rule is always that at least two people are needed to celebrate Mass. In fact, I remember when I was studying to be a priest, I knew another priest who told me that, at the end of the Eucharistic prayer, if no one else but the priest says the great Amen, the Eucharistic prayer was completely invalid and the priest had to stop the Mass. I don’t know if I would go so far as to say the Mass was invalid, and if there were others there who simply did not respond, I think the Mass would still continue, it does remind us that the Eucharist is not just about the priest.

It isn’t only the priest who is needed for the Eucharist. We are all needed for the Eucharist. The Eucharist is about all of us. We share the Body and Blood of Christ with each other. And we as Christians should never see the Eucharist as an insular experience—one we only celebrate and experience here within the church. The Eucharist should always be an experience we celebrate and take with us when we leave church and go out into the world. As we celebrate this wonderful mystery of Christ’s Body and Blood coming to us as food to be eaten and shared, we should always remind ourselves of the words we hear Jesus say to us in today’s Gospel:

“You give them something to eat.”

Unless we take the Jesus we share here in church out into the world and share him with others, unless we give what we eat here to those out there, then all we are doing here this morning is participating in a secret rite.

One of my favorite quotes comes from Frank Weston the great Anglican Bishop of Zanzibar. No doubt, you’ve heard me quote this before. Bishop Weston said, "You have Christ in your tabernacles ... now go out and seek Him in the highways and the hedges.."

The Eucharist is not a secret rite. The Jesus we share here is not our own personal Jesus. The Eucharist is a meal to which everyone is invited. The Eucharist is a meal which we must share with each other and then share with everyone else.

Now some may choose not to participate. And that’s all right. We pray for them. We wish them well. We say to them: when you are ready, come, eat.

Now, we might talk here a bit about “open communion.” Open communion is the belief that all people—no matter who they are—can participate. It doesn’t matter if they are baptized or not. The policy of this diocese is that only those who are baptized may receive. I certainly believe that those who desire the Eucharist should seek baptism first.

For all of us, as Christians, we hold a very clear and important understanding of baptism. Baptism is our one defining moment at Christians. Everything we do as Christians—every action, ever good word, every longing desire to pray and worship and to know God—finds its meaning and definition in our baptism. It is what sets us as Christians apart form others. And we, as Christians, by our baptism, are set apart. We have been renewed in those waters of baptism and we have been empowered by our baptism to go out and proclaim Christ. And more importantly, at Baptism, we are washed in the waters, we are sealed in the Spirit and we are marked as Christ’s own for always and forever. Baptism can never be undone or taken away from us. Its mark is indelible—it is always there for us. And I believe that our Eucharist stems firmly and directly from our baptism. Having said that, I also have never denied anyone who has come forward for Communion.

As some of you might not know but there is actually a disciplinary rubric in the Book of Common Prayer. It can be found on page 409. This is what it says,

“If the priest knows that a person who is living a notoriously evil life intends to come to Communion, the priest shall speak to that person privately, and tell him that he may not come to the Holy Table until he has given clear proof of repentance and amendment of life.”
The rubric goes on to deal with “those who have done wrong to their neighbors and are a scandal to the other members of the congregation” and for the instance when “there is hatred between members of the congregation.”

Now, fortunately, I have never had to invoke this rubric and I personally would hate to do so. But I do know of some parishes that have.

There is a story of a well-known east coast parish back in the 1960s. Several of the more prominent parishioners belonged to a restricted country club. I believe it was restricted to Jewish members. The priest of the congregation preached a sermon and told the parishioners that it was wholly unchristian for any member of his congregation to belong to a country club that had such a restricted membership and warned them that if they continued to be members there, he would invoke this rubric. The parishioners continued, the priest went through the proper channels with the Bishop and one Sunday as those parishioners came forward, the priest blessed each one of them but would not let them receive the Sacrament. These parishioners, as you can guess, were furious. They went to the Bishop who sided squarely with the Rector. In fact the Bishop went so far as to say that, as long as they were members of the country club, they would not be allowed to receive Communion in any Episcopal Church in that diocese. Rather than quit the Episcopal Church or quit the country club, those members went back to the country club and worked to lift the restriction against Jews. And as soon as the restriction was lifted, they came back to the Church and were allowed to receive again.

I share this with you to show how we should not underestimate the meal we share here with each other at this altar. In it we truly receive Jesus, in his Body and Blood. And we should not take it for granted. As in the words of Eucharistic Prayer C in the Book of Common Prayer:

“Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal.” (BCP p. 372)

This sums up perfectly. Yes, we do come here for solace and for pardon. But we also come here for strength and renewal. We come here to be changed and made different, so that we can then leave here and be a difference to the world. We leave this altar with strength and renewal to feed others with what we have gained here. We leave this altar, with the Bread of Life within us, and in our hearts we carry with us the words we hear Jesus say to us,

“You give them something to eat.”

If we don’t, we are not living into the miracle that we are experiencing here today and every time we celebrate the Eucharist together. So, go out and give them something to eat. Fed, go out to feed. And when you do, you will find the same incredible, amazing and life-giving satisfaction of those who were fed by Jesus and his disciples on that miraculous day.

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