Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Sacramental Grace

During the church service, my children appeared to be off in their own worlds.  My son was reading a Geronimo Stilton book while my daughter filled out all the pew membership cards with information on the American Girl doll she hopes to receive for Christmas.  Sometimes getting them to sit quietly and still wins the battle over fighting them to pay attention, as I hope that I might take something away from worship for myself.  But as a minister, I often feel guilty that I’m not more intentional about the faith formation of my children. 

We’ve recently joined an Episcopal church, which came as a bit of a surprise for us lifelong Baptists.  But there is something about the liturgy and the evening service of this particular church that drew us in.  I love that communion is the heart of the service and that it takes place weekly (instead of monthly or quarterly like the churches in which I grew up).  And instead of ushers passing golden trays of stale wafers and plastic cups of grape juice to those saved and baptized members of the congregation, in this church we all come forward to receive the elements and share a common cup.  It is open to all, and there is a special joy in watching tiny children toddle up to the priest or stretch out their hands from their perch in a parent’s arms to take a wafer.  There is a welcome in seeing smiling faces as they pass by and in hearing the words of blessing, “The body of Christ”, “The cup of salvation” shared again and again.  The kids want to sit in the front so that they can be first in line, and even though I’m more of a “back row Baptist”, I’m just glad they are eager to be part of the service. 

This week, as we filed back into our pew, Maryn showed me the wafer that she had not yet eaten.  She held it up, broke it, and whispered to me, “The body of Christ,” and I knew that God was there, in that moment, in that bread, in the grace of a child who is learning faith through imitation.  The mystery of faith can’t be any more real than this. 

After the church family shared a meal and the children and adults separated for Christian education programs, I joined other adults back in the sanctuary to talk about the primary meal that connects us as Christians: Eucharist, the Great Thanksgiving.  The priest, who is as new to this church as we are, shared his thoughts on the sacrament of communion, saying that in our gathering around the communion table, we “are given a model of how all other meals should function, as an opportunity of grace.”  I had to smile as he started off saying, “Whether Baptists, Catholics, anything in between, or nothing, we are naturally sacramentalists.”  While I’ve been struggling to reconcile a new conversion of sorts, it was a reminder that it may not be as big of a shift as I make it out to be.  We are all branches of the family of God, and all humans seek meaning in the ordinariness and mysteries of our lives. 

I took notes so I could continue to ruminate on the sacramental theology that was shared by Rev. Eric Long (quotes are reconstructed to the best of my memory and notes):

“In the sacraments, God uses the stuff of life to bless our lives.  God breaks in and shows us the depth and possibility of life.  God gets our attention and offers [God]self.”  I learned that communion is based on the Emmaus story, when Jesus’ disciples are walking on the road to Emmaus after his crucifixion and a man joins them and asks why they are troubled.  They tell him what has happened, not knowing that it is the resurrected Christ that walks with them until they stop to eat and he gives thanks and breaks bread, just as he had done at his last meal with them, when he had told them his body would also be broken for them.  They remembered and they knew him in the breaking of the bread.  Just as my child, who shows little interest in church, still knows Jesus in the breaking of the communion bread.

“God uses the physical to touch and bless us.  This is what we refer to as sacraments.  Jesus is the greatest example…God became a physical being and entered our world, our stories.  He took his body, gave thanks for it, and broke it.  He did not hoard the gift, but shared it with us.  In communion, we literally take Jesus into us, receiving him, and trusting that he will help us to become who God says we are.”  We trust that we can be full in our empty and broken places and that grace can transform us into who we were created to be.  “The act of communion becomes a sacrament only as we join together in community, remembering who we are (not self-made, disjointed individuals, but made one in our baptism).”  In the brokenness of our world reflected in the bad news shared in the media, in the division of hatred and polarization, we are sorely in need of this reminder, this challenge to gather together like a dysfunctional family around the Thanksgiving dinner table.  We may not ever agree, but we can learn to listen to one another as we seek to live together in peace and work together for justice.

On a smaller and more personal level, I couldn’t help but think about how often family meals are a great frustration in our house, yet communion, the model for all meals, is the highlight of the church service for my children.  How can I shift from the stress and frustration of my own expectations and provide space for God to be present and offer grace?  What if in saying grace (when I remember to do so), I actually expected Grace to show up?  What if I invited Jesus to be present and believed that he was with us in the breaking of bread together?

What if I could see all of my struggles, my joys, my daily endeavors (parenthood, career, relationships) as sacraments and give thanks for them, offer them up for God to transform, and give them away instead of holding on tightly in fear? 

What if we treated all of life as a sacrament, an opportunity to let grace enter our lives and transform us? 

This Thanksgiving, I offer thanks for unexpected grace and pray that it continues to show up in beautiful, mysterious, transforming ways.  Come, Lord Jesus.  May it be so.