Sermon: Unless You Come to the Table As a Child (October 2, 2011)

On a trip to the Holy Land in 1992, I saw lots of things I’d never seen before: Byzantine mosaics in northern Jordan, rock carvings at Petra, Jews in prayer at the Western Wall, Muslims in prayer at the Al Aqsa Mosque. Beautiful things. Old things. And, to me, foreign things. But what I saw as we approached a Palestinian refugee camp was far more foreign than anything else I had ever seen: walls around the camp. Barbed wire atop the walls. Israeli soldiers in guard houses dotting the wall. I’d never visited a neighborhood hovered over by automatic-toting guards. It was unnerving.

Refusing to drive us into the camp–the Israeli plates on the bus would have made that dangerous–the bus driver let us out at the road. We swept into the camp with a wave of joyful children just returning from school. Inside the camp, we were greeted by our host and taken to the kitchen of a preschool. There, our host motioned to a woman who held a tray of plastic cups filled with lemonade. “Please, have some lemonade,” the host said in heavily accented English. Visions of the wall, the barbed wire, the guards, the guns, the sub-standard buildings, the skeletons of destroyed buildings–all those pictures danced across my mind and I thought: “So much has been taken from these people. Will I also take their lemonade?” All of us in the group hesitated…much to our host=s dismay. “Please, please, have some lemonade.” Her plea was compelling. Each of us reached for lemonade. And drank. “You like?” our host asked hopefully. We did like. The lemonade was sweet and cold and very welcome.

Now, I was savvy enough to know that we were being played a little. Americans visiting a refugee camp? Of course, the Palestinians were going to try to make their case against Israel (which they did). But that offering of lemonade…it was so much more than a gesture or–to put it crassl–a bribe. That offering seemed to grow out of a deep, fundamental place in those people. Had we refused their gift of lemonade, I got the sense that we would have offended them deeply. Despite their poverty, they needed to give us something AND to have us receive their gift.

Foundational to Arab cultures–and to many other of the world’s cultures–is the practice of hospitality. And we’re not unacquainted with the concept of hospitality in our own culture. Many of our churches have hospitality committees. Just try not serving coffee some Sunday morning! Many of us from the South pride ourselves on Southern hospitality. But, if you think about it, in our culture, hospitality often is an add-on to the regular business of life. How many times have you heard people commenting about Pilgrimage: “It”s such a friendly church!”? Why do they always sound so surprised? Perhaps because friendliness–hospitality–isn’t something we’re socialized to expect. In our culture, hospitality is supplemental, something you get extra credit for. It’s not so much part of the currency of everyday living.

Which, I think, is why we sometimes miss the point of communion. Here at Pilgrimage, we usually practice communion by intinction, which means we pull off a piece of bread, dip it in the juice and eat it. Have you ever noticed that the bread we use sometimes doesn’t tear so easily? Have you ever had this experience–you go to tear off a small piece of bread and instead of a nibble, you end up with a hunk? And very quickly, you palm the hunk and dip only the tip in the juice and then, just as quickly, put the whole thing in your mouth and look around, hoping no one saw you? Then you go back to your seat and begin chewing….and chewing…and chewing…and when we start singing “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” you can’t sing because you’re still chewing? I won’t ask for a show of hands, but has that ever happened to you?

What impels us to apologize for taking what we deem to be too large a portion of the bread? Why are we embarrassed when we end up with a hunk rather than a nibble? This is just a guess, but I wonder if, in our minds, we feel we’re only entitled to just so much–just so much bread, just so much juice….just so much of God’s grace. I wonder if we come to this table seeing this bread, this juice as a reward we’ve earned (or not earned) rather than as a gift that’s given freely, a gift that’s given, not because we are good, but simply because we are?

Today’s Gospel lesson is one of my favorites. “Let the little children come to me,” Jesus says. We use those words every week for Children’s Time to remind us all–children and adults alikeBthat children are a vital part of God=s realm…and of this church.

The other great part of these verses from Mark is Jesus’ comment that Awhoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” I wish Jesus had said more about that. What exactly does it mean to receive God’s realm like a little child? Or, more appropriate for today: What does it mean to receive communion as a little child?

There long have been debates in churches about the appropriateness of serving children communion. In some traditions, first communion is a really big deal…something you buy a new dress or suit for. In other traditions, you don’t take communion until you’ve made a profession of your Christian faith. Here at Pilgrimage, we encourage children to participate in communion. There is, of course, merit to the don’t-serve-them-communion-until-they-understand-what-it-means way of thinking. If we don’t instruct our children–and ourselves–on the meaning of this meal, then communion becomes no more than a snack break during church. But who among us completely understands what transpires at this table? We’re given bread and juice and are told it’s flesh and blood. Is that something you completely understand?
To tell the truth, I think children may have a better understanding of the holy meal than we adults do. There’s the five year old who takes the bread, but carefully avoids the juice. Do you really want to drink BLOOD? Then there’s the six year old whose bread drops into the cup. He reaches in with his fist, grabs the bread, squeezes the excess juice out of it, eats it, and bounces back to his seat, wiping his purple hand on his white shirt. And then there’s the other six year old…the one who came up to me after one worship service, tugged on my robe, and asked: “Can I have some more bread? My daddy made me drop the first piece.”

What do these kids know? They know that communion is a big deal. They know that participating in communion is an important part of being in this community. They know something of the danger of this meal…and the mystery. They assume they will be nourished by the meal. They rarely take nibbles…and never hide hunks. How do children receive communion? With joy and wonder and respect and a complete lack of self-consciousness. Children receive communion as a gift. Oh, we have a responsibility to teach our children what we understand this meal to mean. But I think we also have a responsibility to learn from children what THEY understand about this meal. If we watch children for very long, we might just get a glimpse of what this table is all about. We might begin to see it as a place of radical hospitality, a place where God feeds us extravagantly and with profound love.

Father Mark Gruber tells of the time his Land Rover broke down in the Egyptian desert. Leaning against the front fender, fretting over how he was going to get out of the fix, he spied a goat. He tracked the goat to a Bedouin camp. Remember what we said earlier about Arab cultures and their practice of hospitality? These Bedouins were very Arab.

Bedouins roam the deserts, living in tents, wandering from camp to camp, scraping nourishment for themselves and their animals from the stark, unforgiving land. Occasionally, they happen on a water source. While camped near that source, they stock up, especially on bread. Because they go for long periods without water, they make a kind of bread that lasts a long time. The bread has a very hard crust. When the crust is broken–even after many weeks–the bread inside is moist and tender. Often a Bedouin family will make a basket full of these bread cakes at one time to use over the course of many months of travel.

Father Mark had only hoped to gain from the Bedouins information about mechanics in the area. What he received instead was a feast. During the meal, the leader of the tribe drew a bread cake from a basket, cracked it open, and offered it to Father Mark. He ate the bread and thanked his host. As soon as he finished the first bread cake, his host cracked open a second and offered it to him. Father Mark ate; again, he thanked his host. When the man cracked open a third cake and handed it to Father Mark, the now extremely full monk demurred, communicating to his host that he really could eat no more. The man responded by cracking open a fourth bread cake ….and a fifth…and a sixth…and every single bread cake in the basket until there was none left. It was the family=s entire supply of bread. Of this extravagant gesture, Father Mark writes: “The gesture was unmistakable: he wanted me to know that he had withheld from me nothing; he had reserved from me no gift, but had imparted to me everything at his disposal. He wanted me to know that I had been received well, and by this great gesture, this extravagant waste, this complete sacrifice, I would be persuaded, convinced of his kindness. I would be certain of his hospitality.” (Gruber, Mark, O.S.B. ABreaking Bread,@ pp.90-92 in Food: True Stories of Life on the Road. Edited by Richard Sterling. San Francisco: Travelers’ Tales, Inc., 1996.)

I wonder how our experience at this table might differ if we saw it like Father Mark’s experience in that Bedouin camp? What might happen if we came to this table, not to receive the tiny nibble of a reward we have earned (or think we haven’t)…what might happen if we came to this table prepared to receive the extravagance of a gift, a grace, a love purchased at great price just for us? I wonder how our experience of this table would differ if we received God’s gift to us here like little children? I wonder if we might feel more loved by God? I wonder if we might feel more generous with our own bread? I wonder if, certain of our own place at the table, we would be better prepared–eager, even–to make room at the table for others?

In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.

Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2011 (2003)

Mark 10:13-16

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” 16And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.


About reallifepastor

I'm a pastor who's working out her faith...just like everyone else.
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