Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Pentecost 12 (Proper 16), Sunday August 23, 2009

I Kings 8:22-30, 41-43; Psalm 84; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69

Preached by Deacon John Warner

Family Dinner

Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.

I thought I was from a large family, being the oldest of five children and one of sixteen first cousins, the children of my mother and her two sisters. However, when I married Marsha and began attending family reunions, birthdays and holiday celebrations, I learned the true meaning of a large family. Marsha grew up in a rural community traditionally characterized by large families needed as labor for family farms. Although Marsha was only the youngest of three siblings, her parents’ brothers and sisters could have outfitted a football league. Marsha’s father was one of eleven siblings while her mother was one of nine.

These family events offered an opportunity to catch up on family news—who’s pregnant, engaged, separated or ill. Food was brought in from the cars and trucks and set on tables being sure to reserve one table for the “sacred” desserts. Everybody had their favorite dessert. You might hear one father tell his daughter to run and grab one of Aunt Mabel’s limited supply of fried apple tarts--or a family member telling her sister that she just had to try a slice of Aunt Louise’s delicious coconut cake. And who could resist a piece of Aunt Mae’s chocolate pie? My mouth waters right now thinking of these heavenly delights.

The church has its own communal meals. Although I have heard church members tell visitors that we at St. Augustine are the “eatiness” group of people with its summer breakfasts, foyer groups and Special Event dinners, I’m not talking about these events; I’m specifically addressing the Eucharist that we share as a community each Sunday.

During August, the Revised Lectionary have taken a break from the Gospel readings from Mark for a series of readings from the 6th chapter of the Gospel of John where Jesus making a series of claims referencing his role for those who call themselves his disciples. First, Jesus states that he is spiritual food. Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35). Next, Jesus indicates that the bread from heaven is superior to what has come before. I am the living bread that comes down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever…(John 6:51). Finally, Jesus indicates the communal importance of the Christian meal when he says, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them” (John 6:56).

The students of our weekly EFM classes have learned to tolerate the odd questions I throw out to them to stimulate group discussions. One question that I ask the first year students is as follows: “You are Tom Hanks, a castaway on an isolated South Pacific island and its only resident. Can you begin your own religion? The rationale for the question is that one of the EFM writers pose a premise that any religion, including Christianity, involves two dimensions—one, a vertical relationship between humanity and God and two, a horizontal relationship within a community of man (and woman).

The Eucharist is one of the Church’s great sacraments, an outward and visible sign of God’s inward and spiritual grace. We gather together at the altar to give thanks and praise to God. It is also an opportunity to remember Christ and His sacrifice for us. These actions satisfy the concept of the vertical dimension, our relationship with God.

However, from the earliest times, the Eucharist has involved the community—the family of Christian believers. It has always been a public affair rather than a private devotion. Even when one of our Lay Eucharistic Visitors takes the consecrated host to the homebound, the Book of Common Prayer’s rubrics remind us that “it is desirable that fellow parishioners, relatives and friends be present” to take part in the meal. The Eucharist reminds us of the horizontal dimension of Christianity, the responsibility that we have for each other—to love your neighbor as yourself. In this action, we, too, as the body of Christ, become a sacrament—an outward and visible of inward and spiritual grace.

Physicians and psychologists have reported on the benefits of regular attendance in a faith community. Dr. Daniel Hall from the University of Pittsburg Medical Center have demonstrated similar improvements in life expectancy among three experimental groups who respectively engaged in either regular exercise, underwent statin therapy, or attended religious services on a weekly basis. Psychologists have demonstrated a correlation between being an active member within a community of faith and corresponding reductions in stress, pain perception and reduction in risks from depression and anxiety disorders.

Can the health benefits within a community of faith be attributed to frequent church attendance or is it because a community of faith broadens our support systems, family members caring for and looking out for each other? Maybe both have a part to play in health improvement.

Although we generally feel more comfortable with our private connection with Jesus Christ within the sacrament of the bread and wine, we should not come to the altar and receive the Eucharist and neglect the other family members around the table. St. Paul expresses this truth when he says, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake from the one bread” (1 Cor 10:17). As we individually receive Christ into ourselves around the altar rails, we are inextricably bound to one another as the body of Christ. As Christ takes on flesh and blood in each of us, we become one as the collective body—the body of Christ.

As you participate in the Eucharist today, pay close attention to each person in the congregation, both church members and visitors. Do you know them? Maybe today would be a good time to introduce yourself. Are you aware of health or other life trials they might be experiencing? Is someone absent? Ask God to open your heart to be more mindful and attentive to the needs of others. Ask God to allow the shared Eucharistic experience to become an impetus to further bind us into a loving community. Finally, ask God to help you discern how this loving response to our family can be extended into the world. Amen.

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