You can listen to the sermon here
“In the night in which he was betrayed. Our Lord Jesus took bread, and gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying: Take and eat this is my body, given for you.”
“In the night in which he was betrayed” these are the words of institution. I remember them well. I also remember the turmoil my pastor created in me when he had the audacity to change those words. It was 1979, I was 22 years old; young and full of ideas, hungry for knowledge and passionately faithful; excited about worship, in love with the church and determined to be the kind of Christian who had the courage not just to talk the talk, but walk the walk. The brand new Lutheran Book of Worship had only been in print for just over a year and as a dedicated member of our congregations Worship Committee I’d been to several workshops to learn all the new fangled changes that this ground-breaking new book introduced into the liturgy; new fangled changes based on a return to the traditions of the church’s glorious past. Three liturgical options, all based on the old Latin Mass of the 11th century. In all three settings of the liturgy these words were clear: “In the night in which he was betrayed. Our Lord Jesus took bread, and gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying: Take and eat this is my body, given for you.”
So, why oh why, did our pastor get it so very wrong. Over and over again, no matter how hard we tried we could not get him to say the right words. Over and over again, he acted as if thousands of years of tradition meant nothing. Over and over again he insisted upon using different words. We tried to bring him back to the tradition. But it was as if he could not hear our well reasoned arguments. It was as if he didn’t care about the great crowd of witness who had gone before us. It was as if he thought he knew better than the Church; and not just the Lutheran Church but the ancient church; better than the writers of the gospels and St. Paul himself. Maybe even better than the Lord God himself, who after all had in my humble opinion, been responsible for inspiring the writing of these words. “In the night in which he was betrayed. Our Lord Jesus took bread, and gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying: Take and eat this is my body, given for you.”
Jesus spoke these words, so why did our pastor believe that he had any business tinkering with these words. Sure he had a good reason for wanting to change the words. But if everyone felt free to change the words of the liturgy the next thing you know we’d have chaos; and where would the church be. I argued with him. I pleaded with him. Others argued with him and pleaded with him. Some, even threatened him. Say the words correctly or there’ll be trouble. We’ll report you to the bishop; we’ll leave the congregation. “In the night in which he was betrayed. Our Lord Jesus took bread, and gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying: Take and eat this is my body, given for you.” And yet over and over again with his back turned to the congregation, because that’s how it was done in those days, when altars were up against the wall, and pastors held up the bread, up high as if God himself were up, there up high above our heads, looking down to ensure that everything was done just so. With the bread held high the pastor would insist upon saying, On the night before he died, Our Lord Jesus took bread, and gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to his disciples saying: Take and eat this is my body, given for you.” I loved that man dearly. He was a sweet, kind, generous, hard working, part-time pastor who scraped out a living as a small time farmer when he wasn’t working in the barn he was there for us. I loved him, but he was just plain wrong. Even if his reasons for being wrong were well intentioned, you just don’t mess with the tradition like that. The words are there, they way they are for reasons beyond our understanding. They are after all divinely inspired. And this is the Eucharist after all; the meal that lies at the very heart of who we are.
He’d explained his reasons for tinkering with the liturgy. He’d been to seminary in the 1950s when the realities of what had been done in the Jesus’ name in Germany were fresh and raw.The Holocaust was perpetrated by Germans who for the most part had been raised as Lutherans, so our pastor believed that we Lutherans have a particular responsibility when it comes to ensuring that anti-Semitism never again be allowed to threaten the existence of our Jewish sisters and brothers. The word “betrayed” was just too much for him to bear. It conjured up images of historical betrayals too horrible to imagine as so-called Christian condemned an entire race of people as betrayers of Christ. The reality that the celebration of the Eucharist had over and over again been followed by rampages which included the slaughter of the innocents was reason enough for our pastor to refuse to use the word ever again. But surely he was wrong to think that his reasoning trumped the words of Jesus. At least that’s how the young woman that I once was saw it.
Words matter, especially the words of Jesus and if they don’t matter then none of it matters and why should we even bother. Tradition is tradition precisely because without it there’d be chaos with everyone doing whatever he or she believed was right. God gave us certain gifts and who are we to mess with those gifts? That’s how that young woman that I once was saw things and how some ten years latter I still saw them, when I embarked on a process that would lead to my ordination. Believe it or not folks, I went off to seminary to arm myself for the task of preserving the tradition; especially the liturgy. I loved the liturgy exactly the way it was and I was sick and tired of people messing with the liturgy. I figured I’d learn as much as I could and then I’d be able to teach people how to do things correctly; you know exactly the way God intended. Over the years, I’ve grieved the loss of such certainty. Over the years, I’ve shed many a tear as tightly held beliefs have been challenged. Over the years, I’ve often missed that young woman that I once was, who was so sure of herself, so confident, so steadfast in her faith, so secure in the knowledge that God was in his heaven and all would be right with the world if we would only learn to do things properly. Over the years, I have often been laid low by the pain of discovery and locked myself away to mourn the loss of that which I held so dear.
I suspect that the followers of Jesus tasted the pain of loss. They had loved Jesus and placed all their hopes and dreams for the future in him, only to have those hopes and dreams die a horrible death. Their grief is incalculable. Still pungent some 50 or 60 years later when the writer of the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts wrote the story of Pentecost. Upon entering the city of Jerusalem for the during the Jewish harvest festival of Pentecost, Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip, Thomas, Bartholomew, and Mathew: James ben-Alpheaus: Simon, a member of the Zealot sect: and Judah ben-Jacob. Also with them were some of the women who followed Jesus, his mother Mary and some of Jesus’ sisters and brothers. With one mind they devoted themselves to constant prayer. I can see them in my minds eye all huddled together in an upper room united in their grief. All their hopes and dreams shattered, their lives in disarray as what they had believed so strongly so passionately was gone. What were they to do? How could they go on? What was the point of it all? If Jesus was gone, why bother? Maybe he wasn’t all that they had hoped for?
I can hear them, up there in that room arguing, weeping, searching for answers, longing for the security of the way it had been when Jesus was there with them; when they were certain about what needed to be done. I can hear them talking about Jesus, remembering the stories listening to the tales of his courage, marveling at his audacious courage, second guessing his teaching, longing for his touch, feeling the hope stir in their bellies, hope for justice, anger at the oppression they were left to deal with, confused about what to do next, not knowing what to think or believe now. I can almost see one of them smile through their tears as she remembers the power of the love Jesus demonstrated with every breath in his body. I can see them beginning to remember the power of his words. I can hear them begin to talk about Jesus as if he was right there with them still, egging them on, encouraging them to be all that they are, pushing them to keep steadfast in their quest for justice. Reminding them of the plight of their sisters and brothers. Demanding that they love one another. Insisting that even the fearful Romans were to be the recipients of their love. I can hear the volume of their conversation increase as they remembered the details of Jesus life and relived the horrors of his death and the courage with which Jesus insisted upon responding to injustice with love; a love so fierce that it was as if Jesus their beautiful, powerful, beloved Jesus was the actual embodiment of Love. I can see the reality being to emerge in their midst the reality that in their beloved Jesus they had seen God in the flesh; for if God is not LOVE then there can be no God and surely, Jesus was the embodiment of LOVE and so Jesus their beloved Jesus was God in their midst. As one by one the LOVE which they had experienced in Jesus began to emerge in their midst it was as if they room itself was on fire. They could see the power of love ignite among them. It was as if they too were alive in the same way they had seen the power of life in Jesus. Could it be that the same power of LOVE that they had experienced in Jesus was alive and well in them? It was as if they were all catching the fire; like the flames were resting on each of them.
Out of their grief, life was emerging, love was becoming palpable once again. Their joy spilled out onto the streets, and people could see something strange in them, it was as if they were drunk, but they couldn’t be drunk, not yet anyway, it was too soon for that. Something new was emerging in their very midst, suddenly they began to see, to understand, and they simply could not contain their joy. Something was born among them, something new, something powerful, something they could not have imagined, something beyond their wildest dreams. They were filled with the Spirit of LOVE and all things were possible. All sorts of people were communicating with one another in ways none of them thought possible. All were amazed and disturbed. They asked each other, “What does this mean?” Could this be a taste of what our ancestors once spoke of, “I will pour out my Spirit on all humankind. Your young people will see visions, and your elders will dream dreams.”
So, here we sit on this Pentecost Sunday, in a small room far from the crowds out there. Some of us have had our carefully held assumptions challenged. Others of us are missing that old time religion; you know the stuff that was good enough for Grandma, shouldn’t it be good enough for me. We’ve been ReThinking, challenge, poking and prodding, changing, and tinkering with stuff that’s dangerous to mess with. Some of us are grieving the loss of treasures we once held dear and longing for the stuff that used to comfort us in our grief. Others of us are mourning the loss of beliefs and struggling to make sense of it all. Others of us have been left speechless unable to pray. These are difficult days, challenging times, frightening and sad as we struggle to cope with the death of the church we once held so dear. We don’t know what to believe or who to turn to. Our pain is palpable, our tears seem endless, and our desire to go back to the way things were is understandable. It is as if we are groaning in one great act of giving birth.
Can these bones live? Does the church stand a chance in the face of science and contempt? Can these bones live? We too groan inwardly as we wait to be set free from the traditions that hold us back and hoping for what we cannot see means awaiting it with patient endurance. As we struggle to comprehend all that has taken place over the last few years, can we still hear the voice of Jesus? Do we have the courage to see in Jesus the kind of Love that we are longing for? Do we have the courage to look to one another to see the LOVE which Jesus was talking about embodied in one another? Or, are we too afraid of being burned by the flames?
Something new is about to be born. Out of the ravages of our past and the travesties of our present, our questions are opening us to the reality of the LOVE that lives, in, with, through, and beyond us. It is a powerful LOVE, a LOVE beyond measure, a LOVE that our ancestors experienced in the life and death of Jesus, a LOVE that death could not kill. A LOVE that our sisters and brothers of other faiths and of no faiths have experienced in life itself. A LOVE that lives and breaths in, with, through and beyond us. A LOVE that will nourish ground and sustain us as we bring to birth the peace which Jesus envisioned, the peace that is born when justice and compassion are joined together. A LOVE that permeates all of creation, and blows like the wind where it will. A LOVE so intoxicating that it will inspire us as we conspire with one another to embody that LOVE.
On this Pentecost Sunday let us have the courage to recognize our grief and resolve to tend to the wounds we have suffered. Let us be mindful of the birth-pangs. But let us also recall the power of the LOVE that lives in, with, through and beyond us so that we too can be intoxicated with the desire to embody LOVE. Let us see visions, and dream dreams. It will be wild, and dangerous, and we may have to speak in different ways to one another and to the world, but we will understand one another as long as LOVE is our guide.
Can these bones live? You bet ya they can! They might be held together differently than they once were, but the Spirit of LOVE will live and breathe in these bones and it will be as if we have caught fire my friends, people will think we are drunk or mad or both, but it is only morning, early days yet, just breathe deeply of the Spirit of LOVE, and let’s dream dreams, big, hairy, audacious dreams, dreams filled with visions of the Spirit of LOVE who continues to inspire us! Let it be so!!! Can I get an Amen?