Over and over again as I have explored the stories handed down to us by our ancestors, I have been struck by the significance of names in ancient literature. The ancient writers used names as a tool to reveal important details. A character’s name in a story can be used to remind us of other characters in other stories that also carried that name, or a character’s name can be taken from a word that has significant meaning. We can use the names of biblical characters to explore deeper meanings within the stories. We would do well to pay attention to the names of biblical characters. The lack of a name is just as important as any given name. I believe that there’s a reason that the anonymous gospel storyteller we call Luke failed to give a name to the woman we find bent over in chapter. The writer we call Luke can be very deliberate about names when he wants to be. I believe that the storyteller wants us to see this woman as our very selves.
So, let’s play along shall we? Stand up. Stand up and bend over. Please, if you are able stand up and lean over 45 degrees. I want you to have a sense of the woman’s predicament. For a few moments, just a few moments I want you to feel the strain on your back, and the burden on your shoulders that that woman felt for 18 years. I want you to look and see how being bent limits your vision. See how your perspective is shorter. Stooping, you cannot easily look into the faces of those around you, you can’t be on the same level with anyone, you can’t see the whole church. It’s not so easy to look toward the horizon to see a glorious sunrise or sunset. Vistas of God’s wondrous works on earth are restricted. So bent out of shape, how could you ever gaze into the awesome stars at night.
Listen to the story one more time: Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled here for eighteen years. How many of us arrive on the Sabbath with spirits that have crippled us? She was bent and quite unable to stand up straight. She was bent….in Greek the word is “kyphotic.” She was a kyphotic woman. The word kyphotic literally translates as bent together or bent with. It is as if this woman is bent in on herself. It’s a picture of someone who has not only borne the yoke but who really owns it in her very body. She is not just a woman with an infirmity but the Scripture says, with the spirit of an infirmity. Whatever it was that had bent her, whatever emotional or physical burden she had borne, the Scripture suggests, ultimately became part of her until her very body was confirmed to its image. There is nothing she can do now to help herself out of the spiritual pretzel her life has become. Each of us knows this infirmity intimately. At one time or other, over and over again, we have all experienced this infirmity in our lives and in our bones.* (Jana Childers “The Kyphoptic Woman” 2005)
Each of us have been bent with the burdens of our relationships, our jobs, our finances, or our health and sometimes even our lovelessness. We have all been this woman who is bent out of shape by her burdens. We have all been bent in on ourselves. But today, I want to take the image of this woman a few steps further to see what she reveals about our culture.
Okay, you can sit down now. Sit back and relax as I tell you the story of two communions; two communions that are not limited in time or space to the actual communions that they reveal. The first communion is indeed my first communion. I was just 15 years old and I’d only just begun to attend church. It was a small Lutheran church and back then they only celebrated communion a few times a year. I wasn’t prepared for communion. I’d only been attending church for a few weeks and I had no idea what it was all about. I still remember wondering what I should do. I was leaning toward just sitting where I was and waiting until after the service so that I could ask the pastor for an appointment to talk to him about what I needed to do in order to make sure that I was prepared properly to go to the table. That’s when my friend’s mother Lola leaned over and asked me if I wanted to go up for communion with them. I whispered that I’d never been to communion before. She smiled and took my hand and said that’s okay, you’re welcome at the table. I didn’t see any table and I was sure that I was missing something. So, I stood there with my hand in hers and listened very carefully as the Pastor told the story, “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. Do this for the remembrance of me. Again after supper, he took the cup gave thanks and gave it for all to drink….”
Lola squeezed my hand and whispered some instructions and before I knew what was happening the ushers were directing us to the altar. We kneeled at the rail and I watched as the pastor placed a something small into the mouths of those folks to my left. As the pastor approached me, I remember saying to God, “I’m sorry.” I think I was trying to apologize for being an interloper, someone who didn’t belong by virtue of my lack of preparedness or understanding and then, just as I’d seen the others do, I opened my mouth and the pastor placed, what I would later learn was a wafer into my mouth. It disappeared, sorted of melted in my mouth. When the assistant offered me a tray that contained the smallest glasses of wine I’d ever seen, I realized that I was about to taste something I’d never tasted before and I don’t mean the blood of Christ, but actual red wine. For a moment I wondered if it might make me drunk. I hesitated, and worried that I was about to do something illegal. The liquid tasted awful, but I swallowed it anyway and waited. I was waiting to feel something. Exactly what I was expecting, I’m not sure, but something magical, something mysterious, something life-changing. But all I felt was the strain on my knees that were unaccustomed to kneeling. Then the pastor blessed us: “The body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ strengthen you and keep you in his grace.” Then we all got up to make room for the next group and before I knew it I was back in my seat, and we were all singing.
To this day I can still feel the mixture of excitement and foreboding as I wondered what in the world I’d gotten myself into. I can still feel the wondrous sense of belonging to something so much bigger than myself. I can still feel the sense of mystery and the warmth all mixed up with all sorts of questions. It was an awesome event and I could hardly wait for the next time. That’s the first communion story.
Now fast forward, more years than I care to say, to this past June, to another communion. It happened at a continuing education event called, Luther Hostel. Luther Hostel is a weeklong retreat that used to take place each year at the Seminary in Waterloo. That year the theme for the retreat was: Meeting our Muslim Neighbours. We spent the week exploring the relationship between Christianity and Islam. It’s not the first time I’ve studied Islam. While studying for my BA in Religious Studies, I did a minor in Islam, so I have studied the Qur’an as well as the history of Islam. Since then I’ve tried to take advantage of opportunities to attend various interfaith events. I’ve visited mosques before and so I wasn’t really looking forward to travelling to the Cambridge Islamic Centre. I knew what to expect and so I was not looking forward to the restrictions that would be placed upon me by verdure of my gender. But this trip to the Mosque was designed to improve relations between Christians and Muslims and so I prepared myself to cover my head and sit behind the barrier where women are hidden from view while my male collogues participated in the evening prayers. The Muslim women in their hajibs tried their best to make a group of Canadian Lutheran clergywomen feel welcome in a place where our gender excluded us from the action and so we did our best to smile and pretend that we weren’t annoyed. After the evening prayers the men we able to make the trip to the community centre next door, much faster than the women. Our route took us through the bowels of the building; a route designed to keep women out of sight lest they distract the men from their prayers. So, when we finally arrived in the dinning hall the men were already seated at the tables. We were encouraged to take our seats and as there were no empty tables we filled the seats that remained. To my chagrin, the only place I could find was at the bishop’s table. Now I really like Bishop Michael and under other circumstances I would have looked forward to sharing a meal with him, however, at a formal dinner the last place I wanted to be was at the Bishop’s table. But I pasted a smile on my face and sat down at a round table with the Bishop, a gentleman from Pakistan named Ali, and his two young nephews, Hami and Nasrea, Pastor Catherine Altenburg, and myself. We’d barely had time to introduce ourselves, when the speeches began. There were all sorts of pretty words said about co-operation between our two faiths. Several Imams spoke, some Lutheran and Anglican clergy spoke, even the Bishop spoke and all the while we smiled politely.
I was keenly aware that the Muslim men at our table never made eye contact with Pastor Catherine or myself; nor did they speak to us. Fortunately, Bishop Michael is very adept at small talk, so he carried the conversation at our table. I resigned myself to the prospect of a very uncomfortable couple of hours and resolved to keep smiling. Pastor Catherine kicked me under the table and asked if the speeches were ever going to end. I told her to behave herself and then dared her to see if she could get our hosts to speak to her. Never one to pass up a challenge, Catherine asked the two boys at our table, where they went to school. The boys nervously looked at their uncle, who answered for them. I’d had enough, so I began asking questions. Oh, I was polite enough, but I wanted to see if I could get passed the gender restrictions. But Ali answered all the questions that Catherine and I asked and it was clear from his ever so brief responses that he didn’t really want to be engaged by either of us. It was clear that we were breeching decorum.
Bishop Michael began to look a little green around the gills. Perhaps he was imagining what might happen if either Catherine or I lost our patience. So, I smiled pretty and in an effort to reassure our Bishop I asked him to tell our hosts how rare it is for Lutherans to get the opportunity to sit down with our Muslim neighbours. It was my not so subtle way of telling the bishop that in the interests of interfaith relations he should take over the conversation. Well Bishop Michael wasn’t going to let me off the hook that easily. He shot me one of his boyish smiles that usually means he’s up to something and then he asked our hosts if they knew that Catherine and I were actually Imams. That’s right, as Lutheran Pastors we actually filled the roles of a Muslim Imam.
Suddenly, it was as if veils had been lifted and our hosts could actually see beyond our gender. The boys wanted to know how this could be. One question followed another and it was as if the Bishop was chopped liver, as our hosts tried to understand how two women could be clerics. No longer did the boys defer to their uncle. They had all sorts of questions of their own, together with all sorts of opinions about the role of women in Islam. These boys were Canadians who like most young Canadians, questioned the dictates of their faith.
We began to relax as the members of the Mosque treated us to the entertainment for the evening. There was a children’s choir singing songs about peace. Musicians playing unfamiliar instruments and even a Muslim comedian who treated us to a standup routine that had us laughing at our own ignorance of one-another and finally a woman rose to speak. She spoke of the challenges of being a Muslim woman in Canada and humbled us with her honesty and then several Imam’s prayed for peace and Bishop Michael was asked to say grace.
Large trays filled with fresh aromatic flat bread were brought to our tables and Ali tore the bread into strips and passed them around the table. As we ate the bread Hami and Nasrea poured fruit juice and as we ate and drank it was clear that we were sharing more than just bread, more than just juice. We were sharing communion. Our hosts had prepared a feast. A feast tempered to our taste, for they assured us that they had instructed the cooks to hold back on the spices so as not to burn our tender palettes. As the tables around us went up to fill their plates, Hami and Nasrea insisted that Catherine and I remain seated. It was only fitting that they should serve the Imams. Bishop Michael was left to his own devices.
As we ate together we told one another the stories of our lives. Two and a half hours later, Hami and Nasrea began to fill boxes with leftovers so that Catherine and the Bishop could take food home to their families. Ali invited us to return anytime and extracted promises from Catherine and I that we would find time to come back to talk to the young women of the mosque about our experiences as Imams. Hami and Nasrea insisted that after breaking bread together we were now their Lutheran cousins and so we insisted that that made Ali our Uncle too. Clearly the bread we had broken was more than just bread. I began to understand more deeply what Jesus means when he says, “Do this to remember me.” Break bread with one another. I went back to the dorm that evening confident that we had received the gifts of communion.
A few weeks later my thoughts returned to Uncle Ali, Hami and Nasrea as Pakistan was devastated by floods. Uncle Ali, Hami and Nasrea were all born in a small village in Pakistan. As the news cameras pan across the flooded towns and villages I can’t help but wonder how many of our Muslim cousins are suffering and I couldn’t stop asking myself why the world was so slow to respond. The only answer that I could come up with to explain why this disaster was being met with such a lack of generosity is that we in the west are bent out of shape. We are so bent out of shape that we cannot see our cousins suffering. We are so bent out of shape, so turned in on ourselves that all we can see, whether we are prepared to admit it or not, are terrorists. Oh we were beginning to see, and we even began to formulate our excuses as we felt compelled to deny our prejudices. After all it was August and people were busy enjoying the summer and no one was paying attention to the news, and then there was donor fatigue, we gave so much to Haiti that year and so we were tired of giving. And besides it was Pakistan and you know what things are like there, the money wouldn’t make it to the people in need. And then there was the Taliban. I mean how did we know that if we gave the money wouldn’t end up in the hands of the Taliban. Pakistan is a hotbed of Muslim extremism and aren’t we at war with Muslim extremists. But we’re not prejudice, it’s just that…yada yada yada
We have all sorts of excuses, but the truth is we are so bent out of shape by our fear terrorism that we can’t see our Muslim cousins for who they are: people in need. People who are drowning. People who are sick and homeless, starving and dying and if some of them do turn out to be Muslim Extremists, or terrorists or Taliban or our enemies, then we need to remember who we are. We are a people called to follow the way of Christ who taught us to love our enemies and we are called to stand up and see the faces of our cousins and reach out and heal, and feed and help our neighbours in need.
Not much has changed over the years that we have been engaged in this “war against terrorism”. We have remained bent out of shape and failed to see beyond our limited vision as drones continue to wreak havoc in the homelands of our neighbours.
Jesus said do this in remembrance of me. Communion is about more than just breaking bread in sanctuaries. Communion is a radical act of hospitality in which the breaking of bread turns strangers into friends. It’s time to stand up, for in Christ we are freed from the burdens that bend us all out of shape, freed from our prejudices, freed from our fears. In Christ we can stand up and see beyond the patch of ground in front of us, beyond our fear, beyond our prejudice, beyond our limited view. So that we can see our cousins and reach out to break bread across the miles and turn strangers into friends.