Sermon for Sunday, November 8, 2015 || Proper 27B || Mark 12:38-44
I’ve been preparing recently for Confirmation class, which begins later today. We have four tenth and eleventh graders and their sponsors ready to begin a five-month journey through their faith: learning, discussing, sharing stories. The next time the bishop visits, these four will have the opportunity to make a mature profession of faith if they so desire, and I am really excited to get to walk with them these next several months. Because I’ve had Confirmation on my mind, I’ve been thinking and rethinking some of the “nuts and bolts” of the way we express our faith as Episcopalians. Every once in a while, I like to preach on these “nuts and bolts” because in my job I get asked the same dozen or so questions about our practice all the time, and exploring such questions can help us all deepen our engagement in worship and in mission.
One of these questions has to do with the second half of our Sunday service – Holy Communion in particular. “What is Holy Communion,” I am often asked, “and why do you say such a long prayer right before it?” The second half of this question hit me again this week when I read today’s Gospel lesson, in which Jesus takes the scribes to task for all sorts of things – a few of which struck a little close to home.
“Beware of the scribes,” says Jesus, “who like to walk around in long robes” (looks down at self wearing an alb and chasuble) “and to be greeted with respect in the market-places” (not many people have the definite article at the beginning of their title, but priests do – ‘the Reverend Adam Thomas’) “and to have the best seats in the synagogues” (I guarantee you my chair is more comfortable than yours – look at that cushion!) “and places of honor at banquets” (Okay, okay, finally something that’s not true – as long as I have a lefty seat at the corner of the table, I’m good). “They devour widows’ houses” (All right, moving further away, this is good) “and for the sake of appearance say long prayers” (gulps).
For the sake of appearance say long prayers. We say a lot of long prayers on Sunday morning, and one in particular is longer than all the others put together: the Eucharistic prayer. We haven’t gotten to it yet this morning, since it happens later in the service. You’ll know when we arrive at the Eucharistic prayer because I will be standing behind the altar when we start it. So Jesus indicts the scribes on six different issues, and by my count I’m guilty of three, innocent of two, and the final one is pending. For the sake of appearance, they say long prayers. I can’t dispute that the Eucharistic prayer is long – most graces before a meal don’t last five minutes. So to break even on these six charges, I have to prove that I don’t pray this prayer for “the sake of appearance.”
Before I start my defense, you need to know I’m not the only one implicated in this. You all are co-conspirators. At the beginning of the prayer you and I share a short dialogue, right? (The Lord be with you. And also with you. And so on…). In this dialogue, I ask your permission to pray on your behalf, and you grant it when you say, “It is right to give God thanks and praise.” So that’s the first thing to remember: even though I’m the one talking, we’re all praying this Eucharistic prayer together.
Now that you have joined the defendant’s side of this indictment with me, let’s explore this question: If not for appearance, why then do we pray such a long and involved prayer before receiving Communion? My answer is this: we are part of God’s story. We nurture our faith when we take time each week to locate ourselves in this great story. And when we locate ourselves in the story, we realize that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the story is still being told. And when we have this realization, we give thanks to God for our participation in God’s story through the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.
Now I know that was a pretty dense answer, so let’s unpack it a little bit. First, we locate ourselves in the story by praying, “Holy and gracious Father: In your infinite love you made us for yourself.” We fell away from you, but you gave us another chance by sending your Son. We and Us. Not They and Them. This story is about us. We don’t deserve mercy, but God doesn’t care one lick whether or not we deserve it. And that’s called grace.
With this grace emboldening us, we then fulfill Jesus’ request made at his last supper with his friends when he took bread and broke it. But notice that when I narrate the breaking of the bread, I don’t actually break it. Not yet. I break the bread later for the utilitarian purpose of sharing it. The reason I don’t break the bread when Jesus does is because I am not standing in for Jesus. And we are not reenacting the Last Supper. This is important, so listen up. We are not reenacting the Last Supper; we are participating in it. There has only been one Last Supper, and we were there. We are there each time we partake of Christ’s Body and Blood. We are there with everyone who has ever received the sacrament. We are there with the great cloud of witnesses that we invoke later in the prayer. We are there as the Body of Christ to receive the Body of Christ. Thus, the broken bread makes us whole: one body in Christ made up of many members, each supporting the others in worship, love, and service.
That’s why we invite the Holy Spirit to fill the bread and wine with the presence of Christ: not simply to remember what Christ did, but to participate in what Christ is doing. The story is not over yet. The Bible might be finished, but the story continues – God’s story of making, redeeming, and sustaining this little Creation of God’s. When you come to the altar rail and put out your hands, you signal your fervent desire to participate in this great story. In the Eucharistic prayer, we tell the story together, and in the telling and in the sharing we take on our role as the characters in the current chapter. We are the people to whom Christ offers his Body and Blood in order that we might both feel closer to him and feel strengthened to serve. We are the people enlivened by this precious nourishment. We are the people with a story to tell.
And that’s why we give thanks. The Eucharistic prayer is a prayer of Great Thanksgiving: thanksgiving for God’s mercy and grace; thanksgiving for Christ’s sacrifice and sustenance; thanksgiving for the Holy Spirit’s presence and empowerment. We give thanks that we are a part of the story. And it is quite a story. I don’t know about you, but a five-minute praying of the story seems downright short when you realize all that it entails. But of course, we don’t tell the story just once a week for five minutes on a Sunday. We tell the story each day of our lives.
We don’t pray this long prayer just for the sake of appearance. We pray this long prayer to give thanks for our part in God’s great story. And then we receive Holy Communion to strengthen and nourish us to continue telling that story together.