Sermon reached on Maundy Thursday for St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY.
It is ironic, if not cruel, for Maundy Thursday to fall on April Fool’s Day this year. This is our second Maundy Thursday in a row when we are not able to celebrate the Eucharist—the very gift—the precious gift—that Jesus gave us this night. I pray fervently that the anticipation of us soon being able to come back together and obey the command to “Do this in remembrance of me” is no cruel joke.
Some have called this a fast, although I confess on a personal level to having trouble with that characterization. If it has worked for you, by all means hold on to it. But I’ll confess it hasn’t worked for me. What I have felt is more akin to sacramental starvation that has kept my spiritual life in a profound disorientation.
Why is this so? I have been grappling with that question for a year now. Why can’t I get past it? Why has not participating in the Eucharist been so difficult for me?
I can only tell my story to explain it. Three short vignettes. Think of them as scenes in a play.
A 16-year-old boy who has had almost no experience of the church is drafted to take a part in the musical Godspell. It profoundly affects him—he’s heard the Gospel for the first time. He has been a sad and sometimes angry young man for the previous six years, ever since his beloved grandmother died of cancer at a very young age. He’s also been carrying around a troubling sense of difference that he is sure threatens everything he holds dear. The message he has heard in the musical has something to do with his experience of loss and fear, but he can’t quite fit the pieces of the puzzle together.
His great Aunt Ann, a member of St. Thomas’, invites him to church. He goes and is captivated, and when it comes time to receive Communion his Aunt invites him to go to the Altar with her. Even today he remembers the smell of the wine. He doesn’t leave with any answers to the questions he has been carrying around. But that trip to the Altar rail and his being given Communion even though these people didn’t know him at all leaves him sure that the answers are there. He felt like he belonged even though he didn’t belong.
A young man goes off to college. Of all things to do when you taste the first freedom of being on your own, he decides to start attending church. He goes to the Episcopal Church in downtown Plattsburgh—Trinity is its name. Again, there is that mysterious sense of belonging and he keeps going, even starts singing in the choir. His first Lent in college he goes every day to the Eucharist, sometimes being the only person there beside the priest.
At the same time, he has become involved with Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship on campus. He makes some friends there and enjoys it. The group has an evangelical outlook that increasingly becomes fundamentalist. The old fear rises in his heart again. He becomes part of the leadership, but soon discovers his sacramental experience and his evangelical experience come into conflict. He is open about it and stunned when he receives no consolation, but a judgment. You must choose one or the other. The Episcopal Church and the “real truth” of Christianity cannot be reconciled. He chooses The Episcopal Church, primarily because he cannot imagine worshipping God and being a Christian in the world without the Eucharist.
At 29 years old the man is now an Episcopal priest. He came out as gay long ago, throwing off that fear, or, at least most of it. In a few more years he will become the national president of Integrity, the fellowship and advocacy group for LGBT Episcopalians. He will travel a lot in this ministry, giving witness to the call to the church for the full inclusion of folk like him. He will often come home bone-tired and weary, sometimes, as well, discouraged. Coming back from one particularly disastrous occasion, thinking all was lost and perhaps he could not continue in this church, he was saved by the Altar he came home to, the comfort and promise of the Eucharist and the people with whom he celebrated. There he belonged, despite the fact that some didn’t want him to belong.
Those are little glimpses of my story. They help me understand the devastation I have felt at being separated from the Altar—what we do around it, who we are around it, and what it feeds us to do in the world.
I hope my stories stirred up your own stories, my longings, your longings. The day is coming when we can renew the love that is formed over and over again around the Table of Jesus’ feast. Until then, I ask you to join me in this lament for the Eucharist, an expression of our longing.