The blessing of bread

As I’ve been reflecting on the lectionary readings for this week – Jeremiah 17:5-10 and Luke 6:17-26 in particular – I am aware that so much of life seems to be about the ups and downs, or the “curses” and the “blessings” as both writers call them. I am struck by Jesus standing on a level place from which to offer words that calm the people’s troubles and a touch that heals them.

The table is that level place. Here the ordinary elements of bread and wine, in the way that they are spoken of and shared, become the extraordinary: a tangible reminder of the presence of God with and within us.

This week I want to keep that focus and so a little bit of Godly play language and a little of my Celtic roots have gone into celebrating this blessing in a simple way.

As I have children in the congregation, I will begin by sitting with them in a half circle in front of the covered communion table with a small basket of some heads of wheat, bread, grapes, and an indestructible picnic glass of grape juice.

***

Once there was someone who did such wonderful things and said such amazing things that people wondered who he was. Finally, they just couldn’t help it. They had to ask him who he was.

One time, when they asked him, Jesus said:

“I am the bread that came down from heaven to give life to the world. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry.”

Many people didn’t understand. Some of them even got angry. But some of them decided to follow him wherever he went.

Another time, Jesus told those who were following him:

“I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will bear much fruit.”

Point to the bread: Grain from the field, 

Point to the grapes/juice/wine: fruit from the vine .… 

As he sat at the supper table with them, he took a piece of bread, gave thanks to God for it, broke it, and gave it to them saying something like this:

“When you share the bread like this, I will be there.”

A piece of bread is given to one or more of the children.

And after supper, when they’d eaten everything they wanted to eat, he took the cup of wine, gave thanks to God for it, and shared it with them saying something like:

“When you share the cup like this, I will be there.”

A sip of juice is given to one or more of the children.

Stand and walk slowly to the altar. Remove the cover. Stretch your arms wide to show all that is set.

Grain from the field, 
fruit from the vine, 
ready at the table for us to share. 

The children (and any interested adults) are invited to come up to look and the wondering questions are offered – to encompass the whole congregation.

I wonder which part of this feast you love the best? 
I wonder if the wine and the bread make people happy?
I wonder if God comes close to us when we share like this?
I wonder who else God would like to come close to?

***

Addressing the congregation:

The table is ready. Christ himself is both the host and the meal. Eat the bread and be full of the life of Christ. Drink the cup and be filled with the love of Christ. Remember as you eat and as you drink that Christ is here and be blessed.

Communion is shared – first with those already gathered around the table. People should be encouraged to come up and stand together in groups around the table. Although this is a little less orderly than some congregations may be used to, there is a joy and togetherness at the table which can be a great blessing – especially to those who may feel isolated, unloved, or even unlovable.  

The elements are covered and the closing prayer is offered with arms outstretched to the whole congregation:

Christ is here.
Through the grain of the field
And the fruit of the vine
Shared among friends 
We remember:
God remains in us.

May we remain with God
To bear fruit in the world
In every season of our lives.

Amen.     

Day Twenty Three: Light Dawns

Isaiah 62:6-12
Psalm 97
Titus 3:4-7
Luke 2:8-20

As we embarked on our Advent journey, I offered the simple story of how my children used to mark their birthdays with the words:

The earth goes round the sun,
The earth goes round the sun,
Three hundred and sixty five days a year
the earth goes round the sun. 

Well, three hundred and sixty five days have passed since we last remembered the story of God entering our story; our life, our days, our death in human form.

For three hundred and sixty five days, the sun has come up each morning; banishing the darkness and offering the gift of a new day – full of new opportunities, new beginnings.

But this is the morning, the day that we celebrate the angel greetings: “Don’t be afraid.
I’m here to announce a great and joyful event that is meant for everybody, worldwide:
A Saviour has just been born in David’s town,
a Saviour who is Messiah and Master.
This is what you’re to look for: a baby wrapped in a blanket and lying in a manger”
(Luke 2:10-11).

Light dawns …

the Light
from which all life dawned:
the Great Let-It-Be
who christened the vast expanse of space
with millions upon millions upon millions
of stars
as signs of God’s strength
to do the impossible
for us
and with us
and through us

now nestled
in a manager,
in a stable,
in an obscure town;
too busy and too full to notice
the Great I AM
whose hands laid the earth’s foundation,
gripping tightly to his mother’s finger –

a reflex
– surprisingly solid, firm –
rehearsed within the virgin’s womb;

Dependable God
now dependent
on a nothing, from no-where really,
who gazed in wide-eyed wonder
at those who came to see
and marvel
at how God completes God’s promises.

Light dawns …

… the light of our salvation.

Named Jesus (God saves),
Immanuel – God with us
that we might be re-named:
Holy People,
God-Redeemed,
Sought-Out,
City-Not-Forsaken
.

Light dawns …

… the light of realisation:
such mystery,
such wonder,
such love,
such joy,
such peace,
such promise,
such hope of eternal life
is too much for us to make sense of

yet,
through the Christ-child,
within our grasp.

This Christmas,
may light-seeds be planted
in us,
and in all people;
the Light of Life
alive in us.

Light dawns ….

Day Nineteen: Love Song

Psalm 89:1-4,19-26
2 Samuel 6:1-11
Hebrews 1:1-4

“Your love, God, is my song, and I’ll sing it!
I’m forever telling everyone how faithful you are.
I’ll never quit telling the story of your love—
how you built the cosmos
and guaranteed everything in it.
Your love has always been our lives’ foundation,
your fidelity has been the roof over our world”
Psalm 89:1-2 (The Message).

Love is the first and final Word in our story:
in love we were knit together, intimately known even before we were born;
for love we were made – love of family, love of friends, love of lovers, love of the Lord;
and through Love we are set free from the bonds of sin and death and claimed for the eternal.

In the days of the prophets, there were words of warning and promises of restoration; exhortations to return to God; calls to repentance and fasting and sacrifice, cautions to remain faithful to God’s covenant with his people …

… so many times, so many ways … God reached out, redeemed, liberated, forgave, opened up the way ….

And then Christ came, the last and final Word:

the radiance of God’s glory,
the exact representation of his being,
the sustainer of all things by his powerful word –

Love.                                           (Hebrews 1:1-2)

While you’re revelling in this love song of God always reaching out for you, let’s interject with another story ….

The people of Israel are having a party. David is king. He has captured Jerusalem from the Jebusites and defeated the Philistines and is bringing back the ark of the covenant to his new capital. There are songs of celebration; people laughing, pushing, dancing as they make their way in the procession.

And then the oxen stumble and a young man, unthinkingly, reaches out to stabilise the ark – this holy and sacred chest which housed the ten commandments and was a sign of God’s presence with them – and is struck dead in accordance with the Lord’s warning in Numbers 4:15b:

“But they must not touch the holy things or they will die.”

David is perplexed, afraid and angry, and puts aside the ark in the house of Obed-Edom for three months – where it a source of blessing to Obed and to his whole household.

Love.

The love of God is a fearsome gift;
the presence of God-with-us a precious thing.

Though the Good News of Christ’s coming may be cause for joyful singing and laughing and celebrating and dancing, the love of God for us is not to be taken forgranted or treated lightly …

… and the One who Loved us so much that he took on our form and entered fully into our life, suffering and death for us remains
the radiance of God’s glory,
the exact imprint of his nature,
the one who upholds the universe by the power of his word.

This is no little love but LOVE.

A Love to be in awe of.
A Love to cherish.
A Love to treat as sacred and holy.
A Love to take seriously.
A Love to honour and obey.

Today, consider a posture or a symbol of reverence that you can incorporate into your prayer life or Christmas celebrations … like Moses taking off his shoes on holy ground … kneeling in prayer … sitting with open, outstretched hands etc.

Called is at our core

For as many years as I have been involved in ministry within the Church, I have wondered:

What is the essential difference between those who call themselves Christians and those who affiliate themselves with a different religion or belief system?

It is a question which goes to the heart of who we are and what on earth we’re here for.  It gives shape to the way that we work, that we celebrate, that we love, that we give, that we speak, that we rest.  It is the core that keeps us standing and steady in spite of the challenges and difficulties of life, that allows us to move and dance with God’s Spirit, that enables us to reach out connect in a meaningful and life-giving manner with the world around us.

At our core is the fact that we have heard God calling us and have chosen to respond in a particular way that opens up new life: new ways of being and seeing and doing.

Each and every person in the world – whether Christian or non-Christian – has a special, God-given calling on their life.

George Bernard Shaw wrote:

This is the true joy of life; the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one, being a force of nature rather than a feverish selfish little cloud of ailments complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”

Within every human being lies a hunger for significance; a need to know that our lives count for something; a deep-seated desire to leave the world a different place because we were here.

For many, this desire can become an overwhelming drive that leads down the path of increasing narcissism and inflated egos, but for the Christian this “drive” should manifest instead as an ongoing, unfolding call to discover who we are and why we were created.

As I understand it today, my unique calling is to use my sense of play and prayerful imagination to create opportunities for others to connect more deeply with God, with themselves, and with others.  It is a calling which has grown through my Sunday School years, to my acceptance of Christ as Lord during my adolescence, to the years spent preaching in churches and teaching in schools, to that moment when I first took off my shoes and stepped out from behind the pulpit in answer to the deepening invitation to come before God as I was.

The journey to discovering our life’s calling can be a daunting one.  Sometimes we may be afraid to undertake it because we’re not sure we’ll like where God might lead us.  Sometimes we simply don’t know where to begin, but Ephesians 1:3-23 reveals three calls common to all Christians that might provide a meaningful starting point for further exploration.

Ephesians 1:3-6 We are called to be children of God

One of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn in my adult life is that God is not a God of demand and expectation but a God of grace and invitation.  God does not love us because of what we do or accomplish.  God’s favor is not swayed by the size of our house or the number of degrees on the wall.  God does not smite us because we’re late for church or forgot to say grace before supper.  Nor does God pour down riches upon us because we’ve been very, very good or put an exorbitant amount into the collection plate.

God does not need us to boost his ego or to prove his importance. God does not desire us to serve him blindly as slaves do a master.  This is what Paul tells the Ephesians that long before the foundations of the earth had been laid, he had settled on you and me as the focus of his love and blessing – and so we are called to be his family, his beloved sons and daughters.  We are invited into intimacy and unbreakable relationship with our Father God who makes us whole and holy through his great love for us.

The problem with this wonderful father-daughter/father-son image is that all too often we get stuck in the terrible toddler or teen years of our faith: we mistake the invitation for permission to behave like spoiled, self-centered brats who throw tantrums when we don’t get our own way or slam the bedroom door when we don’t like what daddy has to say.

The call to be children of God is a call to grow up and mature under the example, the affirmation, and the discipline of a dad who is strong and compassionate, just and forgiving, firm and creative, wise and good.

It is a call to discover which of his attributes we have inherited and to take responsibility for exercising them in a manner that brings honor to the family name.

It’s a call to exercise our free will and independence knowing that God is always available for a loving conversation when we’re uncertain of our choices or worried that we’ve somehow let him down.

It’s a call to celebrate our kinship, our connectedness – both to our brothers and sisters in Christ, and to every single man, woman, and child who was knit together by God regardless of their race, color, gender, religion, sexual preference, socio-economic status or whatever other label we use to separate and compare ourselves.

We are all called to be children of the God who imagined, made, and named every one of us “very good.”

Ephesians 1:7-14 We are called to be united with Christ

This, this is the call that we think we know off by heart.  We hear it in the Gospel reading each week.  We sing glorious, spirit-lifting songs day in and day out about what Jesus means to us: how his sacrifice on the cross has set us free from the power of sin; how his resurrection from the grave has made us victorious, even over death; how one day he will come again to establish a new heaven and a new earth.

But the call to be united with Christ does far beyond a few “thank you’s” or uplifted arms or Easter tears.

For to be united with him means joining our hearts, our minds, our mission with his:

  • his plans become our plans,
  • his anger at the injustices of this world, our anger,
  • his defense of the adulteress about to be stoned to death, our protection of all sinners who stand in the place of judgment and condemnation,
  • his arms welcoming in the little children, our advocacy for the vulnerable and the voiceless,
  • his feeding of the five thousand, our responsibility for those living below the bread line.

Even his sacrifice upon the cross becomes the life that we are willing to lay down for another.

“It is in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for,” Paul tells the Church in Ephesus.

The call to be united with Christ is a call to look beyond the fortune and the fame and the protection and the power that we so often mistakenly equate with the abundance of life promised in Christ to the sacrifice and servanthood of Jesus that will make our lives truly significant.

It is a call to discover our part in the overall purpose that he is working out right now – in everything and everyone – for a praising and glorious life, an eternal life of peace and hope and love and unity.

Sounds good?

If we’re deeply honest with ourselves the promise of Christ’s shalom is actually problematic in terms of our desire to be centre stage and our tendency to evaluate the quality of our life against another’s.  When others are in hell, we can say that we are blessed, but what happens if everyone is blessed?

Sadly, our superior worth is all-too-often proven by how much more we have or know.  And one of the “mores” that we love to hold over others is the fact that Christ is on our side – as if he only cares for the fraction of the world known by his name and nobody else.

The call to be united with Christ is a call to the cross with our judgements and pride, with our pet hates and secret ambitions, with our going-through-the-motions-to-see-what-we-can-get kind of faith, with our prejudiced pictures of who doesn’t belong with us in heaven – so that we can be free. And not just barely free.  Abundantly free! that we might love and liberate those still bound by the fear of penalties and punishments.

Ephesians 1:15-23 We are called to be the Church through which God speaks and acts.

Not the Catholic Church. Nor the Methodist Church. Not Matthew’s Party Church.  While we may find meaning in the doctrines and practices of a particular denomination, the Church of Christ is far more than that.

Neither are we called to be the followers of Paul or Peter or whatever particular pastor or minister passed through a while back with the most wonderful personality or glorious preaching style.

We are not called to be the church with the biggest sanctuary, the best worship team, or the most miracles.  We are certainly not called to be the church on the corner in competition with the church on the other corner.  Or the church for the old people as opposed to the church with the young people.  Or the church for the black people instead of the church for the white people.

We are not called to be the church on the margins who piously keeps her hands clean of the politics and priorities of the world.

We’re not called to be a lovely little community club which gathers for the entertainment and upliftment of its fee-paying, card-carrying, uniform-wearing* members.

We are nit called to be a charity or a non-profit organization that gives handouts to the helpless and feels a little bit better about ourselves.

We are called to be the Church through whom God speaks and acts.  That’s it!  That’s our role.  That’s our significance.  That’s our calling: to engage with energy and passion in the utter extravagance of God’s work at the centre of human life and activity.

God calls us to get messy – to be hands on – where life and death and joy and pain are happening.  In shopping centers and schools, in retirement villages and paintball arcades, in hospitals and homes, in huge corporations and small home businesses, God longs to speak and act and chooses to do so with and through us.

The call to be the Church through whom God speaks and acts is a call to put aside personal plans and agendas, to challenge ungodly acts and self-centered ambitions in our structures and our leadership, to place Christ again at the centre of our discernment and decisions, to be the agent by which God fills everything with his presence – and not our own.

How do we reclaim the integrity of this call in an era of alternative truths and decaying moral values?

Paul prays for the Ephesians: that they will be intelligent and discerning enough to get to know God personally; that they will stay focussed and clear in the way of life that Jesus has opened up to them; and that they may see exactly what it is that God is calling them to do.

As you seek to follow the call of Christ within your community and Christian life may you hear the call to be a child of God and commit to knowing him personally.

May you receive the call to be united with Christ and stay focussed on his sacrifice and servanthood.

May you be challenged by the call to be the Church through whom God speaks and acts and engage with what it is exactly that you need to do and be in order to be the centre of your community and not just a church on the periphery of human life.

And may God give you endless energy and boundless strength to fill everything with his presence.

 

 

*A note on uniforms: this is not a dig at the various church organizations or denominations that wear uniforms, but a general comment about the standards of uniformity that have crept into our churches.  The “youth” often have a dress code that is different to the “elders” of the church, that is different to the moms, that is different to the singles hoping to find a good match etc.

 

 

Christ in control

A Meditation on Colossians 1:15-20 for Cosmos Sunday

Imagine for a moment that you have bucket-loads of money and not only the car of your dreams in your driveway but also an expert driver to go along with it – an ex-formula 1 champion with an impeccable safety record and an intimate knowledge of how to get the very best performance out of your car.

For the first few weeks, as he drives you from place to place all goes smoothly: he gets you to the office and home in record time, and it’s an absolute pleasure to see the expertise with which he takes the gaps and rounds the corners.  You settle in, get comfortable – complacent even – and eventually take to reading your newspaper in the back seat.

One day, however, you glance up to find that you’re miles outside the city limits.

“What on earth are you doing?  Where DO you think you’re going?” you explode.

“I don’t think that you’re living up to your full potential,” the driver responds.  “Just trust me – the place I’m taking you to will be much better for you in terms of your health, your happiness, and your family life.”

I think that very few of us would simply sit back and surrender, putting our complete trust and faith in this relative stranger knowing precisely what is best for us.  We’d more likely yell for him to stop the car, fire him, and resume control of the driver’s seat.

Now this is the very experience that we are afraid of when we choose to be Christians; when we put Christ in control of our lives.  It’s alright when we see the blessings pouring in and like the direction in which our lives are moving – then we happily sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride.  But when we take an unexpected turn, or when it looks like he’s going to take us to the dodgy side of town, we snatch for that steering wheel and shout, “I think I’ll take it from here buddy!”

The reason for that is that when we ask God to be in control of our lives we don’t suddenly become new creatures devoid of history or habits.  We have dreams still; imagined lives full of what we hope for.  We have pasts that have shaped us, parents who have passed down their high (or low) expectations of us, aspects of our personalities that define us and influence our choices – and it often feels like those things are at war with what God is calling us to and with what God commands us to do.

The cosmos invites us to consider our choice, to question whether Christ is worthy of being in control.

Paul’s letter to the Colossians responds with a resounding, “Of course he is!”

He is the image of the invisible God – the epitome of love, defender of the weak, worker of miracles; one who gives generously of himself so that we can know forgiveness and freedom.

He is the firstborn over all creation – the one from whom light and life flows; the one who speaks and brings into being beauty and order and purpose.

By him and for him all things were created – even the powers and authorities of this world for whom he groans when they use their power and position to use and abuse and tear down and oppress.

He holds all things together – from the stars and moons and planets of our ever-expanding universe, to people of different tribes and languages, to families broken by the death of a loved one, to the unnatural gaps in the world like the divide between the rich and the poor.  He reminds us that we are all interconnected.

He is the head of the body, the Church.  He is the one from whom we take our example and our lead; the one who teaches us how to live; the one who gives us our mission and our meaning; the one who holds together our different gifts, our different passions, our different dreams.

He is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead – a God of unimaginable power and possibility; the one who can break every bond that imprisons us, who can resurrect every area of our lives in which we have given up hope, who can open up opportunities for new ways of being and thinking and doing.

The fullness of God dwells in him that he may open our eyes to the fullness of life – to the rest and restoration of gentle rivers and green pastures, to the pressing and cleansing presence of his Spirit in our woundedness, to his comfort in the valleys so dark and full of shadows that we fear we will be lost in them forever.

He is the one who shed his blood on the cross that all things might be reconciled to him who with dying, tortured breath declared, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

This is who Jesus is.

And the cosmos asks us whether we think that one such as this is worthy of being in control of our lives.

The reality of human experience is that we have others in control of us from our very first breath – parents, teachers, friends, older or younger siblings, bosses, wives.  Very rarely do we feel that we are in control.  And very rarely are those who have influence and control over us anywhere near as worthy as Jesus.  So it’s hard to trust, to hand over.

But the car analogy is not actually a good one for in the passage from Colossians we see a Christ who is Supreme but who doesn’t take over.  He accompanies, he journeys with, he holds together, he connects.

He is more of a co-driver than a chauffeur: the navigator of a rally car team who tells the driver what lies ahead, where to turn, what obstacles to look out for.  He is hands-on – often performing maintenance on the car during road sections.  There is an incredible level of trust and frequent, open, clear communication between the two.  There is a bond, a comradeship, a sharing of direction and responsibility – and this is what the Christ who is with and in and through all is inviting us to.

I pray that your heart leaps with all of creation in crying out, “Oh Lord, you are worthy!”