Christ the King Sunday (NCL)
Evening Chapel Service
Providence United Methodist Church, Charlotte, North Carolina
14When the hour came, he [reclined] at the table, and the apostles with him. 15He said to them, “[Oh, how ]I have [longed] to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; 16for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” 17Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; 18for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” 19Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this [into] remembrance of me.” 20And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. 21But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table. 22For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!” 23Then they began to ask one another which one of them it would be who would do this.
Luke 22:14-23 NRSV, ed. MTP
As you were hearing the scripture reading, you might have thought that it seemed a little odd. We’re here celebrating the fellowship that our youth have enjoyed through the years, spending time together in a setting of which communion is not a regular part, at almost exactly the wrong time of year to be remembering the week before Jesus’ death, and yet we hear the story of the Last Supper.
At least a little bit, it’s because communion is worth talking about more often than we do. It’s worth doing more often too, but I’m not hoping to convince anybody of that tonight. And it’s worth talking about when we can all focus. Most sermons that discuss communion take place right before communion. In fact, you might be craning your neck right now to see if there’s juice and bread sitting up here somewhere. You’re safe—they won’t let me do that. If you’re like me, in the middle of most communion sermons, you’ve already moved ahead in your mind. “I wonder what kind of bread we’ll get.” “I like the old days when they handed out cuplets and wafers; this new way feels like a drive-through window.” “I wish she’d hurry up and finish her sermon; communion takes for ever and we’ll definitely be late for lunch now.” It’s easy to get caught up in the traditionalism, and thus to miss the tradition. Details, our preferences, the way things used to be: they cloud our vision of the mission we have and the examples in our past of how to live out that calling.
If it’s true that you can’t go home again, then I think this is one of the reasons. As I think about this place and what it has meant to me and, indeed, my family over the past fifty years, it’s really tempting to think about the things that have changed. The little things that are the easiest to notice about a place but which don’t have all that much to do with what it’s really about. For a long time, I got annoyed as I drove past this church on my way to visit home from college, because it looked so different.
There used to be a magnolia tree about where I’m standing. Graham and I had serious conversations about chaining ourselves to it when they planned to cut it down, but we were pretty cynical teenagers, and we knew we’d end up losing. Graham gave up first as I remember.
We weren’t big fans of tearing down the Brown Building either. Surely the great traditions we enjoyed would disappear along with the building. I can still remember walking into UMYF one of my first times and seeing Jamie, who, in his long beard and shaggy hair, did not appear to be the kind of person my parents would want me to hang out with. The prejudice took about 42 seconds to get over. I also remember meeting Tanya, who was going to drive a group of us over to the Methodist Home to go caroling. She looked safe, but promptly drove me into a telephone pole. I could have been hurt, except that we were going 2 miles an hour and were still in the church parking lot. I remember having Sunday school in a basement room that also served as the storage room for rusty roll-away beds and folded-up mattresses whose purpose I can’t imagine now. Some memories are less attractive than others, but I wanted to remember all that and all the wonderful things in between. Traditionalism was very tempting. We saved wood from the Brown Building in part because it was our history, but also because it just didn’t seem possible to me that youth could be the same without at least a little of the building. Traditionalism is being worried about which building we meet in; tradition is meeting in a spirit of learning and growth.
The things we can usually name to define what a place means to us are the details that inevitably change. Whether you associate food around this church with my grandfather Grady, or Ducky, or Delores, the way it’s served has stayed the same. However the chicken is cooked, it feeds people who gather to enjoy each other and to serve together. Traditionalism is always wanting the chicken fried just so, because that’s the way we used to do it. Tradition is wanting to continue gathering in Christ’s name and sharing food together.
Shoes behind me
Coming home is not all about the small details. It’s about security too. I’ve been part of this church one way or another all my life. Once I entered middle school, I nominally became part of the youth group. But I wasn’t really invested until my first mission trip to the Appalachian mountains as part of the church’s Mountain TOP team. The main characters of that week are all here. Graham and I did a three-legged race together and we walked around like we each had one leg stuck in the same potato sack for the next two years. Jim Wollin, ever the model of Christian humility, shared with Tanya and me that he suspected we were united by the fact that we were perfect, and he chartered the Perfect Society, which despite all odds survived for several years. Graham didn’t get to join because he had an odd physical deformity—a huge indentation in his chest. Jamie didn’t get to join either because he convinced Graham to break open a glow-stick one night and pour it into the huge indentation in his chest and then run around our cabins like ET’s taller brother.
Fun memories, but, if I’m honest, details that don’t really matter very much, except to explain why it’s so much fun for all of us to be together here tonight. I learned on Wednesday night of that Mountain TOP week what it means to be church. Jim had to leave us to go to Statesville, where his father was about to die. I saw one of our friends crying soon after, and I just didn’t get it. I asked Tanya what was wrong—our friend didn’t even know Mr. Wollin. “But she knows Jim,” Tanya said, “and her grandfather died not too long ago.” “Oh.”
As the evening went on, I began to understand that I had reason to mourn too: I was losing my grandmother. During a worship service about an hour later, there was an invitation and prayer time, and as I knelt the weight of that loss came to me, and I began to cry. I didn’t want to draw attention, but I felt very comfortable as I checked out of the corner of my eye and saw a pair of sneakers not far behind me—Others were still praying too and I wasn’t alone. Actually, the shoes were Tanya’s, and we were the only two left at the front. She had stood behind me precisely so that I would not be alone. What more is church—our Christian tradition—than standing beside our brothers and sisters in the faith? That’s what we learned to do here.
Everybody likes feeling that kind of comfort and security. That’s communion. It’s the real reason behind most of that clamoring we do to have things stay the same. We like the idea of going back to a place and finding that sense of security that we remember; that is so absent in many parts of God’s world.
Perhaps the search for a lost sense of security was what drove the odd clamoring of the disciples in our scripture too: talking among themselves about who would betray Jesus, already breaking the communion he had just instituted.
When I think back to the details of my time as a youth in this church—not the things we did for one another, but the scenery and the comic relief, in tiny ways I am betraying the important things I learned here. To seek understanding of my faith. To serve other people as they present themselves, not as I choose them. To live in ways that support and challenge others rather than simply conforming. You can do those things in a Brown Building or in a rental house down the street; in a makeshift chapel in the Cumberland Mountains or in this chapel right here; under a magnolia tree outside or under whatever shelter you find.
Like it or not, our faith is not about going back home. Find me one person in the Bible who had a good homecoming experience. This church, and the youth group in particular, did not love and support us so we’d come back. We didn’t learn traditionalism here; we learned tradition.
Jaroslav Pelikan said “traditionalism is the dead faith of the living; tradition is the living faith of the dead.” We learned to draw life from the ages of Christian faith. We were not handed a faith that only works in this place or with these people.
A faith that tells you not to sit still, not to dream of the way things used to be but to seek out God’s work for us to do in the world must also provide some security. Even as Jesus and the disciples stood on the edge of the most significant events of human history, Jesus taught them how to bind themselves together in his life and his blood.
To different extents with each of us, this church gave us Bibles, taught us Sunday School, taught us to sing, confirmed us, led us into service, sent us off to college, and called us into ministry in God’s world.
Sure, Graham and Jamie and Tanya and I all made commitments as youth here that keep us thankful for this place and happy to get to return. But you made promises too. Communion doesn’t just pull back those who have left to the place they call home, but it draws you into our lives as well. When you celebrate communion here at Providence, part of what you promise is to continue what you’ve started, or rather what a group of people started 51 years minus eight days ago in Paul Ervin’s house down Sharon Lane, or rather what Jesus started in the upper room. A place in which people gather to learn, worship, fellowship, and serve, and then to follow God’s calling.
You never quite know when you’re doing it, either. Because I learned here to listen carefully for what God might say in my life, I heard a calling to ministry in a worship service up in Winston-Salem the summer before my senior year of college. I talked to the minister later about the words that had meant the most to me, and he said he didn’t really know whether he said them or not, but they weren’t written in his text. I think part of what happened is that God revealed to me the fullness of what many of you and others here at Providence had been telling me my whole life. Hundreds of quick comments, compliments on speaking, and nudges in the right direction. Not to mention Joe Hamby telling me that he’d never had a youth become a minister and he hoped I would keep him from being a complete failure. Hopefully he’s had some other youth become a real minister.
People ask me often too about my choice not to be a parish minister. All evidence provided here to the contrary, I am a decent preacher, I enjoy being with congregations of all sizes, and I truly miss having pastoral relationships with people that I enjoyed while serving a church. What I would hope for people to glean from me is that there are many avenues for ministry, and each one of us is called to one or the other. Or maybe two or three of the paths, as seems to be my problem. The statistics for people getting as far down the path to ordained ministry as I have are absolutely terrible. It’s a hard row, and impossible to navigate on one’s own. You can get people excited about that pretty easily, but it’s easy to forget that it’s equally difficult to become exactly the kind of teacher, or fundraiser, or salesperson, or designer, or banker that God calls us to be. Communion demands that we support one another and live in a way that teaches our youth what it means to be part of a tradition and a Christian community.
We do communion so that we grow into a memory of Christ that will shape our faith and our lives. It shapes our memories of each other too, so that when we think back fondly of this place, we don’t mutter about change, but rather celebrate faith and growth, and as you continue the life of this community, you don’t think too hard about the impressive statistics of this church, but rather pray for those who have left, eager to makes lives for ourselves in this world just like you taught us.