Sunday, June 06, 2010

Broken for You

This morning at church I joined an estimated two billion Christians at the Communion table.

Communion is a tradition established by Jesus himself, one where he took two common elements of the Passover seder and reinterpreted them around himself. The gospels recount that during the Last Supper, Jesus lifted a piece of matzoh, broke it, and passed it among his disciples, telling them "This bread is my body, which is broken for you." And in the same manner, after they had eaten, he took the cup of redemption, and shared it with them, saying, "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for you," and then he laid a commandment on his disciples that the church has practiced for nearly two thousand years: When we eat the bread or drink the wine, we should do it in remembrance of him.

For years, I associated Communion with the Crucifixion. A properly reverent attitude during Communion was measured by a sense of contrition for sin, or a sense of the sacrifice Christ had made or had become when he was executed. Communion became a regular rehearsal of the mystery play of the forgiveness that comes from the Cross.

There's nothing wrong with that sort of meditation; it is a theme rich in potential for contemplation, from the earthly and physical suffering of Christ to the spiritual agonies endured in being separated from God.

Aside from those mystical contemplations, there are legal ones, as we consider Jesus as the fulfillment of the Torah presented to Moses, a final sacrifice to complete the sacrificial code, to supersede the distinction between clean and unclean, as the scapegoat who became our sin so that we are pure and spotless before God.

And beyond that are the priestly views, of Jesus as a high priest greater than Aaron, whose priesthood does not end with death, and who is able to represent all the human race and not just the covenant-state of Israel.

I suspect a believer could meditate on Christ's sacrifice every time she takes Communion, and never run out of new insights.

The Communion table, after all, is a place where liars and crooks are welcomed, where the degenerate and the desperate are never turned away, where those who have broken faith are restored, and where everyone, no matter what shame makes them blush, is welcome to come, join in the feast, to find forgiveness and release from whatever they have done that has been holding them down.

But a few months ago, I had an epiphany that faded from view almost as fast as I grasped it, and that came back to me today with greater force. As Christians, we often warrant a reputation for judgmentalism, because we so often are harping on the sins, real and imagined, of others. And while the grace of Christ extends forgiveness and respite to those who are broken over their own sin, it also offers hope and renewal to those who are broken over the broken-ness of the world.

The lesbian who quietly suffers inside a closet because her family will disown her if they discover the truth about her, has a place at the Communion table. Jesus himself was an outcast from his family; his own mother publicly disowned him as she told people he was out of his mind. The illegal immigrant who risked crossing the Sonora Desert in an attempt to find a job to make money to send to his family, has a place at the Communion table. Jesus also knew what it was like to be hungry, and to wander without a home, dependent upon the kindness of others.

The black, the Filipino, the Mexican American, all who fall under the shadow of racial profiling have a place at the Communion table. In his own country, Jesus was presumed guilty and executed. The list is lengthy: It includes transfolk whose churches have turned against them, women trapped in abusive marriages, those who are illegally detained without benefit of trial and tortured in the name of national security, people who have aspired to make the world a better place only to have their names dragged through by the mud by their opponents, those who work two full-time jobs in order to pay their bills and still find themselves falling behind, and many others.

The Communion table is wide, because it has to be. Jesus didn't come for the respectable and well-off, but for the ragged and lonely, the bitter and rejected, the despairing and the desperate. Anyone who has been chewed up by this world and the people in it has a place at the Communion table because Jesus came for them, and because in their humiliation and alienation, in their brokenness over what the world has done to them, they have an understanding of Jesus that the rest of us can only guess at.

When we presume to take Communion with them, we acknowledge that they have much to teach us, and we have much to learn. When we do that, when we acknowledge that we are rightly their servants, as Christ was, then and only then do we properly become his partners in the work of redemption -- and that is when we discover what Communion is really all about.

Copyright © 2010 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Friday, June 04, 2010

God helps those without hope

A lot of people say things like "The Lord helps those who help themselves" or "I know God won't give me more than I can handle, I just wish he didn't trust me so much."

They're great little bits of pop spirituality, but they're sadly deficient in actual value. What's the message that we take away from these things? That we have to earn God's help, and that he expects us to be self-sufficient. Not for me, thanks; I'll pass.

I like instead the message that comes from a christocentric faith, to wit: "The Lord helps those who can't help themselves." Jesus never came for the well-off and the respectable. He came instead to people whom life had pushed to the very brink, and who had reached moments of desperation so deep that they were willing to risk everything on these wild stories about an itinerant preacher who people said could do impossible things.

When did he say to the blind man, "You're not trying hard enough to see; come back later when you really have faith"; or to the leper, "Well, have you tried to stop having your fingers fall off?" And when on earth did he ever say to the prostitute, "Sorry, sister, but you have to clean your act up and stop sinning before I'll ever hang out with you"?

As to the other, I think it's clear that God regularly gives us more than we can handle. That's why people are so willing and eager to check out for a few hours on a drug or other addiction, or once and for all at the tip of a gun, the end of a rope, or the bottom of a bottle of pills.

Do people wreck their careers, destroy their reputations, and smash their lives to bits with a prostitute or male escort because their lives are all under control? When's the last time someone said "Looks like I've got it all under control, I think I'll go do something really dangerous so I can feel alive again?"

God's whole point in letting us be overwhelmed is to remind us that we're not self-sufficient. When the river overflows its banks, we're supposed to climb up onto a higher Rock; when we're sinking deep in the miry depths, we're supposed to shout out for a lifeline.

It's not that God trusts us not to screw it up; it's that he knows we already have, and whether we're overwhelmed with pain, or with a miracle, chances are good that what's overwhelming us is God on his megaphone shouting, "Hel-lo! I got your help right here!"

Of course, it'd be so lovely if God were the cowboy in the movies who rides in at the end of the movie and rescues the Indians from the savagery of the settlers, but he's usually more subtle than that. His message, as always, is pretty straightforward: "Yes, you are your brother's keeper. If you see someone is being overwhelmed, then you're the one I've appointed for this hour, for this purpose. Now go!"

And in doing that, we rediscover the wonder of God as we reconnect with the broad scope of humanity: the Indians who have been terrorized and driven from their homes, the settlers who acted out of fear and ignorance, the single mother trying to make it in a world that she's not meant to face alone, the bedridden divorcee who feels abandoned by church and friends alike, and the child alone in a world that has no time for her individuality. When we awaken to the world around us, we awaken to the wonders of God, and we invite others to awake with us.

And all it takes is a willingness to admit that we need someone else.

Copyright © 2010 by David Learn. Used with permission.