A sermon I won’t get to preach

One time, long ago, I was asked to preach at my church. It was a small church at the time with co-pastors, both of whom would be gone. Being the first Sunday of the month, the service normally would’ve included communion. But it was skipped because I was not ordained.

I had led communion in small-group situations a few times in the past without any lightning bolts reigning down, but the book would be followed on this occasion.

I’ll never get to preach a communion sermon, but sometimes I think about what I might say if I did. Several experiences, some more directly associated with the celebration of communion than others, come to mind. Here’s a draft of a communion homily.

As a young minister, I was helping plan a weekend retreat, along with a senior minister and a facilitator who was a graduate student in psychology at a nearby university. Though it would be consciously unchurchy, the other minister and I suggested we conclude the weekend with a communion service. The facilitator balked at this. A few minutes later, I suggested our last activity could be sitting in a circle, listening to music and passing around a loaf of bread and a bottle of wine. He thought that was a great idea.

Sometimes words aren’t needed.

Yet often we do rely on words, and they can certainly get one’s attention. Another time when the bread and wine were passed from one person to the next — this time in what was consciously a religious observance — my seatmate went off script. We were to say some simple phrase about the body/blood being symbolized as we offered the cup and loaf. Most of us repeated familiar words. My neighbor, however, said, “This is the blood of Christ, who was murdered for your sake.” That surely got beyond the usual ritual and down to the nitty gritty.

The elements are powerful symbols.

But do they have to be bread and wine? At a communion service during a student retreat when I was in college, the minister leading it used potato chips and orange juice. He explained, “Jesus used what was on the table. This is what I found on the table today. Jesus took ordinary items and touched them with significance — just as He touches you and me with significance.”

For that matter, are they merely symbols?

At one time many years ago, I was a member of the same church as the well-known theologian Harvey Cox. Harvey preached one communion Sunday. He reminded us that as Protestants, we see the bread and wine as symbols, while Catholics believe Christ to be present, the elements literally becoming His body and blood. He suggested they were right that Christ is indeed present, though not in the bread and wine themselves, but rather in the act of sharing them with one another.

One last anecdote doesn’t come from a communion service, but from what was nonetheless a communion experience.

Our community and the world were reeling from the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. A large auditorium on the University campus was packed for a memorial service. As I was leaving I spotted a friend through the crowd. He was one of two Black (a term a few of us were beginning to use at that time) students with whom I had lived in a house during the previous spring semester. My white guilt made me try to be invisible as I slipped away along the edge of the crowd.

He saw me and called out. It was a short hi-how’s-it-going exchange that concluded with his saying, “Well, stop by the house some time. We still have parties.”

I felt he was saying, You are welcome at the table.

If speaking from a pulpit, I would conclude with an invitation to the table, attempting to tie together themes drawn from these anecdotes. In other contexts, I would and do offer no liturgical words, as special people and I partake of whatever food is on the table and in our sharing of it are touched with significance.

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