Mark 14:22-26, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26
When I was a Deacon of NYAC many years ago, I was preparing for Elder’s ordination. And one of the requirements was to write lengthy theological reflections. I had to answer to many difficult questions like: How has the practice of ministry affected your experience and understanding of God? What effects has the practice of ministry had on your understanding of humanity and the need for divine grace? I wish I could find out what I wrote, but unfortunately, I no longer have the floppy disk on which I saved the file or a hard copy of that paper. There were many more questions covering all traditional doctrines such as: (a) repentance; (b) justification; (c) regeneration; (d) sanctification, and so on.
Well, do you think I enjoyed writing this paper? I knew it was not easy to be ordained in the United Methodist Church. But, honestly speaking, I was overwhelmed, because, as a graduate student, I had to deal with other school papers, as well. It seemed to be impossible for me to write before the due date. I don’t know how I managed to finish this paper, but I remember it took many weeks to finish it. My goal was to address one question each week. So, by the time when I reach the question, “What is the meaning and significance of the Sacraments?,” I was somewhat excited, because it was the last question.
I am excited once again, because that is our theme this morning – World Communion Sunday. I like this special day, because it reflects not only what we believe but who we really are. If I had only one opportunity to preach about the theological subject, I would preach on this theme. You have heard me speak about Henri Nouwen, the Roman Catholic priest who was among the greatest spiritual writers and speakers of the 20th Century. Father Nouwen put his stamp on Christian spirituality by conveying his understanding of the “belovedness” of God: that we are all the beloved sons and daughters of God.
Nouwen had a distinguished career as a professor at several great schools, including Harvard and Yale University. But in 1986 he turned his back on academic life to serve for the rest of his life as resident chaplain at L’Arche Daybreak Community near Toronto, Canada. Those who lived at Daybreak were primarily persons with severe mental and physical disabilities. And Nouwen fully immersed himself in his life and ministry among these be-loved sons and daughters of God.
One thing concerned him almost from the beginning, and that was the shape and height of the Altar Table in the Chapel at the Daybreak Community. The Altar Table from which the Sacrament of Holy Communion was served was very high, and most of the residents at the community who came to service were wheelchair bound. They were unable to see the paten and chalice; they could not fully appreciate or feel included in the Eucharistic experience.
So he turned to the director of the wood shop at Daybreak and asked him to create a new Table for the Chapel…one which would be large enough to hold a good-sized glass chalice, a generous paten for the bread, and some flower – Father Nouwen always sought to bring the beauty of nature into the Sacrament. And he wanted the Table to be much lower, at a reasonable height for persons who were confined to wheelchairs. So the wood shop director, and his students began the early stages of the project.
Several months passed, and the wood shop director finally came to Father Nouwen and said that the Table had been completed. The director took Nouwen back into the wood shop to show him the new Table and to seek his approval before moving it to the Chapel. It was perfect! Large and low, the top of the Table was made of a single piece of cherry wood polished to a brilliant sheen. It had something of an irregular pattern to it, not precisely rectangular, but with a number of different angles. Yet, with its rich grain and deep color, it was far more beautiful than Father Nouwen had even imagined.
He asked the director where he had gotten such a large piece of cherry wood for the Table. And the director shared with Father Nouwen that he and his students had searched diligently for some time for just the right piece of wood, and when they found it, it was among a large pile of deformed or damaged pieces of wood that had been thrown into the back of the wood shed. It was a piece of discarded wood that was to be used for scrap and then thrown out at some point.
Later, Nouwen wrote about this story – a story about the way in which the grace and providence of God had been at work in the creation of this magnificent Table. Here he was, the Chaplain in a community of persons whom society had, in effect, discarded because of their deformities and disabilities. And here was this new Table which would be at the center of their worship and sacramental life together, a table that symbolized their brokenness, as well as their unique wholeness as beloved sons and daughters of God. That which had been discarded had been redeemed and made new…, just like each one of those children of God at Daybreak.
Not just for them. We all have our own experience of being broken as well. Each human being suffers in a way no other human being suffers. We may not have mental disabilities or suffer from lack of basic human needs. But the suffering of which I am aware on a day-to-day basis is the suffering of the broken heart. Indeed, yesterday, a man called me and left a message on my cell phone with crying voice. Recently, he lost his wife. He said he is so sad and upset and confused. Obviously, he needed help. So, I called him back and we talked for a while. Again and again, I see the immense pain of broken hearts, broken relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, lovers, friends and colleagues. In our society, the suffering that seems to be the most painful is that of feeling rejected, ignored, despised and left alone.
I remember being profoundly moved by this story, and reflected on the Lord’s Table as well as so many of the other tables in my life – the tables of meals and fellowship, the tables of contemplation and meditation, the tables of meeting and tables of reading and writing…. You know, I used to use a small table on the floor to study before I came to the States. All these tables took on new meaning for me. So I wrote my theological reflections around the theme of those tables, which I shared in my sermon last year today.
It is to this Communion Table we come this morning, drawn by the grace of that same God who sees us as beloved sons and daughters. No matter who we are, no matter what we are, we are beloved sons and daughters of God. It may look different from other Communion Tables throughout this world today to which our sisters and brothers in Christ have been coming since early last night, starting Australia, Japan, Korea, China… and still will be coming for several hours after we leave this Sanctuary today. But whatever forms or shapes the Eucharistic Table might be, the blessings are the same.
As much as that newly-created Table at the center of the Daybreak Community’s Chapel symbolized the redemption and wholeness of those who received the gifts of bread and cup from it, so I pray that this Table here at the front of our Sanctuary will remind us that we share this Sacrament this morning with the people of the world. In every sense, the world is at our Table, even as we are present at a multitude of Tables throughout the world.
Here at this Table we all encounter Jesus Christ, a Savior who has come to seek and to save the lost and to heal the broken. Here at this Table we meet a God who loves us without limits – One who reaches out to, seeks for, and redeems those whom the world so often tends to discard and reject. Today Jesus says, “Come… and be blessed.” Thanks be to God!