April 9, 2020
Maundy Thursday, Pastor Javen Swanson
Today’s scripture readings: 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35
I worked as a camp counselor each summer during my college years at Sugar Creek Bible Camp, an ELCA camp in southwestern Wisconsin. Campers arrived on Sunday afternoons and left again on Friday afternoons, so we usually had all day Saturday and Sunday morning to do our laundry, catch up on sleep, and recharge for the week ahead. But on many Sunday mornings, small groups of us would get dispatched to local Lutheran churches to lead a couple of camp songs during worship and promote the camp’s ministries.
I remember one particular Sunday morning, a few of us counselors were sent to a small country church in rural northeastern Iowa, about 45 minutes from the camp. We showed up with our guitars and sang a few of our favorite camp songs, and that was all great. But it turned out this was a church (like the one I had grown up in) where Holy Communion was only celebrated twice a month—and we were there on one of the non-communion Sundays. My friend Ben was so distraught that he hadn’t been able to receive communion that morning. As soon as church was over, we all piled back into the car, and instead of driving back to camp, Ben insisted that we drive to another church a half-hour away where he knew the pastor. We knew the church service there would already be over, but Ben hoped the pastor might still be at the church and we could ask for communion. Well, it worked. It happened that the pastor was still at church and we did share communion, just that small group of us who had shown up at the church hungry and begging for bread and wine.
Truth be told, if it had just been me, I think I probably could have survived that week without communion. But Ben needed it. Maybe it’s just that Ben was a big church nerd—the son of two Lutheran pastors, one of whom just happened to be the bishop of the La Crosse Area Synod at that time. Whatever the case may be, I think that was the first time I realized that for some people, Holy Communion isn’t just one of the things you do when you go to church—that, for some, Holy Communion really is a necessity. Ben depended on the sacrament to strengthen and sustain him through the week.
It makes sense that Jesus gives his closest friends a difficult new commandment—the commandment to love one another just as he has loved them—only after he has shared a meal with them. He knows it is only by sharing this meal that they will have the strength they need to embody his love and compassion in the world.
In this time when we have been worshiping online and fasting from communion, and when we are all being called upon to muster great strength and courage for the living of our days, many of us have been clamoring for the body and blood of Christ. Some of you, like my friend Ben pounding on the church’s door and begging for bread and wine, have told us how much you need the sustenance only the sacrament can provide. So tonight, we will share this meal together.
But “together” might feel like a stretch given the circumstances. Many of you worshiping tonight are home alone. What does it mean to be “together” in these days?
At the end of each week of Bible camp, on Friday afternoons after all the kids had gone home and we’d finished cleaning our cabins, the staff would come together for a meeting to debrief the week. When the staff meeting was over, a local pastor would arrive to lead us in worship with singing, scripture, preaching, and yes, Holy Communion.
On the very last week of the summer, the Friday worship service took a different tone. If you ever worked at a summer camp, you know what kinds of friendships are forged among camp counselors during those weeks together in the summer, and this time of worship was the last time we would all be together. Needless to say, there were a lot of tears that evening at worship as we prepared to say goodbye to one another and go our separate ways.
I don’t remember much about that worship service. I don’t remember what scripture lessons we read, nor do I remember anything about the sermon. But I do remember communion. Before we came forward to receive the bread and wine, the pastor took a moment to say a few words that have stuck with me to this day. She said, you will never be all together in this room ever again, and that is why you are all so sad today. But I want you to remember this: Every time you come to the table to receive the body and blood of Christ, you will be together again. Christ’s table gathers us all across time and space. It unites us with those in every generation and in every place who long to share this meal. Even those who have died are gathered with us at this table; that’s what we mean when we say we’re joining our “holy, holy, holy”s “with all the choirs of angels, with the church on earth and the hosts of heaven,” all together praising God’s holy name. The feast we share at this table is bigger than what we can see around us; at this table is gathered the whole communion of saints.
In the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles there are 25 huge tapestries that hang along the walls in the sanctuary. The installation is called, “The Communion of Saints,” and the pieces were created by artist John Nava. The tapestries show 135 different saints and other holy people in the Catholic tradition, as well as twelve unnamed figures, who represent anonymous holy people in our midst today. The artist even included some children, perhaps representing saints of the future. The communion of saints depicted in the tapestries consists of men and women of every age and race, various occupations and vocations, from all over the world. Saints from the middle ages are shown alongside people from the first century all the way through the twentieth century. The artist wanted the people in the tapestries to look like people we know now, to drive home the message that the communion of saints is full of people who look like you and me. When you sit in the sanctuary of Our Lady of the Angels cathedral, you are literally surrounded by this communion of saints, who remind us that the gathered assembly is always larger than just those who are physically present in the room with us on that particular day.
At Holy Communion we unite ourselves with all the choirs of angels, with the church on earth and the hosts of heaven. The author Frederick Buechner says that the “hosts of heaven” means “everybody we ever loved and lost, including the ones we didn’t know we loved until we lost them or didn’t love at all. It means people we never heard of. It means everybody who ever did—or at some unimaginable time in the future ever will—come together at something like this table in search of something like what is offered at it. Whatever other reasons we have for coming to such a place, if we come also to give each other our love and to give God our love, then together with [the angels] Gabriel and Michael, and the fat parson, and [Saint] Sebastian pierced with arrows, and the old lady whose teeth don’t fit, and [Saint] Teresa [of Ávila] in her ecstasy, we are the communion of saints.”
Which is just to say that even when we are physically together inside the beautiful sanctuary at Gloria Dei, there are always more of us gathered at the table than we see just by looking around the room.
Which is also to say that if you are home alone tonight and you have been for weeks, and if you’ve been feeling isolated and lonely, tonight when we gather around Christ’s table, you are not alone. If you are grieving someone who has died, tonight we will share this feast with them. If you are feeling anxious or overwhelmed or sad or uncertain about the future, tonight we rub elbows with saints who faced suffering and hardship themselves and nevertheless assure us that our present situation of suffering will not have the final word. The meal we share tonight really does provide the sustenance we need to live with courage and hope in these difficult days.
So, come to the table. May you experience even more powerfully tonight than usual the real presence of Christ in bread and wine and the presence of the communion of saints gathered around the table of God’s grace. Amen.
Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words: Daily Readings in the ABC’s of Faith (New York: Harper Collins, 2004).
Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Art: Tapestries, accessed April 6, 2020, http://www.olacathedral.org/cathedral/art/tapestries1.html.