by Rev. Doug Gray
Once there was a little girl who was very excited to go to church. She woke up early and got herself dressed in something she knew she could where to church, and then she went and woke up her mom—far too early for her parents’ liking. On the way to worship, the little girl skipped ahead of her folks, and then would run back. When she came in, she looked carefully at the front and almost vibrated at what she saw. It was a Communion Sunday and the table was set. Worship started and the little girl started fidgeting, earlier than usual. When she could she leaned over to her dad, pointed at the communion table and asked, “When do they serve the snacks?” This little girl is not alone in looking forward to communion, but perhaps not altogether clear about why. So we look to the Table and find there bread and fruit of the vine—potent symbols of God and life with God. But to think that God is bread, that God is vine?
We all have memories that swirl around bread. For me, memories of my Grammy slowly kneading bread with her arthritic wrists the day before a family gathering, where we would pass her dinner rolls with glowing faces. I think of my mother with her powerful, quick strokes, talking with a younger me about how to bake bread—how the work of kneading mixes the yeast all the way through the loaf, and after all the work, the bread has to have a chance to rest in order to rise. An older me would recognize she was really teaching me about life. I remember sitting around a campfire with my teen-age friends, and learning for the first time that communion was more than a cube of bread and little glass of grape juice. I remember as a young adult gathering with my friends around a table, literally breaking bread together, and passing the rest of the baguette to the next person as we laughed—maybe with some cheese, oil or butter. Whenever bread is around, memories crowd around.
Does that happen for God too? I wonder. Three strangers come, and Abraham asks Sarah to make some pan bread. These strangers turned out to be angels, announcing that Abraham and Sarah—both in their nineties—were going to have a baby. Or the story from our Old Testament Lesson—how a bunch of “hangry” Hebrews in the wilderness went to bed, and woke to find a fine, flaky substance on the ground that looked like frost and tasted like sweet coriander. They weren’t sure what it was, or what to call it, so they called it, manna, which means, “what is it.” God must of have laughed at that. They made it into loaves and called it “the bread that came down from heaven.” And then Jesus came to a bunch of spiritually hungry Jews and called himself “the bread that came down from heaven.” That was confusing to everyone, but they remembered it. They knew it was special even sacred, when Jesus said, “This is my body broken for you.” But they didn’t really get it until they actually saw that body broken on the cross, until some disciples saw a risen Jesus break bread just like Jesus did when Jesus said, “This is my body broken for you.” Whenever bread is around, I wonder do the memories crowd around God too—memories of life with the people of God, and His Son who came down to be the true bread from heaven?
I have great memories of bread, but my memories of wine are more complicated. I have fond memories of my parents, sitting around with their closest friends and a bottle of wine, and laughing so loud it would shake the house. On Friday night, my seminary friends and I would head to a local tavern, and the best parts of the conversation didn’t start until after the second glass. I have much less fond memories of my college friends coming home from parties too drunk to find their rooms, and as a peer counselor talking with women who had been raped while they or someone else was drunk. I remember talking with a friend of mine who will always be an alcoholic, and how he can’t even smell alcohol without the danger of losing himself.
And my complicated memories are not all that different than the memories of the people of God over the centuries. Noah got so drunk that he fell on his—well, you know—and one of his sons laughed at how ridiculous he looked, and how hurt Noah was. But in Song of Songs, the writer talks about how the lovers—us and God—are totally intoxicated with love for each other. In Isaiah we hear,
The vineyard of the Lord Almighty
is the nation of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are the vines he delighted in.
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
for righteousness, but heard cries of distress. (Isaiah 5:7)
And so Isaiah announced God’s intention to stop protecting His vineyard, Israel, hoping against hope that the vineyard would start producing better fruit, knowing that without change, the vineyard would get trashed, that the people would be carried into exile. And later, through Isaiah, God sings a song of replanting and tending that vineyard. But that possibility of punishment hung out there. And then Jesus comes. On a Thursday, Jesus said, “I am the vine and you are the branches.” Laura Winner writes in her book, Wearing God, “To hear Jesus call Himself the vine, then, was to hear a metaphor of startling vulnerability: I, God, am one of you; I have come down from the manager’s office to become, with you, part of the vineyard.” And on Friday, Jesus’ blood actually flowed as Jesus wore a crown of thorns, was pierced with nails and a spear. And that Sunday, Jesus showed his nail-scars to his friends and drank again with them. And because Jesus said, “I am the Vine,” those who follow Jesus are not afraid and have joy. In this church, we hear that and serve grape juice, so that even our alcoholic sisters and brothers do not have to be afraid, and knowing God can be just joy.
As we come to the Table today, the memories will crowd around—the good and the bad, the shameful and the hopeful. Besides the cross, the bread and the cup are the most powerful symbols in this room. Like the cross, wherever seekers after Jesus have gathered, the bread and cup are there. In a sense, the little girl is totally silly, thinking communion is a snack: a snack is something that tides you over until you can get a real meal. For us as Christians this is the real meal—breakfast, lunch and dinner are the “snacks” that tide us over until when can be together again, when the memories gather, and memories are made again. In other ways, the little girl gets it just right: we gather for this snack, knowing every time we share in it together, it just tides us over until we can, one glorious day, sit around the banquet table of God and find it set with the feast that will fully satisfy…and laugh again with Jesus, the Bread and the Vine.