Sunday, February 27, 2011

One Table

The experience of being in a church to worship and being told point-blank that you’re not welcome at the Table is a daunting one.

It’s happened to me in Roman Catholic churches more than once when I was there to celebrate the union of a couple in love, or to remember with gratitude a life that had ended—both emotional times when being rebuffed seemed uncharitable and insensitive. In other denominations too, the Table has been “fenced” when some theological or ecclesiastical barrier was thrown up to keep me and others like me at a distance from the Eucharistic banquet. The barriers have been announced humbly or haughtily, callously or courteously, all to the same effect—“You’re not welcome at this Table.”

The restrictions include a number of rationales:
You don’t have the proper theological understanding of Communion/Lord’s Supper/Eucharist.
You don’t belong to the right denomination/church/organization/fellowship.
You haven’t signed on to the correct creed.
You aren’t one of us.
And so forth.

It’s often said that Britain and America are “two nations divided by a common language.” In the same way, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, and all other Christians are different denominations divided by a common sacrament, the Lord’s Supper. The painful irony of it is that it is the Sacrament of Unity that is wielded as the weapon of division in the church.

There was a time, those heady years after Vatican II, when hope sprang forth that ecumenism meant recognition of an underlying unity among Christians, a God-given unity that would dissolve lines marking us off from one another.

Events took place when priests and ministers prayed as one, and before long dared to share bread and wine in Holy Communion to honor Christ as our common host. Protestant congregations heard priests preaching, Protestants stood before Catholics to proclaim the same Word. On rare occasions, ever so quietly, bread was broken and wine poured, and Christ was at the Table for all.

In the last couple of decades, however, those threads of unity have been unraveled and broken to the point that ecumenism has regressed to a state roughly equivalent of the late Middle Ages. This is not entirely the fault of the Roman Catholic Church or even the Pope, although they have certainly done a fine job of stepping away from the accomplishments of Vatican II. The “windows” John XXIII opened to bring in fresh air are slammed shut. Protestants, too, have dropped the ball, not following through with relationships established, not encouraging Catholic friends to share in faith with them, not finding ways to join as one people, God’s people.

So, what’s to be done? What can be done? Here’s my plan.

First of all, we Protestants have got to get our act together. We have no business complaining about not being allowed to receive the Lord’s Supper in another church or denomination when most of us deny it to our own people three-quarters of the time. Shame on us.

It’s time for us to put the Eucharist with the proclamation of the Word at the center of our worship. Without it our liturgy is incomplete, stunted, deficient, inadequate, and sorely lacking. Restoring the Eucharist to its proper place every Lord’s Day is one way to show other Christians that we understand and cherish the sacrament and live out in our own churches the unity we find there.

Next we need to make sure that the Lord’s Supper really is the Lord’s Supper, and not our own home-made meal of nostalgia. The Eucharist offers us nourishment that we need, desperately, if we’re to be Christ’s disciples in this world. The bread we break and pass along, the wine we drink from the cup, are signs of sharing with one another, and a rehearsal of our sharing Christ with the world. This is not just feel-good liturgy. The Lord’s Supper requires rigorous ministry to the needy, the poor, the outcast, everyone nobody else likes much.

Then we need to find times, places, and ways to break bread and pass the cup with other Christians. I’m convinced that the only way that the barriers will fall is if the people ignore them, and gather around the Lord’s Table in spite of whatever ecclesiastical authorities might say.

If this sounds subversive, then you’ve got the point. Liturgical theology is the primary theology. We all know that the Lord calls anyone and everyone to his Table. So we can honor him by coming to his Table with all those who hunger and thirst for what he offers.

Now is the time to claim the gift of unity God promises when two or three gather in Jesus’ name, and the Spirit enables us to recognize him in the breaking of bread and the sharing of a cup of wine.

How often do you have Communion at your church? Do you restrict who may come to the Lord’s Table at your church? Other than on Sunday morning, are there other times you share the Lord’s Supper with other Christians? Would you welcome a Jew or Muslim to the Eucharist?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Stand Up

I wonder how many Presbyterian congregations stand for the reading of the Gospel.

That thought flitted through my mind as I rose from my pew, in the little Lutheran church where I often go, to hear the words of Jesus from Matthew’s Gospel.

I know I had no success with convincing anyone that this was a good idea when I was in the parish, and we almost never performed that ritual gesture.

One time a guest preacher, in blissful ignorance of our wayward ways, asked those who were able to stand for the Gospel, and, wearing puzzled expressions, they did. The next Sunday, I tried to take advantage of that experience and, after full explanation of why, and in hopes of perpetuating it, repeated the request. It was grudgingly obeyed. Further discussion made it clear that more education was necessary. A lot more.

The custom of standing for the reading of the Gospel is usually explained as an ordinary gesture of respect. It’s what mothers used to teach their children at an early age: “When you greet someone, stand up, especially for older or important people.” It doesn’t take much imagination to see that it’s a good idea to be polite and courteous. Being respectful is always a good policy.

In this context, however, there is more. Sure, standing for the Gospel is a sign of respect—but this is not just for the Gospel. It indicates respect for the person of Jesus Christ to be met in that biblical text. The Gospels have a quality not found in any other books of the Bible, even in other New Testament books. They announce the Good News of Jesus Christ by giving the words of Jesus himself, or telling about his earthly ministry. So the Gospel is more than words, it witnesses to the presence of the Word, Jesus himself. Standing to hear the Gospel is showing respect for the Risen Christ.

There’s still more. Standing helps us pay attention to what is being spoken. In a real way, we stand at attention to hear our “marching orders” from the Lord. The Gospel is instructive, then, by setting before us the teaching of Christ, his summons to follow him, and his example of sacrificial love of those who need it most.

So in this one action, rising to our feet as we listen to the Gospel reading, brings us “face-to-face” with the Risen Christ. It is a “sacramental” moment in the order of worship, where we meet our Lord in a very common, ordinary, every-day way.

The other sacramental moment in Lord’s Day worship would be, of course, in the Eucharist. There also, interestingly enough, we stand for the Great Thanksgiving prayer, attentive, alert, preparing to meet Christ in common, ordinary, every-day eating and drinking.

Another related custom you’ll have trouble finding in a Presbyterian church is the “Gospel Procession.” When all are standing, the Bible (or Book of the Gospels) is brought to the floor in the center of the congregation. I’ve witnessed this in Lutheran and Episcopal churches.

We are told that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” (John 1:14) and this ritual dramatizes the truth of it. The Gospel is read not from a distant pulpit or lectern, but from near at hand.

The Gospel Procession also is indication that the Word is not static, not locked away somewhere, but on the move. Coming into our midst, the Good News Proclaimed is to be carried out by each disciple listening to it being proclaimed.

Do you stand for the reading of the Gospel in your church? Have you ever had a Gospel Procession, if not on a regular Sunday, for a special festival or celebration?

Sunday, February 13, 2011


I remember more than one ecumenical adventure when I shared in worship with Roman Catholics, and was asked, invited, given the opportunity to bring forward the bread or the wine to be used in the Mass. This was considered to be an honor for anyone, and in the days following Vatican II, a gracious gesture to Protestants (even though we were not allowed to partake of the same elements in the Eucharist).

In the Roman way of doing things, the presentation of the bread and wine (Offertory) was made along with the presentation of the people’s offerings (Offering). It made an easy segue from the collection of the people’s gifts to the celebration of Thanksgiving in the Eucharist.

Protestants, however, were quick to recognize the problems with entwining the two very different ritual acts, even though some thought it was a nifty idea to bring the elements for Communion in the procession of gifts to the Table. The people’s gifts in the Offering, however, are in response to God’s Gift experienced in the sharing of bread and wine, and the overlapping or even juxtaposition of these two acts is theologically problematical at best.

The argument for both Offering and Offertory, of money and bread and wine, is apparently that both come out of God’s bounty to the people and are offered back to God. In terms of the bread and wine, it helps emphasize the fact that they are ordinary elements and not infused with any special power or significance in and of themselves.

The argument against, however, is that the bread and wine speak not of human offerings to God, but of God’s offering to us, and represent what we are to receive in thanksgiving at the Eucharistic Table. To presume the bread and wine to be our offering to God makes the Table into an Altar. It is clearly not our sacrifice, but Christ’s that is celebrated at the Table, from which we receive.

As far as I know, in Reformed and Lutheran churches the bread and wine are not brought in procession along with the presentation of the offerings. Such processional entrance of the Communion elements, however, is common in Roman and Anglican services.

I bring all this up because the rubrics in the Book of Common Worship (1993) leave the way open for a practice that may be theologically muddled. In the Service for the Lord’s Day we find the following:
As the offerings are gathered, there may be an anthem, or other appropriate music.
When the Lord's Supper is celebrated, the minister(s) and elders prepare the table with bread and wine during the gathering of the gifts. The bread and wine may be brought to the table, or uncovered if already in place.
The offerings may be brought forward. A psalm, hymn of praise, doxology, or spiritual may be sung, the people standing.

The statement that is most disconcerting is, “The bread and wine may be brought to the table….”
If the bread and wine are brought to the table during the time the Offering is collected from the people, then two very different things are taking place simultaneously: the people presenting their offerings, and the elements of bead and wine being brought forward to the Table to be used in the meal celebrating God’s offering of the Son to all humankind. It’s difficult to keep the two from becoming entangled.

The statement is also ambiguous enough to suggest that it would be acceptable if one wanted to have the bread and wine brought forward along with the offering of money, thoroughly confusing the people’s offering with God’s offering. It leaves the way open for thinking that we the people have something of value to give God.

So it’s far better to have the Table set with food from the beginning of the service, recognizable as God’s gifts to us. This would eliminate the entanglement of the Offering and Offertory, since the latter would simply be encapsulated in the Eucharistic prayer:
“Remembering your gracious acts in Jesus Christ,
we take from your creation this bread and this wine
and joyfully celebrate his dying and rising,
as we await the day of his coming.”
In this prayer, as in others, bread and wine has already been given to us by God, and they are “the gifts of God for the people of God.”

If the Offering itself were removed from its usual location in the order of worship—before the Eucharist—and placed before the Sending hymn, as I suggested in my previous post, that would also make it clear that the people’s offering of money is a commitment to continuing discipleship in the world as the follow where Jesus leads.

In any event, it’s clear that Offering and Offertory should be separated sufficiently to avoid treating them as one and the same.

How is the Table set when you celebrate the Lord’s Supper in your church? Are the elements covered? When is the covering removed? How is the Table set when you do not celebrate the Lord’s Supper?

Sunday, February 6, 2011


Not long ago I was visiting in a large main-line church where the offering of money was accomplished in a manner which I had never experienced, or even thought of, before. This is what happened:

The “Presentation of Tithes and Offerings” was announced, and people came forward in procession with brass plates to receive the offerings, row by row, front to back of the room. As the people deposited their gifts (when they had them to deposit), the pastor stood at the front and recited the up-and-coming events and programs to take place in the church, along with some personal encouragements from members. Then the collectors, plates in hand, processed once more to the front of the room as we all stood to sing the Doxology, and remained standing for the Prayer of Dedication.

I am not usually reticent to offer an opinion of liturgy, but in this case I was speechless. It was a jaw-dropping experience.

When I took the time to analyze, it became very clear that this was just an example of the problem with the Offering in the extreme. It appeared to be nothing more than “the Collecting of Dues,” and while you were paying up you would hear what your dues would buy. Whatever was intended, it came across as crass advertising, and contributed little or nothing to the Glory of God. It struck me as remarkably similar to those movie-theater appeals for a charity, shown on the screen as ushers pass a can around for contributions from the audience.

In any act of worship, leaders always have to be careful what impression is made on the people by what is done or said. Equally, they should be conscious of what expression of faith is made by the people by what they say or do. In terms of both impression and expression, the Offering is a mine field. In the example above, what was impressed on the people was the close connection between what they were putting in the plate and the programs offered by the church—the making of contributions while programs and events were announced made that clear. What was expressed by the people was simply that they had a role in financing the church programs. By liturgical impression and expression our theology is fashioned, for ill or for good.

If I had a nickel for every time someone talked to me about the offering in terms of “paying dues”, I’d have retired earlier…well, that’s an exaggeration, but not as much as you might think. Too often the Offering focuses on what we give rather than what God has given to us, the Gift of Christ. The procession of collectors returning with their bounty in brass bowls is often a triumphant one, and in spite of the singing of the Doxology praising “God from whom all blessings flow,” it’s our offering that is celebrated.

Obviously, the monetary gifts we bring, no matter how large or how great a percentage of income, are puny in comparison to the sacrificial gift of Jesus Christ to each and all of us. The best we can do is to consider whatever we put in the plate to be a token, a mere representation of something more worthy of rendering to God, namely our very selves, all that we are, all that we have.

So we need to think about how to deal with this liturgically, how to make the Offering a response to God’s giving rather than a glorification of our giving.

One possibility would be to move the contributions of money outside the boundaries of worship altogether. Many folks have already done this by making a pledge for the year and writing a monthly check. I remember a man telling me that writing his church check first when paying his monthly bills, was a more meaningful act of worship than dropping something in the plate—he saw his other expenses line up in priority under his response to God’s generosity and goodness. Of course those who give this way now find themselves looking in the pew racks for something to drop in the plate, or simply waving the collector off. We’d need to develop other options for the offering of self and possessions to Christ’s service.

A better suggestion might be to place the Offering at the end of the service, after the Lord’s Supper, just before the “sending” hymn. In this case, the collectors would simply do their collecting and go out the door, to be followed by the people starting on the next leg of their Christian pilgrimage. What the people have given would be a sign of their commitment as disciples of Christ, and it would clearly be given as a response to God’s gift in Jesus Christ as celebrated in the Eucharist.

Certainly the Offering should include, in addition to money, the people’s offering of themselves, time and talents as well, for specific tasks or ministries in the church or community. These could be written on cards and deposited along with financial donations, again as tokens of the larger and more inclusive giving of oneself.

In any case, it isn’t what’s in the plates that’s being dedicated as much as it is the givers. What we give is given to God only when we and our gifts go to work in the service of others in the world.

How is the Offering given/received in your church? What might be done to emphasize the offering of the whole person rather than just a few (or many) dollars?