Our guest preacher this Sunday was Dr. Malinda Berry. This was part of the weekend she spent with us teaching on our Mennonite theology of Communion and how we might create a robust and living theology of table as a local community.
Communion helps us connect with each other. Malinda drew in part from an essay she wrote for the 30th anniversary edition of Living More with Less about the five life standards the author Doris Janzen Longacre had written outlining what an Anabaptist lifestyle might care about or view as central when we live in the affluence of North America. Do justice, learn from the world community, nurture people, cherish the natural order, and non-conform freely.
Malinda closed by providing us several “What ifs” for us to reflect upon as a congregation.
One Mennonite’s Perspective on Living into Communion – Feb. 16, 2020 A Year at the Table
On this first Sunday that we held worship at Fletcher Academy, Melissa recounts the story of the Last Supper, Jesus having Passover with his friends. The account in Matthew spends more time talking about the betrayal by Judas than it does about breaking of the bread and sharing the cup.
When we come together for communion, we stand in a circle, full of our betrayals, all of our failures, and they’re already awash in the death of Jesus. His life is in the blood.
Throughout history communion has been wrought with conflict. Heated debate focused on:
Who can participate?
Who can officiate?
What’s required to prepare for communion?
What elements are used?
What process occurs in those who partake?
Is Christ in the host (bread) or only there with his “real presence?”
Is communion necessary for salvation?
Through the centuries, communion was deemed so important that groups of worshipers split or refused to worship together over their differences. Luther and Zwingli met to agree on the meaning of communion and, by doing so, unite German and Swiss reform movements. But they failed. In fact, emotions ran so high that, in parting, Luther refused to shake Zwingli’s hand.
Our visit to Christian base communities in El Salvador showed me that the questions above miss the point. There people celebrated communion creatively and joyfully, then got busy being the body of Christ, helping those on the fringes and working for social justice.
Communion in the San José Villanueva Christian base community, where pound cake served as the communion element.
Celebration of communion in the San Ramón Christian base community, where birthday cake served as the communion element.
The key question then is: What happens after communion? However we practice communion, what is the result of remembering Jesus Christ, of being in his presence, or of partaking of his body? So here are the important questions about communion:
Are we feeding the hungry? Are we visiting those in prison? Are we caring for the sick? Are we welcoming the excluded? Are we rooting out systemic injustice? Are we peacemakers?
In her article, “Communion—a brief historical/theological summary,” Sara Wenger Shank writes, “they gathered to break bread together and scattered to offer that ‘bread’ to the world. Outsiders were invited in. The ‘supper’ was a participation not only in Jesus’ death, but also an encounter with his living presence.”
Our short time in El Salvador left me with a lot to process and a lot to reflect on, much of which I haven’t even tried to begin to put into words. I can’t honestly say that I really put much thought into Communion before our congregation started asking questions and making it a part of regular conversation. It’s a routine practice that I had simply taken for granted having grown up going to church regularly. I noticed different variances as I got older and found my “home church” in several different denominations over the years, but usually found myself taking a quick sip of wine from a tiny plastic cup while trying to think of the recent mistakes I made and needed to repent of.
Angel and Melissa with their hosts in Colón
Traditional hot breakfast outside Colón chapel
El Salvador was the first time that I began to see that Communion is more than a rote taking of two elements. It’s more than mini plastic cups of grape juice with stale crackers or goblets of wine with a pinch of bread. It’s a remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice and remembering that we are part of the active body of Christ. It is a time to remember that we are called to continuously work to meet one another’s needs and sometimes to sacrifice personal things in order to do so. In the Base Communities, the people shared much of what they had, and they shared each other’s burdens. It was no different with us. They provided the group of us, strangers in a foreign land, with a place to stay. The offered us pupusas (bread) and corn coffee (wine). They let us into their homes and into their lives. They gave us what they had to meet our needs, an example of when Christ gave what he had to meet our need of closeness with God.
There seems to true blending between hospitality and communion. I was astounded by the warm hospitality we were extended in the small Central American country. I found it a stark contrast to the superficial hospitality that the US south is known for. In a sermon preached in August 2019, Melissa Florer-Bixler said something along the lines of “within hospitality we meet the Divine.” In El Salvador, I saw a Jesus and a faith I had never previously seen or felt. I tasted a Communion different from any other before, an experience that will probably never be quite replicated again.
by Zinith Barbee A blog entry in response to our “A Year at the Table” series. January 21, 2020
The table is an image that is integral to hospitality. It is the critical prop in “the greatest story ever told.” In our services, it reflects the meaning of the Last Supper. Hospitality at the table is a foundational custom depicted in seminal literature of our civilization—TheOdyssey. In this epic story, hospitality is copiously described, including consequences of abusing it. Bread and wine are among typical foods in the age of the gospel. They also often symbolize the regenerative body and blood of Jesus. Hospitality at the table got its deepest meaning as communion.
Communion is the one rite about which one might expect unity. Instead, practices and beliefs regarding it widely vary. One variation is “open communion” for any churchgoer attending service. Another variation is “closed communion” for only the communing church. Visiting churchgoers are excluded. Another variation could be described as “no communion.” Where this is practiced, the bread and wine are passed but untouched by anyone in the congregation. More differences exist. However, regardless of variations, the common denominator in communion is the ultimate question: “Who’s in and who’s out.”
The answer to this fateful question determined the future of whole continents, as students of the Doctrine of Discovery learn. To European Christians discovering and colonizing the Americas, prosperity felt ordained to “who’s in”—baptized people like them—while poverty got bequeathed to “who’s out.” The dispossession of indigenous people, the denied humanity of enslaved people, and the disadvantage of exploited people is predicated on the institutionalization of “Who’s in and who’s out.” Thus began our nation of “haves” and “have nots.”
Many of the “have nots” are marginalized people. For them arose ministries—all rooted in the very doctrine justifying dispossession, denial, and disadvantage. This monumental paradox reverberates throughout society. Marginalized people are the common denominator in social issues such as food insecurity and food desertification. The question “who’s in and who’s out” is a bedeviling irony in a civilization with a gospel about ending devilry.
I tell people that A Place At The Table is a ministry that “acts like a café.” This invariably leads to explaining how and why A Place At The Table is unlike traditional ministries and conventional cafés revitalizing downtown Raleigh. To be sure, A Place At The Table is part of the revitalization. It could also be said to be part of a revolution.
One way our wealthy, industrial nation sustains marginalized people is the soup kitchen. Mistaken for that, a revitalizing downtown did not initially want A Place At The Table among its chic cafés. Moreover, most eateries fail in their first years of operation. In a business community of pay-what-we-charge, A Place At The Table had much to debunk with its pay-what-you-can business plan.
A Place At The Table is a response to another ministry for people experiencing homelessness and hunger. In that ministry people also hungered for community and dignity. They complained about how society’s charity depersonalized and dehumanized them. “We’re throw-away people getting throw-away things,” I heard when I volunteered there too. I dismissed this sentiment as over-sensitivity about their plight until visiting another ministry whose operation even I called “herding cattle.” Inside a re-purposed warehouse, the ministered first got corralled into a fenced space. Here, they sat and waited through a 45-minute sermon. Then they got divided into small groups. One by one, each group got ushered through a fenced path leading to sequentially arranged corrals of used clothing, discarded furniture, and aged food.
At A Place At The Table, each time I volunteer to serve meals and clean tables, I remember living among the marginalized myself. I once resided in my car and worked in restaurants for the “fringe benefit” of one meal. Decades later, during months of job hunting after graduation from a university, I remember my shame when “raiding the table” for leftover food to take home after church fellowship meals. Today, disabled and retired after medical trauma, I am again out of the workforce that gave me purpose, identity, and a salary. Each time I volunteer, I think of how frightfully easy and quickly anyone can be homeless and hungry. Each time I volunteer, I am both minister and ministered.
It is taught that family is the unit of society. Not everyone has family. For spouses and children abused in the home, LGBTQ people ostracized by family, the formerly incarcerated without supportive family, immigrants far from home, and aged folk like me—labeled “elder orphans”—the unit of society has to be community.
Community is the ministry at A Place At The Table. Here, “haves” and “have nots” commit to hospitality where giving and receiving is not demeaning. The “rite of passage” is receiving a meal and a cup of coffee. Money is not the only currency. Busing tables, washing dishes, sweeping floors, and other contributions of “sweat” will “buy” a fresh, healthy, stylish meal as much as any dollar bill and change. Like Jesus at the Last Supper, the hosted become hosts.
In November 2016, the City of Raleigh passed a resolution to adopt a Charter for Compassion. Its Compassionate City Initiative is part of an international movement. The founder of this movement, Karen Armstrong, laments “religion’s collusion with empire.” She identifies cities as “the heart of industrial civilization” and where to begin creation of “networks of compassion.” Into such a network fits A Place At The Table. A reporter for the Raleigh News and Observer who covered filming of A Place At The Table by the nationally broadcast show, “Good Morning America,” described the café as an “experiment in the economy of kindness.” To this I add “economy of dignity” too.
Who’s in and who’s out? Returning from a long absence and finding ill-willed guests eating his family out its provisions, Odysseus famously massacres who does not belong. Symbolizing a turn from barbarity, at the Last Supper Jesus clarifies who does belong. To disciples bickering over each other’s stature in the ministry, Jesus asks, “For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table?”
Our biblical example of communion stems from Jesus sharing the Passover meal with his disciples.
Rachel reflects on how the church’s communion practice, particularly in white-dominant congregations, can deepen rather than heal racial divisions in the church as it did in the past when white slave owners required those they had enslaved to participate in the practice. It’s too easy to proclaim a false unity; saying “Peace, peace,” where there is no peace.
We must understand how this gift of communion has been damaged in the past, then we can do a better job of honoring it as we continue our walks of faith.
What is this Passover Feast? – Jan. 19, 2020 A Year at the Table
Our pastor invites us to communion: “This isn’t the table of the Mennonite Church; it isn’t Raleigh Mennonite’s table. It is Jesus’ table, and he invites all of us.” The piece of bread and a sip from the cup nourishes us to serve others, such as the food co-op at the Parkview Manor Senior Center, aptly named The Neighborhood Network. Our money helps them supplement their limited food resources with food from the Regional Food Bank every two weeks. The relationships we have with them are priceless.
The Society of St. Andrews Gleaning Organization extends our table giving us opportunity to glean in the fields of Wake County and neighboring counties. The farmers’ produce that can’t be sold is gleaned, harvested and delivered to Neighborhood Network, Urban Ministries Food Pantry and other places where food is scarce.
Christ’s table expands its reach. Food-4-Thought, a volunteer group, rescues food each weekend from Trader Joe’s and distributes fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and bread to about 90 households. The rescued fresh meat is shared with The Neighborhood Network. Christ’s table is abundant. Food-4-Thought uses our kitchen, refrigerators and freezer to store food.
Raleigh Mennonite’s financial gifts helped provide a week’s supply of groceries for 8,000 household’s from the Client Choice Food Pantry at Urban Ministries of Wake County. Additional food referrals are made to Catholic Charities.
Our local bakery, Yellow Dog Bread Company, shares their unsold items at the end of each day rather than throw them in the dumpster. We pick them up after hours and their abundance is shared with Urban Ministries Food Pantry, Love Wins Community Engagement Center, Neighborhood Network and Food-4-Thought.
Our little table expands to be part of the miracle of food in the city of Raleigh. The hungry and thirsty are welcome at Christ’s table.
Leah’s perspective on her involvement with Food for Thought:
“Food for Thought is where Trader Joe’s gets rid of all the food it cannot sell. And we give it away to people. I like being a part of it because it gets me out of the house. My whole family is a part of it. I think Jesus would be happy because we feed God’s people in need who no one cares about.”
Food is political. Eating is a kind of politics. Isaiah offers this vision of the the end of all things, centering around a meal. In this passage, all things, all people, are reconciled in God. Everything bruised and damaged is made whole, but also those who bruise and damage are made whole. We’re all there together sharing the joy and intimacy of food.
With Veterans Day last Monday, Melissa admonishes us to advocate for veterans who have come back from military service. While this may seem like a contradiction for pacifists, it is an act of reconciliation. Veterans are also victims; victims of systems of war. When they return from war, they often suffer from moral injury.
Two people bring the bread and wine down the center Aisle and gives them to the Torch Bearer Acolytes, who place them on the table (not the altar) for the Priest. Another Acolyte assists the Priest with preparations. During the Jazz Mass the children are served first. The children (and parents of the very young) proceed up the steps before the alter, form a circle and receive the elements. Some have the Priest place the Eucharist on their tongues and take a sip of wine, others practice intinction.
When the children are finished they return to their seats and the choir is served at the rail before the alter. Then the ushers begin to allow adults and teenagers to proceed to the alter, row by row. The parishioners proceed to the rail before the alter, most kneel (a few may stand if kneeling is too difficult), placing right hand on top of left hand. The Priest and a Lay Eucharistic Minister place the wafer in each person’s right hand. Some have the Priest or Lay Eucharistic Minister place the Eucharist on their tongues and take a sip of wine, other only receive the wafer, and others practice intinction. After someone sips the wine, the lip of the goblet is wiped with a napkin. After the row at the alter has been served they rise and depart to the sides back to their seats and the next group proceeds forward to kneel, etc.
Hymns are sung during the celebration.
During the Contemplative Mass there is no special circle for children, and there is no singing. Otherwise the procedure is the same.
What connected with me?
I appreciate the ancient Eucharistic Liturgy. We used a form of it in weekly communion in our Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Saying the same words each week (soon from memory) allows one to focus on the experience, the sense of unity with others and from time to time to encounter the ineffable.
I deeply appreciate celebrating with and being served by people of color. Sometimes it’s almost an overwhelming feeling – infused with wonder and gratitude. And it brings more crisply to mind the reality of the universal church.
It is moving to see our Grandchildren serving as acolytes, intimately involved in the Eucharistic Celebration, and celebrating with them and our Daughter and her husband.
They serve wine, not grape juice.
What didn’t connect with me?
Nothing really. But it can sometimes be a challenge to get to the right page in the Book of Common Prayer.
How could our practice be enriched by what you saw?
I have always said that I’d like to celebrate the Eucharist every Sunday. Even if nothing else in the service connects, there’s another opportunity with a weekly Eucharistic Celebration.
For me consistent use of the ancient liturgy is great. But I know others (who have not had years of experience with it) think it’ll be boring and become an empty rote exercise, failing to encounter mystical moments.
by David Rohrer A blog entry in response to our “A Year at the Table” series. November 11, 2019
Last summer on two consecutive Sundays, Hans, Ann, Rosene and David celebrated communion with our brothers and sisters at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Oaxaca, Mexico. The service was conducted in English. The church has no assigned priest; rather it depends on visiting clergy to conduct worship.
After both services, we gathered in the courtyard for light refreshments and fellowship. What a joy to see warm smiles and hear pleasant conversation in a mix of English and Spanish. How grateful we were to be welcomed as strangers into this community of faith and to be invited to partake of the Lord’s supper.