April 7, 2019
Mark 14: 22-25
It is Right to Give our Thanks and Praise
Rev. Nancy Talbot at Mount Seymour United Church
“It is right to give our thanks and praise.” If you recognize these words, it is because either in this church or another church, you have spoken them at the beginning of the service of the table when we gather to commemorate and celebrate the final meal Jesus shared with his disciples. These are the words, spoken in churches around the world, to signal that everything that happens when we gather at table is a prayer of thanksgiving. In fact, the words we say at table are actually called in the tradition “the prayer of Great Thanksgiving.” But the prayer is not just about speaking words of gratitude. It’s also about living a prayer and becoming a prayer together.
A couple years ago during the season of Lent, our national United Church invited individuals to videotape themselves sharing stories about when they had experienced God being undeniable present in their lives. The project was called “#Wearenotalone.” One of the people who shared their story was Morgan Bell, who at the time was a student at Trent University in Ontario. Morgan talked about a time in his life when he was full of doubt and uncertainty about God and his own life of faith. Regardless of that uncertainty, he got up and went to church one Sunday morning. He walked into St. Albans Anglican church in downtown Ottawa where he was visiting some friends at the time and in his own words “felt an overwhelming atmosphere of comfort and of welcome.”
As the service began, he started to take note of the company around him. The priest, he recalled, had formerly been employed as a physicist. The sermon was given by a gay man who talked about how God and the church had saved him from the depths of depression. There were people coming in off the street who had been sleeping there the night before. Some of them were joyfully dancing at the front of the church. And then came the time for what the Anglicans call the Eucharist, the word literally translated meaning “to give thanks.” In this particular church people would gather in a circle around the table when it came time to break bread and share the cup and it was at this particular moment that it hit Morgan most powerfully that God was real.
Here we were, he says, gathered around a common table with common drink and common food, with no obvious head of the table. There were trans people, gender queer, straight, white, black, indigenous people, people who had it all and people who had relatively nothing all brought together in communion with one another. It was, Morgan says, one of the most beautiful spiritual experiences he had ever had and he thought to himself “this is what the kingdom of God looks like. It’s a circle, it’s mutual and everyone we thought wasn’t included is there, drawn into this sacred experience in which we all take part. No matter how nasty we are to each other and no matter how violent towards each other, no matter how much hatred we can have towards each other, God is there, we are not alone.*
Of all the places Jesus could have asked us to remember him, the place he chose was when we are gathered at table. If you know any stories about Jesus, you will know just how important table fellowship was to him and how controversial his fellowship was. He was forever annoying the religious leaders of his day, breaking the rules by sharing meals with tax collectors, prostitutes and others society considered undesirable and beneath his social station. When we gather at table we are meant to remember this radical inclusion and the way Jesus welcomed all to his table.
We’re also meant to remember the way an ordinary, everyday occurrence for each of us, the consumption of food and drink, can become extraordinary when we bring to it our gratitude and our awareness. It’s as if Jesus is saying to us “I am with you” always and especially with you when you remember it is so. All life is sacred. Therefore, when you gather at table, remember me and not just on special occasions, but every time you gather. If you do, you will experience my presence, the presence of the sacred, more fully in your lives, you will see and know it in the presence of others gathered at your table.
Since the beginning of lent we’ve been experiencing a few different practices to help us remember this more intentional time of the year when we are called to pay attention to our spiritual lives. Some of us are wearing bracelets that we made the first Sunday of Lent to remind us to pray for ourselves, our world and others. Some of us have been saying The Lord’s Prayer three times a day. Some of us have been engaged in a daily practice of giving thanks. If it is not already part of your daily practice, I wonder what it would be like to pause and be thankful each time you have a meal. I wonder if it might help us remember we are not alone. I wonder how that practice might change our lives.
The thanks that Jesus gave when he gathered with his disciples the night before he died was not a one- time event. He and his closest followers were actually gathered to celebrate the Passover, something observant Jews still do to this day at this time of you. The celebration of Passover is a time in the Jewish community of giving thanks for God’s deliverance of the Hebrew people from slavery in the land of Egypt. The meal always includes bread and wine and a number of other foods each one a reminder of how the Hebrew people were miraculously cared for through that time. It is a celebration full of thanksgiving.
For Jesus to invite his followers to remember him as they shared the Passover meal and to add in words about the new covenant God would make with them and with us in his blood was to remind them that whenever blood is shed in the name of non-violence, love is poured out. It was a reminder to them that whatever violence was about to befall him at the hands of the Roman soldiers, he was offering himself so that all people for all time would know that hate will never have the final say, that God’s love, that love itself, is not just for some, it is for all. So intent was he on this purpose in his life, that when he broke bread and shared it with his followers that fateful night before he died, no one was excluded from his love and his grace. Even the ones who would betray and abandon him were included.
Some of the most moving experiences I have had as a minister have happened with people who know they are close to the end of their life. I’ve always been amazed at the graciousness of those who even in the midst of suffering are able to express gratitude for the goodness of their lives at that point. Sometimes I’ve been amazed at an individual’s capacity to be gracious towards those who have been ungracious towards them. Death can often be a wise teacher and those who give themselves over to its teaching seem to be able to live by the truth that nothing really does matter in the end except love and gratitude.
Perhaps that is why I’m struck by the way that Jesus, on the night when he knew death was very close, chose to offer thanks. Even as he knew his body was about to be made into a sacrifice and his blood about to flow in the streets, he chose not to blame or scorn but to give thanks, to remember God’s faithfulness and the goodness of his life.
In the United Church’s understanding of the bread and the cup that we share at the communion table, Jesus, the risen Christ, is not made present in the bread and the cup. Christ is made present in the community that shares the bread and the cup. Our communal action makes us into what we somehow already are, the body of Christ here on earth. It re-members us.
From our Methodist roots we get the practice of coming forward to receive the bread and the cup. It is both a call and an invitation we are responding to when we come. The call is to allow our own lives to be offered for the sake of love, peace and justice in the world in the way that Jesus offered his life, regardless of the cost. The call is to model our own lives after Jesus life in the way we welcome others to our tables regardless of race, creed and social status and in the way we feed and make sure others are fed.
The invitation we respond to when we come to the table is to find an unconditional welcome ourselves, to experience grace and to be fed and nurtured by the mysterious presence that makes us one, sustains and enables us to go out into the world and become an offering of praise and thanksgiving for others.
May it be so, for it is right to give our thanks and praise.
* Morgan Bell, February 5, 2016, Omemee, Ontario #Wearenotalone