Rev. Laura Dalton
Broken and Poured Out
I’m going a little bit rogue today and stepping away from the lectionary passages in favor of revisiting these familiar words from the readings often associated with Holy Week. As you will have observed, this is a communion Sunday, when together, we will be remembering these words and actions of Jesus and his disciples as they shared in their final Passover meal together in Jerusalem.
As I began to contemplate this passage as well as the celebration of communion, the theme that kept reverberating through my mind was that of brokenness: not just the brokenness of the bread, as is part of the communion ritual, but the brokenness we all experience to some degree or another. All throughout this past week, on my early morning walks, I’ve been listening to podcasts in which various theologians and authors, from Richard Rohr and Sister Joan Chittister to Thich Nhat Hanh and Nadia Bolz-Weber were talking with two of the great interviewers of our time —Krista Tippett from NPR and Oprah Winfrey, from well, Oprah. Again and again, this theme of humanity’s brokenness and our yearning for a connection with God and with each other came to the surface, no matter what the main topic of their interviews had started out to be. It’s a theme which speaks to our human condition, especially at this time, when perhaps urgently for some and more subtly or subconsciously for others, we are looking for ways to mend that brokenness, to find healing and wholeness. And here, at this table, we find one of the sign posts that helps us on our pathway to finding that deeper connection to God and to each other.
However, as a young child back in Pennsylvania, participating in communion in my American Baptist church, I wasn’t thinking in those deep theological terms. In my tradition, like this one, we celebrated communion on the first Sunday of the month, but with small cubes of white bread and little glass cups of Welch’s grape juice, served in the pews. The mode may have been somewhat different, but the purpose of the practice was the same: to welcome people to receive a tangible token of Christ’s love and sacrifice. In our communion service, we shared in the reading of our church covenant, we served one another, holding the plate for the person next to us while they took the bread or the cup, and afterwards, anyone who was able, was welcome to help the deacons collect the cups and wash them in the church kitchen. Each part of our practice, from the reciting of the covenant, to the breaking and blessing of the bread, to the washing and drying of the communion cups was a small sacred act, moving us, month by month, from places of brokenness toward greater wholeness, both individually and as a church.
So, from my earliest years, I learned about the Lord’s supper in the context of community. The whole process was about so much more than the elements which we partook of together. The bread and the cup reminded us of Jesus and His love for us, but just as important to my growing understanding of what these elements symbolized was what was happening around them. We were remembering Jesus, but we were also learning— not merely how to “do church,” but how to “be church.” How to be the people of God, together in our brokenness, living out, perhaps very imperfectly, and yet quite intentionally, the type of life to which God was calling us.
Similar to this congregation, the church of my youth was a mixture of people from many walks of life, different races, different countries of origin, different types of professions, young and old, single people, families. The sharing of the bread and cup was a special, sacred moment in worship, but the elements of cooperation and service that surrounded the celebration is what I now, in retrospect, can see as one of the greater gifts of having participated in this ritual throughout my life: it is a metaphor for what makes church: a group of very different people, coming together by choice, covenanting together, inviting people to share in tangible expressions of God’s love, serving each other, and doing work together.
As I have matured as a person of faith, my understanding of the significance of this table meal has developed as well. When we think about the way we celebrate the Lord’s Supper in a traditional Sunday worship service, it is not really about filling our bellies, is it? It’s often more about satisfying a spiritual hunger with the symbols of Christ’s love and sacrifice:
His body, his blood — bread of life, cup of salvation.
These symbols point us to the One who is truly able to fulfill the deeper hunger of our souls, the hunger for connection—to God and to each other. Hopefully, we expand on that theme any time we gather together around a table with other hungry, searching people who are seeking to encounter God and ideally, to live as Christ taught us. In this way, if we are attuned to God’s spirit, any table fellowship can become something done in remembrance of Him.
This idea of the bread and the cup being more than just food and drink was brought home to me just recently in conversation with a Jewish woman I’ve come to know and admire in the last year. She said to me, “consider this about the wine and the bread…they are part of your tradition and a part of my tradition. God creates the elements, but humans shape them into something more. We’re not just blessing the grapes and the wheat. We’re taking them and bringing human ingenuity and creativity to create something new. We’re not just celebrating the gifts. We’re celebrating our connection – to God, to each other.” And part of the mystery and blessing of all of it, the thing that gives it meaning in our lives, is that we show up to participate. But more than that, we have to show up in our truth.
Let’s think back to the disciples in the upper room that night before Jesus was crucified. They were with their friend and teacher—together remembering a sacred celebration with its roots in their shared history, full of love, enjoying fellowship. They were there, all of them, in their truth, their messy imperfection. One would betray Jesus that very night into the hands of his executioners. Another, despite his protestations to the contrary, would deny ever having known him. And yet, this band of followers were there, welcomed, served, loved by Jesus. They showed up, in their truth, for the breaking and blessing and sharing of the bread and the pouring out, blessing and sharing of the cup.
Take a moment and consider some of those who were part of Jesus’ inner circle. Think about Mary Magdalene, that disciple out on the fringes so often in the gospel stories. According to some traditions, it was she who broke open a bottle of perfume and poured it out, anointing Jesus’ feet with it in the days leading up to the crucifixion. Consider her brokenness after witnessing his agonizing death, after his body was laid in the tomb, suffering in her grief. And yet it was she who was the first witness to the resurrection. It was she whom Jesus told to go and tell the good news to all the others.
Think about Peter and James and John, in the Garden of Gethsemane, specially recruited by Jesus to wait and watch with him while he prayed, knowing what was about to transpire. But they fell asleep! Imagine their brokenness upon realizing the way in which they had disappointed Jesus when he returned to them, in his crushing anguish, not once, not twice, but three times, and found them sleeping instead of keeping watch with him. And yet, they too, were among the ones who were later entrusted with the Great Commission to spread the good news of God’s love to a hurting and broken world.
Again, consider Peter, that disciple who, just a short while after the action of this morning’s passage takes place, full of his own certainty about his loyalty to Jesus, would find himself broken, three times denying any acquaintance with Jesus. It was this same Peter, crushed with grief over his denial, that Jesus would ask three times when they met again after the resurrection, “Do you love me?” As Peter’s spirit began to heal, he could respond, “Lord, you know that I do.” And with that assurance, Jesus would go on to tell Peter, “Feed my Sheep.” And so, a hero of the early church was born.
These early disciples, and surely others of those who were close to Jesus, were far from perfect. We do not know much about all of their stories, but if there is anything we can count on being common in the human experience, it is that some point, we have all experienced our share of brokenness.
And friends, here is the good news of what that Upper Room experience can teach us about our welcome at this table, and it matters whether or not this is the first time you have walked through these doors or if you have been worshiping here since your earliest memory—we do not have to be perfect in order to participate. In fact, acknowledging our brokenness, our hunger, our need for the spiritual food offered by this meal is perhaps the very thing which draws us closer to its host. He was preparing to come to terms with the impending brokenness of his own body, and he held up before the gathered disciples a metaphor for that brokenness:
This bread, this stuff of earth and rain and sun—wheat, salt, and water, mixed together, kneaded, baked, blessed, broken and shared—it can not do its job—feeding and nourishing—-until it is broken AND eaten. This cup, stuff of earth, sun and shade, water and soil, grown, harvested, pressed, blessed,—it does not quench, does not satisfy until it is poured out AND received.
This is the table to which Christ invites us, a table which by its very nature is a holy symbol of being broken and poured out, but also, so very importantly, of being blessed. Christ himself invites us here, and in so doing reminds us that we are welcomed to celebrate, to participate, to stand in the truth of who we are, broken, bleeding, seeking, healing, gathered up or poured out, it makes no difference. What we find here is the holy template for our common life. In these elements we see the imprint of God’s creative nature—we have wheat and grapes as the starting point, grown in God’s good favor, but then taken and made into something else by human creativity:
Wheat and water and salt are no longer grain and liquid and mineral, but bread.
Grapes are no longer juicy, succulent fruit hanging from a vine, but wine.
It is this practical connection between the elements which God provides and the creative activity of the human contribution which connects us to God.
And that is the invitation which is being extended to all of you, to all of us, this morning: that we show up in our truth, that we bring all of who we are:
our strength and our weakness,
our beauty and our brokenness,
our confidence and our questions,
our hopes and our fears,
our precious dreams and indeed, our painful realities, and to KNOW, not just to hope or even believe,
but to KNOW that in this act of showing up, and opening up, we are known, we are loved, we are forgiven, we are blessed.
When we show up in our truth to participate in this sacred meal to which all are invited, the broken state in which we may have arrived is transformed into a wholeness which, filled with God’s spirit, can then be poured out in love and service to the world. And, oh, my friends, how the world needs us, all of us, agreeing together to live faithfully, to serve others, and to do the work of God’s kingdom here on earth.