Homily from service on April 3, 2022 – Fifth Sunday in Lent
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
We have more prodigal children this week.
Mary with her expensive, fragrant oil—costing as much as a year’s salary for a day laborer…filling the entire house with its perfume.
Judas with his practical…rational…righteous…(but ultimately we are told duplicitous) refusal to participate.
And Jesus reminding us all to hold onto—to treasure…to value…to prioritize—the relationships that are right in front of us, even as we are asserting our rights, or amplifying the rights and voices of others.
This tension between prodigality and practicality is one that we have to live with and navigate all the time. We have to figure out whether…and if so how…we will…administer and share our gifts…all the resources at our disposal, or whether we will control and withhold them?
It’s a tension we experience every week here; because everything we do here should demonstrate…and point to the prodigal abundance of God…Everything we do here should make visceral…palpable…luminously clear the unimaginably abundant reality of God…God who “makes ways in the wilderness…rivers in the desert.” If the sacraments are “outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace”…grace which is endlessly abundant and prodigally poured out…then the outward and visible signs—our worship—should reflect that. The font should be overflowing with water cascading down the sides in an endless torrent…we should tremble to go near it for fear of being swept away.
The altar each week should be piled high with our gifts…our bounty…it should be like the feeding of the 5,000 with bread multiplying exponentially…with baskets upon baskets left over. The water and wine that becomes the blood of Christ should be flowing from vats the size of cisterns…and of a “quality that no one requires,” [Mary Gordon, Prayer for the Wasteful, in The Paris Review, source]. The music would be a celestial choir and leave us breathless and transported to a higher plane. The readings and sermons would break open our hearts and pull us deeper into contemplation of the unfathomable mysteries of God. In the prayers we would feel the Holy Spirit blowing through us…and carrying all that we are thankful for…all that troubles us to the altar of God…uniting us in one magnificent voice. Every week would be as dramatic as the crossing of the Red Sea, as profound as the Sermon on the Mount, as intimate the Last Supper and as earthshaking as Pentecost all rolled into one…And we would all gather around the altar…and share one bread…and one cup…and there would still be plenty left over to share with everyone else in the world.
That’s what this 70 minutes each week aspires to…we never come close…(actually the music gets pretty close sometimes)…We rarely come close because we live in the real world…with real constraints of time, and energy, and resources. We may long to be prodigal…yet we live in a world of practicalities…of competing needs…We live in a world that is super complex…and messy…And we have to make real choices about how we celebrate and worship together…How we enact God’s prodigal abundance week by week in this place. That’s a real tension…but we should never forget what all of the choices that we have to make are supposed to be pointing to…that divine, abundant reality.
And over the past two years we’ve had to make a lot of new choices, haven’t we?…About how we gather…and what we do…and why. No Communion… then only outside. Only bread… With masks, not touching, keeping distance…All choices made for very good, sound reasons of enacting the abundance of Christian love and care for our neighbors as ourselves in the midst of a pandemic.
And while the pandemic is not over, we are moving into yet another phase…a “mask-supportive” phase…a Communion in both kinds phase…but still with many choices. I know many of you prefer to receive Communion through intinction…dipping the wafer into the wine, but, the bishop discourages this method…I also have a strong preference for the common cup, and so starting today, and until further notice, intinction is not an option. Your options for receiving Communion are printed in the bulletin, Tammy will go over them again just before Communion, but they are: receive the bread, eat it, and return to your seat just as you have been doing for many months…OR, receive the bread, eat it, and then help guide the chalice to your lips for a sip, or having eaten the bread, cross your arms in front of your chest, or gently touch the base of the chalice while the chalice bearer says the words, “The blood of Christ. The cup of salvation.”
The Common Cup is a powerful symbol, a symbol of unity, of faith, of trust…Intinction was never sanctioned in the early church. It was only used for the sick. Popes forbade it for healthy people. For the past 100 years, with improved understanding of disease transmission, the question of intinction has come up several times…During the flu epidemic in 1918, and an outbreak of tuberculosis in the 40s, and the AIDS crisis in the 80s, and each time, different decisions were made…sometimes favoring intinction, other favoring the Common Cup. Today, many dioceses are allowing the Common Cup but not allowing intinction. Of course, we want to follow the best advice that science has to give, but very few studies have been done on which method is less likely to spread germs (intinction or sipping). The current scientific consensus is the risk of sharing wine at Communion is not zero, but it is incredibly small by whichever method we use (I’ll provide links when we post this homily for any who are interested). We’ve also learned that an effective disease mitigation strategy does not depend upon a single vector…disease prevention has numerous layers, all of which we continue to use. Plus, there are many reasons why someone might abstain from the cup. Focusing on how diseases may or may not be transmitted through the Common Cup, while important…is not the only thing…or even the primary thing…we need to consider.
Because the Common Cup is fundamentally a theological issue…an issue of signs and symbols…rather than one of epidemiology… We need to ask…what is this action pointing us to? What is it signifying? What are we trying to show and say about God and our relationship to God, and each other, by this action? The fullness of this sign is people sharing in common…in Communion…with one another.
My beloved teacher Louis Weil (who died recently) taught, that “receiving Christ through the sacramental elements is at once the most personal and the most corporate action of the church [… that Communion is where we], “discover…the depths of our own private unique existence before God [and] in the company of our neighbors. […It] is a deepening of all our relationships: with God first, but with our neighbors also, as an inseparable part of the same action.” [Liturgy for Living. p.148]. Or as another friend of mine puts it, receiving Communion is “meant to connect you with what is deeply alive, to stir in you the same kind of aliveness that the disciples of Jesus must have felt around him,” [Nora Gallagher, The Sacred Meal p. 25. And another writer reminds us that “Liturgy’s goal is always unity” [Nathan D. Mitchell, Meeting Mystery: Liturgy, Worship, Sacraments, p. 119].
We must always negotiate the tensions between the over-the-top extravagance of grace, and the practical necessities of our real, messy, lives. Remembering always the relationships that are at the center of it all…Our relationship with God and with our neighbors. We won’t get it perfect…we won’t even come close most weeks…but I pray that we continue to err on the side of abundance, and unity, and relationships.
March 7 COVID-19 update: Bishops’ requirements & guidelines effective April 1, 2022
March 28: Bishops’ expanded remarks on Holy Communion protocols
A controlled study on intinction: a safer alternative method for receiving Holy Communion.
Intinction: An Historical, Exegetical, and Systematic-Theological Examination, Reverend Lane B. Keister, December 2012
Meeting the Epidemic in Massachusetts Communities, Living Church, 1918
The Importance of Intinction. By Gardiner Mumford Day. New York: Episcopal Evangelical Fellowship, 1945.
Bishops Say Fear Of AIDS Deterring Holy Communion With AM-Episcopal Convention
Some dioceses ease restrictions on wine from common cup amid declining COVID-19 rates
For a story about the transformative power of the Common Cup see Eucharist: The Rt. Rev. Michael Curry