On Friday Karthik Nemmani of McKinney, Texas won the National Spelling bee, and the winning word? Koinonia. Had you heard the word before the news of the spelling bee? The word comes directly from Greek. Koinonia was translated by the New York Times as “Christian Fellowship” this week, but I prefer another definition: Communion.
Today we are celebrating the Feast Day associated with the name of our church, Holy Communion. I have to warn you, this feast day is not officially approved by The Episcopal Church. Many of our Catholic sisters, brothers, and siblings are also marching through the streets today (or did back on Thursday). The Feast of Corpus Christi is pretty old, as feasts go. There are records of the processions and the celebrations going back at least to the thirteenth century. But when the Reformation came, Corpus Christi was voted out of the Anglican church. Today, we’re reclaiming the tradition. None of you will be surprised that we’re doing it with a particular spin.
I’m not going to talk much about the “real presence” of Jesus in the Eucharist. I’m not going to contemplate the mystery of transubstantiation. Such heady theological discussion has its place, but that isn’t the heart of the sermon today.
Rather, the cue comes from the word in the Spelling Bee: “Koinonia,” Fellowship, Communion. What does it mean to be in community? What does it mean to gather here, week and and week out, around this table? What does it mean to be a Welcoming and Diverse Community seeking to walk in the way of Jesus and to reveal Christ’s reconciling love in our city, nation, and world? (That last question is our mission statement).
Jesus was once walking through the fields with his disciples, and they were plucking the grain off the tops of the grass. Before we jump into conflict, stay with that image for a moment. Jesus and his friends are passing through a field, on a warm summer day, and they happen to be nibbling on the heads of some wheat. The scene comes early in the Gospel. These are the idyllic first days of the story of Jesus, when he is healing and teaching, and the crowds are growing. And he still has time to walk through a grain field on a sabbath day, with nothing but time for his friends.
The story comes up as Mark’s Gospel is beginning to build conflict. Just a few verses before some have grumbled: why does Jesus eat with tax collectors and sinners? Just before today’s selection some folks asked why John’s disciples fasted, and the pharisees fasted, but Jesus’ followers were not fasting. They didn’t look grim. Jesus responds: “they are with the bridegroom, wedding guests cannot fast around the bridegroom. Can they?”
Then comes this story. Look, just as we’re not going to get bogged down today in medieval arguments about how Christ is present in the Eucharist, so we are not going to involve ourselves in first century discussions about what is lawful on the sabbath. Suffice it to say, Jesus was not a literalist or legalist.
Jesus had a stake in questions of faith. Jesus taught “the sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.” That is to say, shabbat is a gift. Peace is a gift. Time for relaxation, reflection, time to get away, time for contemplation, that time is a gift. Don’t treat faith like a burden.
Faith has a way of becoming a burden, if we are not careful. We have a terrible history of antisemitism in our faith, and stories like today’s were fuel for that hate. But I dare you: sit around a passover table, or attend a Simchat torah and then talk about vibrant spirituality. Compare most synagogues with most Episcopal churches, and we will look bland. We Christians are capable of letting faith become less of a gift and more of a burden.
We’ve done as much with Communion itself. Too many people feel barred from the table of fellowship because of a divorce, because they haven’t been to confession, or because of their orientation, gender identity, political opinions, or because they happen to be Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist or Catholic. The central sacrament of Christian unity, the sign of our fellowship as followers of Christ, has become to our shame a place of division. This isn’t what Jesus would have wanted. Jesus sat down with tax collectors and sinners.
Jesus invited everyone, everyone, around his table. Jesus drew the whole world to himself. No exceptions. Coming forward, receiving Eucharist: it isn’t a sign that you had your life all together, it isn’t a sign that you are ready, once and for all, to repent your sins. No, Jesus invites his friends to gather round, to engage in good discussion, and to join the party. Celebrate. Enjoy. Come together.
One of the things I love best about Holy Communion is our diversity. You look around the room, and it looks like the whole neighborhood came to church. People of different races, incomes, abilities, ages, sexual orientations, gender identities, and even political opinions gather here at Holy Communion each Sunday. This is the most diverse church I have ever served. Bar none.
You might notice about Jesus’ table fellowship two things: one, he eats with all the “wrong people.” But notice something else. Two: Jesus does not expect his dinner companions to remain silent, or even polite. Jesus engages the questions that his radical hospitality brings about. Jesus even lets arguments take place.
We have to be careful with diversity for diversity’s sake. If we are content to simply share a pew with someone of a different race, quietly, we aren’t practicing table fellowship the way Jesus did. When Jesus’ followers gathered, yes, the room was diverse, but something else was going on.
Jesus and his followers asked questions of power. They asked why certain people weren’t allowed at EVERY table. They asked why certain social and economic barriers existed. If we are to follow Jesus, we are going to have to ask some deeply uncomfortable questions.
I am grateful to be a part of a church that is willing to ask, and to act on these questions. I am grateful to see so much orange in the crowd today. I am grateful to share this table with folks who are praying and working hard to make real change in the gun violence epidemic that plagues our city, our nation, and our world.
St. Louis Missouri is in so many ways the epicenter of this epidemic. Thankfully we have not recently experienced the kind of school shooting that brought attention this year to Parkland or Santa Fe. But, of the 205 homicides committed last year in St. Louis City, 190 of the victims were black. All but fifteen. Less than half of the city’s residents are black.
What I want to know, in all of the gun law discussions we are having in this state, why aren’t they calling in the experts? Where are the black mothers, and grandmothers, the sisters, and brothers, and school teachers invited to testify in Jefferson City? Why don’t we ask black mothers and fathers and grandparents about how hard it should be to get your hands on a gun?
The story of St. Louis is the story of our nation. Gun violence disproportionately affects communities of color, communities, in poverty, communities with too few options. When you show up to church in your orange shirts, yes do remember the high school students, but really I’d ask you, wear orange for the families up on the four miles of Natural Bridge The Guardian newspaper named “the epicenter of America’s gun violence epidemic.” We have to do better for the kids in our neighborhoods, for all of the kids, but especially for the ones who are most affected. We have to do better for Missouri. And we have to do better for our world.
A few of you got in touch this week to ask how we could help the people families our immigration and customs enforcement officers are now separating on our Southern Border. A year ago a group of us had just come back from our first trip to visit our partners in El Salvador with the non-profit Cristosal. I spoke with Noah Bullock, the executive director this week, and he and I agreed, there is not much reason to hope for change in this policy from the Administration or from Congress.
But as I was reading this week about the wave of migrants arriving at our border, running from gang violence in El Salvador and other Central American countries, I came across a startling report from 2014. Almost 50 percent of the guns being used by gang members to terrorize their fellow human beings, came from the US. I shared the story with Noah, and he agreed. The guns in El Salvador largely come to the country through loopholes in our US gun markets. It is easy for a second hand gun, sold online or through a gun show, to end up in the hands of criminal organizations.
So if you want to do something for the folks arriving on our Southern Border, wear an orange shirt. Build a coalition to change gun laws. Close loopholes. Forget a concrete and barbed wire wall. Forget a punitive tariff on imports. Let’s make illegal the export weapons to countries plagued by violence.
We have to remember, as we gather around this table, as we come to our wonderfully diverse church, that building the kind of community Jesus sought to build, it isn’t easy. Jesus knew, Jesus gave his life, gave his body, for the sake of this vision. Visual diversity is beautiful, but it isn’t enough on its own. Jesus didn’t expect his table companions to be silent, or even polite. Jesus wanted them to be fed, by the conversation, by the dialogue, by sharing bread and wine together. And Jesus wanted his followers to march out from the table to change the world.
Today we celebrate Koinonia, K-O-I-N-O-N-I-A, we celebrate the mystery that can happen around this table. We celebrate the power of Christ’s presence among us, the power of fellowship. This is the mystery of the real presence. This is the mystery of faith. When folks of every tribe and language and people and nation. When women, and men, and folks of every gender expression, orientation, age, ability, race and ethnicity gather together. When we find ways to stand together, to share together, to break bread together, we learn. Human beings maybe were not made for the sabbath, but we are made for fellowship. We are made for communion. Human beings are made by God, created to challenge the divisions of our world and to come together.
The vision of Holy Communion, the fellowship that Jesus proposes, could radically remake our world. We practice this each week. Knowing that we still work in a divided world, we come here, and for a few minutes, an hour, hour and a half at the most, we stand and we express our desire: that the world might be re-shaped, remade. We come here to receive not just bread, not just wine, but a vision of a world made whole, a world that has dealt with its divisions, a world that has knows healing, and justice, and love, a world where all are welcome to join in the Communion, the Fellowship, the Koinonia.