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It always happens after we’ve already described the bounty on the table in all of its delicious variety. It happens while the welcome knowledge of a soon-to-be-full stomach mingles with the smell of macaroni and cheese over the promise of second, eighth, and seventeenth chances at a loving family meal. It happens with an assurance that nobody will look at you funny if you’re not ready to participate yet. It happens when we take a few pieces of bread from the banquet laid before us and break them for everybody to see and pour a little grape juice into a cup as a reminder of what has been shed to unite us as family. In that moment—when we proclaim again what Jesus did and is doing for us—something changes and the meal becomes a sacred thing, set aside for God’s use and God’s people.
As each member of the crowd makes his or her way forward, plate in hand, they join the feast. For some it happens because they are sharing a meal. But others join the feast first by taking a piece of bread, dipping it in the cup, and partaking in the Lord’s meal. It is my privilege (a privilege I’ve written about before) to speak a promise into that holy moment of communion, a promise that I give as it was given to me: “The body of Christ broken for you, sister” and “the blood of Christ shed for you, brother.” That last word, that familial “brother” or “sister,” is as much a promise as the more theologically laden language that precedes it, and it is all too often the harder promise to make. Jesus demonstrates time and time again in our scripture that his body was broken, his blood was shed, and his life was given for sinners like you and me. But my own ego and pride often stand between me and that final promise; between me and the promise that taking up the cross of Christ means laying down all illusions of division and separation.
So, while it is with great joy that I call Tomas as my brother, it is with an ego-stained sense of obligation that I say the same for William. When Tomas pinches a piece of bread between his fingers, I can so easily recall the sacrificial gifts he has made and the meal he hosted in his home even though he has only recently gained secure housing. When he dips it in the cup, I give thanks for the vigor with which he maintains his sobriety and the people he has led from bondage to freedom. But, when William does the same, it is far too easy to remember the broken trust, the suddenly empty hospitality room in our home, and the night filled with bloody faces, screamed epithets, and shaky voiced ultimatums. But, somehow we profess to believe that God is knitting all of us together anyway.
It is easy to give thanks for young Katie, not quite three years old and new to the community. Katy, who is eager to serve pretend coffee, juice, and grits to a table full of our people—some homeless, some housed, some addicted, and some recovering. When she and her family come through the line, it is easy to offer a blessing for her and call her “little sister.” But, it’s not yet as easy to give thanks for Mary, who sometimes forgets to make room for other folks around our shared tables and is quick to fill up her own plate even if it means that others might get less food. Having already carried away enough food for multiple meals of leftovers before everybody has been through the line, it’s hard to call her “sister” when she comes to partake of the body and blood of Jesus. But, somehow we profess to believe that there’s room for both Katie and Mary in Jesus’ Kingdom.
The truth is that most often we find a strange mixture of blessed and broken in any of us. When Brent shuffles up to the plate and cup, we have a wealth of stories to draw on in those too short moments. Maybe it will not be the Brent who opened his life, home, and table to those in dire need that will gather a piece of bread from the plate, but the Brent who relapsed in secret and had to be restrained from violence who will dip that bread into the cup. But somehow, Brent is our brother regardless. When Heather prayerfully contemplates the cup, she is not just the woman whose anxiety sometimes drives her to say things she doesn’t mean. She is also the Heather that volunteered to sell a treasured possession to provide shelter for a homeless brother last winter. But somehow, Heather is our sister, regardless.
At the end of the story of the Prodigal Son, the elder brother describes his brother—the one we’ve learned to call prodigal—to his father as “this son of yours.” But, the Father is very careful to correct his eldest son and describes his younger son to the elder as “your brother.” God, our Father, will not permit us to disown any of God’s children and still call ourselves part of the family. God is teaching us to call each other brother and sister, not because God is going to make it so, but because that’s what we already are if we dare to claim the cross of Christ: brothers and sisters made so by God’s broken and bloodied body. The words may stick in our throats at times since we are still being remade, but somehow we must learn to profess that ours is a God who loves the doubter and the self-assured, the addict and the advocate, the ragamuffin and the righteous, the misfit and the hypocrite. Even more, our God teaches us to call them all family.