Do you remember that song on Sesame Street: One of these things is not like the other…..? That’s what I hear in my head when I read the Gospel for this morning. Jesus gives examples and first it’s prophet to prophet….righteous person to righteous person…..but then it changes to when you give something to someone—one of these little ones—who can not repay you in kind….and it’s no longer about getting what the other one has, but it’s about not losing what is already yours.
In the Message Translation, Biblical scholar and pastor Eugene Peterson puts it like this: Jesus says: “We are intimately linked in this harvest work. Anyone who accepts what you do, accepts me, the One who sent you. Anyone who accepts what I do accepts my Father, who sent me. Accepting a messenger of God is as good as being God’s messenger. Accepting someone’s help is as good as giving someone help. This is a large work I’ve called you into, but don’t be overwhelmed by it. It’s best to start small. Give a cool cup of water to someone who is thirsty, for instance. The smallest act of giving or receiving makes you a true apprentice. You won’t lose out on a thing.”
Take out and hold up the Monstrance
Beloved—this beautiful, strange thing is called a monstrance, comes from the Latin word, monstrare, which means ‘to show.’ It is a work of art that has been made to hold a blessed host—those wafers of bread that have been used in communion services for centuries. Monstrances were created for a practice called adoration. Sometimes it can have ritual and liturgy wrapped around it; last weekend the Episcopal Diocese of Fond du Lac held its Eucharistic Festival, and Adoration was a part of that gathering. Or it can be done more simply; for example, when we strip the altar on Maundy Thursday, we move some bread and wine that has been blessed down to our prayer room and people keep vigil there throughout the night until noon on Good Friday when we eat the bread and drink the wine because it is Good Friday and Jesus has left the building. The blessed bread and wine are present during the vigil so those who wish can practice adoration during that vigil.
I am a big fan of keeping the vigil; it has been a part of my Holy Week life since I was a teen-ager. And there have been a few times, as a priest, that I have used the monstrance for Maundy Thursday. But I find it more meaningful to simply have the broken bread and a vessel with wine when I practice adoration. For me, on that night—that Maundy Thursday vigil—being present with the blessed bread and wine helps me to connect with the beauty of that night, that last supper when we are called to love one another; when we are called to do what Jesus does: allow our lives to be broken open so that our lives can be given to sustain one another, feed one another, give cold water to those who thirst.
Now for some people, this practice may hold no meaning; it may seem like empty ritual. That’s valid too. One is not more right than another. And friends, our rituals can become idols like anything else. This monstrance can become an idol. We can get so caught up in doing it right, or doing it best that we forget the point: rituals are never the ends; they are a means to becoming……
So I didn’t go this year, but I have been in the past, and what happened last weekend at the Eucharistic Festival is that a blessed wafer of bread was put in a Monstrance like this and then a priest carried it—and didn’t even touch the monstrance with his hands; he had a cloth that went around his hands to carry it—and then the Monstrance was carried outside; there were four people who carried a canopy over it as it was processed to an outside altar. The Monstrance was treated with reverence and honor; carried as precious cargo to be adored, loved, respected.
Now, this particular practice is not my thing. While there are shared theological bits with the blessed bread and wine in the prayer room during the Maundy Thursday vigil, that particular practice of liturgical adoration actually removes me from Christ rather than drawing me closer. I get distracted by the ceremony and lose the purpose. But I know folx who find it very moving and meaningful. Sadly, in church history, rather than making room for one another’s practices, we often completely dismiss those that are different than our own, usually by starting a new denomination or another church.
But here’s the crazy beautiful thing, the mysterious truth, that this Monstrance does remind me about: Here’s this work of art that holds the blessed bread and body of Christ within it; it is to be revered, adored, respected, loved. Beloved: what if we understood, what if we lived our lives, with the understanding, the knowledge that each of us is a monstrance. Each of us is a beautiful work of art who is meant to be loved and respected, and we carry the Christ within us. To show–to shine–the Christ within us. Each week we come and receive; we are welcomed here and reminded that within us we carry the life and love of Christ. We hold out our hands and take Love’s body into our bodies; and in this we are reminded of who we are and whose we are. And then, like this Monstrance that was carried outside with ceremony and ritual—we go out into the world, carrying the love of Christ with us so that others may see and know and be reminded of who they are: the Beloved.
Beloved, what if we understood, what if we recognize, that everyone we meet is a monstrance? Every one. Some may be bright and shiny and hard to miss; some may be a bit dull or dented….frankly, sometimes I feel like that blessed wafer has fallen out and the little door that was supposed to hold it is off its hinges…..and yet, still…..
How would this image, this truth—that we all have space within us to have the body of Christ, the presence of Love, at our center—that we are all God-bearers in this life—how would this change our welcome? Our assumptions? Our expectations, our reactions and responses? How could this help us to love ourselves? To love others…..which, Beloved, is how we love God.
You know, it is tradition that we consume the bread and wine that has been blessed at our communions. Again, Episocpals and Lutherans hold this tradition differently–and both for valid reasons. But within the Beloved Community, we Episcopal-Lutheran people, we either eat it or we drink it or we put it back into the earth from which it came. We don’t dump it down the sink or throw it in the garbage. We have special cloths and vessels we use at communion; we take care with these things. Not because magic happens or because God will strike us down if we don’t.
We take care, we act with reverence, as a way of honoring God’s love for us. To point out the magnificent brilliance of this moment when we re-member. You know those words: do this in remembrance of me. This isn’t simply about calling to mind the last supper; in this moment we gather to re-member–to literally put back together, member by member, this Body of Christ…..so that we can then go out into the world and be the Body of Christ.
If you watch, no crumb goes astray. We have a cloth to catch it on the table. If a crumb falls to the ground, I pick it up and eat it. We take care of this bread and wine that somehow becomes, is connected, holds and contains Jesus who is love; Jesus who is the One who saves. How exactly? I don’t know. It’s a mystery. But, Beloved, what if we then treated the living Body of Christ in this same way? What if we held the same reverence for every person we meet? If we took the same kind of care…..Prophet, righteous, little one…..What if what we do on Sunday informed every minute of every day of our lives? I mean, this is why we have rituals—like drops of water on a rock, these rituals they shape and reshape us; they realign our hearts; they refocus our vision; they attune our hearing to God’s frequency.
Priest and scholar Barbara Brown Taylor wrote: “With all the conceptual truths in the universe at his disposal, Jesus did not give [them] something to think about together when he was gone. Instead, he gave them concrete things to do—-specific ways of being together in their bodies….. ‘Do this’ he said--not believe this but do this— ‘in remembrance of me.’
So come, Beloved, receive what you are; become what you receive. Love in the flesh for the sake of the world.
Jane Johnson is the pastor and priest of the Beloved Community of Intercession Episcopal and Redeemer Lutheran.