Friday, 8 June 2007

SERMON: Thursday 8 June 2007

An invitation from one of my deanery colleagues to preach mid-week at a "Festival" we don't celebrate in my Team. Corpus Christi would possibly be celebrated in TEC, but is more popular with the Anglo-Catholics. Here, the Anglo-Catholics are often the churches more open to women than the Evangelicals - so I have a natural affinity with them. This was an excellent chance to get to talk about a favorite saint of mine : Julian. It was also the chance to talk/write about an experience I've wanted to share since I've been ordained and sharing the bread - looking at people's hands. (the stories they could tell!) After the service, the rector told me he'd never seen the congregation be asked to move or "participate" during a sermon but you wouldn't have known it at the time - they all talked with the person sitting next to them. And because, as usual, there were so few people in these large church buildings ... they really HAD to move.

PS - you can see a truly wonderful parish website for this church St Agnes, Longsight . I think it's a gorgeous building, and the people are rector are absolutely lovely!

Corpus Christi aka “Thanksgiving for Holy Communion”

(Season of Pentecost - Thursday after Trinity Sunday) Year C
8 June 2007 – Festival, HC, Procession & Adoration
St Agnes Church, Longsight – Stephen Edwards, Rector

Genesis 14:18-20
Psalm 116:10-17
1 Cor 11:23-26
John 6: 51-58

I offer these words in the name of our one triune God – the supreme goodness of all manner of things and the endless fulfilling of all true desires. Amen.

It’s a real joy to be here this evening. Since the first day I met your rector Stephen he’s been telling me what fun you all have in church, especially when there’s a celebration. And together with my partner Joe, let me say we’re delighted to be part of yours tonight.

I did not grow up in the Anglican Church. I “found” it when I was in my mid-twenties and immediately fell in love with the consistent regularity of a community gathering together to share this very special meal of bread and wine made Holy. However, I admit that regularity can become a negative. Sometimes we can get quite routine in our tradition. It can become common and ordinary to walk forward week after week, put out our hands, and partake of Jesus. I know that on some Sundays, I completely take for granted the Mystery of it all.

So, this yearly celebration is wonderful because gives us a chance to look again at the Eucharist and to maybe encounter the Mystery again. Tonight, I hope that with what we hear and say; with our movement and in silence, and with what is prepared at the altar and what has been prepared in your kitchens we’ll each come to experience something – anything – about Holy Communion in a new way.

One of the things I’ve come to love about living in Manchester – which I’m sure you can relate to – is the many things on offer each evening. Manchester is full of events from sports to culture and leisure for everyone. This evening there is a concert at Bridgewater Hall featuring the music of the English Christian Mystic called Julian (1342-1417). You might know her as the saint who lived in the late 1300’s with her cat, anchored onto the cathedral in Norwich from which she gave spiritual direction to those who came to visit her. She also wrote of her vivid visions or dreams about God and realistic conversations with Jesus.
Mystics are those strange people among us who can feel and experience God most closely. And they often write to describe that to us. What I love about the mystics is that what they say can move us to a new insight, they might play with what we take for granted or challenge what we believe.

Julian is like that. Julian wrote – all those ages ago – in a very unusual way about Holy Communion. I said mystics challenged us, and Julian does. She writes about Jesus as our Mother. Although not disputing that Jesus is a male, Christ is our Mother because by taking our human nature, with Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection he sustains our growing into God. That’s certainly different. You need to know that to hear how beautifully she talks of Holy Communion …

“The mother can give her child from her milk, but our precious Mother Jesus can feed us with Himself; and He does it most graciously and most tenderly with the Blessed Sacrament which is the Precious Food of true life … with which he supports us most mercifully and graciously.”

That may not make sense to your head, but what about touching your heart? I feel she expresses the sustenance I get from the Eucharist; she captures the wholesome sense of nurture and love that’s present.

There’s another mystic – this time from Germany – I like. His name is Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) – in the early 1300’s He writes …

“I could not bear to touch God with my own hand
when he came within my reach,
but He wanted me to hold Him.”

And we do hold God with our very hands when we take the host - the bread. There’s nothing between our skin and the touch of God at that point, is there?
We know that the priest’s hands are essential in the sacraments – baptizing, elevating gifts, anointing the sick, and blessing. This mystic Eckhart makes us think of it the other way when receiving communion. At that moment, WE hold God, we hold Jesus; not the priest.

But the priest does have the privilege to pass out this very special bread. As a new priest, one of the first things I noticed at the altar rail was people’s hands as they prepared to accept the wafer or bread.

Every pair of hands is different – some young and small, some wrinkled with the signs of age or cupped by the ravages of arthritis, sometimes only one hand;
hands thick and hairy, some with the well-earned dirt of hard work or beautifully manicured at the beauty salon; dry and cracked or smooth and soft;
the hands that have been opened to me come in a whole range of colors
and there might be a bandage, cut or bruise presented to me …

And there are stories behind each set of hands … some stories I would know about through my role as pastor and counselor, some stories I could only guess at, some stories that I might hear about later over tea or never ever learn.

These hands – presented to receive - have become a mystical experience for me – but it’s a Holy moment that only I get to have. Now -- if you’ll humor the American visitor amongst you – I’d like you to invite you to share in this with me. We’ll have a little bit of interaction; but don’t worry there’s nothing too touchy-feely.

First, I want you to put your hands together as YOU do to receive communion. Look at them – take a moment to Trust and Feel that God wants you to hold God there – you might want to imagine the wafer in your palms.
Now take your right hand and open it - present it to the person sitting on your right – but bring your gaze to the right hand of your neighbor that’s now in front of you … look at it: What do you see? you might know the story that goes with it, you might not; something might surprise you in what you see
Now, do the Reverse, Share your left hand to the left and focus on a different hand in front of you: Remember that this hand will reach out for and touch the presence of Jesus just as yours does in a few minutes.
!! Thanks everybody !!

My final thought is that our hands – mine, yours, the person next to you – our hands should be more than receiving. The simple act of opening our hands to receive the bread and wine should do more than just change OUR own lives.

From recent times, French mystic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) writes “in our hands, the hands of all of us, the world and life – our world, our life – are placed like a host, ready to be changed with divine influence.”

As Teilhard reminds us we’ve must never forget that the Precious Food of our Mother Jesus and the ability to hold God in our own hands are meant to be both receiving AND giving. Once consumed, the bread and wine transformed into the body and blood must then help to transform the world. A final mystic Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) says, “Christ has no body now but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours.”

So when you come forward to receive bread and wine tonight, as we walk the procession, spend time in adoration as well as in fellowship
remember that only through the actions of our hands to forgive, nurture, sustain, to offer tenderness and work for justice can our regular practice of celebrating Eucharist together continue the healing, saving and blessing work of Christ all around us.