Rev. Lyndon Sayers Lutheran Church of the Cross Isaiah 55:1-9 / Psalm 63:1-8 / 1 Corinthians 10:1-13 / Luke 13:1-9
“Communion in the Clinic”
Earlier this week someone shared a story from Canadian Family Physician, a medical journal. It is a prize-winning story called “Communion in the Clinic” written by Jesse Kancir, a medical resident at UBC. His story is about serving as a medical resident at a community immunization clinic. He describes a mother comforting her wailing child after receiving two immunizations by giving her a cookie. Later she took out three more cookies that she shared with him and his supervisor who was in the room. She wanted to thank them, acknowledging they must be tired after all their hard work.
The event reminded Dr. Kancir of receiving communion at church. It was a complex association because he had been excommunicated from his church over ten years ago after coming out as gay. Truly it is remarkable that after all the pain he experienced, this beautiful moment in the clinic made Dr. Kancir think about receiving the sacrament. The act of sharing a simple meal, which he describes as an unlikely congregation of an excommunicated gay medical resident, a Muslim woman and child, and a Jewish supervising doctor.
This story of communion in the clinic reminds me of the line from our reading from Isaiah that says, “You that have no money, come buy and eat!” For our Christian ears this line invokes a sense of sacrament and sharing the meal around the table. At first it sounds absurd that anyone without money could be expected to buy anything, including food.
Scholars refer to this part of Isaiah as speaking to the Israelites post-exile, returning to the land of Judah reassuring them that God is with them as they return fifty years after their home was ransacked, destroyed, and in some cases still occupied by the Babylonians who drove them into exile. Christopher B. Hays reminds us that many of the Israelites would not have had much money to purchase basic goods like food. Even farmers would have struggled feeding themselves given exorbitant taxes. The invitation to come buy and eat without money would have been words of grace.
Today I think of those who are struggling with finding affordable housing and food scarcity, as well as those who find themselves in exile from religious institutions including the church. I am reminded about people like Dr. Kancir and others who have been excommunicated whether literally or figuratively because of their sexual and gender identities, for being divorced, and other ways the church has exercised harsh judgment on people who were just trying to get on with their lives.
We talk about how our world has become increasingly secularized, that fewer people are interested in being part of church. At times it has been a crisis of our own making. Puritanical judgment and micromanaging people’s private lives were often at odds with a gospel of grace and love. Whether or not we individually advocated for those theologies or positions, this is a legacy of being church we find ourselves up against.
Just the other day on a message board I needed to explain to progressive folks in BC that there is such a thing as a progressive Christian church. Now is an opportunity for them to hear from us. And we are going to have to find ways to yell it from the rooftops because subtle messaging isn’t going to get our point across to people who are not already joining us for worship.
Here I think Jesus’ parable of the fig tree is relevant to being church. There are so many different readings of this parable and none of them is exclusively the right reading. There are times at which we individually might identify as the fig tree. Times we have felt barren or broken. At times we also notice that our institutions, including the church, have been like the fig tree. Times at which the soil has not been rich enough for the tree to bear fruit.
It can be helpful for us to pause, to confess that we do not have all the answers, that we depend upon God alone to sustain us during periods of exile. We alone are not going to turn around the health of the church. But one thing we can do is be faithful, to trust that God is at work in our midst, that the Spirit has something greater in store for us as we live out our calling daily as followers of Jesus.
It is through this faithfulness, trusting in God, that we cannot pretend we can engineer the world or reality we want, but instead recommit to trusting that God’s word continues to reveal new streams of water, to toss on new layers of manure to nurture the tree’s roots.
Just like with gardening it is often when we least expect it that a tree or plant turns around. We prune, apply fertilizer, try moving it around the yard. And then finally one day we notice new shoots or buds. We cry out with joy and find the whole thing a mystery.
Free range Christians
Maybe we could also use more manure spread around the church. I think about some people’s embrace of free range chickens both for the health of the chickens, but also because it spreads around the natural fertilizer. What if we embrace a church of free range Christians? That’s an image that could go a lot of ways. One interpretation would be encouraging one another to leave the comfort of our cages, to get out and spread our wings, to try experiments in ministry. To be willing to fail and have fun doing it.
It takes courage and trusting the Spirit working in our midst that good ideas will take root. We can be bold and with pride declare who we are.
We are a church welcoming people both outside the church and those already within our midst:
Queer siblings in Christ
Refugees, immigrants, Indigenous peoples, people of colour
People with disabilities
Children, youth, and young adults
In doing so we will need to confront some hard truths. We see a world increasingly divided and we see those same divisions within the church. We think about attacks upon our Muslim neighbours in Aotearoa, the Maori name for New Zealand which means “land of the long white cloud,” people breaking windows in five mosques in Birmingham, England on Thursday, and the tensions here throughout Canada.
We also hear stories of solidarity we are witnessing in Victoria as people from different traditions and backgrounds rally around our Muslim neighbors. Several hundred neighbors gathered to form a human chain around the mosque on Quadra Street on Friday, for example.
Jacinda Arden, the prime minister of Aotearoa, reported in a recent BBC news story has called for a global fight to root out racist right-wing ideology. She says that it is her and all our responsibility, “to weed it out where it exists and make sure that we never create an environment where it can flourish.”
We have heard responses from our bishops, both Susan Johnson and Greg Mohr, descrying recent attacks and calling one another to stand against Islamophobia. What if we as a church take a bold and public stance against Islamophobia and weeding out racist ideology? The time has come to name a thing what it is. Time to take a bold stand and signal to our neighbours that we stand for something.
Doing so could involve as a student recently pointed out, naming white supremacy as the tree limbs that need to die, in order for the rest of the tree to flourish and live. This means speaking out when our public leaders speak in overt or coded language, appealing to a base that blames our economic woes on Muslims, immigrants, queer people, and an increasingly pluralistic society.
And so an aside, since it comes up in our readings this week, we need to transparently state that Paul’s reference to “sexual immorality” in 1 Corinthians 10 is not about homosexuality as televangelists like to twist and malign, but against the worship of false idols referring back to the Book of Numbers. The same kinds of false idols we descry in holding up scapegoats to hang onto privilege and power.
It means people need to identify us as a church, both as a congregation, but also church broadly construed in the synod, ELCIC, and among our ecumenical partners, standing for a gospel that is embodied and lived out in the world.
There is a thirst for church that really believes Jesus’ words. While we alone cannot solve all these problems, we can respond by trusting God, and welcoming the spreading of manure, that the gospel may grow and flourish in us as the body of Christ. Amen.