At times I find myself at spiritual odds. The poetry of my worship life is rooted in the Anglican/Lutheran tradition but I am a scholar and theologian of the Progressive Christian Alliance. Luckily the ProgCA, like the Metropolitan Community Church, contains a lot of worship and liturgical diversity in it from the Anglican style worship to more Pentecostal styles, all while maintaining a Big Tent approach to progressive Christianity. While the poetry of the mainline Anglican and Lutheran traditions feed my soul, the hierarchal rootedness of those traditions I find soul draining.
For instance I attend at Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, BC. While in the Anglican Communion the Diocese of New Westminster is sometimes known as ‘Satan’s Diocese’ for its blessing of same-sex unions on most other matters we tend to be fairly conservative, in the Anglican sense. By this I mean there is a lot of emphasis on chain of command, the prayer book and the functions of ministry. To assist in worship – to hold the chalice during worship – you must have a license from the bishop. This essentially becomes a sort of low-key doctrine test to determine who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ in participating in the telling of Gods story. As one friend put it our diocese as a cult of the clergy, and it’s one that tends to forget about the laity.
Clergy can perform baptism, Eucharist and weddings. In the discernment process to become a priest, when the candidate is asked why they want to be a priest the only proper answer is because they want to serve the Eucharist. Lay people, if so inclined can perform agape meals, historically closer to the meals Jesus and his followers – and the early church – performed but the ritual function Eucharist is kept far away from the average butt in the pew.
Personally the most powerful instances of Eucharist I have encountered have been outside the church, performed in ways that many accept theologically, if not structurally. Two instances come to mind. The first was volunteering at a street ministry on the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, BC. The DTES is the poorest postal code in Canada, replete with drug and prostitution issues. One Tuesday night during a movie night while the guys from the street watched a film a small group of volunteers made sandwiches in the church kitchen. The second Eucharistic experience was sharing a coffee with a stressed student during my time running a campus ministry at Simon Fraser University. I have never before or sense had such a powerful experience of God in Christ being made present in the elements.
What is needed now are alternative sacraments. Just as we have subversive theologies – theologies of liberation queer and feminist theologies that push back against the sexism and heterosexist posturing of our official doctrines and dogmas. Many of these theologies do put a new spin on our sacramental practices, and rightfully so. Elite classes of priests and ministers with a unique control to the holy can and will use said positions to solidify power. To push back is to reclaim the vitality of the priesthood of the believer and the holiness of those Jesus called the ‘least of these’.
SACRAMENT OF THE ORDINARY
Traditionally constructed the sacraments are seen as the outward sign of God’s inward grace. Various Christian traditions understand these in different ways, and even the number of sacraments varies from tradition to tradition. Eucharist can be, for example, the literal body and blood of Jesus, a memorial or a symbolic meal. The Lutheran church tends to try and hold multiple positions together and just says that the spirit of Christ is ‘with, in and under’ the elements. Or – somehow something happens with these elements and we name it as Christ.
However we construe these things our Eucharistic endeavors are ways of telling the story. In fact for those of us from more liturgical churches the entire church year – the seasons of the church, the lectionary readings and the performance of sacraments – are all ways of telling the story.
In this way it is not important if bread and wine are symbols, literal body and blood or a memorial meal. What is important is the story we tell with it. For example more conservative traditions will sometimes only give the Eucharist to members of their church so as to ensure that only people who ‘believe the right way’ are allowed to receive the sign of Gods grace. Other traditions, like the Metropolitan Community Church have as a policy the inclusion of all at the Eucharistic table. This is understandable as they are a church tradition made up of LGBT folks, many of whom have heard their whole lives that they are excluded from Gods grace, love and forgiveness. In both cases a particular story of faith and life with God is being told.
The story I see in the Eucharist is one of Gods love for humanity and creation. It is a declaration of the material world and human relationships as being full of worth and value. Ordinary bread and wine become extraordinary when they are used to tell Gods story. An ordinary child is named as an extraordinary and unique creation of God and becomes initiated into Christian community. In marriage ordinary human people have their union blessed, two ordinary people becoming something new and extraordinary.
In the story of God the ordinary is made extraordinary and the material world is named as a site of God’s revelation, self-giving and grace. Instead of a fallen, broken world what is revealed is that the ordinary things we surround ourselves with, and the ordinary lives we live, are infused with the presence of God. Sin is when we become convinced of our brokenness, or separation from God and that the ordinary is mundane. The world is bread and wine.
SACRAMENT OF THE AGAPE
The Christian Eucharist as we have it today – sometimes called The Lord’s Supper or Communion – has a variety of ancient roots. In part inspired by the Shabbat meal of Judaism, and in part inspired by the meals of Jesus – including the Last Supper – shared with his disciples. Early Christian communities would gather to share a meal as community. In the face of Roman occupation and the displacement of human bodies and lives by empire the Christian communities would form families that would break bread together that crossed gender, racial, ethnic and prosperity lines. It is for this reason that Paul throws something of a fit when he hears of communities where the rich gather early so they do not have to feast with their poorer members.
The early Christian communities were something of a radical departure from the hierarchal structure of life in the Roman Empire. In the Christian communities your slave could be your priest and your mother could be your bishop. Everywhere in the empire bodies were being displaced by war and politics but the Christian church with its view of one, universal and welcoming God knit them altogether into a community that was in it’s simplicity and blandness a radical statement about the world and Gods love for it.
As Christian tradition developed the meal portion of worship became a much simpler event of bread and wine and was transformed into a ritual. Often times in churches today – in the more liturgical traditions in particular – lay people are told they can hold an Agape meal in a private worship or retreat. In other cases a church will hold a potluck or meal after worship and call it an Agape meal. In one form or another the powerful meal that the early Christian communities held in order to tells God’s story has almost lost it’s power. Even uber-conservative communities will only have communion four times a year, at the clergy’s discretion. They may have a theology that says any member may perform the communion, but power is still maintained by the clergy.
In a Sacrament of the Agape we begin to recognize that the Agape is what happens when we form community in the face of oppression – like members of the LGBT community gathering to celebrate each other, to march in a pride parade or declare their presence in our churches. It is what happens when we make a table that welcomes all to it. It is what happens when we feast in front of the powers that be that wish to control the nature of Gods grace. Agape happens when we share meals with those who are sick, dying, broken and hurting. Agape happens when we share meals to celebrate our love, passion and friendship.
What a priest or clergy does on Sunday is a show; it is a reminder and empowerment of the Sacrament we all perform or are called to perform during the week. The priesthood of the believer are the ones who are called to perform sacraments in the world and the priest is a person set aside to remind us through ritual of what are calling is. The sacrament of the agape meal is the radical notion that we can make a table in front our enemies – and ask them to join us.
SACRAMENT OF THE OTHER
Growing up in the American south I often encountered racism and prejudice. Sometimes overtly and occasionally in my own words and actions as a young person, the latent prejudices absorbed from my surrounding culture. At its heart prejudice and racism stem from a fear of the Other and otherness. Otherness is the danger we perceive in cultures and people who fall outside of our cultural normative assumptions. The Other is the one who carries our own fears back to us and confronts us with the limits of our own human capacity. The Other is the one who is dangerous for our assumptions and makes livable realities of all we had deemed off-limits be they sexual and relational realities or cultural and ethnic realities.
Fear of the Other can sometimes be a fear of our own otherness. Often when we project our own fears or secret transgressions on to the Other – other races, genders, sexual orientations, politics and philosophies – we are often projecting what we most fear about ourselves. In America today the fear of Otherness is running rampant in the form of the Tea Party movement and its fear of ‘un-American liberals’ and the various homophobias that wish to present LGBT people from achieving equal rights.
Jesus – acting in a manner consistent with the Hebrew prophets – was killed for his ‘Otherness’ by evidenced by his death on a cross, a death usually left for traitors. Jesus embodied Otherness for the establishment of his time – he stood against the occupation of his people by Rome and the willing participation in that occupation by the religious authorities of his day.
The words and works of Jesus often reinforced the special place of The Other in his ministry and vision of God’s Kingdom. In Mark’s gospel the disciples are more often than not the duh!-ciples where it is women, children and foreigners – the Others – who ‘got it’. Jesus tells us the story of the Good Samaritan – a community often viewed with prejudice and bigotry by his contemporaries. In today’s world it would be like walking into a conservative Church and telling the story of the good Gay Man and how he shows us the way to heaven. It would be like walking into a liberal church and telling the story of the good Republican as a symbol of God’s Kingdom.
If Liberation Theology is correct and God does have preferential treatment for the poor and the outcast then what does this mean for a sacramental point of view? It means that God sides with those who are the least powerful, often those who scare us the most. The Other as sacrament means hospitality as spiritual practice and thus allows us to open our communities to points of view that may challenge us and possibly even change us. The sacrament of the other means to welcome in what scares us most about the world and ourselves. The Other becomes about justice but it’s a justice of hospitality, hospitality of welcoming and feasting with the least likely of suspects and being transformed by it.