Sermon of the Week
Elements of Worship:
God’s Grace Made Real–Sacraments and Daily Living
Keywords: sacrament, food, eucharist, baptism, welcome, Ethiopian Eunuch, Parable of the Great Feast.
I recently started to read a delightful little book
called Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life.
The book is green with a picture on the cover
of a few open face slices of bread
one slathered with jelly
the other covered with peanut butter
the kind I like—creamy peanut butter.
I mention that detail,
mainly because when I was reading it last week
a little boy walked by
and saw the cover and smacked his lips
and asked his mom for a PB and J sandwich,
which makes me smile.
Tish Harrison Warren wrote the book to dismantle
what Andy Crouch calls the most stubborn of Christian heresies:
“the idea that there is any part of our lives that is secular,
untouched by and disconnected from the real sacred work
of worship and prayer.”
Chapter Five is called “Eating Leftovers”
and here is how she starts…
I grew up eating processed food.
Each morning I’d have Eggo waffles with my dad.
After school, if I was lucky,
my Mom would give me bright pink Quik strawberry milk.
My very favorite food was Kraft Mac and Cheese.
I have blissful childhood memories of helping harvest corn
at my grandparents’ house
and feasting on sweet, buttery piles of it for dinner,
but besides that
I never really thought about where my food came from.
I never considered my meal’s environmental impact,
the working conditions of those who harvested my tomatoes,
or why the milk was pink.
I’ve always loved food.
I like to make it, to eat it, and to read and talk about it.
And now, I have some soaring ideals about it.
I love food, in part, because it is necessary for life
and for the care of my body
and the bodies of those I love (and feed).
But I also love food for metaphorical reasons.
Food has so much to teach us about nourishment,
and as a culture
we struggle with what it means
to be not simply fed,
but profoundly and holistically nourished.
It is a joy to sit at the table
with nourishing food
and be able to tell stories—nourishing stories—
about where each dish came from:
the Amish woman who sold me the squash,
or the unlikely survival of an eggplant in our otherwise-failed garden.
In my mind I have an ideal for my table—
friends and family gathered around a homegrown, local, organic feast
with candles and laughter and well-behaved children.
A lot of beauty and a lot of butter.
But much of the time, my meals aren’t like that.
And today, I have leftovers for lunch.
Taco soup. Not homegrown. Not local.
Corn and beans dumped from cans into a crockpot.
It’s a go-to meal for us,
what we make when people are coming over because it is cheap and easy.
It is adequate and a little boring.
Now, it is warmed over again on my stove for lunch.
Like most of what I’ll eat in this life,
it’s necessary and forgettable.
If you are like me,
or like a lot of us in this country
we’ve never really worried where our next meal was coming from.
There is nevertheless a staggering amount of hunger in this country,
and even for many of those who are not food insecure,
who know where their next meal will come from,
it is not an option to go get the best organic vegetables or specialty cuts of meat.
It costs more to shop along the edges of the grocery store
where the fresh fruit and the butcher and the dairy is.
Processed foods are your cheap, reliable standards.
Cans of soup are what sustains you.
Too often the food we eat can be a mindless exercise
even when we take lots of beautiful pictures of it and post it on Instagram.
Food can often be like works of art.
Brook and I were in Lawrence yesterday
because we hadn’t been away, just the two of us for lunch, in forever
and we stopped in this place,
and she ordered the most beautiful, deconstructed, smoked salmon dish.
It had these little squares of potatoes, almost like hash browns, but airier,
some arugula and sliced radishes and some cream cheese and capers
and it was a lovely thing to look at.
But, to be honest, we spent very little time thinking about it.
We took a picture,
and then got down to eating and talking and planning and all the other things we do.
That was a special moment, a luxury, an extravagance, a meal away.
Our daily meals are often more mundane
even as we try, you know: put an effort into getting lots of those fresh vegetables
and cuts of meat and delectable fruit
because we have the means to do so.
And we say a prayer, every meal together as a family
giving God thanks for it, for the joys of our day
sometimes even for where the food comes from
the farmer that picks it
the trucker that ships it
the animal that sacrificed its life for it.
And then we eat and go on our merry way.
Tish Harrison Warren observes that Christian Worship
is organized around two things:
Word, and sacrament.
These two things are meant to nourish us,
so that our everyday, ordinary, mundane moments
are transformed into engagements with God.
It is even one of the ways that our church describes my particular role:
my ordained office is called a Minister of the Word and Sacrament.
The Word, in this context, refers to the Scriptures, read and proclaimed.
The sacraments, for most Protestants, at least,
are Baptism, the sacrament of God’s welcome
which sometimes we call The Lord’s Supper,
or the Eucharist, the good feast, the meal of thanks.
These two sacraments are shared with all the other Christian churches out there,
though some of them call them ordinances, rather than sacraments.
Some others recognize five additional sacraments in their worship life:
confirmation, marriage, ordination, confession, and last rites.
The Eastern Orthodox don’t even limit the idea of Sacrament to these seven,
holding that anything and everything the church does, as a church,
is in some sense sacramental.
I get that.
Saint Augustine called the sacraments Visible Words,
or the way that the Word of God is made real, manifest,
through our practice in worship.
It was also Augustine who said that the sacraments
were “Visible Signs of an Invisible Grace”
through which we see and feel and taste and touch and hear
the ephemeral but tangible power of God in this world of ours.
I get why the Orthodox Church seeks to see THAT in everything it does,
and I kind of admire them for it.
I don’t know if you’ve ever participated in an Orthodox worship service
but it goes well longer than our customary hour
and they’re big on what an orthodox friend of mine
once lovingly called ‘smells and bells’
incense and icons and walking, moving throughout the sanctuary
and a theology focused on theosis,
where the people of God seek to aim for likeness or union with the divine.
It can be quite beautiful.
We Presbyterians, following the impulse of the protestant reformers
Martin Luther and John Calvin
stuck with just these two
Baptism and Communion
because, as David Gambrel once said, “Jesus said so.”
We celebrate as sacraments those specific rituals, quote
“instituted by the Lord Jesus Christ
through the witness of the Scriptures
and sustained through the history of the universal church.”
Which is a proper way to say “Jesus said so.”
It’s not that we don’t see something holy or lifegiving or full of grace
in Marriage, confirmation, confession, ordination or final prayers at our last moments,
God is indeed right there, in the heart of those things,
and Andy Crouch is right,
there is NO PART of our life untouched by God’s real sacred work…
but these two rituals of our faith, baptism and communion,
these are so clearly and distinctly encouraged in our scriptures
that they hold a particularly special place in our worship life,
rituals that are intended to be “visible words” of God’s amazing love.
The beautiful thing about baptism, and communion,
is that they can help us see that God is really all around us.
They are ways in which God’s Grace is made Real for us
and, through them, we are a bit more inclined to see God’s grace
in the everyday moments of our lives…
in the daily meals we eat
in the baths and swimming pools and hand washings of our lives
and often in other moments too…when the grace of God irrupts into this world
and has us marveling at the joy of it all.
It can be a bit like seeing that really amazing meal
just brought out from the restaurant’s kitchen
that you just have to take a picture of and share on social media
because it makes your heart sing…
just not in a way that is momentary, fleeting, forgettable,
but in a way that carries you along moment by moment, day by day
week by week…
It can be a reminder when we sit down at an ordinary, everyday,
of the amazing generosity of the God who made us and loves us and sustains us.
That’s what the sacraments are meant to do.
They nourish us, heart and soul.
To be a bit more Presbyterian,
in our branch of the Christian family tree
we say that sacraments are a sign and a seal of God’s grace in our lives.
They POINT to God’s grace that is already present, all around us.
They SEAL that grace by helping us sense it, appreciate it, incorporate it
be grateful for it, and, ultimately, be nourished by it.
Our actions when we celebrate the sacraments don’t make God’s grace happen,
as if that’s a magic power we human beings have at our fingertips.
There’s no hocus pocus up here during the sacraments
though, at various times in the Christian church’s history
there has been a belief that God changes the substance of the sacraments
the water or the bread or the wine
into something else…
you may have even heard a term for that: transubstantiation.
But we Presbyterians, instead, say that when we celebrate these sacraments
God is truly, fully present here
in the feel of the water on our forehead
in the taste of the bread and the juice.
When we celebrate our sacraments together,
We offer prayers and pour water and break bread
and through these acts, we remind one another of God’s grace in Jesus Christ
We proclaim God’s presence in the actions we do together
And we marvel at what God does in our world:
taking ordinary, earthy, mundane things like water and bread and juice,
things we need, all of us, to survive,
and, through them, we marvel at how God shows us what love is all about.
There’s not enough time for us to go into every detail
about why we do things this way, and not that way.
Why do we use grape juice, and not wine? Does it matter?
And what about the bread:
Does it have to be wheat? Can it be gluten free?
Made of rice, almond flour, corn?
Why do we celebrate communion only once a month,
when THAT church does it in every worship service
and THAT church only four times a year?
Can we just have a little private communion service,
or maybe can you come to our house and baptize baby Judy for us?
Infant baptism, or adult baptism?
Can I be rebaptized?
Sprinkled or dunked?
Should the water be poured over my head.
Can we install a large fountain in here?
Truly, there are a lot of details in our practice of these essential aspects of worship.
And that’s because we do the things we do for specific reasons
reasons that are rooted in the biblical witness and in our theological understanding
of what is going on
how these signs and seals of God’s grace
are based on the baptisms and communions of the biblical period
but also based on the wildly abundant and expansive love of the God
we have come to know in Christ Jesus.
So, for instance, the bread is quite often regular, wheat-based bread
but because the sacrament is a sacrament of nourishment, of hospitality,
of remembering the life and ministry and death and resurrection of Jesus,
reminding us how God took ordinary, mundane things
like bread and fermented juice,
and through them feeds us with the very welcome and power of God,
then the grain that we use as authentic and appropriate
depends on the community where we’re going to serve it
and *who* is going to receive it
so it may be the bread we come to love, or it may be gluten free, rye or pumpernickel,
or even a corn tortilla, or a rice cracker,
the bread that fits the particular context of a community,
the bread that invites the full participation of everyone…
and the cup –wine or juice—similarly relates to the needs of the people partaking
both of these always connected to Jesus’ words
I am the bread of life
I am the vine, you are the branches.
And as for baptism,
we use ordinary water, and it can be from the tap, or down in the river,
in a fountain or in our community baptismal font
over which we pray and remind ourselves of God’s generous spirit
in this wonderful ritual of welcome into God’s family.
But because it is a sign and a seal of God doing that
a recognition that God has already done that, from our first breath,
then it is appropriate for us to solemnize it for infants or for adults
one and the same sacrament,
showing how God’s grace
is for those who aren’t physically able to call for the waters of Baptism,
as much as it is for those who are moved
later in their life
to see God’s love and God’s power for them.
There’s not enough time to go into deep detail with our sacraments,
nor to consider all the various scripture passages
we could look at to talk about these sacraments:
–The woman at the well, asking Jesus for some of that living water
–The four gospels, each opening with a story about John the Baptizer
with the call to “repent, and be baptized…”
–The great commission, at the end of Matthew, to
“Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
That’d be a start for baptism.
Or for communion,
the stories about Jesus in the upper room, his last meal with his friends
or how he fed multitudes, thousands, with loaves and fishes
charcoal fires on the lakeshore over which he lovingly made breakfast
for tired, worn down disciples.
Instead I wanted us to look over two lesser known readings
that get to the heart of what these sacraments are all about.
You heard John Tucker read the story about
the baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch this morning
a rich and delightful story from the Acts of the Apostles.
The Acts of the Apostles tells us about the first few years
after Jesus ascended and the Spirit blew
and the church was born.
That first community struggled with what it meant
to follow Jesus Christ, the Rabbi,
Jesus, who vowed to fulfill every jot and tittle of the law,
while nevertheless reinterpreting it, reimagining it, reapplying it,
in ways that showed the very purpose of the Kingdom of God.
That first community was stuck.
Stuck, because they thought the gifts of God were just for those who were Jewish
no Gentiles need apply.
They knew the law.
They knew the purity codes and requirements
meant to help signify who the Hebrew people were and keep them safe and healthy.
They assumed that those who heard the good news would either be Jewish
or have to convert to follow all of the ancient law.
But soon Saul gets knocked blind on the road to Demascus,
which happens earlier in this chapter that we’re considering here,
or Peter has his dream, just a few chapters after this one,
the dream to eat shellfish and all sorts of other seemingly off-limits food
and the early church begins to soften its understanding of who is in, and who is out.
And then look at today’s reading.
Those purity rules didn’t look kindly on a Eunuch.
Much less a foreigner, from Ethiopia, which is the Greek word used
for any darker-skinned person from south-west of Egypt.
That sort of person wouldn’t be interested
in the God of the Hebrew Scriptures anyway, would they?.
But here is Philip, minding his own business,
when an angel tells him to go down a wilderness road.
So he gets up, and goes,
and finds this outsider, not quite whole, by his very own biblical standards,
trying to read and understand the prophet Isaiah.
And with the prompting of the Spirit,
Philip goes, and they talk, and they relate to one another
and Philip shares about Jesus
and look, there’s some water…
“what is to prevent me from being baptized?”
The unspoken answer to that question is, well, nothing,
and down they go and lo baptized is he,
and Philip is gone and the Eunuch goes on his way rejoicing…
And the reader is left speechless at the amazing, joyful audacity of it all
the radical welcome, the celebratory movement of the spirit
and to this day, there’s a community of Christians in northern Africa
that trace their lineage to this converted gentile.
Here we see that Baptism is a sacrament really about what God is doing in the world,
not about us.
It is because God moves in this story—
inspiring Philip to go,
the Ethiopian to read
the pair to talk—
that the act of Baptism makes real for them
the Grace of God already present for them both…
And the Ethiopian departs changed forever
knowing his unique place in God’s amazing story.
And if God shows welcome to an Ethiopian Eunuch,
maybe our welcome should be as bold, as prodigal too.
And then there’s the parable of the great banquet
where the author of Luke tells us of an extravagant party
full of food and drink sure to be the subject of many Instagram uploads.
And after all the food is ready and the table is prepared
the doors are open wide
and the invited guests…well, they’re occupied.
Does that deter the host of the feast?
No. Go invite others, people maybe not expected here
the people on the margins
the workers, the day-laborers, servants and slaves
people on the streets
open wide the doors
and have them come in
to feast at this meal.
If parables are stories that reveal to us what it is like in the Kingdom of God,
then here, perhaps, we have a story about what is behind the Lord’s supper,
the great feast where people come from every corner of the world
north and south and east and west, people like you and me and all sorts of others,
to join together at the table of the Kingdom of God
where all are welcome
where all are fed
where there is no impediment, no worldly distinction, that keeps people away
all that you need is a desire to see Jesus to taste and see that God is good
and you are welcome here…
Baptism, and communion,
our two visible words of God’s grace
where we celebrate God’s including us in God’s great family of faith
through the waters of baptism
and where we turn to God for nourishment
as we remember
Jesus’s body broken and Jesus’ cup of the new covenant
given for each and every one of us.
And when we participate in these sacraments
those elements, those mundane things
water and bread and juice
connect us to the living story of God in our world
so that we can remember it
every time we come into contact with water
washing our hands or taking a shower
or filling a cup of water for a loved one or neighbor
so we can remember it
when we smell bread baking or eat a sandwich
or taste the sweet taste of the grape
and we remember who it is that sustains us
through every dark moment
and every difficult news cycle
and every lonely experience.
Jesus was up to something when he told us to do these things.
These rituals become habit for the faithful Christian
because by practicing them, over and over, here in worship,
together, with other people, here in our church,
along-side billions of faithful Christians around the world,
we catch a glimpse of the welcoming, nourishing, joyful kingdom of God
that God is building.
as we go about our days
remember our baptism
relish the common meal
and root ourselves in God’s visible words,
and as we do,
may we begin to see God everywhere we turn
enabling others to feel welcome
to actually be fed
because of the love and the care that God’s followers undertake.
May it be so.
 Warren, Tish Harrison. Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life. (IVP Books; Downers Grove, Illinois, 2016). Forward by Andy Crouch. p.9
 Ibid. pp. 61-62.
 For more on this, see the Christian Century Article “Smells and bells: Turning to Orthodoxy” from December 28, 2004: https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2004-12/smells-and-bells
 See Gambrell, David. Presbyterian Worship: Questions and Answers. (Westminster John Knox Press; Louisville, Kentucky, 2019). pp. 33-48.
 From the Book of Order of the Presbyterian Church (USA): W-3.0401
 I’m relegating to a footnote the long standing debate over whether the Eunuch was a Jew, a Gentile, a proselyte, or some other status (such as “godfearer” or, interestingly, “jew-gentile”) A quick summary can be found at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethiopian_eunuch. For some of the history of the Ethiopian Orthodox church and its purported lineage to this episode in the Acts, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethiopian_Orthodox_Tewahedo_Church
Image Credit: by Creative Commons License at pixabay, found here: https://pixabay.com/vectors/last-supper-the-lord-s-supper-150578/