William Carlos Williams wrote, in a poem called The Host:
There is nothing to eat
seek it where you will,
but the body of the Lord.
The blessed plants
and the sea, yield it
to the imagination
There is nothing to eat… but the body of the Lord.
Quakers, you know, have an odd approach to talking about communion. Other churches might disagree about grape juice or wine, or bread or wafers, and is it really the body of Christ or is it that Christ is present in the body anyhow? Or is it something else entirely?
Regardless, the church has historically agreed on one thing: the saving experience of eating carbs. Carbs in the bread, and carbs in the beverage to wash it down. It makes the presence of Christ real, tangible in nature.
Quakers agree about the carbs to some extent. Who wouldn’t? Carbs are great. But we maintain that eating wheat and grapes is not necessary to experiencing communion, and even that the practice might deaden us to the deeper communion of the spirit. It might train us to expect to find the presence of Christ in the physical bread and wine and nowhere else.
That’s not always what happens, of course. I know I’ve found Jesus in sharing the plate and the cup, and some of you have too.
Come Christmas Eve, after we’ve cleaned up all the cookies here, you can find me at the Lutheran church at their eleven o’clock service, chewing the bread and chewing the mystery. I know I’m not the only Friend here who sometimes slips out for a snack, so to speak, and I don’t find that it necessarily dulls us to the broader generosity of the presence of God in all people and in all circumstances.
It’s said, though, that “Christ plays in ten thousand places.” One of those places may be the physical communion table, but our Friendly tradition asks us to develop an awareness of the communion of Christ that surrounds us in all things- to visit the nine thousand nine hundred and ninety nine other places where Christ plays and accord those humble spaces the same reverence paid to the altar at the front of any other church.
And more than that: we’re challenged to share our stories of stepping into the presence of Love Divine. That’s where this “testimony” idea comes from! It’s not a dry summary of Quaker ethical principles, but rather a way of summing up some of Friends’ experiences of playing where Christ plays and following when Christ calls.
Friends have historically found deep power in sharing these stories.
No, let me rephrase that: Friends have historically found communion in sharing these stories, and communion is an experience of deep power.
Picture yourself about to begin a long hike, backpack on and staff in hand. You’re standing in a meadow, looking at a break in the trees, knowing that the trail begins there. Your phone is broken and your maps are lost, so the forest ahead is a beautiful dangerous mystery.
And then, at your side, a Friend appears with information to share. There’s a clear stream ahead, where you can refill your water bottle. Another Friend appears, saying that it’s better to scale the great hill from the left- there are better handholds there and you’ll be less likely to fall.
Another Friend appears, saying that there’s poison ivy spreading, urging you to be watchful before making camp. Another Friend appears, saying that by the time you get to the stone bridge, the blackberries will be in bloom, and puts a container in your backpack so that you can pick as many as you’ll need.
How precious are these Friends, to you? How precious is the information that they’re sharing as you’re striking out on your journey?
The walk through life is no different. We head off into a lonely wood, looking for salvation, and if we’re especially lucky we find ourselves surrounded by Friends who can tell us something of the path ahead.
So, Friends share their testimonies of experiencing Love Divine to help other Friends see their own path more clearly and understand the challenges before them. We find communion in this, because communion is “fellowship, mutual participation, a sharing,” a meeting with a Friend on the path that leaves us shaken and sanctified.
Friends, we share our testimonies of meeting with Love Divine because in sharing these stories, we illuminate one another’s paths toward that love. And in sharing these stories, we share a feast.
What other food is there, on this journey, but the body of the Lord?
Telling stories of meeting the Spirit is a difficult thing, and I don’t want to ask you to do anything that I wouldn’t do. So, here are a couple of stories from my own life to illustrate.
The first one starts with a story that I’ve told some of you. I attended the first half of New York Yearly Meeting, a few weeks ago, and it was good to be back in my home state and wonderful to see Friends that I haven’t seen in years and to build new friendships.
I had difficulty, though, with an evening plenary speech. I freely admit that the difficulty lay within me, but the beginning of it seemed too touchy-feely. Other Friends were clearly soaking up the ministry, but it didn’t seem to be for me.
Luckily, I wasn’t sitting in the regular seats. I was sitting on the floor, in the back, where I could discreetly charge my laptop while working on a news article for FUM. So I doubt that anyone noticed when I packed up my backpack and slid out the back door.
I planned to go to the gymnasium, because the internet was good there, but then I didn’t feel like it so I kept walking. There was a labyrinth ahead, and I thought to myself that perhaps I could shake this unsettled feeling by walking the labyrinth. I know many people who cherish this ancient spiritual practice, but I’d never tried it for myself.
So, I set my backpack up against a tree, and I started on the path. I’ve provided a picture of a labyrinth on your bulletin, so that you can follow my journey into the presence of Christ.
I went up, and then through some squiggles, and then around the center. Then I looped back, and then began to walk away from the center.
And then, I threw what might be the worst tantrum of my 35th year on this planet. Because, seriously?!? What is this nonsense? Why am I walking in stupid circles to try to find myself?
The end point of the labyrinth is the center, so I angrily stomped over to the center, ignoring the proper lines that defined the proper path. Once there, I jumped up and down a few times to express my displeasure at the whole exercise, and then I stomped out of the circle, making sure to plant my feet firmly on each boundary line just to make my point clear.
Labyrinths, I guessed, were just not for me. I proceeded to watch twilight set in over Lake George and take a cool picture a spider working on her web in the pink-tinged light.
I was held, in that moment, in the presence of God, but I didn’t know it yet.
Fast forward to this week. I’m in Richmond, staying overnight with a dear friend so that I can attend the Quaker Religious Education Collaborative without paying for housing, and also so that we can catch up.
My friend Sarah was excited to hear that I had tried walking a labyrinth, and listened to my whole story of failing at it with interest. But then, this is what communion is like for me. The room began to shift, and the edges of my vision became hazy. And then, Sarah spoke truth to me:
You didn’t fail at walking the labyrinth, even though you stormed out of it. The labyrinth told you exactly what you needed to know.
You’re walking in circles that feel pointless, and you’re frustrated by the limitations of the path, but many of those limitations are things you are imposing on yourself. You’re keeping yourself away from your own center. You need to find your center in your own way, and then start stomping on the boundary lines.
Sarah shared communion with me, as she saw me kindly and clearly and told me what I needed to hear. That’s what it was like, for me, to find myself in the presence of God.
Here’s another story:
I’m sitting at one of those high tables for two that are popular in restaurant decor for unknowable reasons. I’m working on a sermon, and I’m working on a spreadsheet, and I’m working on some news post for FUM about a guy named Oscar.
Since then, I’ve met this Oscar. He’s in Belize now, and if you can stay after church for sandwiches and conversation, Dan and I would love to tell you all about the work that he has been called by God and by Friends to do in Belize City.
If you weren’t planning to stay, then please reconsider. Maybe you didn’t bring anything to offer, but I promise that Friends have been generous with the bread and the meat and the veggies and the cheese, and there’s more than enough to go around. The table of God does not run out, and you will come away from it well-fed and grateful for the work of love that we’re participating in.
But, that’s not the experience of communion that I want to tell you about. Here it is: I’m sitting at a high table, feet dangling, working on some news post about a Kenyan guy named Oscar.
I need pictures for the post, and I don’t have them, and I have this brilliant idea- let’s just find Oscar on Facebook. I send him a friend request, and then I go back to my work because that strategy doesn’t seem likely to produce much.
But then, there’s a notification- Oscar accepted my friend request. He’s around the world from me, in Kenya, but now we have this connection.
And then, he’s in my messages, asking how I’m doing. I tell him that I’m working on his fundraising campaign, and he shares about how he’s raising funds in Kenya. I ask for pictures, and he starts emailing me pictures of prayer meetings happening in places I’ll probably never visit, among Friends I’ll probably never meet.
I’m looking at these pictures, and my body starts to tingle, and I realize that I’m looking at the body of Christ in a way that I’ve never seen it before. I’m part of the body of Christ in a way that I’ve never existed before.
I had to look away from my computer screen, which is just artificial light, just pixels and dots, because it was glowing too holy. It was glowing with the presence of Love Divine. That’s what it was like, for me, to find myself in the presence of God.
What is it like, for you, to find yourself in the presence of God?
We tell these stories because we’re all starving for spiritual nourishment and there is nothing to eat in this world but the body of the Lord. The Quaker understanding of communion is not a don’t – don’t consume the bread and wine – but rather a do, a big yes to all the beauty and the love that points the way toward the kingdom of heaven.
Listen. In Charlottesville last week, there was a woman in a blue shirt that read Quaker. She was moving alongside the militia, as they were marching on behalf of hate. She was sharing a simple message: we love you.
You don’t do something like that unless you’ve shared deeply at the table of Christ. Come to the feast.
The body is broken and the cup is drunk and spilled, and this is how we remember what the life of Jesus was all about. This is how we remember.
Every time we run across the holy in this world, every time Christ plays among us, we make it an altar and we offer our worship. And every time, in that communion, we reenact in our words and our actions the death – and the resurrection – of our savior.
You will be drawn back to this meal again and again until the Master returns. You must never let familiarity breed contempt.
You must never let familiarity breed contempt. How many times have we run across the glimmering of the holy and thought, oh I’ve seen that before, and moved on?
Christ plays among us in ten thousand places, and in each of these places there is no better nourishment available then that which comes from being aware of the holy presence around us.
So, Friends: when have you been aware of that holy presence? This kingdom is a common meal spread before us, and we are just beggars at the table, just sojourners looking for a map, just hungry men and women looking for signs that will lead us to the table where we share in the body and blood of faith.
There is nothing to eat… but the body of the Lord.
Tell us, Friends, where you have been fed by the Spirit of Life. Tell us, give us your stories as a map, so that we might come and be fed by the holiness that you have found.
Tell your stories of communion, in this sacred waiting space or later in your own way. Give your testimonies with reverence, as appropriate, and with courage and with tenderness.
Examine your motives, test your heart, come to this meal in holy awe.