A Great Thanksgiving
by Louise Westfall
Imagine this communion scene: people have come from east and west and north and south, to be gathered in one place; Black and white and people of color, men and women, young and old, united by a common love. They have come to eat and drink and remember. There is laughter and there are tears, as past events are recalled and future hopes expressed. Many of the people gathered there are strangers to each other, yet no one is a stranger. Voices are raised in joyful shouts of praise and thanksgiving. No one wants the moment to end.
Church? Well, I’ve tweaked the language a little, but it’s one sports commentator’s description of the Rockies Home Opener…in 2019. Over the years I’ve seldom missed baseball’s Opening Days in Detroit, Cleveland, and now Denver–and resonate with the feelings they evoke: the sweet joy of memory, the hope sparked by a new season, and the warm camaraderie with strangers who are friends simply by virtue of shared devotion.
I’ve really missed baseball in this time…and I’ve really missed in-person communion. Experiencing together a pure moment of peace and anticipation for what’s ahead, at a Table where everyone is welcome. Rare moments now, made all the sweeter by their rarity. In a world fractured by hatred, mistrust, and fear, the Lord’s Supper offers evidence to the contrary. We eat this bread and share this cup as a regular affirmation that God has overcome enmity and grants us “communion” with God and one another.
You might not think today’s gospel reading has anything to do with the Lord’s Supper. It’s a cherished text about Jesus welcoming children over the objections of his disciples. But think for a moment about children. Yes, they are dear and precious; they are also the most powerless members of society. They have enormous needs, and little ability to meet those needs. Who is likely to come to a table to receive the nourishment there? Those who are filled and satisfied? Or those who are hungry and seeking? A reading from the good news according to Mark, in the tenth chapter at the 13th verse. Listen for God’s Word, spoken and…well, eaten. [MARK 10:13-16]
A saying from Kenya comments that if you want to go fast, travel alone; if you want to go far, travel together. And isn’t it true? By myself I’m in control of decisions, directions, and destination. I can get there without discussion and without delay. But for the long haul it’s better to have multiple drivers, the reliability of GPS, companions to make the miles pass enjoyably. The journey of faith is a long one, friends, and time and again, scripture advises us to travel together.
Right now, we can’t “see” that directly, socially distanced as we are. But this meal is more than a personal re-fueling stop. It is served by way of a faith community, alongside siblings of all ages, races, conditions and perspectives. Today we have to see with our mind’s eye the ones who gather from east and west and north and south. Yet always the meal links us to an invisible cloud of witnesses that includes people from every time and place, across the broad sweep of history from the apostles and martyrs of biblical time right up to the present and the ones we have loved who have died. They are here, too, and through this meal we know communion with them all.
The journey of faith is a long one, friends, and time and again, scripture advises us to travel together. Right now, we can’t “see” that directly, socially distanced as we are. But this meal is more than a personal re-fueling stop. It is served by way of a faith community, alongside siblings of all ages, races, conditions and perspectives.
We experience this mysterious bond through reenactment of a ritual instituted by Jesus Christ, one that the Church has repeated again and again. We break bread. We lift up the cup. We remember. We give thanks. We receive. All are welcome; there are no requirements except hunger. And though Presbyterians understand the “body and blood of Christ” symbolically and not literally represented in the elements, we take them as true signs of Christ’s living presence within us, nourishing us, giving us life.
The heart of Communion is the prayer that precedes it, called “The Great Thanksgiving.” When I was younger, I thought it was called great because it was longer than other prayers, but it really refers to its depth, the way it places all human life in a context of praise to God. At Central, our worship leaders pray freely, using their own words–and usually not one of the many “Great Prayers of Thanksgiving” that the Church has developed. But if you listen closely, they follow the same pattern: Thanksgiving to God for creation, salvation and the particular blessings of this life. Thanksgiving as we remember Jesus and what he has done for us and with us. Thanksgiving for the Spirit at work today. Intercessions for the needs of the church and world are offered, again in gratitude that God’s love is vast but always personal. For God so loved the world: YES!–and God so loved Heather and Bill and Ardys and Lisa and Bob and each one of us. The prayer concludes as we join in the Lord’s Prayer, seeking God’s rule on earth as it is in heaven.
Over the years, church members have wondered about children receiving communion. “They don’t understand.” “They don’t show proper respect.” More than one parent has commented that their child has been grossed out at the prospect of eating “a body” and drinking “blood.” Jesus said, “let the children come to me; do not stop them.” Communion is a lot like the Kingdom of God in that it is received, not manufactured. It comes as pure grace, a gift to hungry people who are child-like in their need and in their vulnerability. Maybe children can even lead us grown-ups who think we’re here entirely by choice; can awaken in us our hunger and our inability to feed that hunger on our own; can make of this feast not a boring duty but a delight, a great thanksgiving for God’s goodness and grace.
There’s actually been a bit of controversy about the appropriateness of Communion for online worship. Some believe that the reality of social distance and that we’re worshiping separately with just our family or alone, diminishes the power of “communion.” I think this attitude instead underestimates people’s ability to imagine, to see with the eyes of the heart a magnificent Table with unlimited seated, spread with the gifts of God that feed our souls.
So let’s put that to the test. Spend a few moments wherever you are right now, silently saying thanks to God. Just thanks. For the good things in your life. For the gift of life. For eternal life. For God’s presence with you, especially experienced during the pandemic. Thanks for family and friends and the people tuning in; for members of this beloved community, and for the church everywhere and its ministries of healing, proclamation, and service. Thanks for the men in New Genesis, buffeted by life’s gale forces, who are even now finding new hope and purpose. Thanks for the families of Central Visitation Program and the reconciling power of love to overcome all barriers. Thanks for the outreach of Metro Caring, seeking to end hunger at its root. Thank you for medical workers who care for the sick, and for scientists working tirelessly for cures and vaccine. Thank you for Black men and women confronting us with hard truths, and for courage to confess and chart a new path. Thank you for mountains and the scent of pine; for outdoor adventures; yes, for televised baseball. Thank you for essential workers. Thank you for teachers and for technology delivered with human caring. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you, God. See if this great thanksgiving brings you closer to the heart of loving companions both human and Divine. Imagine: people have come from east and west and north and south, Black and white and every color, men and women, youth and adults and children…and Jesus takes us in his arms, lays his hands on us, and blesses us.