For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
Welcome to the fifth episode in this podcast series, The Way of Love: Practices for a Jesus Focused Life. I am Mariann Budde, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, and in these reflections, I’m exploring in-depth seven spiritual practices that Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has asked all members of the Episcopal Church to adopt. Today’s episode is dedicated to the fourth practice: to worship.
But before delving in to the topic of worship, I’d like to review where we’ve been so far. All seven practices in the Way of Love find their origin in ancient disciplines that the earliest followers of Jesus adopted and passed down to future generations. Thus the Way of Love invites us to experience in new ways the practices that have sustained Christians for centuries. The seven practices are: to turn; to learn; and to pray; to worship; to bless and to go; and finally, to rest.
What does it mean, exactly, to adopt a rule of life? The term itself is simply religious language for something we all do whenever we decide to direct intentional, sustained effort toward an overarching goal in any area of life. The goal in a rule of life requires sustained, disciplined effort–it isn’t something that can be accomplished quickly. For example, in an academic setting, while it’s possible to pass an exam by pulling an all-nighter, mastery of a given subject matter requires sustained study. In the realm of physical health, if we want to lose weight, it’s not a rule of life to go on a starvation diet, but rather to make small, daily changes in our eating and exercise habits. If we want to save money, we need to adopt and stick to a budget, which is nothing more than a financial rule of life.
A spiritual rule of life, then, is comprised of specific practices that help us pay attention to God and respond to God. The Christian writer Marcus Borg goes so far to suggest that it is through our spiritual practices that we learn to love God. (Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a LIfe of Faith (New York: HarperOne, 2003).) That is the first goal of The Way of Love: for us to grow in our love for Jesus as we experience his love for us. The second goal is to grow in our capacity to love others as Jesus loves. The kind of love we’re aiming for isn’t a feeling that washes over us, as wonderful as that feeling of love can be. Rather it is love as sustained and sometimes sacrificial effort. This is love, in the words of St. Paul, that is patient and kind; love that is not arrogant or boastful or rude; love that believes, hopes and endures all things; love that never ends. (1 Corinthians 13) Growing in our capacity to both receive and offer such love doesn’t happen by accident. It requires sustained practice.
The first three practices, which I explore in depth in earlier episodes, are private, daily practices meant to help open our hearts and allow ourselves to be filled by Jesus’ spirit. Each day we turn our thoughts and heart toward Jesus as we rise in the morning. Every day we are to learn, by spending time reading and meditating on Jesus’ life and teachings. Completing the disciplines of daily devotion, we pray. While of course we can pray at all times and in all places, the Way of Love encourages us in a daily practice of intentional prayer, where we place before God our concerns, burdens, and joys, and then take time for silence, asking God to speak to our hearts. It’s a time of connection and daily discernment, as we ask God to guide us through the myriad of decisions and commitments that make up our lives.
Practically speaking, the first three disciples require about 15-20 minutes a day. At this stage in my life, early mornings are the optimal time to turn, learn and pray. That wasn’t true when my children were young, because mornings were devoted to their care. For other people, evenings are best. The time of day is less important than daily faithfulness. The amount of time we spend isn’t as important as the steadiness of our commitment.
So, consider with me the fourth practice, to worship, which differs from the first three in that it is a communal and weekly practice. While worship via technology has become a real and deeply impactful option, the kind of worship the Way of Love encourages is something we do with other people in a house of prayer. Specifically, my focus here is what lies at the center of a particular type of Christian worship found in what are sometimes called “sacramental churches.”
The word sacrament refers to rituals that are are both symbols and portals of experience for a particular grace that only God can give. The Christian sacrament at the heart of worship is known in most Episcopal churches as “Eucharist,” a Greek word for thanksgiving, our name for the symbolic reenactment of Jesus’ last meal with his disciples before his death. In some traditions, this sacred meal is referred to as “Holy Communion” or “the Lord’s Supper.” It symbolizes and invites us to participate in Jesus’ sacrificial love for all humankind and his real presence with us, as he promised when he said, “Lo, I will be with you always, even to the end of the age.”
When we gather for Eucharist, we recite stories told about that fateful night, hearing for ourselves the words Jesus spoke so long ago: “Take this bread and eat. It is my body given for you. Take this cup and drink. It is my blood poured out for you. Every time you eat the break and drink from the cup, remember me.”
This spiritual practice of coming together to hear sacred stories and gather around Jesus’ table is rooted in the Jewish Passover celebration, for it was a Seder meal that Jesus and his first disciples shared. It didn’t take long for a ritualized expression of their final meal to become the central focus of worship whenever Jesus’ followers gathered, and it’s easy to understand why. They felt his presence with them whenever they re-enacted this meal.
The most powerful and poignant story of the disciples’ experience of his presence while sharing bread and wine isn’t that of the last supper itself, but rather what happened to two of the disciples after Jesus’ crucifixion. We find that story in the Gospel of Luke, and it’s one we typically hear in church in the days after Easter. It tells of what happened to these two on the first Easter morning, while they were still in the grief of Good Friday.
As the story begins, two of the twelve set out on the road to Emmaus. It’s been said that for those who follow Jesus, every road we take is a road to Emmaus, too. Listen to the story and see if you agree.
Earlier that morning, the women among Jesus’ disciples had gone to his tomb and breathlessly returned with stories of angels, and the tomb being empty, and more amazingly still, that Jesus was alive. Two of the men–we aren’t told which ones–couldn’t make sense of what the women told them. They did what many of us do, to paraphrase Yeats, when there’s a fire in our heads: they went for a walk. The destination was unimportant. They just needed to get out of town.
While they were on the road, Jesus appeared to them, but they didn’t recognize him. He walked at their side, listened to their grief, and then began to reveal himself to the two disciples, as he often does to us, through the stories of Scripture. They still didn’t know who he was, but their hearts were strangely warmed and when evening came, they begged him to stay with them at a roadside lodge. When they were again at table with him, and as he’d done that final night of his life, he took the bread and blessed it, then they recognized him at last. And he disappeared from their sight.
For those who follow Jesus, every road is a road to Emmaus. We’re all on the road to somewhere, and he’s with us, but most of the time we don’t recognize him, because he’s hidden in the people we meet, in the events of our lives and that of the world, and even within ourselves in ways that we don’t always feel. But then, once a week, we show up in church, and in community with others, we focus our attention on Jesus. We hear stories read aloud from his life and his teachings. Someone takes the time, as Jesus did for the disciples on the road, to interpret the texts to us, bringing them into conversation with what’s happening in our lives and in the world. Sometimes when a person is speaking, we hear Jesus’ voice speaking. We feel his presence. How does that happen? It’s a mystery, but it’s real.
As the worship experience continues, we eventually gather around a table symbolizing the table of his last supper. We rehearse the story of that fateful meal, and then take part in it, symbolically, sacramentally. As we do, for a moment, we feel his presence. Not all the time; not every Sunday, but often enough to trust it as real.
We’re told that once the disciples on the road to Emmaus recognized Jesus, he disappeared from their sight. I completely identify with that, because my own moments of connection and experiences of his presence, are often brief and fleeting. Nor are they something I can evoke on command. None of us can. But when they come to us, when Jesus is real for us, in words spoken, prayers offered, bread and wine shared among a community gathered, it’s enough to give us hope and courage, an assurance that we’re loved.
Jesus wants us to invite others to the table, so that they, too, might experience his presence with them and his love for them. Sometimes we church people imagine that what we have to offer others in worship is ourselves. Our presence is important, and the authenticity of our welcome is critical, but the foundational gift that sets Christian community apart from any other, is that of Jesus’ presence at the heart of our worship. That’s the pearl of great price. And because we have these experiences together, we feel a particular bond to to each other. That’s the gift of Christian community.
About 15 years ago, Marcus Borg published a book entitled The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith. It was one of those books that I gave to everyone I knew who was exploring what it meant to be a follower of Jesus, and it’s one that I often turn to for insight and inspiration. I picked it up again in preparation for this episode because in a chapter on spiritual practice entitled “The Heart of the Matter,” Borg wrote something about communal worship that I’ve never forgotten.
First let me say that for Marcus Borg, as for our Presiding Bishop and for me, Christianity is most fruitfully experienced and understood less as a system of belief and more as a way of life. Another Christian writer, Anne Lamott, says much the same thing in an essay she wrote entitled “Why I Make Sam Go to Church.” “I want to give my nine year old son,” she writes, “what I have found in the world, which is to say a path and a little light to see by.” (Anne LaMott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (New York: Random House, 2000).)Did you know that the first followers of Jesus were known not as Christians, but as “People of the Way?” All this to say that the Christian life is like taking a walk on the road to Emmaus, or wherever it is we’re going. On the way, Jesus is with us. We don’t always recognize him, but he consistently reveals himself to us in Scripture and the breaking of bread.
This Way, Borg writes in The Heart of Christianity, is comprised of practices that help us to pay attention to God and be open to receive the presence of Jesus. Practices form our identity and shape our character. They hold us accountable, just as practices in other areas of our life do, and, importantly, practices nourish us. They feed our souls.
Now here is what Borg has to say about worship: He argues that the single most important spiritual practice is to be part of a congregation that, in his words, “nourishes you even as it stretches you.” Then he offers this bit of advice:
Some of your are already involved in such a church. But if you are not involved in any church or are part of one that leaves you hungry and unsatisfied, find one that nourishes and deepens your Christian journey. Find one that makes your heart glad, so that you wake up on Sunday morning with the anticipation of the psalmist, ‘I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’ Choosing a church is not primarily about feeling good, but church is meant to nourish us, not to make us angry or leave us bored. If your church gives you a headache, it may be time to change. (Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering the Heart of Faith (HarperOne, 2004).)
I first read that passage fifteen years ago as the pastor and priest of a small congregation, with all the joys and struggles of church life. As I read, I knew that I wanted, more than anything, to help nurture and sustain a church that made people’s hearts glad. I wanted those I served to wake up on Sunday morning looking forward to coming to church. I didn’t want to lead a church that was boring or that, God forbid, gave people headaches. I wanted to lead a church that nourishes people and deepens their Christian journey. I still do, and I believe that when church leaders keep that focus, Christian community thrives.
I’m not suggesting that we’re always glad, or that church doesn’t have its challenging aspects, because we’re human, after all, and we’re up against real challenges in our lives and in the world around us. But that’s part of the gift of church, and the gift of worship, that we can bring all of ourselves and our lives–the full catastrophe–to Jesus’ table, and rise from our worship blessed.
So if you’re listening to this podcast and you’re not part of worshipping community, I urge to you to take Borg’s words to heart. Find one, large or small, regardless of faith tradition, that makes your heart glad, so that you wake up on Sunday happy that today is the day for you to attend church.
If you’re listening as one among those feeling exhausted, stressed, or empty in your church experience, while I would hope, for the church’s sake, that you feel called to stay and make things better, if that feels like too much of a burden, for your own soul’s sake, consider the possibility of finding a church that nourishes and inspires you. But I have to tell you one of the times in my life when I had moved to a new city and went in search of a new spiritual community that the Holy Spirit led me in ways I wouldn’t have expected. You see, I made a list of all the qualities I was looking for in a church and went visiting. But the church I eventually joined had none of the qualities I was looking for–not one. Nonetheless, as soon as I walked in, I felt at home. I felt drawn to the place and the community in ways that defied logic. You never know where the journey will take you.
If you’re listening and are among those, like me, who are leaders of a church, maybe it’s time to honestly assess what I sometimes refer to as “the joy quotient” in worship. How uplifting is the worship experience? Are people singing? Are they smiling as they sing? Do those who read the biblical texts do so in compelling ways. How inspired is the preaching? What is it like when the community gathers around Jesus’ table? Particularly with words that we repeat each week, I wonder what it takes for us to wholeheartedly engage them, so that we’re not reading as if from a phone book, but giving life to the words that Jesus entrusts to us. One final question: how would you describe your worship environment, in terms of cleanliness, sense of welcome, and comfort? What can we do to create an environment where people can relax and thus open themselves to experience the loving, presence of Jesus? All of these matter–tending to them as leaders is our way of creating sacred space and offering our best selves, so that Jesus’ may have more to work with and through when we gather.
In closing, let me offer a word of encouragement to all who are part of a worshipping community but feel the constant pull of other commitments that conspire to take you away from a weekly practice of worship. I understand. We live in a 24/7 world, and Sunday is no longer a day of rest in our culture, if it ever was. I understand the pressures of work and relationships, and for those raising children, the competing claims on very small windows of discretionary time.
But hear me now: a weekly gathering with other Christians in a spiritually nourishing environment is really important. It’s important for your well being, and for your growth in relationship to Jesus and in his way of love. It’s important, but rarely urgent, and so other claims often feel as if they need to take precedence, and perhaps sometimes they do. But what is lost, when a weekly rhythm of worship is lost, is hard to regain. You may not notice it at first, but over time the absence of communal spiritual sustenance will take its toll. It’s not that we can’t experience Jesus’ love elsewhere; of course we can, and do, but there is a particular grace, an abiding presence known to us, over time, in worship that is worth the effort to be present each week.
What’s more, there are times when our presence is needed in worship for someone else’s sake. In worship, as in other places, we’re often given the chance to be a living expression of God’s love for another, as others are for us. It’s a powerful thing when we’re aware of what’s happening, yet we’re often unaware of how we help others feel Jesus’ presence with and for them. Later, should they tell us of our part in their sacred encounters, we may not even remember what it was that we said or did. But the fact that we can be that for one another adds another motivation to be present in worship even when it would easier to stay home. Not only might we experience God’s grace in worship for ourselves, we could very well play a part in the answer to someone else’s prayer.
May God bless each of us as we walk our road to Emmaus, where Jesus meets us, often without our recognizing him. May we all experience those brief, powerful encounters, as we gather in worship, and he reveals himself to us, in Scripture and the breaking of the bread.