Saturday, August 15, 2015
Contaminated by Christ
Here we are, almost at the end of what I like to call the bread line: the five-Sunday series of Jesus’ proclamations about being the Bread of Life. Last week, Kirk told us that Jesus is the opposite of boring, nutrition-free white bread. Jesus is yummy. Jesus is chewy. Next week, we’ll hear how deeply offensive many of Jesus’ listeners found this part of his teaching, so much so that many of them, unable to accept it, walked away. This week, we’re in the middle, somewhere between fighting off boredom and being scandalized.
Many of you may indeed be bored with bread by now, and we’re beginning to see the beginnings of distaste in the surrounding crowd. “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Cannibalism was no more acceptable in the first century than it is now; Jewish dietary mores forbade it as firmly as everyday ethics do today. Jesus, as usual, was violating all the purity codes that allowed the religious elite of his day to feel safe, secure, and smug in their own good behavior. “My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.” Even if you interpret this symbolically instead of literally -- and Christians are all over the map on where they draw that line -- this is, well, startling. Even if it’s not disgusting, it’s weird.
Jesus’ first-century followers weren’t the only ones to recoil. I know people who’ve left the church because thinking too hard about what communion was really supposed to be made them sick to their stomachs. Those of us who stay may still be cautious about how we take the Eucharist. Many of us, me included, intinct rather than sipping from the common cup, even though chalice bearers are trained to wipe the rim of the chalice and rotate the cup so that the next person in line won’t come into contact with the previous person’s germs.
The question is where we draw the line between communion -- where two different entities merge lovingly into one -- and contamination, where one entity infects and pollutes the other. Many in that first-century crowd were worried about contamination, about both spiritual and physical illness. Ever since then, contamination has been communion’s shadow.
In the earliest days of the church, when Christians were still actively persecuted, clergy took communion before everyone else, so that they would be the ones arrested if any spies were watching the service. That changed during the AIDS era, when many clergy began taking communion after everyone else had partaken, as a way of showing that they were not afraid of catching anything from the common meal.
Years ago, I read a book called Whitebread Protestants, a social history of food in American mainline churches, and learned how deeply the fear of all kinds of contamination has shaped Eucharistic practice. Welch’s grape juice was invented as an alternative to communion wine because temperance crusaders feared the physical and moral dangers of alcohol. The practice of intinction – dipping rather than sipping -- as well as the tiny, individual plastic cups used in some Christian services, all sprang up as a response to fear of germs.
One of Jesus’ missions on Earth was to dismantle purity laws. We’ve been busy rebuilding them ever since.
I don’t mean to minimize health concerns. Alcoholism is a real and terrible condition, and it’s why many Episcopal churches offer a non-alcoholic chalice, or emphasize that the bread alone is sufficient to make us part of the Body of Christ. Wheat disagrees with many of us, which is why St. Paul’s offers a non-gluten option. Germs are real. No one wants to give a neighbor -- or get from a neighbor -- a cold or the flu, let alone anything even more serious.
But even as we maintain our emphasis on health, I think we need to remember that hygiene often masks a fear of difference. Contamination is the card many of us play when we’re scared of communion, afraid that merging lovingly with other people will force us into contact with what we’d rather not face.
Back in 2000 or 2001, St. Stephen’s, the church I was attending then, became a host congregation for Family Promise. I believe St. Paul’s participated, too. For those of you who weren’t here then, Family Promise was an outreach ministry to homeless families, parents and children. Up to four families at a time, fourteen people, were housed for a week at a time in church or temple buildings. Sunday School classrooms were converted into bedrooms; volunteers supplied meals and donated bedding. Because many faith communities took part, each congregation only had to host every three or four months. During the day, children went to school and parents went to work or to a Day Center, where a social worker helped them locate jobs and apply for low-income housing. The goal was to get these families off the streets, and it worked. The program has, sadly, since closed in this area, but it’s still active nationally.
Some people at St. Stephen’s thought Family Promise sounded like a wonderful ministry. But when we had a parish meeting to discuss the issue, the room filled with fear. Let those people stay in our classrooms, where our children spent time every Sunday? The social worker explained that the families were thoroughly screened for medical problems -- no germs; for addiction -- no drugs; and for legal issues -- no crime.
Lice. What about lice? Were the families checked for lice? Our children would surely get lice from those children. Well, no, said the social worker, there was no specific screening for lice, but if lice did appear -- which was most likely to happen at the schools the parish’s children were already attending -- they’d be dealt with.
Lice! The homeless families instantly transformed into a parade of giant, two-legged lice traipsing into our parish hall and Sunday School rooms, infecting everything in sight.
Somehow, we voted to become a host congregation anyway. The families came. We never saw a single louse. We saw a single father supporting four children, including a newborn, while his wife was hospitalized. We saw a single mother with a broken arm who’d been living in a van with her month-old baby before finding the program. We saw two-parent families, each parent working two or three jobs, struggling to get back on their feet after medical and financial disaster. We saw kids of all ages: kids doing homework and watching movies and having fun in our playground and looking forward to dinner. We ate with the families, asked how their days had gone, rejoiced when they shared good news. They’d found an apartment. Someone was starting a new job. A child had gotten an A on a spelling test.
The program was as life-changing for volunteers as for the families themselves. Many of the people who’d been terrified of lice at the beginning grew to cherish their time with these parents and children. “They’re just like us.” The fear of contamination had given way to communion. Fear itself had been the most dangerous infection we faced, and by the will of God -- and the faces of new neighbors breaking bread together -- it had been overcome.
I came to believe that the initial fear was, in fact, the fear of similarity. The homeless weren’t that different from the housed. Anyone’s family, after a layoff or medical emergency, might become homeless too. Facing that reality is terrifying. But volunteering with the program also showed us that if that happened, loving neighbors would be on hand to help.
“Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you,” Jesus says. Wherever we draw the line between the symbolic and the literal in this statement, let us remember that we are called to be one body: infected with the love of God and each other, contaminated by Christ, spreading the dangerous desire to heal the world.
Take. Eat. Begin.