The Rev. William C. Redfield
Trinity Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, NY
The Fifth Sunday of Lent—Year C—March 17, 2013
One of the most famous and most loved Taize chants and one that is deeply associated with Holy Week is: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Of course you will recognize these words coming from one of the thieves crucified with Jesus. While the other thief mocked and derided the Master, this thief asked to be remembered when Jesus came into his kingdom. Shockingly, Jesus responded to him not in the future tense, but in the present: “Truly this day you are with me in paradise.” Apparently, in the act of remembering we are powerfully brought to the fullness of the present moment. Indeed, “remembrance” is identical with “living presence.” (Bourgeault, “The Wisdom Jesus.”)
This dying thief, then, is “re-membered”—by this is meant, “put back together again” in that kingdom space. The thief’s very act of recognition and “re-memberment” is the key that instantaneously brings him to the “living presence” of Christ’s kingdom. This, it could be argued, becomes the clearest and most precise Eucharist theology. Instead of getting all caught up in figuring out exactly when and how the presence of Christ enters the bread and the wine, [that is, for those of you who are keeping theological score, the theoretical debate between consubstantiation or transubstantiation (which has come to seem like pure academic silliness to me)], it seems much more accurate to say that Christ enters us as we make our passage through the portal of remembrance kneeling or standing at the Communion rail.
Over the past twenty years that for me has been the source of my own Eucharistic inspiration. As I have watched all of you make your way from your pews up to the Communion rail, and as I often have been privy to what it is you are carrying in your hearts, I have seen you make your passageway of “re-memberment” into the kingdom. And it has never ceased to move me deeply.
Although the tradition has placed a surplus of words around this essential action and all kinds of rules concerning who can legitimately say the words and who cannot and what gestures should and shouldn’t be employed, it is nothing other than the fundamental act of remembrance, of “re-memberment” in the sharing of the bread and wine that opens us to the living presence. But our liturgical tradition has largely forgotten this truth. Instead we have come to elevate the elements of bread and wine as holy objects to be venerated in and of themselves and argued about which words should or shouldn’t be used in the process.
As it turns out, Jesus’ instructions to us can be boiled essentially down to two requests: that we love one another as he has loved us, and that we share bread and wine in remembrance and living presence with him. He never told us to build elaborate churches, to establish lavish and wordy liturgies and rituals, or to divide God’s people into two different classes—one that would be ordained and could consecrate the bread and wine and the other that could not. In all of this I am afraid that we have become too much a religion about Jesus rather than a religion of Jesus.
If the church is to survive the present age—and the jury is out on this one—I believe we will have to recover the simplicity and the immediacy of this living presence of Jesus in our worship. And we won’t do this by employing more elaborate liturgies. Especially for smaller churches, we will need to modify our services because—while they may have been more appropriate when played to a packed house—they simply don’t play well to handful of worshippers in a nearly empty church. But we must also experiment with other forms of worship—ones that increase the immediacy and intimacy by taking people out of the straight rows of pews and gathering them into a circle.
Some of you have been part of this experimentation here at Trinity. One example is our Wednesday Noon Eucharist at Wisdom House. Because we are not wedded to a formal liturgy for these celebrations of the Eucharist, we are free to respond to where people are coming from and the specific and immediate needs of those present. For example, a week and a half ago one of those present was experiencing a particularly difficult dark night of the soul. The rest of us were able to ritually respond to him through an impromptu but intentional healing ritual and the laying on of hands. It was powerful to all of us present. And then, when all of this got folded into our prayers and our intention of “re-memberment,” our liturgy broke us wide open.
Another whole set of experimental liturgies will be employed during Holy Week. Except for our more traditional liturgies on Maundy Thursday and Easter Sunday, these services will be held in the choir area with the pews removed. This will enable us to reconfigure ourselves in different ways for the distinctive actions and movements of the various liturgies. Although those present will be appropriately guided through these services, there will be no bulletin to follow and no words to be read. Actually, nothing will stand between the participants and the experience.
Now I realize that people will self-select for these liturgies, and that is as it should be. After all, many people might not want to subject themselves to these kinds of experiences. The truth is, we are not always ready for this kind of intimacy; and in our more traditional liturgies we can always find a certain amount of security and safety in our pew. But having talked with some people in the past couple of weeks, I know that, even though they are concerned about feeling awkward, self-conscious, and/or uncomfortable, they are going to take the risk. Who says that worship should be safe anyway?
But I bring these liturgies up because I want to speak more about one of these Holy Week liturgies in particular. It is the Wednesday evening Anointing Ceremony. Here, at a certain point in the service, Sister Lois Barton, representing Mary Magdalene, and I, representing Jesus, will anoint each other with oil. To each other, we will tenderly state, “Place me as a seal upon your heart, for love is as strong as death.” Then, Lois and I will anoint the ones who are standing next to us. They will in turn anoint others as we move around the circle. What is distinctive here is that this will not be clergy anointing laypersons; this is everyone anointing one another. It is, in fact, our baptismal duty to give and to receive such anointing. It represents our ministry in the world. We are called to give richly and to receive thankfully.
I have to say that usually healing and anointing seem to be held as privileges of the ordained. Like the special honor of being able to consecrate the bread and the wine at the Eucharist, this seems to come within the job description of an ordained clergyperson. But really, I wonder if the deepest efficacy of these liturgical actions isn’t actually conveyed through something other than ordination.
I’m not trying to agitate for heresy or rebellion here; I know that the Church as an organization needs a certain amount of formalized structure and organization. I get that, and I have always been willing to operate within that authority (mostly). But I have also come to be more deeply appreciative of the relational and reciprocal energy field that is present in the deepest and truest worship.
Again, this has practically nothing to do with the words spoken or the order in which things are done. It has to do with the intentionality and the presence of those at hand. When there is a shared vision, a reciprocal vulnerability, and an active presence—we are “re-membered” in wholeness, and we share a living presence with Christ. Liturgy, in its deepest sense, is dependent not on the words but on the actions of the hearts of those present. True liturgy takes place anytime people open themselves collectively to Christ in this relational field of intentionality and vulnerability.
This summer I will no longer be your rector, but, I assure you, ministry will continue to take place here at Trinity. And this will be true not just because Renee will be carrying Trinity through the summer’s transition. It will be because there are so many members of this parish family who have a sense of their own ministry. Instead of seeing the church as that place where they come to get fed and to get their spiritual needs met, many members of our parish family have felt the call to a particular kind of ministry; and they have come to discover the reciprocal energy field of Eucharistic love in their ministries. We are called to give richly and to receive gratefully.
Together, then, may we be re-membered in Christ in thankful living presence as we offer ourselves in worship and in service.