This Is How I Break My Vows
Well, folks, we’ve got a weird one.
This scripture from the Book of Acts is one of the more bizarre episodes in the Bible, and we’ve got a lot to choose from.
Peter has this vision of a sheet full of live animals being lowered down from heaven before him, with “four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air,” and he is commanded to kill and eat them.
Reptiles? Really? An angel commands him to kill and eat snakes and lizards?
Sounds more like a bad acid trip than a manifestation of God.
But I was thinking also it may be the first occurrence of a venerable church tradition: the church picnic.
Both my parents were raised Southern Baptist.
My mother was raised in a university Southern Baptist church, right off the campus of Baylor in Waco. They were very sober, respectable, pillar of the community types, and based on her descriptions of the services, were the closest thing to high church Baptists I can picture.
My father’s church, however…well, to begin with it was called Confederate Avenue Baptist Church, and if that doesn’t sum up the Old South I don’t know what does.
And Confederate Avenue was an old-fashioned, sawdust on the floor, traveling preacher, week-long revivals in the summer type of church.
The hellfire and damnation preaching was so intense, my father says, that he got saved two or three times just to be sure.
And at my father’s church, there was a regular phenomenon called “chicken on the grounds.” “Chicken on the grounds,” from what I can tell, was a combination outdoor coffee hour and church picnic that happened every Sunday.
This was also the type of church for which the noon meal was only halftime, there was church that night as well, with some kind of educational program for the kids called “Training Union” that still makes my parents shudder to remember it.
So at chicken on the grounds, my father says, everyone would sit down at the tables out in the yard.
They would pass the platters of food around, of which fried chicken was of course the staple.
They were a poor community, so it was important that everyone only take one piece of whatever was on the table.
The preacher would take care that the platter of chicken would come to him last, and then he would set it on the table in front of his plate.
When everyone was served, he would ask everyone to close their eyes and bow their heads in prayer.
Then while their eyes were closed, as he said the grace, he would reach out and grab an extra piece of chicken.
When everyone opened their eyes after the prayer—Behold! A miracle of the Lord! The Lord has seen fit to anoint his servant the preacher with the bounty of an extra piece of chicken! Hallelujah!
And everyone would say Hallelujah with varying levels of sarcasm and begin to eat.
I love my father’s chicken on the grounds stories. Church and food go hand in hand, and this church is certainly a testament to that.
This story from the Book of Acts is about how the people of God find sustenance, both physical and spiritual sustenance.
But before that question can be answered, the question this text asks is “Who are the people of God?”
In this story, we see much more than a strange vision of animals being lowered on a sheet from heaven.
We see the changing of a worldview.
Peter has been raised his entire life to believe that Israel is the chosen people of God, and when the Messiah comes, the Messiah will deliver the people of Israel and the people of Israel only.
But Jesus came for everyone, the people of Israel and the people of every nation and heritage.
Peter had so much to learn from Jesus when Jesus was on earth that Peter apparently did not quite pick this up the first time around.
So as Peter, never the deepest theological mind to start with, begins to develop into the powerful church leader he will become, God teaches him about who is in and who is out.
It turns out that no one is out.
Just as none of the animals are unclean, none of the people are unclean. The Holy Spirit falls on all of them equally and fully.
This passage is an important basis for the one way in which I do not fulfill my ordination vows.
Okay, well, I fail to fulfill my ordination vows all the time in any number of ways because I’m a sinner and I constantly fail to live up to my spiritual and moral potential.
But there’s only one way in which I deliberately break my vows.
I promised when I got ordained to be loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church, and in accordance with the canons of this Church, to obey my bishop and other ministers who may have authority over me and my work.
99% of the time I have no problem doing this.
But I just can’t fence the table.
What is fencing the table?
That’s the name of the doctrine that excludes certain groups of people from receiving Holy Communion.
In the old days, fencing the table meant actually building a physical fence around the altar. That’s the origin of altar rails.
It was pretty necessary in ancient times when there were quite literally farm animals wandering in and out of the nave. It was important to protect the altar from cows and pigs and chickens.
But it didn’t take long before certain groups of people were placed in the same category as animals and fenced out of participating in the sacrament.
The altar, the place of the primeval holy power of sacrifice and the table of the Lord’s feast, became accessible to fewer and fewer people.
Women, children, poor people, sinners, people who looked or acted or spoke in a way the priest didn’t like. Eventually even the most devout and upright believers, (even the rich ones!), were only receiving communion twice a year, after confession, and only the bread, the Body of Christ, not the wine.
And this exclusion of so many people was hidden behind the justification of a doctrine.
The idea was that the Eucharist was so precious, so holy and so valuable, that no common sinner in an unrestored state could be allowed to touch it.
Only people in a state of grace, with their sins cleansed by confession, and most of the time matching some arbitrary standard of the priest, could receive Holy Communion.
The feast of the Lord’s Table, Jesus’ gift of offering his Body and Blood to us, became a weapon in the hands of a cruel, arrogant ruling clergy class.
Because it was just too holy for those common sinners to touch.
Well, let me tell you something, folks. Jesus just isn’t that fragile.
He hung out with sick and dying people covered in sores and raving with seizures and psychosis.
He consorted with every type of socially unacceptable person from tax collectors to prostitutes.
And he had the original Last Supper with Judas, the most famous sinner of all.
Jesus is not profaned by the touch of sinners.
Jesus welcomes it.
Jesus wants to offer his Body and Blood to the last and the least.
The Holy Table is for sinners.
The Holy Table is for outsiders.
The Episcopal Church is way behind on this doctrine. They thought they were being really progressive by removing the restriction that only confirmed Episcopalians could receive communion.
The current doctrine is that only baptized Christians can receive communion.
And that is a doctrine I simply cannot uphold in good conscience.
And it’s a doctrine that may soon be in the rear view mirror for the Episcopal Church. There is a movement toward Open Table in the Episcopal Church that is gaining ground.
You will hear more about this as we approach the next General Convention. It was shot down pretty fast by the House of Bishops at our last General Convention, but it is not going away.
I believe profoundly that the Table of Christ is for all people, and I am not the only one.
The sacrament is profoundly meaningful and important to me. It’s one of the bases of my entire spirituality.
I do not take it lightly.
But is precisely because I take it so seriously that it is so critical to me that I proclaim and act out the truth, along with you as my fellow ministers, that it is open to all people.
I would give Hitler himself the Body and Blood of Christ if he came to this altar.
Because what is a sacrament? It is a miracle of a humble, ordinary, everyday object like bread or wine or water, being inhabited by the spirit and presence of God.
And why does God do that? To make God’s grace more freely available.
And who needs God’s grace? Everyone.
Who deserves God’s grace? Everyone.
In the Eucharist, Jesus tends to us in the most basic and elemental way possible. He feeds us.
He feeds us with himself.
And we are a hungry people.
We who have known what it is to hunger and thirst, to hunger and thirst for God, for love, for food, for water, for righteousness, for forgiveness, for a second chance—we who have known hunger—when we see our fellow human beings starving for grace and life, how could we ever deny them the chance to come to this altar and be filled by the living Christ?
In our lesson from Acts today, Peter makes this same discovery himself when he witnesses the Gentiles being blessed by the Holy Spirit.
May we take his words to ourselves not just for the sacraments, but for every one of the countless ways God offers God’s grace to us when the question comes up if someone is worthy of our time, our effort, our respect, our love.
May we say with Peter, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”
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