Best day/worst day of my church life: When I was eight years old in second grade, I celebrated my first communion. My family was Roman Catholic at the time and in the Catholic Church, you didn’t get to take communion until you had completed First Communion class in second grade. My classmates and I had been studying hard, learning what the sacrament was, the mechanics of its reception, and how it became Jesus’s body and blood once you swallowed it—that part was not quite as appealing to me, but physics and gruesomeness aside, I was pretty excited to get to be a part of the community and eat me some Jesus!
The special day of our first communion arrived and my best friend, Elizabeth, and I sat together in our little white dresses, veils, and gloves. When we walked up to the altar to receive the sacrament, we saw that a special altar frontal had been made with pink and brown cutouts made to look like smiling faces of children and our names written under them. The Catholic Church we attended was fully integrated and our teachers had created this special frontal to affix each of us to the altar of God—mine even had a black-haired ponytail.
It was the best day I can ever remember as far as my spiritual life goes. Not only did I get to be part of the community and receive the body and blood of Christ, the community had received all my friends and me as we celebrated that first communion together—each of our faces on the altar frontal. After church, Elizabeth and I pretended we were getting married and pulled our veils over our faces, prancing up and down the aisle, and giggling joyfully. It really was an amazing day. Jesus’s presence was palpable—not only in the bread and wine, but in the joy and delight we celebrated in one another—the kingdom of God had not simply come near, it was among us.
Four years later, in that same church, I would experience the worst day of my Christian experience—ironically it was also communion related. The bishop had come to visit and the church was packed. I remember how excited I was that I would get to receive communion from the bishop. At Queen of Peace, there was no altar rail to kneel at, instead everyone came forward in a single line to receive the bread and then split to the left or the right to receive the cup. The clergy and lay ministers distributing the sacraments stood one step above the people, as there was a riser at the front of the church where the altar and choir were situated. As I approached the bishop, my excitement mounted and I smiled up into his serious eyes as he held the wafer of bread in front of me and said, “The Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven.” He paused; I held my breath—neither of us moved. He looked at me and I continued to smile at him and again he said, “The Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven.” My smile began to falter; I wasn’t sure what was happening. In a stage whisper, he asked, “What are you supposed to say?” As any good southern girl would, I replied with the first thought that came into my head, the response I gave every time my mother had asked my those same words in my twelve short years, “Thank you.”
This was not the appropriate response. In a loud voice, the bishop then declared, “You say Amen!” I said, “Amen,” and fled to the chalice. My mother had always encouraged my sister and I to intinct—dip the bread in the wine instead of drinking from the cup—so when I got to the chalice, I went to dip my small wafer in the cup but the chalice bearer wouldn’t lower it. Instead, as I attempted a sort of slam-dunk kind of move with the wafer, in a very loud whisper, he hissed, “You’re not supposed to do that.” No blood of Christ, no cup of salvation—just, you’re not supposed to do that. I was mortified and raced out of the church to the parish hall where my father found me crying under a couch and told me we never had to go back. And we didn’t. Two weeks later, my father’s best friend invited us to the Episcopal Church and the rest is history.
I think a lot about those two days—the day I felt so included and the day I did not. Though both were related to the Eucharist, they conveyed vastly different messages. The first was filled with praise and joy and wonder: Christ was present in the breaking of the bread in palpable and knowable ways. In the second experience, Christ was still present, but I wasn’t aware of him and I’m not sure the bishop was either. In part, I am at fault. I was much more excited about the presence of the bishop than that of Jesus at the Eucharist. And because I was so distracted by what was happening, I forgot to be aware of the divine’s presence. That happens a lot in my life: I am so easily distracted by the earthly, the profane, I forget to be intentional in my awareness of the presence of God.
I have a feeling that those nine other lepers who did not come back and give thanks and praise to God, were a little like you and me—easily distracted by their own circumstances so that they don’t even see when the divine enters in. Sure, we can read this morning’s Gospel and think that it is all about how we need to give thanks to God, but I think that is the last thing it is about. I think when Jesus asks where are the other nine, he is not concerned that they haven’t offered him gratitude but disheartened by their inability to recognize when the kingdom of God has come near: that they are so distracted by their life’s circumstances they do not even realize that they are literally standing in the presence of God. If Jesus were more concerned with gratitude, his question would not have been, “Was none of them found to return and give praise to God…” It would have been “Was none of them found to return and give thanks to God…”
Even the tenth leper, the foreigner, who does return—gratitude is the last thing he offers to God. “Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.” His response to his healing is to recognize the action of the divine, literally change direction by turning around, praises God, worships God by prostrating himself, and then he offers thanks. Gratitude is the last thing this Samaritan does in response to the healing power and presence of Christ in his life. In a way, the bishop was right, it is the Amen that gives praise and glory to the experience of Christ, not thank you.
Naaman’s response to the curing of his leprosy is to give praise to God, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.” Our psalm today starts with praise, “Halleluiah!” and then offers thanksgivings for all the Lord has done. Our prayerful response to the circumstances and situations of our life is one of praise followed by thanksgiving. Framing our prayers and awareness of the divine’s presence in our life from this perspective opens us to the power of God and the grace and mercy his love pours upon us abundantly.
Though my sixth grade, Roman Catholic bishop pointed out that praise is always the appropriate response to God’s presence, where he went wrong was in the method and moment. Jesus corrects in love, drawing our attention to his presence. We, as broken humans, often correct out of judgment being distracted by the circumstances of our present experience instead of focused on the partnership God calls us too in bringing reconciliation into this world. In a lot of ways, that is because we are distracted not by the world around us but by our frame of reference. We focus on ourselves as the center of our being, not God. The nine lepers were focused on their leprosy, not God’s power and presence in their midst. The bishop was focused on doing communion the right way, saying the correct words, instead of the power and presence of Christ in that intimate moment when one person shares Jesus with another.
To live a life in which praise becomes our first response to the circumstances of our world is to learn to place Jesus at the center of who we are instead of ourselves. God creates and it is good. God redeems and it is good. God resurrects and it is good. That is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. To live that Gospel is to know that all of our faces are affixed to the altar—affixed to the presence of Christ in this world.
18 Pentecost Proper 23: 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c; Psalm 111; 2 Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19
Church of the Ascension – Montgomery, AL
Sunday, October 13, 2019
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer