Tuesday, November 30, 2010
If we are all a part of the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12) and some are feet, some are ears, some are elbows (Romans 12:4), then if any one of Christ’s parts is infected with HIV or AIDS, the blood that runs through Christ’s veins is also infected and affects all the parts of the body.
And while we don’t think of communion wine as literally transformed into Christ’s blood, certainly the infected bits of Christ are in, with and under the bread and wine we ingest into our body. If only for this reason, we should care about AIDS as if we ourselves are infected.
For those who think I’m being overly dramatic, or have gone too far with my biblical and liturgical metaphors, I remind you that the taboo in Jewish culture about drinking blood (Genesis 9:4-5; Leviticus 7:26-27; 17:10-12, 14; 19:26; Deuteronomy 12:16, 23-24; 15:23; and Acts 15:19-20) made Jesus’ comments about consuming flesh and blood just as provocative.
I’ve been thinking about how communion has lost its sense of danger ever since Richard Swanson, my religion professor when I was a student at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D. (an ELCA college), pointed out that he believed that the disciples were probably so disgusted by Jesus’ request that they eat his flesh, that they probably refused. He believed this was probably why Christ waited to tell the disciples that the wine was his blood until after everyone had taken a drink (Mark 14:22-24).
Because communion is radical, it leads to radical grace, undeserved forgiveness and creates a kinship with all who worship with us. Being a part of the same bloodline with those in our community helps us to be like family to each other. And if we are not ourselves infected, then many, many members of our family are. If only for this reason, we ought to care about AIDS as if our own mother, child or partner were infected.
Even if it is only within our spiritual imagination, thinking about Jesus and communion this way adds health status to the Galatians list (Galatians 3:28) of things that do not separate us from God or our neighbor. It helps us to remember that in God’s eyes there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, positive nor negative.
At St. Francis Lutheran Church in San Francisco’s Castro district (one of the five churches where I’m called as a pastor), during the midst of the AIDS crisis when little was known about the disease, members were deeply afraid of sharing communion with each other. Much scarier than concerns about sharing a common cup during cold and flu season, this community not only had to learn how to educate each other about how HIV and AIDS is spread but to savor life as they walked with those who were dying.
Their communion liturgy took on new meaning, because the congregation knew each week that it would be the last time some of their members heard those words. If you were to worship at St. Francis this Sunday, you would notice some of the changes to their communion liturgy that stem from the AIDS crisis.
You’d notice that the pastor still takes the last drink from the common cup to show the community that it is safe and that there is a special time of prayer to give a special blessing for even the smallest moments of joy, thanksgiving or celebration in a worshiper’s life. This may include celebrating an anniversary, thanksgiving for a month without smoking cigarettes or a blessing of a bicycle before the AIDS ride.
This past year, I was able to bless a member of St. Francis who was celebrating 15 years of life since he had been diagnosed with HIV. We celebrated his health, luck and the advancements in medications that have been developed since the early days of the AIDS crisis.
We lamented the years and bottles upon bottles of pills that he has had to take, constantly reminding him of how fragile his body is. We acknowledged the fear that comes with wondering when someone sneezes if it will cause him to be sick for months. We wished him freedom from the guilt that comes from surviving what took away the lives of so many. And together we thanked God, who created our fragile bodies and despite all we have done or left undone, names us, claims us and calls us good.
My words of blessing were an echo of the thousands of times, since the AIDS crisis began, that after communion one of the pastors of St. Francis has said: “May the blessing of Christ strengthen and preserve you. Live forgiven, claim your wholeness and go in peace.”
Sunday, November 7, 2010
The problem was that church never seemed to be about that same message. For me, church was about rules, somber living, and listening to every word of the gospel as truth. At the same time, though, the pastors were insincere. One would act completely devout without question to your face, but decided to leave the church and the clergy not long after. The other would tell funny and interesting anecdotes during sermons, but they all turned out to be a lie.
Beyond the clergy, crying babies were whisked away so nobody would be bothered. The time where we all go around saying “Peace be with you” was just an awkward period where you were supposed to hug a bunch of strangers, but the people were never the same and nobody asked for your name. While singing the hymns, nobody bothered to stand out- everybody sang quietly and perfectly in time with the organ. Church, for me, was a place where you learned all of the things you’re not supposed to do, memorize all the things you were supposed to memorize, and, above all, you weren’t supposed to ask questions.
The Community of Travelers service is completely different. We are just that- a community. It’s a small group, but the same faces are there week after week, so you know everyone’s name. One member of the congregation brings a plate and cup for communion every week, so we all get a sense of each other’s personalities. There is always at least one dog at every service, maybe 2, and they are encouraged to sing along with us. When they act disruptive, the pastors remind us that they are G-d’s creation too, and are welcome to worship with us even if they do it in a different way. Every week, we break out for discussion, art projects, or individual prayer as a part of the service. It’s a space where exploring your faith and talking about your faith is not just welcome, but encouraged.
The service is also constantly evolving. Queen Michelle Jordan leads us in song every week, and we don’t know what to expect. She always wants us to participate, whether by singing, speaking, or clapping. One week, the congregation was even given drums! The pastors look to the congregation for feedback, so it truly feels like the service is for those that attend.
The best part is the fellowship after the service. I am a kind of shy person, but the fact that it’s a small community feels like I’m sharing some snacks with new friends. I may not know much about them yet, but every week I learn a little more. I hope for their success and health, and I miss them when they’re not there. I’ll be honest, I don’t even know my neighbors names and wouldn’t really notice if they moved out, but this group is so connected that we look out for each other.
In closing, if you like the traditional, somber church service, this isn’t for you. But if you’ve been thinking about going to a church service to see what it’s like, if you want to feel like part of a community, or if you just want to hang out with some dogs and eat some snacks, I welcome you to join us for service some time- you’ll have some fun.