This prayer arrived too late. I saw it in my email when I pulled into the church parking lot. I smirked at the title of the post. Oh, Martha, I thought. (She penned that prayer and happens to be an old friend from Maine so that I can say things like “Oh Martha” when looking at the email on my phone.) But, I didn’t read it. I didn’t allow myself to indulge in all of those paralyzing thoughts that agonize a preacher on Sunday morning.
I had read through my sermon that morning. I had edited it some. It wasn’t great. I knew it wasn’t great but it was better than I remembered. It was better than I thought it was when I first allowed it to rest. And then, I got up to preach that sermon.
The words caught in the back of my throat. It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t smooth. It felt as though I was arguing with myself — and maybe I really was. Maybe that’s the sermon that I needed to hear. Maybe what I really needed was to hear myself not make sense so that I could hear a good word from God. But, then, I felt badly for these people. That’s what I was thinking about as the words stuck like cotton in my mouth. with this terrible drivel from the preacher that morning. These poor, poor people, I thought when I saw the table set before us. At the center of this worship space — in the middle of the circle in which we sat — was a table set with bread and juice. Set with the gifts of God for the people of God.
So that when I got up to offer the invitation to the table, these words are something like them stumbled off my tongue:
Ours is a tradition that most values the proclamation of the Word — the reading and preaching of scripture — above all else. It is the central point of our worship. It is what we wait for. It’s what we come to hear. This is bad news for the preacher on the day when God doesn’t quite give her a sermon of such caliber. When the words don’t come together in the preaching, when the words are so garbled that we can not taste and see the good news revealed in the words of Scripture, it is hard to uplift that value of the proclamation of the Word. On those days, it might be best to embrace the other side of our tradition that doesn’t focus as much on proclamation as on ritual. For here we are to share in this ritual of the table. All that we have heard in Scripture today is revealed in this feast. This is the bread of life. It is the food that endures that is before us at this table. It is all that we need and all that we want.
Somehow these words led into the Words of Institution which was again not as I had planned. In my last church, when I had found myself tongue-tied or sometimes just because I wanted to know that I wasn’t the only one at that table, I called upon a moment of profound meaning for me in seminary when my preaching professor invited the whole congregation to share in repeating the Words of Institution. Not by rote. Not as preachers might do it. But, to tell it slowly with small prompts that coach the congregation along so that they might tell the whole story.
In this church, where I find myself as Guest Minister, they are not used to talking in church. They will greet each other at the appropriate time but when I invited them to speak these words, they were so quiet. I could barely hear them. They whispered the words as if they were unsure that they could dare to tell this story themselves. But, these are the gifts for the people of God: this bread, this cup, this table, this food that endures for eternal life. There was a quiet holiness that day. It was the kind of holiness for which I can only be thankful for ritual.
Thank God for ritual.