Email sent today to my spiritual director, lightly edited. Since it quotes extensively from this blog (and WordPress isn’t letting me do block quotations the way I want to), I am putting my email message in lightface italics and leaving quoted material in Roman type.

Hi Sister —

[* * *] Not very much to report this month, because I haven’t written very much.

But I think I have worked through something that’s been bothering me since the pandemic hit Springfield in March and we stopped having F2F services at my church … or, more accurately, found a new way of thinking about the sacraments that helps relieve me of the pressure of feeling like I have to receive the Eucharist every Sunday. I don’t have quite the correct words for it, but it’s more about how we can receive the means of grace from scripture and pass it on to our neighbor. Better to give than to receive, I guess. Where have I heard that before?

Anyway, I started journaling about this new idea back at the end of June, when I read an article on Luther by Philip Cary, a philosophy professor at Eastern University in Pennsylvania. I’ll just quote it again since that’s what got me to thinking:

In fact, in a sermon on Christmas Day, 1519, Luther comes right out and says the Gospel is a sacrament. It has the same structure and operation that Catholic theology finds in all the sacraments, which are external signs efficaciously conferring the grace they signify on those who properly receive them. Luther simply adds: The proper reception of the word of the Gospel is faith alone.  

Here’s the link:

At our last session in July, we talked about “hungering for the Eucharist,” and I spent quite a bit of time over the next couple of weeks stewing about that. But after [a while,] I put it aside and started journaling about the Old Testament reading for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost (as ELCA Lutherans count the Sundays in Ordinary Time), the one about the miracle of the multiplication of loaves and fishes in Matthew. It came up toward the end of that journal, which I really enjoyed writing, since I followed the guidelines for lectio divina and a bit of Ignatian contemplation and felt like I was getting somewhere with them this time. But I’ll just give you a link and quote the part about missing the sacraments. You’ll notice it follows the last part of James Martin’s Read-Think-Pray-Act rubric, picking up halfway through “Pray”: — Aug. 4 — Loaves, fishes and Luther’s concept of the Word as sacrament: How do you do church when you can’t go to church? (Pentecost IX)

… There’s something else on my mind in this season of pandemic, and it has to do with the deep Eucharistic overtones Fr. Martin spoke of. We’re into August now, and I haven’t taken holy communion since the end of February. It was central to my spiritual practice before the pandemic, and I’m missing it. In fact my spiritual director and I spoke of “hungering for the Eucharist” the last time we met, a couple of weeks ago toward the end of July. I didn’t know the miracle of loaves and fishes was coming up in the lectionary, either.

Timothy J. Wengert, who taught Reformation history at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, offers a way out, though. In an online article on “Holy Communion under Quarantine,” he notes that Luther had a nuanced position on the sacrament, holding it “was intended to take place in the Sunday gathering and not privately” but telling Protestants during a troubled time in Bohemia they could skip it when they:

… did not dare or could not receive the Eucharist. For the Eucharist is not so necessary that salvation depends on it. The gospel and baptism are sufficient since faith alone justifies and love alone lives rightly. (Boldface in the original.)

Wengert also quotes Gordon W. Lathrop, who taught liturgics at LTS, that “for Lutherans it is not only that the sacrament is a sort of Word — it is that the Word itself is sacramental: it is full of the presence of Christ, come ‘to do us good’.” Together they quote Luther, who said in the preface to a book of his sermons (known as the Church Postils) that Christ himself is present when the Gospel is proclaimed:

If you pause here and let him do you good, that is, if you believe that he benefits and helps you, then you really have it. Then Christ is yours, presented to you as a gift. After that it is necessary that you turn this into an example and deal with your neighbor in the very same way, be given also to him as a gift and an example.

In other words, the same kind of thing is going on when we read the Word of God, hear it preached over YouTube or discuss it over Zoom as when we receive the body of Christ in church. Or, I think, as when the 5,000 Galileans heard Jesus preach and shared a meal of bread and fish on the banks of the Sea of Galilee.

A lot to think about here, and I don’t think this is the last word (with a lower-case “w”) on it.

Pray: What do I want to say to God about the text? In a word: Thank you! Not much I can add to that. As Luther says, with these gospel stories, “Christ is yours, presented to you as a gift.” Jesus’ ministry was a gift to the 5,000 gathered on that grassy hillside in ancient Galilee, and those stories of his were a gift; Christ, through the reading of the gospel, is a gift to me. The only appropriate thing for me to say is thank you.

(And thanks, also, to the Lutheran theologians who remind me that to Martin Luther, the Word was a sacrament and suggest that “in this time we may just cling to the sacramental Word” in the hope the pandemic will run its course and then,” in a healthier time, we can carefully rebuild” our spiritual practice and take communion again.)

Act: Finally, you act. Receiving the gift of Christ in the Word isn’t the end of it, of course. I’ll leave the last word to Luther, “After that it is necessary that you turn this into an example and deal with your neighbor in the very same way, be given also to him as a gift and an example.” Always, you act.

After reading Timothy Wengart’s article, I felt better about it. I didn’t quote it in my journal, but Wengert goes on to say, “Once we are freed of some sort of spiritual necessity for celebrating the Supper, we are much better prepared to discuss with one another how best to behave in this situation.” That’s certainly how it’s working for me. I feel like it’s getting me back on track.

In fact, a couple of days later I wrote what turned out to be kind of a throwaway journal — I was inspired by St. Matthew’s story of the fish and loaves to look up recipes for “St. Peter’s fish,” a kind of tilapia I ate near where the miracle occurred in Galilee. (Debi took one look at it and ordered something else, and I’ll admit — it *does* look disgusting. But it’s delicious, and I found an Israeli recipe for frozen fish in a microwave.) I’ll link to my post here (“St. Peter’s fish, a surprisingly tasty meal with a 2,000-year backstory in Galilee”, but it has nothing to do with the sacraments during a time of pandemic, and you can skip over it unless you have a lot of time on your hands and you’re interested in microwavable fish recipes).

Back to business: After reading Timothy Wengert’s article, it was like breaking up a logjam. Our next set of readings, for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, included the passage from 1 Kings where Elijah experiences the presence of God not in the wind, the earthquake or the fire but in a “still, small voice.” Here’s the link, and I’ll quote a couple, three passages: — Aug. 8 — Elijah and the word of the Lord: No windstorm, no fire, no earthquake. Just get back to work (Pentecost X)

The quotes may represent my resolution of another issue I’ve been struggling with, even before the pandemic — the anti-Semitism and triumphialism I find in so much of organized religion. Again, I was following Fr. Martin’s guide on lectio: The first quote comes toward the end of my retelling of the story (under “Read” in his rubric) and the beginning of my meditation on it (under “Think”): 

Out of this silence, the voice of the Lord again asks, ““What are you doing here, Elijah?” And the prophet again answers, ““I have been very zealous for the Lord …” and so on. We’ve heard it before — apparently he hasn’t learned anything from the divine pyrotechnics.

So the Lord gets down to cases with Elijah: “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram.” And the other ancients whose names I tripped over when I was reading aloud, including Elisha who was to succeed him as prophet of Israel.

If what comes next were left up to me, I would call for an ecumenical conference where the prophets of Yahweh and Ba’al could sort things out, seek points of agreement and maybe come out with a Call to Common Witness. But that’s not how things were done in the ninth century BCE. The voice of the Lord is very clear about that: “Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill. Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”

In other words, the Lord tells Elijah to quit bellyaching and get back to work.

Think. At this point in lectio divina, says Fr. Martin, “you ask whether there is something that God might want to reveal to you through this passage. Often, it might connect with something in your life.” Well, we can rule out Elijah’s troubles with King Ahab and Jezebel. I’m a great believer in ecumenical relations, but I don’t think there are any prophets of Ba’al left to have an interfaith dialog with. So they don’t quite connect with my life. Nor does Elijah’s animosity toward them. I generally skim over that stuff the same way I try to overlook St. John’s animosity toward “the Jews” or, for that matter, what Martin Luther said about 16th-century Jews and the pope. I’d like to hope we’ve learned something in the last 500 to 10,000 years.

But there’s something in Elijah’s dialog with the word of the Lord that does speak to me.

Or in the silence. Since the word speaks to me out of silence.

I didn’t think of it in the present context when I was writing the journal, but I wonder if that’s part of the message here, too. Time to quit bellyaching about how I can’t receive the sacraments in church because of the pandemic and — why didn’t I see this coming? — get back to work.

The final quote comes a little later, still under “Think” in Fr. Martin’s rubric. And I guess it answers the question I just posed: 

When I study the story of the prophet Elijah and the still, small voice of silence at the foot of Mount Horeb, I intuit two things. Neither one of which I can directly pinpoint (nor would I want to). One is that God tends to speak to me, when God speaks to me at all, quietly or by indirection. I’m more likely to notice little coincidences that point me in the right direction. Around the tables in 12-step recovery groups, we like to say that coincidence is what happens when God prefers to maintain God’s anonymity.

That works for me, as we say around the tables, if I work it.

Or, more commonly, I’ll look at something in a new light that’s been there all along … and wonder if maybe God’s calling attention to it. And the more tentative I am about it, the more likely I am to think God is somehow behind this discovery that isn’t really a discovery because it was always there.

The other thing I notice from the story is that when the Lord speaks to Elijah, the Lord tells Elijah to quit complaining and get back to work.

I’ve heard that message before, too.

Unless I hear otherwise from you, I’ll call you Monday at 2:30 p.m.

— Pete

4 thoughts on “Spiritual journal for August — further thoughts on Word and sacrament in a time of pandemic

  1. I love reading the same passages as you so I can understand your reflections, especially in this case, about Ezekiel. I would probably stay in that cave quite a bit longer! Since we have worshiped in many different settings, I have had direct experience of Communion without the physical Host. This was strongest in Quaker meetings where we spent a number of years. 12 Step meetings always seemed sacred to me too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m embarrassed! I meant Elijah!!! Which must be a still, small voice reminding me I need to spend more time with the Old Testament.

      And I’m in complete agreement with you about being in communion without the physical bread and wine (and I always take the grape juice, which is also offered in ELCA churches, anyway). Appreciate your saying it, since it’s been an issue with me during this pandemic.

      Liked by 1 person

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