The Eucharistic Table of Ferguson
“WHAT WE NEED IS NOT JUST DIPLOMATS. WE NEED PSYCHOLOGISTS AND THEOLOGIANS.” – YOSSI HALEVI
In May, when I was with a group studying the conflict in Israel and Palestine, I spent a morning in Jerusalem with Yossi Halevi, a Jewish author who has spent decades immersed in the conflict in that land, and who wrote the words at the top of this article.
I have come back to those words often as Ferguson, just 15 minutes from our cathedral, has become the epicenter of America’s latest seismic encounter with race and class, power and privilege. Yossi could have been speaking of Ferguson and of the national wound that has been revealed by it. And that has led me to believe that, as the Church, our primary gift in this moment is indeed to be theologians: to provide a theological framework and language for us to engage in this work.
As Episcopalians, our theology is intensely sacramental. Our sacraments and
rites are not just ritual, but a pattern for our entire lives. And so we must, I believe, engage what is happening in Ferguson in the way we engage everything: sacramentally and, specifically, Eucharistically. The Eucharist begins with gathering. We gather around the presence of Christ and focus our attention on it. We drink Christ’s presence in with eyes and ears. This is where divinity meets humanity—where we as human beings allow ourselves to be vulnerable enough to speak our deep truth—and the experience is often raw, usually messy, and always, always real.
Last summer, the presence of Christ burst forth in the cries coming from Ferguson. But they were not and are not cries just of Ferguson—but cries from throughout this land. They are cries of mothers, children, and everyone else who has been treated as less than a full image of God because of race. They are cries of frustration from police, cries of loss from residents, and cries of exasperation and sorrow from teachers prevented from teaching their children. They are voices not of a “them” but of part of the “we.”
Our first task in Ferguson is simply to pay attention: to look at the faces; to listen
to the voices; to see Mike Brown’s body lying on the street for four-and-a-half hours with his own mother unable to go to him, and to superimpose on it our own child’s or niece’s or nephew’s or precious one’s face; to do this with “inquiring and discerning hearts,” asking God to reveal the presence of Christ in these voices crying out in our midst. Eucharist continues with offering: “presenting ourselves as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” We lay our lives—our whole selves, holding nothing back—on the table with Christ’s life. We don’t just listen to the voices of Christ, but we let those voices become part of us; we let them interact with us; we let God change us through them. When we do this, the offering of our lives becomes intermingled with the life and presence of Christ, and something new is created that is both each of us and Christ.
This is the new life that happens when we meet in that place where divinity touches humanity—where our vulnerability touches each other’s in the model of the cross, and together we become something we never could be on our own. That is the moment of blessing when we ask God to say “this is good;” the moment when all our vulnerability, joy and pain come together into a whole with the highest integrity. For us, that means listening deeply to the voices that were given a megaphone by the events of Ferguson—letting those voices come among us, into the everydayness of the entire body, and into everyone’s stories, and letting all of us be changed. If we are among those for whom these voices are challenging, our task is to guard against defensiveness and shame, which shut us down to the converting power of the other. We must continually ask God to bless, and continually believe that God means us for one another, and that our destiny is to be reconciled to God and to one another in Christ (II Corinthians 5).
Then we receive. And what we receive is a little piece of each of us and a lot of Jesus. We came to the table as individuals, but we leave as one. Changed by one another, and bound as one in Christ, we become new—together.
Finally, we are sent into the world “to love and serve God with gladness and singleness of heart.” We are sent because, like Jesus, our life is not to be lived for ourselves, but given for the love of the whole world.
In the wake of Ferguson, living Eucharistically means that our role as Christians is continually to ask:
Where is the presence of Christ? From whom are we hearing Christ’s voice?
How is God calling us to lay our lives on the table with that presence of Christ?
How can we be open to the new life that emerges—a new life that removes all the“us and thems” and creates a new and glorious “we?”
How can we let this new life become our new identity—who Jesus says that WE are?
How can we, as a new people in Christ, be sent into the world to love and serve with gladness and singleness of heart?
Like the Eucharist, these things do not happen all at once. We come back to the table time and time again—because we do it so imperfectly (thankfully God is even more graceful than we are imperfect); and because while it is so difficult, it is also rewarding. No one-time ritual, the Eucharist is the gathering-offering-blessing-receiving-sending motion of our lives.
We engage reconciliation both as individuals and as the communion of saints: local, national, global and cosmic. And as with the Eucharist, our call as followers of Christ is not only to live Eucharistically, but to lead the world into that life as well. It is our call to help train the eyes of the world on the presence of Christ, and to invite the people of the world to lay their lives on the table with his presence—and it is our call to lead the process of all of us becoming something new and life-giving together.
As we watch the aftershocks of the events from Ferguson, and other parts of the country, we are called to consider what it means to encounter those events as Eucharistic people. It is an incredibly imperfect and messy process. It is not a single act, but a pattern of life lived in community that will be repeated over and over and over again. We will have to hold each other in love and grace because, more often than not, we will not get it right. But it is in holding one another in love and grace that the power of Christ is set loose.
This is the gift that we as the church, bring to Ferguson, and to New York, and to the gaping wound of our nation’s original sin of race as a whole. It is not our first priority to be social scientists or aid workers, community organizers or even crusaders for reform. Instead, it is for us first to be theologians, offering the life-giving gifts that, if not offered by us, may not be offered at all: the gift of Eucharist; the gift of the sure and certain hope of the resurrection that does not detour around the agony of the cross; and the gift of a Christ who gave himself for the whole world— no exceptions—and who promises that, as we do the same, he will be with us always, even to the end of the age. +
This article first appeared in the fall 2014 edition of The Episcopal New Yorker and is reprinted with permission.