Last Sunday, I had the honor of presiding over communion for the first time. Oh, I’ve assisted before, and I have served the elements as an elder and deacon many, many times over the years. But this was the very first time I was the one who actually invited people to the table, said the words of institution and gave thanks afterward.
I don’t know what I thought it was going to be like. I knew I was not going to get it all perfectly right. After all, back when I took my Foundations of Worship class, I managed to forget or rearrange at least half of the things I was supposed to say (though I did ace the breaking and pouring bits). There’s a very good reason I write up a manuscript for preaching and prayers when I lead. My brain is just not good at memorizing and retrieving and staying on task in order.
I also knew that it would be tricky to come into another congregation’s worship service cold and get it right. I had thought perhaps the pastor would leave me something of a play-by-play so that I’d know a few of the critical moves. You know – those rituals that every worshiping community does differently. Serve the elders first, last? Eat the bread when you get it? Save the cup to drink together?
I did, however want to get it mostly right. So I asked a few questions of the elder who would be my lead worshiper that day. And I typed up the words I wanted to use from the Book of Common Worship, so that I would have a failsafe in that moment when my brain shut down.
So there I was, checking out the lay of the land before the service and I noticed that the pulpit was directly behind the communion table. And by directly behind, I mean abutting the very center of the table. Right where someone presiding over the table might actually stand (with their cheat sheet unobtrusively available for peeking).
On closer inspection, I began to understand why. In order to make the table “fit” proportionately in the spacious sanctuary, it had to be huge. Not just long, but deep. Even if you shifted the pulpit away from the table, you’d need an eight-foot wingspan to be able to reach the elements on the front edge of the table, where they need to be in order to be seen properly from the pews.
Thus, I found myself standing in front of the table, trying not to look too nervous, trying desperately to remember all the words and in mostly the right order. And catch the mouthed or stage-whispered prompts from the sweet folks helping me with the choreography of plates and cups and musicians and me and them…. one service down.
For round two, the traditional service, things got a little more complex. And I was completely alone on the chancel this time. Well, unless you count the screeching and delayed echoes of my voice that accompanied me once the demons invaded the sound system. I ripped the loaf in an odd way that left a little chunk of Jesus broken on the floor. And when I started to pour the juice, the panicked eyes of the elder in front of me were enough to tell me I needed to stop and distribute bread to them.
“Grace abounds in all things” said the rookie preacher, with what she hoped was a reassuring smile, as she again picked up the pitcher and chalice…
I don’t know if I got the words right from there. I know that we muddled through the Lord’sPrayer with intermittent silence and squawking. And I know we remembered and we proclaimed the Lord’s saving death. And I don’t think I said aloud “Any time now would be great” at the end of the maranatha.
All I could think about was the advice I’d been given when I failed so miserably in those practice runs in seminary. Tell the story. Even if you don’t get the exact words, help the gathered body of Christ remember who they are, who has gathered them and what he did that night before he was betrayed.
The great mystery is that we do remember, not with our minds, but with the very core of our being, the truth about God’s great love for us that is and was and ever shall be. Because somehow, in spite of the distractions and humanness of the act, we are in the presence of Christ in those moment. And we are more acutely aware of Christ in us.
And in that moment, the world goes beautifully, gloriously, wonderfully awry.