I love football, by which I mean soccer. I spent my adolescence in Tennessee, where the gridiron reigns supreme and I do still hold a certain reverence for Sir Peyton Manning, although I whole-heartedly cheer against him when the Seahawks play Denver. I also grew up watching Ron Gant, Dale Murphy, John Smoltz, and host of other Atlanta Braves players of the 80s and 90s.
But soccer is where my heart is. Its traditions, its simplicity, and its elegance all appeal to me. Especially the traditions and history.
This past August I had the chance to go to England for a few weeks. While I was there I went to a lot of soccer matches. I went to see Stoke City FC, which is the second oldest professional soccer club still operating. It was founded in 1863. I stood with the Stoke supporters at an away match and chanted the old club songs. I visited Old Trafford, which is the home of Manchester United. I’m not a fan of Manchester United, but as I walked through the tunnel that David Beckham, Wayne Rooney, George Best, Mark Hughes, and many others, had walked through for 85 (note 1) years, it was impossible not to feel the weight of the history and tradition of that place. As I watched Liverpool FC in a pub across the street from Anfield Stadium, there were grandmothers in jerseys yelling and chanting and singing while the young’uns sat around on the floor and soaked it all it, learning the traditions of the team and the city.
And while I was in Edinburgh, I was able to attend mass in a Scottish Episcopal Church which has been worshiping in its current location since 1689, although the building is about a century younger (note 2). Old St. Paul’s parish in Edinburgh was the original congregation in the founding of the Scottish Episcopal Church and the American Episcopal Church can trace its apostolic succession back to there (note 3). The ELCA can probably trace its succession back to there as well, following our full-communion partnership with the Episcopal Church.
In that place full of its own history and tradition, I joined in one of the two great traditions of the Church.
We have many traditions in the church, but there are two sacred traditions that bind us together, baptism and communion. In baptism, we are bound to the church and the church is bound to us in a mutual covenant. In communion, we come into fellowship with all of Creation and all of the church that was, that is, and that shall be.
This meal that we share takes many forms and has traditions layered on top of it. There are surface differences all around. Just within this congregation some Sundays we use pita bread and crockery and other Sundays we use wafers and crystal.
I was once at a youth event where the theme for the day was “Come to God’s party”. Communion was served in one of those chip and dip trays, with the bowl in the middle holding grape juice and bits of pita bread were on the tray around it.
In the Coptic Orthodox church the elements are separated, with the bread distributed first, then more liturgy (there is a lot of liturgy in a Coptic Mass), then the wine is distributed. And the wine is distributed with a long silver spoon, even to infants.
Sometimes it happens without liturgy, but with a real-presence none-the-less, like when two youth groups from 2000 miles apart bond in the middle of a flash flood and share a simple meal under the stairs outside the Superdome in New Orleans.
No matter the form, the essence of the meal is the same, the community is gathered around a table for the sake of Christ and Christ is present.
In our reading from Matthew, we heard about a King who threw a party and no one that was invited showed up. So the King got angry and killed all of them and then invited anyone that wanted to come to come on in and join the party. But then one guest wasn’t wearing the right clothes and didn’t explain why and got tossed out of the party.
Episcopalian priest Robert Capon suggests that we should think about this party as the A-list of the A-list type party. Movie stars, politicians, Melissa Rivers on the red carpet, and that is who fails to show up. And even worse than not showing up, they actively refuse to participate. The party isn’t cancelled though, it is open to everybody. The host rounds up everybody he can find and says “Come to my party, I have a Champaign waterfall, Beluga, and ice swans waiting just for you.” Not only does the host invite everyone to attend, but Capon suggests a slight addition, the host opens up his closets and pulls out all the best clothes so that the random person on the street can get all gussied up. I’m personally imagining Tim Gunn and Neil Patrick Harris standing by racks of suits and dresses finding all of the right clothes for each person.
And yet, and yet, somebody is in the party not dressed for the party. And he offers no reason why not. Just like those that were originally invited, he is refusing to participate. And he is tossed out into the outer darkness with the weeping and the gnashing of teeth.
Thus it is with Christ’s Church and the Kingdom of God. In Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, the shroud of death has been removed and we have been invited to the feast of rich foods and well-aged wines on the top of God’s mountain. This invitation is extended to all of creation, throughout all of time. And even more than that, as the Common English Bible’s translation of Psalm 23 goes, “goodness and faithful love will pursue me all the days of my life.” God’s grace keeps on coming after us and giving us the chance to accept it.
When we come together at this table and join in this feast, we say yes to God and refresh our hearts and our minds in the knowledge of that grace.
This table carries so much more history with it than just its existence in this room, or this congregation, or the ELCA, or the Lutheran movement. The history of God’s creation is like a slinky, with coils that stretch and collapse. When we step up to this rail and eat the bread and drink the cup, history collapses like a collapsed slinky and we are joined together with all of those that ever have and ever will step to the rail throughout creation and throughout time.
Unlike the weight of history and tradition in Old Trafford or your alma mater, this history carries with it responsibility. We have a responsibility to participate in bringing the kingdom of God into reality. Sports clubs, colleges, they carry no responsibility of participation. But God longs for all creation to join in relationship and participate in bringing all of creation into that relationship as well.
The gift of grace is a gift freely given. As recipients of that gift, we are to respond by joining in the community of the saints at the table and in bringing the table to the world.
In the words of St. Paul from today’s reading from Philippians, "[May] the peace of God which exceeds all understanding keep [our] hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus.”
Amen and Amen
- Really 103 years, Old Trafford was built in 1910. I took a guess and didn’t fact check before preaching.
- I thought I read that the present building dated to the 18th century, when it actually dates to the 19th.
- Well, really to the first bishop of the Episcopal Church in the USA. He worshipped at Old St. Paul’s in 1752 visiting from America. When he was chosen to be the first bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States, after the split from the Church of England, he was consecrated in a Scottish Episcopal Church in Aberdeen Scotland. According to the church website, he recalled his experience at St. Paul's (as it was known then) and realized that being consecrated by a Scottish bishop would be an option for him, as he could not swear allegiance to the crown as required in England. More information is available on the parish website.