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February 2, 2014 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.

Unexpected Blessings

Adam H. Fronczek
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 121
Matthew 5:1–12

Just as I am, thou wilt receive,
Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;
Because thy promise I believe,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come!

Charlotte Elliott

It’s a Communion Sunday, so I thought I would begin with a couple of stories about food. Both of them are about my family.

It was in the home of my grandparents on my mother’s side that I learned how to sit at the table properly and bring my best. The home was on the corner of 8th Street and Madison Avenue in Anderson, Indiana. By the time I was a child, the neighborhood was starting to look a bit run-down, but you never would have known it at their house. The rose garden was pristine and so was everything in the house. The dining table held silver and china placed so immaculately you suspected the Virgin Mary had set it herself. It was at that table that I learned what fork to use when and how to chew quietly, and on the way to that table I was routinely reminded that I was Adam Howard, strong and able, and was to keep my elbows off the table!

Not everything was perfect in that house or quite as buttoned up as it seemed. The Swiss steak didn’t appear on the table by miracle or accident; it was the product of my ninety-pound grandmother back in the kitchen in a sticky haze of eggs and flour, wielding a meat tenderizer with all the fury of a medieval battle axe. And when I grew up, I learned that other aspects of the home were like that. Behind the pristine exteriors there was messiness and pain in that household just like in any other. While I was learning to sit politely at the table, I was probably also inheriting some life lessons about hiding my own flaws, lessons that haven’t always been helpful. But every home is undoubtedly a mix of lessons learned, some for good and some for ill. In the end, I know it was in that place that I learned the importance of bringing my best.

My grandparents on my father’s side lived in a different kind of place. Auburn, New York, was filled with people who had names with lots of consonants; there were Odjzywalskis and Fronczeks and Pytkas. Auburn was a city of only about 25,000 residents, but in the phone book there were well over 100 bowling alleys, most of them with names like the Polish Home and the Polish Falcons. The meal I inherited from my father’s family was unceremoniously known as “The Pot.” It was cooked in a small earthenware cauldron, a little larger than a basketball. My grandma, my babka, filled the pot with cabbage and kielbasa and whatever was ripe in the garden, and then grandpa, my djiadek, took the pot out into the yard and hung it over an open fire, and while it cooked, the men drank beer that you knew was beer because it came in a plain white can that said “BEER” in black letters. The pot, which was produced in a seemingly endless supply, was served in gigantic bowls to Stanleys and Dannys and Stevies and Jimmys who sat in lawn chairs. And around those tables you said whatever was on your mind; there was no such thing as polite dinner conversation, there was no ceremony or pretention around those tables, but there was plenty of imperfection. My djiadek was a faithful Catholic who went to Mass every week, but he had no problem swearing a blue streak at his stinkin’ Buick, and he didn’t care who was watching, including the plastic Jesus right there on the dashboard. And there I learned the important lesson that often you come before Jesus not just at church but right out in your driveway, and you better be ready to come honestly, just as you are.

The real blessing that I draw from these two stories from my life is that neither one of them is perfect and that I am a product of both. In trying to make sense of these two stories that are both deeply a part of me, I have learned that if we are bringing a part of ourselves that is honest, we are also in some way bringing our best, and the same is true in reverse. When you come before God, bringing your best and coming honestly are somehow the very same thing.

The hard part is that bringing these things together seamlessly is an ideal most of us will never quite reach. It’s impossibly hard to be both as authentic as we’d all like to be while also navigating a world that expects a more polished kind of presentation. Most places cannot welcome you just as you are while also demanding that you bring your best. And so finding that kind of a welcome should be why we come to church.

Church is supposed to show you something different—more challenging, more comforting, and ultimately better than what passes for acceptable in the rest of your life. Church should be a place that is both beautiful and gritty, polished and profane, a place where you are challenged to bring your best and are also accepted just as you are. When it is that place, that’s why people come. It just so happens that one of the most important things we do in church illustrates just that idea.

Today we celebrate Communion—the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Those of you who have not been trained as Communion servers in this place would be truly amazed if you knew the process. There are several pages of instructions for our Communion servers. Diagrams explain where to stand; protocols indicate how many trays are placed on the table and how many are circulated to you, the congregation. There are instructions about dark suits and “quiet” shoes. The Communion wafers are baked according to an old Fourth Church recipe that was painstakingly modified a few years ago in order that it might be gluten free. Aside from the people who bake the bread and the ones who walk up and down the aisle and serve you, there is a team called the Chancel Guild that arrives on Saturday to prepare the trays, and there are Deacons who wait at the back of the church in the area we call the Narthex to collect empty trays and to wash the dishes.

Before the Communion servers walk up the aisle with military precision, a minister will stop the chaotic preparations back in the Narthex and will pray with them, offering them a warm smile and reminding them that Communion is about to be served and that it will be alright—even if somebody drops a tray. In case I sound to any of you as if I am being sarcastic in this description, let me assure you, I am not. When I was a child, as early as I can remember, my parents took me to church. And when we went there it meant something different than the rest of the week. I was to put on scratchy clothes and uncomfortable shoes, a tight collar and a clip-on tie, and I was to sit quietly and respectfully in church . . . and why? Because of a truth that goes back to Cain and Abel in Genesis, chapter 4: perhaps everything in your life is not perfect, but when you come before God, you bring your best—and I believe that is true.

This afternoon at 4:00 worship, I will preach this same sermon and we will celebrate Communion again. That service is a little different. Casual and quieter, there will be no military procession. A small group of volunteers prepares the bread and juice before the service. We ask people to write down their joys and concerns on cards, and we read them aloud as our prayer before Communion. People pray for relatives from whom they are estranged and for relief from suicidal thoughts. They give thanks for dreams that have been realized in their lives and for the gift of sitting in church with a partner whom they love. People don’t stay in their seats during Communion: we invite worshipers to come forward, to take a piece of bread—it comes from the loaves we give away for free at Sunday Night Supper—to dip it into the cup and take the elements together. Some people get a little skittish about the chance of getting sick this time of year, though one of my few superstitions is that I don’t believe that really happens during Communion. A few people will not be able to come forward, and we will take the elements to them. Hopefully that is a reminder to everyone in the room. We are all vulnerable to aging and injury; not a one of us can cheat mortality forever, and one day every one of us will stop breathing, turn cold, and die. So we’d better take good care of one another while we can. There is a reminder at that table that every one of us, no matter how rich or brave or strong we may appear to be, is ultimately a helpless child of God, who needs to be fed and cared for before going back out to the world. And so that is what we do.

Both of these ways of taking Communion are equally valid because they are both so deeply a part of who we are. We want so badly for there to be aspects of our lives that are put together and well-prepared, that are beautiful and worthy and something worth striving for. And we also seek desperately to be accepted for who we are—to have a place to go where we need not leave our messes at the door. Finding either one of those things is hard. Finding both in the same place is almost unheard of. But this combination of beauty and authenticity, of challenge and acceptance—of wholeness—is found in Communion, because that’s what God is all about. We come here to get something different, something better, than what we get in the rest of life.

In today’s Gospel lesson, people come to see Jesus because he is offering them something better than what they get in the rest of their lives. It’s early in his ministry, and his reputation is just starting to grow. Some people have heard him talk and have been moved by his humble and yet commanding presence, and they’ve started to tell their families and friends. So one afternoon he was walking in the country, and people came from all around to hear something that they couldn’t hear anywhere else. There were enough of them that he found a hill on which to stand so they all could see and hear him, and they gathered around and found seats on the grass, and he began to teach them: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are the merciful . . . ,” he said. It sometimes gets lost in the beauty of the words that these are not things that many of us want to hear or are willing to do. You have to assume that in the face of these “blessings” many of Jesus’ listeners thought, “I don’t want to be merciful or poor or hungry. What I need when I get up in the morning is to be strong and self-sufficient, to be powerful and influential and have people do what I want them to do.” But Jesus’ challenge, Jesus’ blessing, comes again, and this time the people heard it with a sense of acceptance that struck right to their hearts: Jesus said to them, “I know you are poor in spirit and weak, even though you want people to think you are so strong. This I know. You may have trouble being merciful to others, but I know what you desire most is to obtain mercy—to be forgiven for the things you have done. And I know that even in the midst of your failings, you are pure in heart; you always have been. For you are who God made you to be.”

In these words of Jesus, these beautiful and yet deeply challenging words, there is a message that cuts both ways. We are told not to accept the standards of the world as good enough and that we are called to something better, and yet we are reassured that we are already good enough because God loves what God has made. In some paradoxical way, bringing your best is coming honestly, just as God made you.

The challenge is there in front of us: A life well-lived is often not what we think we want or need. A life well-lived is one that is marked by forgiveness rather than consumed by anger, lived in generosity rather than in consumption. Additionally, life well-lived is not marked by creating a façade of perfection around ourselves, but by the knowledge that we can come as we are and that others and God will accept us because we are who we were created to be.

I call you to this table today. Come and be reminded that you are accepted as you are; come and bring your best. Come because every one of us is beautiful and deeply flawed, poor in spirit and pure in heart, and it is with that understanding that we come to see God. Amen.