A reflection by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
October 6, 2019
World Communion Sunday
This is the joyful feast of the people of God! Those words are spoken at the start of every communion service in the Presbyterian church. As the Worship Committee began thinking a few weeks ago about how we wanted to mark World Communion Sunday this year, one word in that phrase stood out to us: joy. This is the joyful feast of the people of God! It is not the burdensome feast of the people of God, or the obligatory feast of the people of God. It is not the exclusive feast of the people of God, or the private feast of the people of God. The Lord’s Supper is the joyful feast of the people of God and we have come from north and south, east and west to sit at this table. At the table of Jesus, we remember his life, death, and resurrection, and the nourishment we receive here strengthens us in our service to God and our neighbors. This table also points us to the time, in God’s time, when all things will be complete and every person from every race and tribe will sit at one table and feast together in wholeness, peace, and unity.
Within the story of the Bible, there are many different expressions of joy—songs, prayers, psalms, hymns, dancing, even parades. But all of these expressions of joy flow from one of two experiences with the living God. The first is joy that comes from simply being in the presence of God. The second is joy that comes from knowing that God is actually working in the world to bring about peace and justice.
David is a great example of the first experience. David was so joyful to simply be in God’s presence that he stripped off almost all of his clothes and danced in front of the Ark of The Covenant. It was quite a scene to be sure. It is good for us to remember that for several generations, the Ark of the Covenant had been missing, abducted, taken away from the people of Israel. The Ark was a golden box carried on golden poles, and inside were three unique items: a jar of manna, Aaron’s staff, and the tablets of the Ten Commandments. These items, inside this magnificent gold box, represented God’s covenant faithfulness with the people of Israel. On top of the box was a flat surface flanked by golden angels called The Mercy Seat. The people of Israel believed that this was literally God’s seat on earth, and wherever they took the Ark, they put the Ark in a great big tent so that God would have plenty of room to stay with the people.
When the Israelites went off to war in Caanan, the Ark was stolen from them. You can imagine their sorrow and fear—God had been taken away from them. They knew that God could never really be taken away, but they were still devastated. They had lost their physical connection to God, and without the Ark leading in battle, the Israelite army lost battle after battle. That is until the Ark was found and brought back to Jerusalem in a great big parade. Out in front of the parade was the greatest king, prophet, and song-writer to ever live in Israel, David, dancing almost completely naked. His joy was so great that God was present among the people again that he threw caution and abandon to the wind and he danced. Just being in the presence of God made David get up and move his body in ways he probably had never moved before.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, expressed her great joy after having a different experience. Mary’s song is the outpouring of joy from a lowly, poor, and oppressed woman at the moment she knew God was going to turn things around. We often think about Mary as meek and mild, which I’m sure she was. But we must also remember that she was teenage girl, unwed and pregnant, in a society of male domination. A man’s worth in this society was in the number of things he owned—cattle, land, and women, to just name a few. Women were only valued based on their attachment to a husband, father, or brother. Mary was worthless in the eyes of her community because she was a unwed woman, and she was especially worthless now that her only real selling point had obviously be compromised. She was out and there was nothing she would be able to do to get back in. Once her baby was born, it would be a life on the streets, or in service to another man’s wife, or a life of begging until the end.
Then things really change when she receives a visit from the angel Gabriel and when she takes a pre-delivery vacation to see her cousin Elizabeth. As it turns out, the God who Mary and her family and her community worshipped, is a God who cares in a special way for the lowly, the poor, and the oppressed. This God, Mary learns and later sings, brings down the powerful from their thrones and lifts up the lowly. This God, Mary sings, fills the empty with good things and sends away empty anyone who has become bloated by exploiting others. Mary sings that this God helps those most in need as a fulfillment of the covenant made long, long ago with Abraham and Sarah.
How does Mary know that these are not just words? Mary knows because she is carrying within her fragile body the messenger and agent that will make it so. The God of Mary’s worship, the God of our worship, is not just a talker—this God is a doer, and we see that so clearly in Jesus Christ. Jesus did not come just to be a pain the rear-end of those in power—he came to remind the powerful that to those who are given much, much is expected. Jesus did not come to take wealth away from the rich—he came to remind the wealthy that a little goes a really long way. Jesus came to proclaim and open a kingdom to us that is built on mutuality and respect, where societies thrive when every person is recognized as having sacred worth and dignity. Mary sings because God speaks and then God does—God told Mary that the world was about to turn, and then God made that turn happen in Jesus Christ.
Joy from being in the presence of God and joy from the sure knowledge that God is really working to redeem and transform the world around us. David danced and Mary sang a song. For one, the joy was so much that he had to move his body. For the other, the joy spilled out of her in song.
Now, instead of me talking to you more about joy, I want you to talk to one another. On the table in front of you are postcards with three questions:
What brings you the most joy in life?
How has God’s presence with you and God’s redemptive activity in the world brought you joy?
How do you resist those people and situations who try to take your joy away?
That third question is a tough one, but it comes right out of the Bible. When David and the Israelites were finished parading the Ark into Jerusalem, David went home to be with his wife, Michal. Michal, who was the daughter of Saul, had watched David as he danced in front of the Ark. And the Scriptures tell us that she despised him for it. Later on in II Samuel, Michal confronts David about his dancing, saying that he was an embarrassment to her and to all the people. Michal may have lived in the time of David, but her spirit is still alive today. That spirit is alive in people and situations that make us feel bad for having joy, and often it doesn’t take much to strip our joy away. How do you keep ahold of joy in your life?
Take some time now to ask these questions of your neighbors. We are about to partake in the joyful feast of the people of God—may this brief conversation today empower and strengthen us to take the joy of this table into the world!