When I was in seminary I was part of a house church movement where people of all ages came together for worship and a community meal, shared our resources, and opened up our doors to those who needed it. Those of us participating were from around the country and the world. It was a departure from my traditional Presbyterian experience and it formed me deeply.
I recall one evening standing around an extended family Thanksgiving-esque table — beautifully adorned with the food we had labored over and would share. (The community took food very seriously.) I looked one by one around the table. I knew these people’s stories. I knew their struggles. There were tears sharing painful, even terrible truths around that table while we all stood together.
Before we sat down to a feast, someone took a loaf of bread and a bottle of wine and gave thanks, remembering the hope of healing we have. I stood there and wept because I knew… something truly eucharistic had happened in those beautiful moments. The “magic words” were offered, yes, but truly the moments of grace and blessing , of eucharist, were the authentic and painfully honest sharing of the deepest parts of ourselves as we shared a grateful meal. Christ himself was the host as we hovered together in that liminal space where – at any moment… everything could break open into grace and healing. Maybe it did. The borders, the lines, the boundaries of a living faith have always had a spaciousness and fluidity to them. We cannot tame the Spirit.
This was not a Presbyterian table — or even the house church’s table. As we like to remind ourselves, the eucharistic table belongs to Christ no matter what tradition that table is housed in. The “rightness” of those deep moments with people around the globe who I had grown to love sparked my imagination about what the “Kin(g)dom of God” might really be all about. It brought up questions of hospitality, of belonging, of family and community, and of how and where and we experience the presence of Christ in our midst.
It is a memory of these types of moments I experienced repeatedly as I read the book “Eucharist and Globalization” https://wipfandstock.com/store/Eucharist_and_Globalization_Redrawing_the_Borders_of_Eucharistic_Hospitality by Claudio Carvalhaes, Brazilian theologian, liturgist, writer, performer, writer, activist, and although he does not ascribe this to himself, prophet. In this seminal book, Carvalhaes shares connections and visions of an authentically lived reformed faith and challenges the traditional borders of the eucharist and ultimately of our belonging to each other. His questions seem to arise out of a particular and poetic love for God, an honest and focused experience of solidarity with and for God’s broken and marginalized people, and a prophetic imagining of what the church and our world could and can be. It is a word to theologians and pastors – to Brazilian, U.S. and world Christians – to saints and sinners – to nonprofits and grass roots organizers – and to those willings to challenge unjust political structures and create a new shared reality of faith life together. It is written to me and you.
It is not an easy undertaking. Few elements of church life are more sacred than worship and eucharistic observances. But they matter. Among other things, the way they are interpreted addresses the big questions of belonging in the household of faith. Carvalhaes dives into these questions with creativity and care.
Through these words, we are called into the experience of poor and marginalized people as central to our faith lives. Come to find out, according to Carvalhaes’ vision, perhaps the church exists to serve. Perhaps it will die if it fails to do it’s mission! (Lest you doubt, see also the Presbyterian Book of Order.)
His questioning will either thrill you entirely or piss you off. Perhaps both if you are lucky. This what prophetic voices do – and why it is critical we listen to them. Whether he is framing the early church meals in the context of Greco-Roman society, considering recent research on the words of institution, pushing traditional understanding of reformed thought around eucharist, or sharing meaning-making as a feminist and Latin American theologian, his writing evokes heart responses.
Interspersed personal stories root his theological and academic work with Brazilian, immigrant and other marginalized communities in the U.S, as wells his own childhood as a shoeshine boy in Sao Paolo. This is why his introduction of the concept of “borderless borders” is so resonant. This may be his “coming out” in U.S. religious academia (in English) but it is also a story of finding his particular prophetic, spirit-breathed place in the world. It is a compelling read – prophetic, contemporary, and beautiful. (Aside: I was so moved by the chapter on feminism I had to put it down and just breathe a couple of times. I am working on a campaign to end violence against women and children and it articulated so beautifully the influence and potential of evocative liturgies and movement for healing — and the possibility that women’s and other cultures expressions can be part of the evolution of worship simply thrills me.)
I find it an important book because of this justice work as well as other efforts with Presbyterians focused on reconciliation in cultures of violence in the U.S. and around the globe. I think a lot about creating sacred space. Communion, the Lord’s Table, the eucharist is partly about the creating of sacred space. The communion table is sometimes referred to as a table of reconciliation.
I am coming to believe it is important to differentiate between the concept of safe space and sacred space as a way of framing reconciliation. The language of safe space may necessarily exclude another because the needs of each person for safety varies so much. Issues of power are hard to untangle and I am thinking that sacred is a better cup to hold it. There truly is no safe space except with God alone — while sacred space is more organically created as we bring kindness, respect and honesty to each other. To me, this is one of the central questions the book asks, though not overtly: How do we create sacred space that honors the powerless alongside the powerful? Or, as I mentioned at first, how do we participate in the reign of God that brings us to each other and to God? It IS a peaceable Kin(g)dom we are co-creating, as we may or may not remember regularly.
I think we all know this is critical work as people of faith. Most Christians I know truly want to be part of a welcoming community, yet few worship spaces and practices are. They are mostly an exercise of exclusion. This truly disturbs me and has at times made me want to throw out the whole thing entirely. It is reflections like these – and the “get your hands dirty in the mess of life” people that remind me it is worth the sacrifices. But it requires a willingness to trust ourselves and God’s Spirit in our lives, some conscious letting go, and some meaningful experiences with unexpected grace.
A few months ago I was riding a New York City Subway about 9pm. As we rumbled through the underground city, I observed the people in my car. Every color and mix of colors, sizes, clothing, hair, shoes was with me on that subway. I prayed for them as they slouched on each other, some sleeping, some reading, some listening to music on their ear buds or laughing at a text. An older Mediterranean-skinned woman with shabby clothes was eating a sandwich. I smiled at her. She smiled back. And then the most beautiful thing happened. She reached toward me with her sandwich, offering it to me. I hesitated. And then I saw her; really saw her. I stood up, took a piece, and gave it back to her. As I sat back down, chewing a bite of some sort of lunchmeat and bread, we smiled at each other – and I felt my eyes welling up.
Are you going to tell me that the eucharist didn’t happen there? The boundaries and sacred spaces we have opportunity to open up and sit right down in are the eucharist, the bread and wine, the lunchmeat and bread, the most meaningful and memorable experiences of our life together. Let’s trust the movement of Spirit and each other as we live into a new (old) way of being community. We can do this! … with the help of God.