Last week during Sunday School, one of the kids asked a question that I’ve been thinking about all week, especially during a week like this one. We asked our class of 6 and 7 year olds what they wanted to learn about this year, what questions should we wrestle with—curiosities about God, about church, and about our world. Caleb asked this question: “Who made up words?”
Words. Who made them, and what are they for? Here I am, giving you words, words I’ve worked with all week, trying to speak of things that seem unspeakable—like God, like faith, like death and resurrection, like what happens in our Communion meal, as we break the bread and share the cup.
Last week I struggled to find words, words that somehow honor the victims of police violence. And now, this week, one hundred Syrian children, killed in Aleppo. And, just yesterday, Jacob Hall, a six year old boy, playing on a playground in South Carolina.
Someone from UNICEF said that “The children of Aleppo are trapped in a living nightmare…There are no words left to describe the suffering they are experiencing.” No words left.
And now, here I am, with words, pages of them. Who made words, and what are they for?
The ancient words we heard just now, from our Scriptures, the passages from Lamentations and Psalms, are all about the difficulty of words, the difficulty of speaking. The priests can only groan in the book of Lamentations (Lam 1:4). In the Psalm, the people gather along the river to sing, but can only weep. “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Ps 137:4).
These Scriptures remember the horrors of the Babylonian empire, when its armies conquered Israel and forced the Jews into captivity, to live in exile, under the iron fist of foreign oppressors. We can hear their ridicule, the taunts, in the Psalm: verse 3, “Our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors asked us for shouts of joy, saying sarcastically, “Sing us one of those songs of Zion!”
No songs, no words, only tears and groans. Lamentations imagines a whole city weeping: verse 2, “Jerusalem weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks.”
When words finally are pronounced, they are remembrances, recollections—shared memories of a common life, a life that has become distant. Listen to the Psalmist: “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!” one Jewish exile says to another, a group of them gathered along a riverbank in Babylon. “Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you” (Ps 137:5-6).
Some historians trace the beginnings of the synagogue to this moment, these gatherings, Jews in Babylonian exile meeting for prayer, for remembering—Jerusalem made present in their conversation, in their shared memories.
Language is how we form a life together, how we share a world with one another, how we make a community. Communication is how we commune, how we let our lives inform each other. We live together by sharing who we are, the vulnerability of letting another person get to know us, to know how we think.
In Babylon, in exile, separated from their homeland, the people of God gather to remember—tears turning into words, weeping becoming language. They gather to lament, to ease their longing, to soothe each other with shared words, shared memories, to comfort one another with communication, with communion, the consolation of being known.
There, by the river, far away from their land, they pray their way into a new world, a home in exile. As they share words, they discover that they are not alone in their longing.
That’s what we are here for, as a church—to know that we are not alone in our longing for a different world, a world without heartbreaking violence. And not just to reassure ourselves, but to show others, with our lives, that they are not alone, that they don’t have undergo this world alone.
That’s the gospel. That’s what Jesus did when he joined God’s life, in his flesh, to the people around him.
He died for that gospel—to show all of us, all of us who long for another world, to show us a redeemed world, to show all of us in exile, all of us who are dying of this world, to show us that God hears our prayers for a disarmed future, a world without violence, without death, without longing, our prayers for the peace of heaven.
In a few moments we’ll be sharing the bread and cup of Communion. Today is World Communion Sunday, where we remember that our community extends beyond those of us in this room, beyond our neighborhoods, beyond our state, beyond this country. With this bread and cup, we remember that we commune with a God who draws us into the lives of all God’s children, everywhere—that they are a part of us and we are part of them, that we have been brought together by the Word, the Word made flesh, in Jesus Christ, the one who draw close to us so that we may draw close to others.
Communion is an invitation to be drawn into the life of God, and into the lives of others, neighbors and strangers near and far. When we share this bread, when we share this cup, we receive the solidarity of God—the grace of receiving God’s nearness to us, as close to us as the bread in our mouth, the taste of grapes on our tongue.
And Communion is our declaration, our manifesto—the way we communicate with our bodies that we are part of people who are separated from us, that we exist as a community in exile from one another, and that we long for our union in Christ’s peace.
We are like the people of God, in exile, along the river, gathering to share memories, to remember the one whose life, death, and resurrection has brought us together. “We remember the Lord’s death until he comes again”—that’s what we say every time we gather for Communion. We remember a death, and dream of resurrection, resurrected life, in Aleppo, in South Carolina, in ourselves.
Communion is the ache of heaven, our longing for a heavenly world, and God’s longing for us.
Communion is the language of God, written with our bodies, our hand and mouths, our lives.