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Communion on the Moon

Rev. Dan Smith
Sun, Feb 02

Text: Matthew 26: 17- 30

Today, we continue our reading from the Gospel of Matthew by sharing his story of the Last Supper.  This text is ripe for interpretation and for seeing communion again as if for the first time. We could talk about the surrounding details that we can easily overlook in our own celebration of communion. We could talk about Judas being welcomed to the table despite his betrayal, about the singing that followed the meal, about the departure to the Mt. of Olives, about how they may have felt on the walk home that night.  We will come back to this story in Lent and in Holy Week. We will wrestle with it as an example of Jesus beautifully embodying his own Jewish tradition while also contending with Matthew himself who often turns Jesus against the Jews in vitriolic and deeply disturbing ways.  For our purposes today though, and before we break our bread together, I’d like for us to ponder briefly our tradition of communion, and more to the point, our various traditions, related to this sacrament. 

Before we leave the text though, did anyone notice anything missing from Matthew’s telling of the story of the last supper, at least in this New Revised Standard translation?  For that matter, has anyone noticed anything missing from our own practice of Communion here in recent months?  Matthew talks about a cup, and he talks about the “fruit of the vine.”  Though its widely assumed that Jesus drank wine according to Jewish custom, there’s no telling whether it was fermented or unfermented and interestingly, in Matthews account, there is no direct mention of wine! Why bring this up now?

A few months back, the Deacons of First Church discerned a willingness to experiment with how we served communion.  While some of our members can remember a time when only grape juice was served here at First Church, many of us who have been attending more recently are used to having options, a virtual menu of choices, red wine or white grape juice, leavened bread or gluten-free rice crackers.  The Deacons realized that this seemingly ever-growing list of options was creating the risk and reality of confusion!  In fact, last summer, a person who had been in recovery for many years mistakenly took a sip of wine instead of grape juice. The fact that we created the condition in which such an easy and honest mistakes could happen did not sit right with the Deacons or me so we began a conversation that led us to big questions: What does our capital “T” tradition have to say about wine? And what about all of our lower case “t” traditions, those ways of communion that we grew up with, that we know from our own distinct backgrounds and denominational heritages.  Why do we practice communion the way we do? And why can it sometimes seem so unfamiliar and even alien to us when it’s not “the way we’ve always done it”?

This week, I came across a literally far out story of a communion service that had been hushed up by none other than NASA!  It came into the public light only within the last few years.  On July 20, 1969, soon after Apollo 11 landed in its Lunar Module, and a short time before Neil Armstrong took his small step and great leap, Buzz Aldrin radioed a special message to NASA that was broadcast around the world.  No doubt a good number of you heard his words at the time.  Aldrin said: "I would like to request a few moments of silence … and to invite each person listening in, wherever and whomever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours, and to give thanks in his or her own way." But what came next inside that module is lesser known. Aldrin went on to unpack a small plastic container of wine and bread that he had stowed inside of one of his personal kits.  The elements were consecrated and given to him by his pastor at the Webster Presbyterian Church near Houston where he was an elder.  Meanwhile, Aldrin’s church gathered that day some 250,000 feet below to share the feast from the same loaf.  Listen to Aldrin describe the moment in his own words [recorded in a 1970 copy of Guideposts Magazine]: "I poured the wine into the chalice our church had given me. In the one-sixth gravity of the moon the wine curled slowly and gracefully up the side of the cup. It was interesting to think that the very first liquid ever poured on the moon, and the first food eaten there, were communion elements."… Then I read the Scripture, 'I am the vine, you are the branches. Whosoever abides in me will bring forth much fruit. Apart from me you can do nothing.

The story of the so-called ‘secret communion service’ on the moon emerged only after the mission.  Apparently, Aldrin had wanted to share the sacrament with the world but NASA was already facing a lawsuit from a firebrand atheist named Madalyn Murray O'Hair who famously called out the Apollo 8 crew for reading aloud excerpts of Genesis as they were orbiting the earth on Christmas Eve n 1968.  To Aldrin’s credit, he later wrote: “Perhaps, if I had it to do over again, I would not choose to celebrate communion.
Although it was a deeply meaningful experience for me, it was a Christian sacrament, and we had come to the moon in the name of all [hu]mankind – be they Christians, Jews, Muslims, animists, agnostics, or atheists. But at the time I could think of no better way to acknowledge the enormity of the Apollo 11 experience that by giving thanks to God.”  At Webster Presbyterian Church in Houston– the spiritual home of many astronauts – Aldrin's communion service is remembered and celebrated every July as part of what they call Lunar Communion Sunday. The church still holds the chalice that Aldrin brought back with him and they still replay a recording of Aldrin’s voice and that invitation to silent thanksgiving. Wild, huh?

Lunar Communion Sunday!  A powerful example of a small “t” tradition. Just imagine if some young clergy were ever to come in and suggest that the church not observe that, that cherishing celebrating that past too much had become a distraction from an honest assessment of the present and a consideration of the church’s future.  It would be time to pack up the parsonage! I  bring this up not to knock that church in Houston – God Bless them for keeping this story alive!  I mention it because my guess is when it comes to communion, we all have stories, far more mundane of course, of times we have taken communion and shared meal that have had a special and lasting meaning for us and that have become part of our own small “t” traditions.

This distinction between large T tradition and small t tradition is a favorite of many a seminary professor and I offered it to the Deacons as they pondered prayerfully the different ways we serve communion here. Jaroslav Pelikan, author and scholar of Christian history, once nuanced the distinction in this way: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide. Traditionalism supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time, so all that is needed to solve any problem is to arrive at the supposedly unanimous testimony of this homogenized tradition.”  We can see this playing out in every generation in virtually every church, from the days of Matthew, to the Western Presbyterian Church and here at the First Church in Cambridge.  To what extent are we having a genuine conversation with the past, remembering where we are and when we are now, or to what extent do we bristle at the thought of trying something for the first time!  Guitars in church? Not a first here, not by a long shot, but not such a regular occurrence.  Just grape juice at Communion?  Also not a first here in our long history, and thus far not something around which too many have complained.  In general, I think one of the reasons we have survived all these years is because we have kept our conversation with the past just that, a living conversation.  To borrow a phrase from our scholar-in-residence, and from our recent 10 am hour series on Matthew, we are engaged in a “critical love affair” with our texts and tradition.  And so we have kept our Tradition the living faith of the dead, as opposed to the dead faith of the living! 

This past Thursday, we had a celebration of Peggy Bendroth’s new book The Spiritual Practice of Remembering and in her talk she challenged us all to imagine the generations upon generations that have sat in these pews before us, singing, breaking bread, being distracted during long sermons, asking caring questions of the person next to them. She invited us to consider their joys and concerns, however similar or different they are from our own and to populate this space with their names, with the sound of their footsteps, with their stories.  She invited us to be in conversation with them as we might hope future generations will be in conversation with us! What a remarkable invitation!  Communion asks us to do no less.  Despite whatever ways we may practice it, whether its here or on the moon, at the heart of our large T tradition of communion is Jesus’ words  “Do this and remember me!”  As in: “Do this and stay in conversation with me!”

First Church was first gathered as a congregation 378 years ago yesterday, on February 1st, 1636, even though another story, also true, sets the year in 1633.  The stereotypical notion of one of our Puritan forebears would be the epitome of a traditionalist, someone unchanging, set in their doctrinal ways, unwilling to break with the past, and yet how quickly we forget how radical they were to break with the tradition in which they were raised in order to create this “new world”!  Imagine it.  For them, that first communion here on this soil would have been akin to having communion on the moon!  They drank wine at communion (and even beer at other times) but the Puritans would have been appalled by the notion that we practice Communion as often as once a month, if not more!  So conscious were they of their sins and of their needs to repent that they rarely felt worthy to come to the table and partake of the Body of Christ.  Most Puritans would only observe it four times a year.  For them, communion was an invitation to be revered, an invitation to highest confession and deepest repentance (and this meaning still holds sway for some of us today).  If you are interested in learning more about First Church forebears, check out the history exhibit in the Tower Room or join our resident historian Linsday on an upcoming walking tour of our history through Harvard Square.

For now, suffice it to say that for most of Christian history, in fact, wine has been served, though some traditions concerned with moderation, switched to serving water or even to cutting the wine with water. It wasn't until the 19th century, when temperance became "teetotalism" or "total abstinence," that many began to question why a beverage thought to be dangerous was still used on Communion tables. Theologians would reach for arguments based in scripture, like the one I began the sermon with, parsing whether Jesus actually drank fermented or unfermented “fruit of the vine”.   Protestant churchgoers and clergy sought ways to make unfermented grape juice, until an American Methodist dentist named, Thomas Bramwell Welch, and his son Charles, came along to address the issue and build a business off the demand. It was no accident that Welch's Grape Juice came to replace wine on many American Protestant Communion tables.  Fast forward through last century to this one and what rings more true than temperance for many of us today is that Communion is a great symbol of hospitality!  More than invitation to repent, it’s an invitation to share Christ’s welcome to all, even to those who would betray us.  What’s more, this way of welcome would seem to tell us to take away the barriers from anyone participating, and to do what will make people of all ages feel wholeheartedly welcome, and more than welcome, to feel like their health, their healing, their safety and their recovery matters.  It matters maybe and I dare say hopefully more than my relatively small “p” preferences if not our small “t” traditions!

 Bear in mind that this conversation about wine or juice is but a small thread of a larger conversation about communion that has been happening since the days of the Last Supper.  And, know that all of you, even and especially visitors, are welcomle to add your voice to the conversation.  By all means, share your thoughts and ideas about these matters with me, or with the deacons, or with one another! One of the great things about First Church is that by virtue of our living conversation, we can and often do find ways of honoring many small “t” traditions.  That seeking to be inclusive is one of the ways we honor the large “T” tradition of Jesus’ way of radical hospitality and radical inclusion that invites us to be in communion with our neighbors near and far, not only in this community, but across the world and even across the generations.  To do this in remembrance of him requires of us a radical and reconciling generosity of spirit and an ongoing openness to be in and to stay in conversation.  

As you come forward in a few moments, imagine how you can more deeply manifest this spirit of generosity, carry on this conversation and ultimately embody that living faith. Consider: what is the most loving and generous spirit we can bring to this table?  What are the ways we can always be kinder than is necessary?  Ultimately, all of these conversations are meant to bring us into ever more deep conversation with God, who loves us, who welcomes us and who desires to feed us a cup of endless joy, and a taste of heaven, even right here on earth.   Amen. 


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