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Holy Communion Sunday: Not Angels, but Sheep

This is a weekend full of transitions, and a busy weekend even by our standards at St. James. And that’s saying something!Yesterday, many of us were down at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine to see Susie ordained a Deacon, and it was a beautiful celebration–I mean, really beautiful. A lot of people from St. James were there, and I don’t know how many times after the service I heard someone say “This is why I’m an Episcopalian!” It was grand, and heartfelt, and the sermon by the cathedral dean amazing, all about the deacon’s role as one who keeps us awake to the needs of the world.

Susie will still be our Christian education director, but as a deacon she’ll be more than that; she’ll represent us in our community and our diocese, and she’ll continue to cultivate a side of herself that (as she’s told us before) was what got her into ministry in the first place, many years ago as a volunteer in Haiti. The bishop said yesterday that a deacon’s work is closer to Jesus’ ministry than a priest’s, and I think that’s true. A deacon’s sole responsibility is to engage the world outside the church, and help us to do the same.

So again – congratulations to Susie and it will be very exciting to work alongside her in this new phase of life and ministry!

Another transition we’re celebrating today is the baptism of little Rachel Frank. Her parents, Sam and Sherin, recently moved up here from the city, and have joined us as official members of St. James. You’ll recognize them. They sit back there with all the parents with babies over in that section of the church. Welcome to the Franks, and to their families and friends, and godparents. We’re so happy you’re now a part of this community.

And last but not least are our 2nd and 3rd graders who have just completed their four-week class on Holy Communion and are sitting right up here in front today: Hannah and Shields Hatcher, Stella Dugan, Lincoln Russell, James Brady, Elivia Thompson, Amelia Ryan, Quinn Cocco, and Rhyse Horner.

Some of them will be receiving Communion today for the first time, some have already been receiving. The Episcopal Church has no rule about when a child can receive Communion, only that he or she be baptized first. I explained to the kids at their class last Wednesday that we see this message–first baptism, then communion–in the architecture of our church. When you enter the main entrance in the back, you have to pass by the baptismal font in order to get to the altar. In many churches (as in ours) they’re placed on the same axis so the connection is more obvious. When you enter our church it’s clear, without even opening a prayer book or hearing a word spoken, what the most important thing we do here is: celebrating at this altar. And to do that (the official teaching of the church says), you have to be baptized. Nothing more.

So, we are so happy to welcome these kids to share with us in this sacrament of Holy Communion. You will do this thousands of times in your life, starting (for some of you) today.

Today is Good Shepherd Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Easter when our readings always emphasize the image of God and of Jesus as the shepherd of his sheep. It’s a lovely image for a day on which we celebrate all these children, including this little baby. This is one of the earliest images for Christ among the first Christians. In fact, our oldest visual depiction of Jesus comes from the Roman Catacombs, where many of the Christians persecuted and killed by the Roman emperor were buried. It’s a faded picture but you can still clearly see the figure of a young, beardless Jesus, painted in vegetable dye, carrying a lamb about his shoulders. When my family visited Ravenna in Italy last summer we saw another very famous early depiction of Jesus as a shepherd in the form of a grand colorful mosaic (by this time Christianity was the official religion of the empire). In this one Jesus surrounded by adoring sheep all looking lovingly on their master. Jesus as the Good Shepherd also graces the window back there by our baptismal font for all the children to see each time they witness another baptism.

It was the first visual image of Jesus in Christianity, and it’s the first many of us encounter as children. Susie said she often uses this image in chapel services for the nursery school, and many of us can probably remember sheep on felt boards in our Sunday school classes growing up. I mentioned last year on this day having a drawing of Jesus with carrying a lamb on his shoulders in my bedroom as a child, an image so comforting and powerful to this day that I credit it with my never leaving the church as I grew up and matured.

The other appealing aspect of this metaphor is of us, as sheep. It’s not at all a flattering image, and yet that’s what draws us–even children–to it. Sheep are fluffy and wooly and cute, but the Bible stories make clear that they’re also helpless, get themselves often into dangerous situations, need a lot of guidance, need each other, and are vulnerable animals. They give expression to what we know of ourselves from a very young age: that we’re fragile, imperfect and vulnerable, and we need the guidance of loving people in our lives and, most importantly, of a loving God.

On Wednesday I had the privilege of teaching the last of four classes these kids attended to learn about Holy Communion. Deacon Susie and Lisa-Marie Hatcher taught them about baptism being the first sacrament we receive. They made pretzels, which are a symbol of blessing. They made little Paschal candles. And then by the fourth class I got to walk them through the church. We learned about the font and the altar facing each other, on the same axis. We visited the sacristy, the room in which we keep the sacred vessels and the bread and wine. We even set up the altar for this morning. This is their handiwork. Finally we practiced receiving the bread and the wine.

At the end of all this, we had a little extra time, so we sat up here at the altar and the kids were full of really good questions. What’s the difference between blessed and unblessed bread? Can you chew the bread since it’s God’s body? (The answer by the way is Yes. God comes to us as we are, human beings with teeth and mandibles for chewing.) What do you do if you drop your wafer? Where does the leftover bread and wine go if it’s been blessed?I also put some questions to them: What does “Paschal mean?” When do we light the Paschal candle? What does the word “Eucharist” mean? What’s the name of the plate we serve the bread on?

At one point I asked What do you have to do before you can receive Communion? expecting the answer, baptism. But the first response was, “You have to be good.” Now, ideally that’s true. But we come to this rail throughout our lives in all sorts of states. We bring our best selves here some weeks, and others, our worst selves. We’re not angels, we’re sheep. Or just humans. Imperfect but always loved, and always welcome to this rail where we receive God and God receives us.

So again, congratulations to these kids, and now let us all open our hymnals and prepare to welcome this newest member into our faith.