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(written for the Divine Imagination Event,  March 21, 2004 Woodland Hills, CA)

I am because God is!

God, the maker, builder, shaper, God, the poet, painter, artist,

God, the dreamer, dreamed a dream and called me forth,

Me, you, we, us, all of us together.

You and I were a gleam in the eye of God,

A hope in the heart and a whisper in the ear.

She felt us in her womb before we had a shape,

He took us in his hand before we had a body.

God, Divine Mystery, Miracle Worker

Wonder of Wonders, Gracemaker Extraordinaire,

Said, “I love you,” before I was.

Said, “I believe in you” before I believed in myself

Said, “Walk with me” before I could crawl,

Said, “You are because I am,”

Said, “I am because you are.”

God, that mysterious presence that lives in and through all things,

Even us, you and me,

Said, “Come! Come forth from my womb, my heart, my hope, my love.

Be my heart, my hope, my love, my truth… my playmate!

I want you to be.

I want you to be free… to be whole… to be light, …to be love.

So…Become love

Become grace

Become compassion

Become all that you can, because you can!

See, I set before you wide horizons and deep canyons,

I set before you majestic mountains and a big sky,

I give you possibilities unimagined;

And the gifts to imagine them.

I give all things to you not to have, but to hold, not to hide, but to cherish

I give you wisdom to know,

I give you knowing to share,

I give you words, and sighs, laughter and tears,

To express the inexpressible

To touch the mystery that has no boundaries, to be the mystery!


In the beginning I was, and will always be,

In the beginning we were together, whole and free,

big and beautiful…so it will always be.

Eternity is yours, you need not earn it. Grace is yours, too,

Abundant, and amazing, fragile and free,

Strong and sturdy, light and lively,

Wise and wondrous…all of it yours for the asking.

Take heart, then; my heart,

Full of courage, strength, loving kindness, and, yes, breathtaking forgiveness.

Weave from these a life, a tapestry of wonder;

But be not fooled. I design you for purpose not perfection

You cannot take a road where I will not be, you cannot find a place I have not been,

You cannot build a world too small for me to find you


Death may come, sorrows may haunt, and fear may batter,

but through it all, my embrace is unbreakable.

I will not leave you.   I cannot leave you.

Remember?   I am because you are.

And so the time has come.

You are ready, you can do this, I believe in you.

You are one with me and I with you.

You are one with each other, too.

You are not alone, nor will you be forgotten;

In the hollow of my heart there is a place for you, each of you,

A dream and a prayer, too.

Whatever happens, remember this:

You are not a mistake; you are not a lost cause,

You are not a regret…

A work of love, definitely

A work in progress, but of course.

A work of art?  You better believe it!




I invite you to breathe deeply of the Spirit’s presence in this place. <Pause>

The peace of Christ be with you all.

People:  And also with you.

Leader: Jesus said:

So you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice,and no one will take your joy from you.

Our duty today is a solemn one, as we gather to commit the ashes/body of  <name> to her/his final resting place. We do so in sorrow; yet also in hope, for wherever two or more gather in Jesus’ name he is in our midst. Cemeteries have always been places of communion for the living and the dead.  In preparation for <name’s> burial, we share Holy Communion with one another; much as the early Christians did when they found themselves confronted by death; yet thankful for life.[1]

Exchange of Peace

As a sign of the peace of Christ that is with us even now let us share that peace with one another.

Communion Prayer

In the communion of Christ Jesus, let us pray.  In the beauty of this place, Gracious God, we celebrate your gift of creation, your eye for beauty, your taste for goodness, your fragrant presence, your tender touch, and your listening ear. We thank you, too, for your redeeming Word alive in Jesus of Nazareth. As savior and sacrament, brother and friend, Jesus reminds us of your generous love, your amazing grace, and your abiding presence.

As we gather in remembrance of his life, death, and resurrection, we call upon your Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with love and renewed purpose.  Bless now this bread and fruit of the vine, Holy One, that we might honor your power in our lives, as well as the spirit of each person here.

May _<name’s>____love for you that she/he so freely shared among us sustain us in all seasons, and encourage us to live faithfully and compassionately.  Filled full with the wonder of life itself, we consecrate our lives to your enduring hope. Amen.

The bread we break reminds us that we are one in the body of Christ.

The cup that we pour reminds us that we are a new creation in Christ.  We are forgiven and free, as is_<name>_____even now.

Eat drink and be nourished by your faith that you may begin life anew this day and share _<name’s>____legacy of love freely and joyfully.

Ministering to you in Jesus’ name, I invite you to receive these gifts by intinction.

<After all have received>

Let us pray together the Lord’s Prayer using the form most familiar to each of us.


Closing Prayer and Benediction

[1] Frank C. Senn, Christian Liturgy: Catholic and Evangelical (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 166.

A Life to be Lived

February 11, 1985

A time to dance,

A time to look within but not to be lost there,

A time to be loved;

but not to lose one’s sense of loving,

A time to see who you are;

but not to forget who you can be.


A time for wisdom,

A time for openness,

A time for silence;

Amidst the words and the Word.

Which will come with great force

Breaking open the vault

Wherein is stored

the treasure of a thousand years.

Emily Bronte’s “To Imagination”


When weary with the long day’s care,

And earthly change from pain to pain,

And lost and ready to despair,

Thy kind voice calls me back again:

Oh, my true friend! I am not lone,

While thou canst speak with such a tone!


So hopeless is the world without;

The world within I doubly prize;

Thy world, where guile, and hate, and doubt,

And cold suspicion never rise;

Where thou, and I, and Liberty,

Have undisputed sovereignty.


What matters it, that, all around,

Danger, and guilt, and darkness lie,

If but within our bosom’s bound

We hold a bright, untroubled sky,

Warm with ten thousand mingled rays

Of suns that know no winter days?


Reason, indeed, may oft complain

For Nature’s sad reality,

And tell the suffering heart, how vain

Its cherished dreams must always be;

And Truth may rudely trample down

The flowers of Fancy, newly-blown:


But, thou art ever there, to bring

The hovering vision back, and breathe

New glories o’er the blighted spring,

And call a lovelier Life from Death,

And whisper, with a voice divine,

Of real worlds, as bright as thine.


I trust not to thy phantom bliss,

Yet, still, in evening’s quiet hour,

With never-failing thankfulness,

I welcome thee, Benignant Power;

Sure solacer of human cares,

And sweeter hope, when hope despairs!

Awe Comes Before Faith

Psalm 111

 A Sermon Preached at Woodland Hills Community Church

on February 2, 2003

By the Rev. Dr. June Christine Goudey

111:10 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; a good understanding have all those who practice it. His praise endures for ever!

Faith is often spoken of as an antidote to fear, and it can be; but fear is not the enemy of faith. There are many things we should fear, among them—abuse of power, hate based on ignorance, the denial of justice, unchecked terrorism, and the silence of good people. We have a right to be fearful of such things, but we don’t have a right to ignore our fears or run away from the consequences they unleash.

Scripture provides numerous examples of God uttering these words: “Be not afraid, for I am with you.” God’s spirit calls us to face our fears and erase the misunderstandings they create. God also calls us to meet the dangers posed by our fears and speak for peace—the peace of our souls and the peace of the world. But fear is not easily dismissed.

Psalm 111 is a psalm of praise that recites the trustworthiness of God in all circumstances. The psalmist praises God’s graciousness and mercy.  God is faithful and just and can be counted on to lead us in right paths. But within this psalm lies an irony of faith. We are told that the fear of God…the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. What does this mean? If God tells us more than once to be not afraid, why does this Psalm tell us to fear Godself? And why is the gift of wisdom and understanding tied to this form of fear?

As I have said before, the Psalms are not prophetic speech or historical records. They show us the human face of faith and a limited view at that. The Hebrew word translated as fear in this context is closer to an understanding of awe and wonder—to honor God is to open oneself to wisdom and understanding.

Perhaps a better way to understand this text is to understand that wisdom begins in the love of God—not fear.  In the first letter to John we also learn that perfect love casts out fear, for fear implies punishment.

When our bodies are full of fear, they tend to close down in a protective manner. Instead of embracing others, we tend to pull away. The women who danced with this Psalm on Wednesday found this to be true. It was easier to praise God and dance with joy when I asked them to imagine awe in the place of fear.

If faith calls us to open heartedness, fear calls us to bar the door.

One of the tragedies of Christianity is that the fear of God has often been encouraged rather than discouraged. This is especially true in connection with Christ’s communion table.  Jesus healed through forgiveness and acceptance and often used the power of a shared meal to reveal God’s love.

Where social distinctions dictated exclusion from the table, Jesus ate with sinners and outcasts. He was criticized as being a drunkard and a glutton because he enjoyed good fellowship. Jesus loved people he didn’t fear them. He healed the blind, and the leper; he called the hated tax collector Zachaeus into his presence. He shared his compassion freely and he liberated people from that which bound them, even their fears.

Jesus believed if you loved God, with all your heart, mind, soul and strength then it followed that you would love yourself and your neighbor likewise. He knew in the deepest sense that love heals it does not harm. The power of love produces well-being otherwise it isn’t love. It’s as simple as that!

You can speak about love, but you can’t unleash love’s healing power with words alone. Love is a verb. Wisdom comes in the act of loving. Concrete acts of love enacted here and now in this community, or at home with those you love, or in the world among strangers is at the core of our life-purpose.

Jesus calls us to do love, to become love in action. Unless you practice love, practice compassion, practice forgiveness daily, you are going through the motions of fear not faith. You can fool yourself on that score, but you can’t fool those around you. If you can’t become love by doing it, than fear not awe has you under its spell.

Love welcomes it does not bar the door. Love works through forgiveness, acceptance, and grace. Yet many who profess to love in Jesus’ name wreak havoc more than healing.

After Jesus died, the most significant change the church made in its practices was to shift the focus from the sacred fellowship of a meal shared to the food itself.

In the aftermath of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, the relationships of those who gathered at table revealed love at work. That is the meal the Apostle Paul witnessed. When women and men met in the spirit of Jesus, they knew what it meant to say to one another, “The Spirit in me greets the spirit in you.”

Over time the notion of eating with Jesus was replaced by the notion of eating Jesus. The bread and wine became somehow magical—the medicine of immortality, as Irenaeus called it. Not everyone shared this view; but the church, backed by the Roman Empire after the conversion of Constantine, had the power to enforce this way of thinking.

In the second century church leaders formally created a system of penance. They also decided that being expelled from the church’s common meal must be the punishment for Christians who had been found guilty of committing a sin against the church or the community. Sin means literally missing the mark, so somehow the standard created to govern the life of the church by those in authority became more important than love itself.

In other words, the church decided that those who were good enough to eat with Jesus when he was living were not good enough to share the church’s meal wherein it kept alive Jesus’ memory. As the memory of Jesus’ physical presence faded, so too did the spirit of his loving.

The driving force behind the sacrament of penance was the hope of healing people in this life. But behind the rhetoric lay a deeper motivation. Penance provided an opportunity to escape the fires of hell by saving the sinners’ souls before they died.  This way of being church lasted for a while, but soon church members came to understand that shame and humiliation wound rather than heal.

As a result those who understood this truth voted with their feet to leave the church. Others put off baptism until their deathbed because they had no desire to undergo this very public and very humiliating act of contrition. During the years that followed the whole system changed and eventually became the private mode of confession practiced by the Roman church today.

It didn’t matter that Jesus never spoke of hell or condemned people to hell. The church put these words in his mouth and continued to teach that Jesus would come again to judge the living and the dead—one day he would come and separate the sheep from the goats. The hell-bent could not be heaven-sent.

It didn’t seem to matter that the image of hell was a product of human imagination that had undergone many geographical and metaphorical transformations over five centuries before it came to be the lakes of fire found in the book of Revelation.

Human beings literally created the notion of hell before Jesus was born. Then we somehow forgot we created it and allowed it to frighten generations of believers till this very day.  Most of us might argue that we don’t believe in an after-life of hell. But I wouldn’t be so sure. Fear is molecular.  It roams around within us in the deep recesses of our undermind, those inter-body connections of blood and tissue that are too deep for us to grasp through reason alone.

If we have never freed our bodyspirits of the notion that God punishes human beings for their sins, and uses illness or tragedy to teach us moral lessons then the fear of hell in one form or another will play havoc with our ability to cast out fear. Instead we will cast our fears unto others and use them as scapegoats for our own imperfections.

In medieval times acts of penance became tied to the proper celebration of this meal and the proper handling of the bread and wine. To safeguard broken pieces of bread from falling to the floor and being eaten by vermin, the priest placed the bread, now believed to be Jesus body, directly in the communicants mouth; to safeguard the wine from being spilled, the church decided that the cup would be with held from lay people. Only the priest could drink Jesus’ blood.

The Reformers of the 16th century made many corrections. They restored the cup to the laity, and restored the image of a meal around a common table.  They eliminated the sacrificial actions of the priest at an altar. But they were only able to re-shape or re-image communion to a certain point.

Instead of offering one clear alternative, they argued over theological points of view that continue to plague us today.  Luther thought anyone who felt unworthy should come to the table and receive forgiveness. Calvin thought the meal was a celebration of the forgiveness that had already been given us by Jesus’ death.

Zwingli said this was a memorial meal and nothing much happened at the meal itself.

They all had a tiny piece of the truth, but in the end those who had more fear in their body had the greater say. The Puritans and Pilgrims were more obsessed with the fear of hell and the fear of God’s judgment; so they took Calvin’s notion of fencing the table- of saying who was unworthy to eat this meal, and they hardened there hearts towards those they deemed unworthy.

In essence the Reformed tradition stopped the private practice of confession to a priest and allowed the sacrament of penance—second baptism—to burden the celebration of thanksgiving—eucharist. The result was often a solemn sense of joy that seemed more like a funeral than a celebration of resurrection.

I believe its time to erase the funeral image from Holy Communion and bring back a sense of Jesus’ welcome table.

All are welcome and all are worthy!  The trouble is not everyone believes their own worthiness because they are bound to fears they cannot name- they can feel them, but they can’t name them. Is that true for you too? One day I was preaching in a small country church in Maine and I was talking about the images of fear that get stuck in our bodies.

After the sermon, a man told me that as a child, a priest had scolded him for something he had done. Instead of stopping there the priest told him that if he didn’t confess his sins before coming to mass that when he opened his mouth to receive communion a black snake would come out.

Needless to say the fear of that snake kept him away from communion for years. Thankfully he is now free of the snake and the fear it caused.

What fears are you carrying today that you want relief from? What changes are you praying for in your own life?

If you want to renew your faith in a loving God you have to do more than pray, you have to have the courage to move beyond your fears and cultivate a sense of awe and wonder. You also have to look at the source of your fears.

Beneath all our fears is a pain too deep to bear. A pain-denied leads to fear and fear disguises itself as anger. Some of us use anger as a shield and defend ourselves with self-righteous behavior. Some of us find anger too frightening because it creates more pain through conflict. When this happens we allow our anger to morph over into depression or false sweetness, either way fear has the upper hand.  The fear of the Lord is not the beginning of wisdom; it is the denial of wisdom.

When we deny our bodywisdom by silencing the pain we carry love loses and fear wins. When we come to see ourselves as unworthy of love or we fear to love again because the last time it hurt too much love loses and fear wins.

If this is true for you, or somebody you know I’m here to remind you that this table is about love not fear, about hope not hopelessness. This Communion meal is holy because it’s about welcome and forgiveness.  By saying yes to God’s welcoming love, by participating in this holy meal you say yes to awe, to wonder, to mystery. You accept your own belovedness; in doing so you say no to the forces of fear that have kept you from seeing the wonder of God.

Saint Augustine (354-430) once observed that

“People travel to wonder at the height of mountains,

at the huge waves of the sea,

at the long courses of rivers,

at the vast compass of the ocean,
at the circular motion of the stars;

and they pass by themselves

without wondering.

In her one- woman play Lilly Tomlin encouraged her space friends to do awe-robics- to let the mystery of life get under their skin and create goose bumps of good news.

Today I encourage you to do the same- I simply ask you to see the wonder of your own personhood, to believe that you can let yourself be loved and that you can become love for one another

Re-Imaging Redemption: The Shaw Center At Its Best!

March 25, 2015   the Rev. Dr. June C. Goudey

Thank you for asking me to participate in this 30 year celebration of the Anna Howard Shaw Center’s ministry to Women. Let me begin by saying how thankful I am that I was offered the opportunity by Margaret Wiborg and Mary Lou Greenwood Boice to be the first Anna Howard Shaw Scholar in 1987. I was privileged to work closely with Margaret for the next six years overseeing many Women and the Word events as well as share my own research on Re-Imaging Communion in 1994. I was also profoundly influenced by the Center’s 1989 Re-Imaging Redemption Symposium.  The Christian Century marked the importance of this effort by devoting the cover of their July 11, 1990 issue to my article “Theologians Re-Imaging Redemption”.

In the following issue three letters to the editor  decried this symposium as nothing more than a new age phenomenon presenting the patriarchal male as the devil incarnate and bordering on idolatry: all this because the symposium suggested that women were looking for “alternative ways of understanding the power that saves and heals us”.

Because we were living then in an era that sought to “depatriachalize” the Bible, The Christian Century’s cover presented 8 panels representing the fading out of a male angel and the emerging of a female angel: a not so subtle reference to the role that re-imaging was coming to play in feminist and womanist theologies. To be clear, The Re-Imaging Redemption Symposium was not breaking new ground; it was taking seriously the work already being done by thoughtful and articulate women!

In 1973 Phyllis Trible’s “Depatriarchalizing in Biblical Interpretation” appeared in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion. In 1974 Beacon press published Mary Daly’s groundbreaking book Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation. In 1978 Phyllis Trible’s God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality challenged patriarchal readings that diminished the role of women, particularly Genesis 2-3.  At the same time psychologists were redefining women’s experience.

The self-in-relation research of the Stone Center at Wellesley College was empowered by Jean Baker Miller’s 1976 book, Toward a New Psychology of Women. This critical work transformed our understanding of ourselves as separate and independent beings. As women reclaimed their voices from the long-imposed silence of internalized oppression the stage was set for a new wave of research that would transform notions of redemption and atonement and shake the foundations of Christianity far more than Paul Tillich could ever have imagined.

Indeed Carter Heyward’s 1982 publication of her Doctoral dissertation The Redemption of God relied heavily on the power of relation.  In Heyward’s words, to worship a messianic figure is to lose touch with our power in relation and ultimately distance ourselves from God.

In 1982 Carole Gilligan’s In a Different Voice revolutionized women’s experience by allowing women’s voices to have their own integrity. Her work was followed in 1987 by Mary Field Belenky’s Women’s Ways of Knowing. This “knowing” by women took seriously the role that Christianity played in the continued domination of women and the undermining of women’s well-being.

I’m sure any one of you could name a number of authors that influenced your own maturation on these issues; but for me the1989 publication of Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse edited by Joanne Carlson Brown and STH’s own Carole Bohn offered a major life-line of clarity for my own concerns regarding the Eucharist. The first essay, “For God so Loved the World” written By Rebecca Parker and Joanne Carlson Brown allowed me to postulate my own feminist critique of atonement imagery that ultimately became my doctoral dissertation. As you can see the context for our Re-imaging Redemption Symposium was well-established and building momentum even as we gathered.

The six presenters at the symposium appealed to art and imagination to “challenge old assumptions about human life, divine power and Jesus Christ as the only true redeemer.” Artist and United Church of Christ pastor Barbara Gerlach was moved by the poet Muriel Rukeyser to demonstrate her own courage by sharing through art the story of her own recovery from childhood abuse. Rukeyser once wrote: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” Gerlach encouraged those present to acknowledge and utilize their own painful memories and experiences and then to work out their own salvation “in fear and trembling.” In this symposium and in the years to follow women were indeed empowered to tell the truth about their lives using their own ethnic lenses to challenge all variations of oppression.

Carter Heyward, professor of theology at the Episcopal Divinity School broadened the concept of divine redemption by suggesting that redemption is in part our mutual responsibility. Through right-relation with one another, she argued, “we can and must lay claim to the christic power inherent in our humanity.” Rita Nakashima Brock, professor at Pacific Lutheran University, used the insights of her 1988 Journeys by Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power to express her understanding of the Christa community.  Brock challenged the “eraser theory” of male theologizing that “rubs women out of the picture,” even when the Gospels herald their perseverance and faithfulness. In her own words, Brock argued: “We cannot rely on one past event to save our future.” Instead it takes each and every one of us to appreciate the “fragile, resilient interconnections” that we share with others to empower us in the face of suffering and pain. New Testament scholar Gail Paterson Corrington documented the ways that the female image has been excluded from the personae of the deity in Christianity and found her images of redemption in pre-Christian figures such as Isis and Sophia.

Womanist Theologians Jacquelyn Grant of The International Theological center in Atlanta and Delores Williams of Drew University Divinity School, challenged their feminist sisters not to allow their own anti-sexist critiques to ignore the injustices borne by women and men of color.  Grant took the notion of servanthood to task by saying that black people know all too well that “some are more servants than others.” Redemption, she argues, “happens wherever the struggle for liberation is” present. Delores Williams explored the painful ambiguity of coerced and voluntary surrogacy as a structure of domination in black women’s lives. Williams focused on the role of “mammy” whereby black women stood in the place of the slave owner’s wife and were given considerable authority in domestic matters by their owners.  And yet Williams reminded us Mammy  remained a captive. To re-image redemption, Williams offered this ruling principle: “To re-image redemption is to re-image creation and to re-image creation is to re-image relation.”

This insight into the power of relation was hardly a new concept. An ancient African Proverb proclaims, “I am because you are.” What was new, though, was women’s ability to give voice to their own experience and to have women scholars in positions of power to make a difference in the collective consciousness of women.

Our Symposium ruffled feathers. But ours was an academic exercise. Ritual, with the exception of a closing spiral dance, was absent. To that extent we were spared the venomous reactions that followed Re-Imagining, the 1993 global interfaith conference that gathered twenty two hundred clergy, laypeople, and feminist theologians in Minneapolis in response to the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Decade: Churches in Solidarity with Women 1988–1998. The repercussions of this event were felt far and wide as conservative groups such as the Confessing Christ movement in the UCC and the Good News people in the Methodist tradition vilified anyone who dared to challenge traditional views of salvation through sacrificial atonement. The suggestion that female metaphors for God allowed women to experience Christianity anew seemed to rally the forces of opposition even as inclusive language became a means of grace for women and men alike.

Some 26 years later, the power unleashed by women who dared to tell the truth of their own story has indeed split open the world. These women, joined by women and men who experienced sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, have moved the church to the margins of spirituality where it resides to this day. It remains to be seen if the institutional church can recover from its self-inflicted wounds or whether the power of relation and the power of re-imaging will be able to transform  the nature of ministry handed down to us. There will always be tradionalists who cling to constricted images of the divine and humanity itself; but re-imaging is the genie in the bottle that can never be put back.

Women and the World, its predecessor Women and the Word, and the Re-Imaging Redemption Symposium of 1989 played a key role in the breaking open of numerous oppressive worlds.  For this critically important work I heartily acknowledge the courage of Anna Howard Shaw and the women who seek to make her legacy as relevant as ever to people of faith everywhere. For this I say, “Deo Gratias!

Dr. Goudey received her Th.D in Feminist Theology and Worship from BUSTH in 1993. She is the author of The Feast of Our Lives: Re-Imaging Communion published in 2002 by the Pilgrim Press. Recently retired after 35 years as a pastor and teacher in the United Church of Christ, Dr. Goudey lives in Northern California with her wife of thirty years.

Gritty Hope

Gritty Hope

My take on the nature of hope

Advent, 2014 Nov30
(with gratitude to Krista Tippett and songwriter Carrie Newcomer)

The poet called it gritty!
The nature of hope, she said, is its willingness

To hang in for the long haul;

To cross thresholds of fear, disappointment, and regret
and still persist in offering the world a kinder vision of itself.

Day after day, disappointment after disappointment, to stay the course.
This indeed is hope!

Yes, wishful thinking plays a part, but gritty hope demands a certain courage.
A determination if you will that your hope counts.
That it will not fall silent, that it too will make a difference, as long as you stay faithful to possibilities not yet created.

This is the hope I strive for; a hope that clings to life for the sheer joy of it. A hope that will make something of itself and in that making, return to the world a light once lost; now eternally viewable.

Communion is like breathing….to live is to commune!

Rev. June C. Goudey Th.D
For much of my life I have had a love affair with the sacrament of Holy Communion. Bread and cup are powerful symbols of acceptance, deep communion and worthiness. As with all love affairs, however, there are moments that test our resolve. Whenever this rite is celebrated with an air of exclusion or tempered by somber self-assessment I experience a heart wrenching dissonance. This dissonance heightened my resolve to understand the role of atonement as it shapes communion imagery. In 2002 Pilgrim Press published my book: The Feast of Our Lives: Re-Imaging Communion
My sensitivity to the funereal dimensions of Holy Communion and my desire to embrace the imagery of feasting emerged from my experience as a child growing up in a funeral home listening to funeral dirges. As I listened to the language of joy used in Communion celebrations I found little joy in the practice itself. I often felt I had wandered into a funeral not a feast.
I was also highly sensitized to the theology of sin and suffering after I spent 14 months in a TB sanitarium at the age of 4. Because I was quarantined from my family and friends, without the benefit of fully understanding why, much of my adult life has been devoted to undoing the emotional suffering that ensued. The notion that Jesus had died for my sins, but had not been able to alleviate my suffering created an unbridgeable crevasse in my ability to consider Jesus as my Lord and Savior. It is from this vantage point that I share with you today.
Despite a steady shift towards a more progressive understanding of this sacrament its enactment often demonstrates a lingering attachment to a medieval cosmology that favors sacred food over sacred fellowship and individual salvation over communal well-being. Despite the recovery of meal imagery related to the image of a messianic banquet, this imagery remains exclusionary as only those worthy enough to be saved are actually invited. The proclamation: “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again” references an apocalyptic end time where Jesus returns to judge and destroy. To truly celebrate the resurrection of Jesus and eliminate apocalyptic imagery I suggest we say: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ is with us now.
My multi-disciplinary research reveals that far from being a Passover meal, the communion rite is rooted in the table fellowship of Jesus. This welcome table theology is closely aligned with Dominic Crossan’s understanding of open commensality- the celebration of a meal that breaks social barriers by excluding no one.
The writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as well as the Apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians clearly demonstrate that liturgical diversity has always been the mark of Christian practice. Thus I believe that the continued liturgical enactment of medieval imagery cannot be supported as normative either historically or theologically.

The role of imagination in human becoming teaches us that symbols, however strongly perceived, eventually break. We have seen this with the cross as well as the bread and cup.
The Protestant Reformation failed to question images of Jesus’ death as sacrificial because the reformers were driven by apocalyptic imagery and the fear of eternal damnation. Those who claim the mantel of reformation today, whether they call them themselves emergent or progressive, must come to terms with this legacy and the consequences it occasions.
Examining the images we use liturgically in order to understand how they shape our congregational life– for better or worse– remains key to the future well-being of our communion celebrations and our Sunday gatherings. Because each of us is shaped by a vast array of experiences we see and interpret the world differently. These varying interpretations shape our interactions. To the extent that love orders our imaginations- inclusivity and openness order our connections. To the extent that fear orders our imaginations, exclusion and isolation rule.
Amos Wilder’s insight on the role of imagination is crucial: “Imagination is a necessary component of all profound knowing and celebration, all remembering, realizing and anticipating, all faith, hope, and love. When Imagination Fails doctrines become ossified, witness and proclamation wooden, doxologies and litanies empty, consolations hollow and ethics legalistic”
Because we are meaning-making beings who thrive when our sense of safety and selfhood is strong we suffer most when our imaginations become constricted. Ellen Langer’s research on mindfulness versus mindlessness demonstrates this in profound ways. The fruit of postmodern scholarship calls into question a monotheistic template for understanding our relationship to God and one another. Because our understanding of cosmology has broadened and our evolutionary knowledge has deepened we can no longer rely on a binary view of life that forces us to imagine ourselves separate from one another. Einstein called this state of mind “an optical delusion of consciousness.”
On the contrary we are relational selves not separate selves, we are the universe conscious of itself and we have learned that shame based religions bring shame on us all. For these reasons and more Brené Brown calls us to consciously loosen the power of shame and live wholeheartedly. Brown’s research on shame leads her to offer this insight: “Connection is why we’re here; it is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. The power that connection holds in our lives was confirmed when the main concern about connection emerged as the fear of disconnection; the fear that something we have done or failed to do, something about who we are or where we come from, has made us unlovable and unworthy of connection.”
Listen again as I substitute communion for connection “Communion is why we’re here; it is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. The power that communion holds in our lives was confirmed when the main concern about communion emerged as the fear of excommunication; the fear that something we have done or failed to do, something about who we are or where we come from, has made us unlovable and unworthy of communion.” The day the church overturned Jesus’ welcome table and embraced excommunication, I believe Christianity made shame its underlying message. Again in Brown’s words “Worthiness doesn’t have prerequisites.” This is why I believe that the confession of sin has no place at our communion tables.
Let me conclude by sharing with you the Welcome Table Philosophy of the United Church of Christ in Simi Valley, where I recently retired as pastor after celebrating a Welcome table communion from 2005 to 2014.

We teach that all of life is sacramental. God is present in all things, but no one thing is God. Every Sunday with our children, we sing: “The Spirit in Me greets the Spirit in You” By this we understand that our nature is both divine and human. In the manner of Jesus, we seek to be Icons of God’s Generosity. We strive to have our lives be windows into a divine love that seeks communal salvation not individual salvation. No one is excluded from God’s love. Period! Therefore we invite everyone to the table, whether baptized or not.

While some seek salvation for themselves in a heavenly afterlife; we seek salvation for all through acts of justice in this life. The word salvation in both the Greek and Hebrew language is rooted in well-being in this life. What lies beyond death, none of us knows for certain. Thus we follow Jesus’ advice “be not anxious” and trust that all will be well, in this life and whatever life is to come.

We teach that Holy Communion is not a sacrifice or a proclamation of Jesus’ sacrifice “once for all.” We believe we are saved by Jesus’ life and teachings not his death; and we honor the expansive table fellowship of Jesus. Jesus was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard and a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ (Matthew 11:9) To those who say, Jesus ate with all manner of sinners, we say, “guilty as charged” and thank God!

Even though the early church fathers overturned Jesus’ table fellowship and ex-communicated sinners, Jesus did otherwise and so do we. We understand that all human beings are imperfect. Through the grace of radical acceptance received in Holy Communion, all of us open ourselves to be better human beings and better Christians. We celebrate the living presence of God and the resurrected Christ in word and sacrament as well as in community.

Our celebration of Communion is not a memorial but a fully participatory expression of divine light and love—a force field of grace that transforms our hearts and minds when we are open to becoming more fully human. To partake of the bread of life and the cup of blessing in fellowship with one another is to commune with all of life and all that is holy. For this we say: “Thanks be to God!”

Delivered at the Disciples Seminary Foundation, Claremont CA, October 2, 2014