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Eucharist: Energy Bar or after-Dinner Mint?

August 20, 2006

Glynn Cardy

Pentecost 11     Exodus 16:1-4, 13-15     
John 6:51-58


I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,

Alive as you or me:

Said I, but Joe you're ten years dead;

I never died said he.


In Salt Lake, Joe, Great God, said I,

Him standing by my bed;

They framed you on a murder charge,

Said Joe but I ain't dead.


The copper bosses framed you Joe

They shot you Joe said I;

Takes more than guns to kill a man,

Said Joe I did not die.


Joe Hill ain't dead he says to me,

Joe Hill ain't never died;

Where working men are out on strike,

Joe Hill is at their side.


And standing there as big as life

A-smiling with his eyes.

Said Joe, what they forgot to kill

Went on to organize!


From San Diego up to Maine,

In every mine and mill –

Where working men defend their rights

It's there you'll find Joe Hill.


I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,

Alive as you or me:

Said I, but Joe you're ten years dead;

I never died said he.

I never died said he. [i]


There is obvious Christic allusions in this ballad eulogizing Joe Hill, a working class hero, who was killed in 1915. Like Jesus he was concerned about injustice. Like Jesus this concern rallied the forces of wealth and might against him. Like Jesus he was killed. Like Jesus he lives on, immortalized in song and deed.


Let's imagine that Joe had been with his friends the night before he was arrested. Let's imagine that he'd taken a pint of beer and a chunk of hard tack, [ii] likened them to his body, and shared them round. And let's imagine Joe told them that every time before they go out on the picket line, every time before they stand up to injustices, every time before they fight for what is right, they are to eat and drink and remember the spirit - that is Joe's spirit, and the spirit of their forebears who struggled, and the spirit of those standing beside them.


This ritual is about re-membering, bringing together the past with the present, and the dead with the living. It is a ritual that empowers people. It focuses them on the tradition of protest of which they are a part. It focuses them on the cost of that protest. And it focuses them on the dream of life lived free of oppression, hatred, classism, and prejudice.


I don't know very much about Joe Hill. I do though know his song. And I have met his spirit and joined with it. I know a lot more about Jesus, been taught his songs, and have met and joined his spirit too. While every spirit is unique, there is a resonance between these two spirits.


Listen to one of our Eucharistic prayers:


“Here today, through bread and wine, we renew our journey with Jesus and his disciples. We renew our unity with one another, and with all those who have gone before us in this place. We renew our communion with the earth and our interwovenness with the broken ones of the world. We take bread, symbol of labour, symbol of life. We will break the bread because Christ, the source of life, was broken for the excluded, exploited and downtrodden. We take wine, symbol of blood, spilt in war and conflict, symbol too of new life. We will drink the wine because Christ, the peace of the world, overcomes violence.”


This is a call to political action. This is a call to stand with Christ on the picket lines of history – everywhere oppression is rampant, freedom is suppressed, and bread is not shared. The spiritual is political, it can be no other. This Eucharistic act re-members the past and binds it to the present in order to build the future. It is holy, and it is potent.


The biblical antecedent of Eucharist is the manna from heaven story. [iii] Manna, the food of liberation, is found not in the Big Red sheds of Egypt but in the wilderness beyond Pharaoh's control. Manna is bread that is to be shared, not stored for profit. It is bread that comes courtesy of God, not from the machinations of the market with more landing on the palates of the rich than on the plates of the poor.


It will be no great surprise to you to hear me say that it has served the interests of the ruling classes to de-politicize the Eucharist and turn it into an individualistic private act of devotion. With our sins of disobedience confessed we were to kneel and bow our heads to God, as we would to the king. We were to receive of the king's bounty and go forth quietly to live subservience lives. We dressed our bishops and priests like royalty. “Yes, m' Lord, you know best.” From Constantine on the primary political function of the Church has been to sanction, and thus sanctify, the power of the state.


As God said to Moses; 'Stop groveling and get moving. I want my people to be free. I don't want to hear about your shortcomings and guilt. I don't want you to wallow in it. Saying sorry isn't going to free my people. Decisive, confrontational, planned action is. When you act, you'll find me acting with you. Together we will walk out of slavery into freedom.'


It is no mistake that Matthew's Gospel pictures Jesus as the new Moses. It is also no mistake that Constantinian Christianity removed Jesus from the picket line, stuck a crown on his head, and plonked him in a starry heaven – as far removed from working class people as possible.


The Eucharist has also been de-politicized by debate. Is the bread and wine real flesh and blood, transubstantiation, consubstantiation, or symbolic substance? Who can receive it – divorcees, children, gays and lesbians, Buddhists and Muslims, anyone? Such disagreements still divide the Church, diminish our potency, and serve those who fear our power.


The Eucharist is marching food. Think of it as a high-protein energy bar for those communities that passionately burn for justice. It brings us individuals, all the little spluttering, erratic flames and the torches that we are, into one bonfire. Together we can light up the sky bringing hope to those in darkness.


Eating is a communal act more than an individual one. Some days as individuals we can't even amble to the clothes line let alone stand on any picket line. Yet we belong. We belong to a community that stands for justice. Newborn babes belong, folk stricken with ailments belong, the brave belong, the weak belong, and even those who don't believe can choose to belong.


For too long the high-protein power bar for the visionary Jesus movement has been reduced to a pious after-dinner mint for individual penitents. We need to recover the potency of the Eucharist. It is God's gift and it's divine. In eating we come together. In solidarity there is healing. With healing comes the ability to re-vision. With renewed vision comes the passion to plan and act. With action we live our prayers.


The Eucharist calls us to action. Not for action's sake, but for all the forsaken. It is a holy meal for the sake of the whole world.


[i] By Alfred Hayes and Earl Robinson


[ii] Hardtack is thick cracker made of flour, water, and sometimes salt.


[iii] Exodus 16

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