As part of today’s sermon, I’m going to ask us to engage in a bit of silliness. I know, it’s Lent and we should all be somber and serious, but I promise you that this silliness has a very not-silly point. As we read this Scripture, I am going to invite you to wear your coffee filter on your head, like a hat.
Our scripture reading today comes from 1 Corinthians, and it’s a reading that we…don’t hear very often. To put this in context, Paul is talking to the church in Corinth about how they are to behave themselves in worship and in fellowship. He’s apparently heard some rather disturbing things, and he’s rather unhappy.
Listen for the word of the Lord from 1 Corinthians, chapter 11:
I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you. But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ. Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head—it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil. For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man. Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man. For this reason a woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman. For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God. Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. But if anyone is disposed to be contentious—we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God.
Now in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it. Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine. When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!
This part of Scripture is, well, awkward. And confusing.
So it’s easy to just throw out this whole chunk of Scripture, saying “well, at least I don’t do THAT.” We don’t gorge ourselves on communion bread and leave nothing but crumbs for the people who come after us. We don’t make a fuss about head coverings or how long your hair is or what you wear to worship. In fact, I could not care less about how you look or what you wear when you walk in those doors—I’m just genuinely glad you’re here—and God is, too.
Nevertheless, I still think that Paul is calling us to repentance.
These things that Paul talks about: head coverings, bread, wine, and food–these are symbols: visible signs of invisible realities. These very tangible things stand in for something you can’t see or feel or touch.
Women in the ancient world didn’t wear things on their heads because the Holy Spirit made them chilly. These were, to them, culturally significant symbols of submission, humility, and class status.
Water reminds us of washing, of nourishment, of life. Bread and wine, dinnertime staples, signify spiritual nourishment for a hard and sometimes painful journey towards redemption.
But at the end of this chapter, Paul drills down to the whole point of the Christian life: “when you do these things, you proclaim Christ’s death until he comes.”
Paul hints at the invisible reality–the Reality with a capital R–which we speak aloud together every time we gather around this table:
Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.
This table and that font are not magical. They do not, in and of themselves, do anything out of the ordinary. It’s wood, metal, and bread and grape juice and water.
But these are gifts–the visible and tangible ‘stuff’ through which we come to know the invisible reality that words alone don’t quite do justice to:
in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth,
we are reconciled to God,
we are called God’s beloved children, and
we are welcomed into the already-not-yet kingdom that Christ is building on earth.
We remember what God has done, we see what God is doing, and we look forward to what God will do.
It took me a long time to hear that story from this table.
Throughout my teenage years, my mom and I sat every Sunday in the back pew of the balcony at Second Reformed Church in Fulton, Illinois. In those days, we received communion once every three months–four times a year. Small cubes of wonderbread and little cups of grape juice were passed through the pews on silver trays, and there was always a certain reverence attached to that moment.
But the story I learned in that supper was not one of remembrance, communion and hope. It was a story saturated with shame. My inner monologue always wound up in the same place: you couldn’t pull yourself together, so look—just, look at what Jesus endured because of you.
As I took the bread and the tiny cup, I didn’t see spiritual food for a journey towards redemption. All I could see was a reminder that I would never be good enough for God to love. I took them because someone standing up front told me that God loved me anyway, but I still don’t think I actually believed them.
That pew was just one more place for me to tell myself “you’re awful, try harder.”
As I chewed on stale wonderbread and threw back grape juice, I was doing good, but not becoming good.
The outside wasn’t wrong, but the inside was.
So long as the story we tell ourselves when we do these things doesn’t match up with the reality of Christ’s kingdom that we seek to proclaim with them, we are the ones that Paul does not commend.
We wind up wearing head coverings in church but ignoring Christ’s call for reconciliation in our workplaces, our neighborhoods, and our homes.
We sit down to meals together without actually connecting—without experiencing true communion–without sharing one another’s burdens, joys, hopes, and fears.
We take in sermons and podcasts and articles about the importance of vulnerability and encourage others to be honest about how they’re feeling, but we end our own stories of hardship with “but I’m okay–really, I’m okay.”
Do you feel ridiculous yet?
What if we felt just as ridiculous putting on our ‘church happy face’ before we walked through those doors every week as we do wearing coffee filters on our heads?
What if we felt just as ridiculous leaving our church, our workplaces, our social gatherings every day without having talked to a single person we didn’t already know?
What if we felt just as ridiculous all those times we managed to do something good but grumbled the whole way through?
Later in 1st Corinthians, Paul talks about what it means to love. We use chapter 13 a lot in weddings and celebrating families, but what if we turned that sort of purposeful love loose on our whole lives? What might a contemporary version of that famous passage sound like?
If I write the smartest and most-liked Facebook posts or post the best selfies, but have no love for the people on the other end, I am a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
If I write the most cards and care for everyone else in my life, but fail to have compassion for myself, I have nothing.
If I give to all the right charities, and show up at all the right events, and give up more than anyone else for Lent, but do it only for the sake of my reputation, I have gained nothing.
If I pray “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” a thousand times but refuse to let go of my resentments and grudges, to even entertain the idea that I might be wrong about something, then I have missed the point entirely.
Love is patient, love is kind. Love tells you to shut down the email and go to bed, and doesn’t put much stock in titles or promotions. It is not demanding or busy. It tells you to stay home when you’re sick, and listens for the cry of your heart. Love cheers when you learn, and spurs you on when you fail.
Love never ends. But as for sermons, they will come to an end; as for sports games and paperwork, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. Now we know only in part; then we will know fully, even as we have been fully known. And now only faith in what Christ has done, hope in the work of the Holy Spirit, and the love of God abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
When the visible and the invisible come together to tell the same story, to sing the same song, it’s a beautiful thing. When we are both doing good and becoming good, loving and being loved, we become beautiful things.
Today, our journey to the Table will take a slightly different route, past the baptismal font. You’ll notice some markers in your pews along with your coffee filters, and right now I’m going to give you a couple minutes for silent reflection—and then, we’re going to sing. I encourage you to use this time to be honest with yourselves and with God about what you’re doing and who you’re becoming.
As you do, I invite you to write or draw on your head covering whatever it is that you seek to leave behind as we journey ever closer to the cross—perhaps your own way of doing good at the expense of becoming good. Perhaps the ways you’ve been ‘faking it til you make it.’ Perhaps it’s the way you haven’t loved yourself, or others.
When you come up to receive communion, leave it in the font, and watch it fade in the waters of new life.