I John 5:1-6; John 15:9-13
I had a dear friend named Ruth Newton. She was a no nonsense, task oriented, farm girl turned school teacher from Eastern North Carolina. When she and her husband retired, Ruth ran the household, drove the car, and for a period of time was the most powerful member of the Presbyterian Church in Clinton, North Carolina. In a culture dominated by men, Ruth took no prisoners. But like most of us, she had an Achilles heel. She was the worst card player I ever met. The first couple of years I was in Clinton, about once a month, I would receive a call from Ruth. It was always the same. “Louie, I had a bridge table lined up for tomorrow afternoon, but so and so had to drop out. Can I pick you up at 1:30?” No one said no to Ruth, especially a minister new to the congregation. So I would go, and I would always be Ruth’s partner, and we would always lose. I am not sure Ruth knew there were 52 cards in the deck. I am certain counting points was not something she saw as necessary. Yet we somehow managed to have a grand time. The card playing was embarrassing, but the snacks were great and by the end of the day, I had gotten to know the story of another woman who lived amidst the shadows. I once offered Ruth a book on strategies for playing bridge. She responded, “We are not playing bridge, we are playing life.” Soon after Ruth died, her son told me she created those foursomes with folks who were a little suspicious of their new minister. I had spent twelve years in Texas, had a bunch of degrees behind my name and worst of all, they suspected I was a Democrat. Eight years later when Deb and I moved to Nellysford, those women were among our dearest friends. Ruth got us around a table where we ate food, told stories, and laughed at Ruth playing really bad bridge. That is what Jesus calls, “Laying down her life for a friend.”
Ruth loved the gospel of John and I understand why. At first glance the gospel of John doesn’t seem to be all that heroic. Matthew talks about giving a coat to a stranger. Luke celebrates finding room for the alien. Instructions on how we are to treat an enemy or a foreigner never comes up in John. But in this Gospel there is a whole lot of talk about loving each other.
The great theologian Linus, you know the little guy in Peanuts, astutely observed, “I love humanity, it’s people I can’t stand.” I think the gospel of John was written for folks like me who can go on forever about the plight of children in Rwanda yet get our nose out of joint with the people who care for us the most. John keeps reminding us if we can’t love each other, nothing else really matters.
The French have more than one word for friend. The one most of us learned in French 101 is “ami”. But there I another word I ran across the other day. It is spelled, “c-o-p-a-i-n”. That makes a lot of sense because folks who love each other often share and cause a lot of pain. But for those of you who are better French scholars than I, and I suspect that is everyone here, you know the word “pain” in French does not mean to inflict injury but is the word for bread. The word “copain”, origin of companion, means the one with whom I break bread. What a glorious thought.
Think of all the places we break bread together. Memories are renewed as we break bread together during holidays. Families gather at the end of the day to break bread together. Folks hoping to find love begin their courtship by breaking bread. Ancient lovers find time for each other when breaking bread.
When we come together, stories are shared. When we come together, joys emerge. When we come together, silence is broken and grievances proclaimed. Around the table we find the courage to listen, we discover the strength to submit, we recognize the need to forgive and be forgiven as we grasp the very essence of this complicated emotion we call love. And when this happens, we remember.
Memory, for someone my age, is often fleeting. I glance at a book and wonder why it remains in my library, and then I remember. I hear a piece of music and it returns me to a moment of tranquility. Memories invite us back to not just the way it was but the way it can be again. Memories become the bond that repairs our brokenness. Is it any wonder that Jesus, while sitting with friends who would soon deny and betray him, gave them a memory?
“This is my body broken for you.”
As some of those former bridge partners, including Ruth grew old, once a month I would sit in each of their living rooms and share the Lord’s Supper. Those were holy moments. Sometimes we would remember how badly Ruth played cards. Sometimes I would listen to stories of how unfair growing old can be. All of the time we would celebrate this holy meal created to remember one who laid down his life for us. This wonderful group of copains allowed me to break bread and remember.
That is why I love the first Sunday of each month. You folks have become my copains. I marvel at the way you love each other. I treasure the way you care for each other. I am amazed at your willingness to lay aside your time and energy for both friend and stranger. We celebrate this as we come to the table. We celebrate this as we break the bread. We celebrate this as we become a living sacrifice by listening to a friend, by baking a plate of cookies to share with a neighbor and even by swallowing our ego for the sake of another.
Around this table memories are shared. Around this table, new visions are realized. Around this table, humility trumps pride and brokenness becomes a virtue.
Come to this table of grace, love and peace.
My copains, let us break bread together.
To God be the Glory. Amen.