During my second year of seminary, class was in session on Christmas Eve.
Instead of a lecture hall at Candler School of Theology, the classroom was a church on Bailey Avenue in Jackson, Mississippi. The professor was the church's senior pastor. I was to preach at the 10:30 pm service and help serve the elements at Holy Communion. Prior to the service, the pastor walked me through my duties at the time of Communion. He concluded his instructions with the statements, "And after everyone's been fed, I'll serve you, and you'll serve me last."
Wait a minute, my overly-theologized mind said. That's not what they taught me in seminary!
I had enough respect for the pastor to keep that thought in my head and off my lips, but I also had enough curiosity to form my reaction into a question.
"That's different from what I learned in seminary," I said.
He laughed, "Oh, we do everything different here!"
My curiosity lingered. Every time I had assisted in the celebration of the Eucharist, the clergy and those assisting partook before serving the congregation. I had read books and written papers on this seemingly "proper order." Yet here was a seasoned, well-loved United Methodist minister teaching me a great reversal.
"Why?" I asked.
His laughter changed to a soft smile.
He looked me in the eye.
The Reverend Keith Tonkel was one of very few people who could get away with calling me, "baby." What mattered in that moment was not what he called me but what he called out to me. My focus had been on my part in the service and what I was supposed to do. In one gentle sentence, he brought me back to our responsibility as the body of Christ.
The sanctuary of Wells United Methodist Church filled that late, holy night with hungry souls. When the time came, I helped feed strangers at midnight. Afterwards, when all had received the body and blood of Christ, including myself, I placed a piece of bread in Keith's open palm.
"The body of Christ given for you."
This week, Christ came in final victory for Keith, and he now feasts at the heavenly banquet. From signing the "Born of Conviction" statement against racism in 1963 to leading Wells Church into its calling of mission-mindedness for over 40 years, Keith leaves behind a legacy of "feeding others before feeding self."
In a time of great division in our nation, our world, and our Church, perhaps unity is best found in Keith's sacramental theology course.
Let's focus on feeding one another.
Let's avoid labeling one another as "an other."
Let's order our lives after the example of Christ Jesus.
This past Sunday, after all the friends and strangers of First United Methodist Church in West Point had received the body and blood of Christ, I turned to the Communion stewards. I told them what I've said at the Lord's Table ever since that Christmas Eve.
"As we are called to feed others before feeding ourselves, let us now receive the gift of our Lord."
all good things to each of you,