A Cup Can Be More Than A Cup

And whoever shares a cup of cold water with one of these little ones also shares it with me…famous words of Jesus about a simple act of hospitality. Such a cup signals welcome not only to a thirsty soul, but to Christ himself, who is somehow present in this act of charity, as Matthew reminds us more than once in his gospel. To paraphrase another verse, where two or more are gathered in an act of kindness, there am I in the midst of them. We’ll come back to the cup of water.

Cut away to another famous cup in Christian lore: the cup Jesus used at the Last Supper; the chalice for the very first communion; the Holy Grail!

As legend has it, Joseph of Arimathea brought the Holy Grail to England centuries ago, where it remained as an object of adoration. At one point, though, the Grail was lost, resulting in many searches for it by the knights of the round table of King Arthur. Some of you may have learned about this from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. But, of course, this legend as it was passed down was quite serious. Sir Galahad eventually found the Grail, according to legend.

One admirer of this legend was the American poet James Russell Lowell, one of a famed group of poets from New England called the Fireside poets, which included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and John Greenleaf Whittier. Lowell was also a leader in the abolitionist movement, 20 years before slavery was abolished.

In one of his lengthier poems, Lowell created the character of Sir Launfal, a knight of the Round Table, who was preparing to go on a quest for the Holy Grail. On the night before he was to embark, he had a dream. He dreamed that he left the castle one sunny morning. Summer and sun could not penetrate this castle because its walls were so high and it was chilly and dark inside, like “an outpost from winter.” But as the gate opens, sunlight rushes in, and there at the gate is a leper, begging and moaning.

And it says Sir Launfal was filled with loathing at the sight, so he tossed him a coin out of scorn.

The leper did not pick it up, correctly sensing it was given out of duty and scorn. Rather, he yearned for someone who saw beyond his ugliness and gave alms,

to that which is out of sight,
That thread of the all-sustaining Beauty
Which runs through all and doth all unite,

A shared humanity, perhaps, reflecting some kind of divine beauty?

For years Sir Launfal sought the elusive Grail, but he did not succeed. Rather, he spent all his riches and ended up a homeless, hungry man in rags, worn out and frail. He returned finally to his castle on Christmas Eve. Inside he heard laughter and song. He saw chimney smoke rising from a roaring fire. But alas, who was he now? Lowell writes, that “deep in his soul the sign he wore” was the “badge of the suffering and the poor.” 

Eventually, the Castle guard saw the knight and the guard’s voice “flared like a torch,” announcing to Sir Launfal that “there is no place here for people like you!” So, Sir Launfal turned away from his own gate, walked away, and fantasized about the warmth of the desert sun and caravans of camels; he was begging to the men riding the camels, but something broke his vision.

It was the same leper he saw at the beginning of his journey, but this time Sir Launfal sees something else besides the otherwise desperate life before him. Something transcendent…

And Sir Launfal said, — “I behold in thee
An image of Him who died on the tree;

And he goes on to describe how he sees in both Jesus and the leper the crown of suffering, the scorn of the world, the wounds and scars of violence done to a human being. And so Sir Launfal says,

Mild Mary’s Son, acknowledge me;
Behold, through him, I give to thee!”

Then the soul of the leper stood up in his eyes
And looked at Sir Launfal.

The leper remembered years before when the arrogant knight had flung him alms. But this time, something different happened; Sir Launfal took out his last crust of bread and shared it with the leper. And he broke the ice on the river and scooped with his bowl and gave the leper a drink. As Lowell writes,

‘T was a mouldy crust of coarse brown bread,
‘T was water out of a wooden bowl, —
Yet with fine wheaten bread was the leper fed,
And ‘t was red wine he drank with his thirsty soul. 

As Sir Launfal mused with a downcast face,
A light shone round about the place;

The leper no longer crouched at his side,
But stood before him glorified,
Shining and tall and fair and straight
As the pillar that stood by the Beautiful Gate,

And then in a “voice that was calmer than silence,”  God spoke through this man, the leper:

“Lo, it is I, be not afraid!
In many climes, without avail,
Thou hast spent thy life for the Holy Grail;
Behold it is here, — this cup which thou
Didst fill at the streamlet for me but now;
This crust is my body broken for thee,
This water His blood that died on the tree;

The Holy Supper is kept, indeed,
In whatso we share with another’s need;
Not what we give, but what we share, —
For the gift without the giver is bare;
Who gives himself with his alms feeds three, —
Himself, his hungering neighbor, and me.”

And Sir Launfal then awoke from his dream with this pronouncement: “The Holy Grail has been found!” And from that point on, the castle gate now stands open, not closed. The wanderer, the hungry and poor are welcome to the hall. And summer no longer lays siege to the castle, always turned away at its walls. She entered through an outcast and took the castle by surprise. Now summer is inside and has mastered the fortress. There are no longer any who hunger in all the land.

Nice fairy tale, you say? It’s not! It is real. It’s what we believe. It is what we are called to live.

Jesus said whoever gives as much as a cup of cold water to one of these little ones – these outcasts with nothing to their name – has welcomed Jesus himself. For even in the most desperate, we can see the image of God; the person of Christ standing with that person.

“Who gives himself with his alms feeds three, —
Himself, his hungering neighbor, and me.”

Do you see Christ in your neighbor? Do you see Christ in your neighbor who is living on the edge, struggling to find scraps of sustenance, or to merely breathe in a world that is suffocating their future? Then imagine, as Sir Launfal did, the image of Christ in them. Imagine their soul standing up, as if filled with the stature of God’s son. What if we looked at people this way? Like Christ was validating their worth and their potential?

That is why Jesus came to us; to make us fully human again. And who in Lowell’s poem became fully human again? Here’s a hint: it wasn’t just the leper; it was Sir Launfal. Nor was it just these two. It was the whole village, who felt the sunshine of a unified humanity, rather than the cold indifference to the suffering of others.

Jesus is the bread of life, living water, the one who transforms our mundane experiences into something sacred, and people into bearers of the image of God. And so, with the presence of Christ who poured himself out to us that we might live, a cup of water becomes the Grail. Lowell muses in his great poem that the Holy Grail is found any time life and sustenance are shared with one another, especially with the one in dire need.

Is a cup of water really a chalice with red wine? Yes. When we are sent in the name of the Lord to practice hospitality with our neighbor, we become a sacrament to our neighbor, our very being cradling the life-giving presence of God like a chalice to wine! It is then that a cup of water, a can of beans in a food line, a phone in your hand during someone else’s time of loneliness, the door of a state representative that receives a knock – all these concrete actions can become the Holy Grail. That is what the Holy Grail means: God with us/God for us/God through us.

Are our lives – or our church – sometimes like that castle? High walls that keep out the broken world of injustice, or homeless people, of desperate people? But what if those people are the summer sun that makes us whole again? There are interesting images in Lowell’s poem about God healing us through practicing hospitality with the broken world out there.

If there’s one thing this pandemic has taught us, the church has left the building! We are discovering that the sacrament is now in your home and everyday life. And what does it mean if you are a sacrament, sharing the Holy Grail, when you work, play, shop, have family time, serve your neighbors in need? Or, sometimes they serve you!

As some people have correctly pointed out: the church, this faith community, doesn’t merely do mission work among other activities. We are a mission in everything we do.

“Not what we give, but what we share, —
For the gift without the giver is bare;
Who gives himself with his alms feeds three, —
Himself, his hungering neighbor, and me.”



Pastor John is Mt. Carmel’s Senior Pastor.

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