Sometimes having a beer is a sacramental act. The president and vice president of the United States having a beer with Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and police Sgt. James Crowley, at a round table in the White House backyard, strikes me as that kind of moment.
There was no bread and there was no wine. There was no prayer and no elevation of the host or cup. There was beer.
And a most unlikely congregation -- the arresting officer who responded to a 911 call regarding a suspected break-in; the Harvard professor whose keys wouldn't work, arrested in his own living room for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest; the vice president with blue-collar roots from Scranton, Pa., and the president, who, in the aftermath of the most debated arrest since Rodney King, had stumbled on his words, and who had brought them all together for beer, conversation, and a "teachable moment."
What was the teachable moment? What was it teaching us?
Sacramental purists, teatotalers and partisan ideologues will not see it. Nor will those who accuse the president of a public relations stunt to cover over a confessed political blunder that captured the news for 10 days. Their biases will not allow them to see it.
We see the world through the eyes of our experience. As a child I believed that the call of the Christian life was a call to purity, the call to clean hands. We were "Christian soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before." The world was a dirty place; our job was to clean it up in the march against evil.
They pulled me down from my high perch into a radical crisis, a crisis that led me to the ideas of practicing Christian theologians Karl Barth, Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, men whose faith did not suffer the illusion of the recovery of lost innocence, but rather took the form of responsibility for one's behavior on behalf of a gospel of reconciliation.
This gospel of reconciliation has become the primary lens through which I see the world. I share this view, expressed in my tradition by the Presbyterian Confession of 1967, which made the shift from the paradigm of innocence to the paradigm of reconciliation as the work of the Christian life.
It calls the church to work toward the end of "discrimination based on racial or ethnic difference, real or imaginary ... practice forgiveness of enemies and ... commend to the nations as practical politics the search for cooperation and peace."
The gathering of these four men in the backyard of the White House strikes me as a visible sign of such reconciling work. As in his speech to the Muslim world and in his historic Philadelphia speech on race, President Obama has brought to the White House a nonsectarian gospel of reconciliation.
Although they shared beer rather than wine, the scene of Gates, Crowley, Biden and Obama, each with his own dirty hands in a world without innocence, seemed like a reflection of the sacrament of the Lord's Supper.
"The Lord's Supper is a celebration of the reconciliation of people with God and with one another, in which they joyfully eat and drink together at the table of their Savior ... They rejoice in the foretaste of the kingdom ... and go out from the Lord's Table with courage and hope for the service to which he [Christ] has called them," says the Confession.
Sometimes having a beer is a sacramental act, a kind of holy moment, a foretaste of the kind of world we seek, the dissolving of the divisions, community created boldly by grace out of the vain searches for innocence and the broken, rancorous claims of righteousness.
Gordon C. Stewart is pastor of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, and a frequent guest commentator on All Things Considered.