"OUR WIDE WELCOME"

October 1, 2017

 

"Our Wide Welcome"

 

38 John said to him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’ 39But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40Whoever is not against us is for us. 41For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.                           (Mark 9:38-41, NRSV)

 

 

And the table
will be wide.
And the welcome
will be wide.
And the arms
will open wide
to gather us in.
And our hearts
will open wide
to receive.

And we will come
as children who trust
there is enough.
And we will come
unhindered and free.
And our aching
will be met
with bread.
And our sorrow
will be met
with wine.

And we will open our hands
to the feast
without shame.
And we will turn
toward each other
without fear.
And we will give up
our appetite
for despair.
And we will taste
and know
of delight.

And we will become bread
for a hungering world.
And we will become drink
for those who thirst.
And the blessed
will become the blessing.
And everywhere
will be the feast.

 

This poem, written by Rev. Jan Richardson, a United Methodist minister, beautifully articulates my view of Communion on this World Communion Sunday.  When we boil it down, Communion is about one thing, God’s wide welcome.  In a world that strives to segregate us by race and religion, education level and economic class, Communion reminds us that everyone is welcome at God’s table because we are all God’s children, every last one of us.

 

And the table
will be wide.
And the welcome
will be wide.
And the arms
will open wide
to gather us in.
And our hearts
will open wide
to receive.

 

Not everyone sees it this way of course.  In fact, the majority of churches in America do not believe in God’s wide welcome.  Despite the fact that I am an ordained minister, I am prohibited from taking Communion in a Roman Catholic Church.  Fundamentalist Christians would also prohibit me from taking Communion in their churches because they’d consider me a shameful sinner due to my views on women in ministry, gay marriage, drinking, abortion, interfaith weddings and the list goes on and on.  Whether we bother to think about it or not, those of us in this sanctuary today are not welcome at the Communion table in the majority of America’s churches.  This exclusion does not hurt me a bit.  In fact, I’ll wear the scarlet E of exclusion as a badge of honor.  

 

In today’s scripture lesson from the Gospel of Mark, we see the disciples acting in a similar exclusionary manner, a bit like self-righteous adolescents.  In the story, John says to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”  Jesus tells John, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.”  

 

On the one hand, it’s strange that the disciples were so hung up on the identity of the healer that they were actually angry that a person was healed.  On the other hand, it’s understandable that the disciples missed the bigger picture.  Sometimes we do this, we get caught up in who gets the credit for doing a good deed instead of just being happy that something worthwhile was done.  

 

The truth—it’s a lot easier to preach a sermon on loving everybody than it is to actually love people day in and day out.  At some point or another, even progressive, open-minded, Mainline Protestants like us need to hear Jesus say, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”  It’s a broad, inclusive statement, a statement as open and accepting as Jesus himself.

 

After all, Jesus went out of his way to include all kinds of people.  He called uneducated fishermen to become his disciples.  He called a despised Samaritan woman with multiple husbands to drink of God’s Living Water.  He invited a cheating tax collector named Zaccheus to eat dinner with him.  He stopped the unjust stoning of a woman who had lost her way in life.  Even as he hung on the cross, Jesus told a thief dying at his side they would be together that day in Paradise.

 

Rev. Marie Ford, a Congregational minister in Hartford, Connecticut, has this to say about broadening our boundaries, “God's liberating ministry is not confined to any in-group or person. Whoever helps to free [people] from forces that bind hearts and cripple lives is Jesus' faithful disciple. We don't have to agree with the approach or the perspective. Our worship will vary within the Christian faith: some may be more vocal than others; others silent in their prayerfulness; some may focus their worship on our sinfulness, others on the grace of God; but…we are all in the same family.” 

 

  Jesus said, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”  And while he was certainly speaking to a specific situation, a miracle done in his name by someone outside his inner circle, I believe we should apply this notion as widely as possible.  Whoever is not against us is for us.  We should support anyone who seeks to help and heal a broken world.  We should support anyone who seeks to love and forgive.   We should support anyone who feeds the hungry and houses the homeless, whether we agree with their theology or not.  This is actually more difficult than it sounds, especially for those of us who’ve made an about face and left the religious tradition of our upbringing.  

 

This may sound crazy, but if I could choose the religion of the person next to me on an airplane, I would rather ride and converse with an atheist than with a fundamentalist Christian.  Talking to the fundamentalist could stir up memories from my youth when I worried about eternal damnation.  I might remember the angst when I wasn’t 100% sure that if I died I’d go to heaven because I was told that there’s always a chance that when I prayed for Jesus to come into my heart that I only meant it 95%, and that won’t cut it.  Even 99% won’t cut it.  They said you’ve got to be 100% sure that you really, really prayed the right prayer the right way.  Otherwise, prepare for Satan’s sauna!    

 

So on the plane I’d much rather be in a row with atheists.  I would take it as a personal challenge to tell them what I did for a living and then blow their minds with my open mind.  Had they ever met a minster who conducted same sex weddings, whose church has welcomed Muslims to offer the Sunday sermon, whose congregation has female minsters, and who can play Led Zepplin’s “Been a long time since I rock and rolled” note for note on the drums?  I’m guessing this knowledge would at least lower their blood pressure which probably shot up when they sat down next to me and asked, “So what do you do for a living?”  Even I don’t want to sit next to a minister on a plane.  Who needs shop talk at 35,000 feet?  Just let me read my John Grisham novel in peace, thank you very much.

 

But it would probably be better for my soul if I sat next to a fundamentalist Christian who might surprise me by showing that we have more in common than I expected—she volunteers with Habitat for Humanity as I have, his church raises money for hurricane relief as ours is, her congregation helps support a children’s home in Africa like we do.  We could talk a long time about how each of our churches is trying to make God’s world a better place and never cross swords over theology.  Perhaps waiting for my luggage I’ll remember the verse where Jesus says, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”  Rev. Richard Stetler, a minister in Maryland, reminds us, “Love comes in many forms.  Love has many faces and names.” 

 

On this World Communion Sunday, let us affirm that God’s wide welcome creates a space for everyone at the Communion table.  People we like and people we don’t like.  People who look like us and people who look nothing like us.  People who share our political persuasion and those with whom we vehemently disagree.  Jesus didn’t turn people away and neither do we.  My hope is that we as a church and as individuals will use our lives to include, to invite, and to welcome; that we will be known for affirming every person as a beloved child of God; and that we will rejoice in love, whatever the name, whatever the face, whatever the label.

 

And the table
will be wide.
And the welcome
will be wide.
And the arms
will open wide
to gather us in.
And our hearts
will open wide
to receive.

And we will come
as children who trust
there is enough.
And we will come
unhindered and free.
And our aching
will be met
with bread.
And our sorrow
will be met
with wine.

And we will open our hands
to the feast
without shame.
And we will turn
toward each other
without fear.
And we will give up
our appetite
for despair.
And we will taste
and know
of delight.

And we will become bread
for a hungering world.
And we will become drink
for those who thirst.
And the blessed
will become the blessing.
And everywhere
will be the feast.

AMEN.

 

Written by Rev. Jimmy Only

World Communion Sunday

The Congregational Church of Manhasset, New York (UCC)

October 1, 2017

 

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