St. Paul’s Congregational Church, October 3, 2021
Proper 22B, World Communion Sunday
Genesis 2:18-24; Mark 10:2-16
The Church of the Epiphany, an Episcopal congregation in Washington, DC, hosts “The Welcome Table”, an 8am worship service, breakfast, and small group Bible study for about 200 homeless people every Sunday morning.
Guests are called by name, not a number – they dine on china plates with real silverware while waiters – who are other members of the congregation – pour coffee. When guests leave after a meal, a congregational host says, “Thank you for coming.”
Diana Butler Bass uses this as an example of how a mainline Protestant church shows forth the nature of Christ:
“At first, those who attended Epiphany’s traditional 11am service simply referred to the 8am people as “the homeless.” Gradually, “the homeless” have become “guests”, and now, in many cases, “homeless members” or “members who live on the streets.” Or simply Joe, Wanda, or Ted. When the 8am service started, there was no offering collection because the regular churchgoers thought it inappropriate to asks guests to contribute. But, homeless members insisted that their service should include a traditional offering. The priest reported, “They felt like they were not real members and asked to contribute so they could give back to the church.” Daniel, a member of the traditional congregation, recalled how moved he was the first time he acted as an usher at the homeless service. He says, “As the plate passed down the rows, I watched poor people turn their pockets inside out and throw loose change and crumpled dollars in the offering. I almost cried. I learned more about giving that morning than in a thousand sermons.”
I’m remembering serving dinner at the Bethel Soup Kitchen in Bloomfield for many years – if we forgot to put out the offering jar, we heard about it right away from the guests. And we too watched them put precious dollars in the jar; we saw them look us in the eye as they smiled and said thank you. I, too, was always moved and inspired by this.
Our scripture passages this morning are difficult to hear. In the creation story we hear that God said it is not good for man to be alone – we read about the creation of the partner, the helper – we read about the ideal of a man and woman in a mutually responsible and caring relationship. Eve was created as a full partner in creation, not an afterthought. And then in our gospel lesson we hear Jesus’ harsh words about divorce – we’re jarred by those words. We know that it is painful to divorce – we know how painful it is when a relationship is no longer mutually loving and caring. We know the difficulties for the children caught in such a situation. Divorce hurts everyone involved. Divorce is the death of a relationship and with it, the death of hopes and dreams, isn’t it. But sometimes it’s the only option – and even when relationships turn toxic, turn abusive – there’s still pain. It’s almost never an easy choice to divorce, even when safety is an issue.
But let’s step back a bit – maybe this passage is not just about divorce as we ordinarily think of it – and it’s also important to note that Mark has linked Jesus’ teaching about children with this teaching about divorce. What’s that about?
Women, in marriage, were at the time and still can be, so very vulnerable. Children are vulnerable, then and now. It’s clear where Jesus stands – Jesus is clearly on the side of the vulnerable, whether the vulnerable are women in marriage or children in the family. Who are the vulnerable we meet today?
Isn’t this passage mostly about God? God is the one who brings people together. God is the one who refuses to send these “little ones” away – instead God is the one who receives and embraces these little ones. God is the one who heals brokenness, who brings separated people back together, who reaches out, beyond the bounds of convention and tradition, toward those who are the most vulnerable. God is on the side of the little ones, no matter the cause of their littleness. God’s love has no limits and it’s God who brings individuals together into community. Like the community at Epiphany church in Washington: like the one at the Bethel Soup Kitchen. A community like the one we have experienced here in Nutley.
God loves us limited human beings in a limitless divine way. And we have a God who forgives our failures, who loves us in spite of our limits to love in return. Despite our inabilities, limits, and failures, God is limitlessly loving and always faithful. All we have to do is stretch out our hand.
Coffee hour – an institution of the church that’s supposed to be the time when the community gathers for fellowship. I’ve found, though, that’s one of the most difficult arenas for a new member or a visitor to the church. I went to a church for a while when I was in seminary and finally got up the courage to go to the coffee hour - I’ll never forget that not one person talked to me, including either pastor. Needless to say, that was the last time I went there.
Now, imagine that you’re 2 years old in a crowded room. All you can see are knees and hear lots of noise. One day at coffee hour at my church in Connecticut a little girl about that age found herself alone in the room and was crying. A woman went to her, spoke to her, and I could hear her tell the little one that she’d help find her mommy. She put her hand down and the little girl slowly put hers out. The woman then asked if she could pick her up and the child put her arms out – the woman took her in her arms and off they went to find Mom.
Come to me as a little child – what a beautiful, gentle expression of trust. Don’t we all sometimes find ourselves in a noisy room, surrounded by knees, feeling lost, feeling vulnerable. Maybe there’s sickness in your family. Maybe your job is no longer there. Maybe you’re mourning the loss of someone dear. Maybe you’re at a crossroad in your life – trying to make a decision. Maybe you’re feeling overwhelmed by schedules. Maybe you’re overwhelmed by not having enough to do, by the fact that you find yourself limited by physical abilities. Maybe it’s when you’re worried about the breakdown of civility in our country, disappointed in the behavior of our leaders, a stunning lack of compassion for each other. Maybe it’s then that we hear a still small voice reaching out to us, seeing a hand outstretched, and we take a deep breath and put our arms out too.
Let the children come to me, for it is to such as these that the realm of God belongs. And Jesus took them in his arms and blessed them. And Jesus will take us into his loving arms and bless us too.
Today we gather with Christians all over the world on this worldwide communion Sunday to celebrate Jesus and what he did for us, in every corner of the world. We celebrate what Jesus did, and what by the power of the Holy Spirit, he still does. We celebrate the Jesus who considered family unity to be important – not just in what we think of as the nuclear family, but in the family of faith – the church. We celebrate the Jesus who welcomes little children into his arms. We celebrate the Jesus who took the time to bless everyone – no matter who they were and no matter what others thought of them. We celebrate the Jesus who was radical – radical in his love for us – all of us – men, women, and children – rich and poor, no matter our ethnic background, friend or enemy. We celebrate Jesus who shows us the way God wants for us to live. And we celebrate Jesus who took on the burden of our sin – took on the penalty for our sin – doing so that we might live and be one with him and one another before God.
Today we do what Jesus did the night he was betrayed, in his memory we break bread and share a cup, the bread he called his body broken for us, the cup he called his blood shed for us.
Today we come together to be strengthened, nourished, fed, together with our brothers and sisters all around the world, that we might do the work Jesus calls us to do – to make disciples of all nations – not to make us all alike, but to make us God’s family, rich in its diversity. To love each other as God has loved each of us.
So often we talk about how we need to believe in this God of love; but what we celebrate today reminds us of a different fact: the fact that even when we don’t believe in God, God believes in us. What greater proof is there than that God sent His own Son to show us the way, that we might believe!
God believes in us. God believes that we are not ever beyond help. God loves us, and God in Christ, has come and still comes today, to forgive us, to scrape us back together again, and mold us into something, someone, even better than that which we were before.
It is this coming to us that we celebrate today, and it is the fact that we can be what God wants us to be, that we give thanks for. God has made us God’s family, God’s community. A family, a community, that stretches into Nutley and surrounding towns, into Washington DC, indeed around the world where we come to know each others’ names. A family that is called to love as we have been loved, to forgive as we have been forgiven, to give as we have been given.
As we share today in our family meal, may we each give thanks to God that we are not alone; that we both have each other and the Spirit of Christ among us, the Spirit of him who was, who is, and who shall ever be one with us, and one over us, one under us, one who truly loves us.
Thanks be to God – for this church, for this community, for the love of God in Christ that will always bring us hope and that will always bind us together. Amen.