Sermon
February 1, 2004
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
Write to Rev. Moran

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Call to Worship (James Joyce, Ulysses)


M: The nurse loves the new chemist.

P: Constable 14A loves Mary Kelly.

M: M. B. loves a fair gentleman.

P: Old Mr. Verschoyle loves old Mrs. Verschoyle.

M: You love a certain person,

P: And this person loves that person,

M: Because everybody loves somebody.

P: But God loves everybody!

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Scripture Readings

1 Corinthians 13:1-13 (NRSV)

1 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant

5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;

6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.

7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.

9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part;

10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.

11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.

12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.

13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Luke 4:21-30 (NRSV)

21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”

23 He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’ ”

24 And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.

25 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land;

26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon.

27 There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”

28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage.

29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.

30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

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Sermon: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner or Punked at the Premier

This is another Sunday where I had a hard decision on my sermon title. Those of you who carefully read the Saturday paper will realized the discrepancy between what was reported there and what is printed in the bulletin. Then again, you’ve also noticed that the choir did not sing “There is a Bomb in Gilead”

But the paper is not at fault on the sermon title – it has changed. At first I wanted to call it “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” based on the famous movie of the same name with Katharine Houghton, Sidney Poitier, Spencer Tracy, and Katharine Hepburn. It’s about the reactions of people when a young couple - one white, one black – tell their families they plan to marry; – it’s about who is included at the family table and who is excluded, and for what reasons. But that movie came out in 1967 and in order not to seem dated I thought a reference to something in contemporary culture would be better – and thus, “Punked at the Premier” came to mind.

Now, if you were born before 1967 and don’t have a teenager in the house you may not have come in contact with the show “Punked,” but the concept will be familiar – it’s basically an elaborate practical joke played on a celebrity and caught on tape. In one show the movie star Halle Berry is arriving at a premier of a film where she has the lead role only to be told that she can’t get in because the Fire Marshall says it is filled to capacity. Here she is the big star left standing on the sidewalk. Needless to say she is fuming because it’s her rightful privilege to be inside. ---– she’s the honored guest after all – and no one has the right to exclude her from this important celebration!

You want a sermon title to subtly allude to some issue that’s going to be addressed, and issues of both privilege and prejudice play a role in the story I’d like to look at this morning – the story of inclusion and exclusion at the central celebration, the family table of our family of faith – the Lord’s Table and the sacrament of Holy Communion.

This is a story with a long history and a yet unresolved conclusion. Now some people might not care about being included or excluded from Holy Communion, especially if it’s not in their own church. Maybe they have an attitude like Groucho Marx who is reputed to have said: I don't care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members.

But for some people this is a critical issue. There is a network of families that face this frequently because one partner is Protestant and one Roman Catholic and both are faithful in their respective churches. This network has a website with postings on how to handle some of the practical problems that might arise.

One area that has quite a few postings is family funerals. Let me read what they say in an article about celebrating the Eucharist – or Holy Communion – at a funeral:

While some will not want a Eucharist during the actual funeral, others will find it helpful. A Eucharist does however raise the question of whether or not members of other churches will be able to receive communion. It is doubtful if a Roman Catholic bishop would permit open communion, and though some priests would take the responsibility on themselves, others would insist on the Bishop’s approval. Having a celebration of the Eucharist could mean that bereaved people would be asking permission to receive communion in a Roman Catholic Church at a time when they are very vulnerable, and when a refusal would be devastating.

Some Catholic dioceses, recognizing the special circumstances of a funeral mass, have tried to provide flexibility without breaking canon law. The Diocese of Rockville Centre, New York, issued norms for “Special circumstances for the admission of other Christians to communion at Catholic celebrations of the Eucharist.” It read, in part, “Because of the complexity of conditions, it is permitted neither to offer a general invitation to all people at the funeral Mass to share in the Eucharist, nor to forbid them by public announcement.”

Sounds a little like “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” and we know too well the problems of that approach.

At times these rules around communion can have negative political as well as personal consequences. An example comes from Ireland.

You might think that with all the animosity and turmoil that has existed between the Protestant and Catholic communities in Ireland, that any move towards reconciliation and peaceful co-existence would be welcomed, especially in the church. But a few years back when the Catholic President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, received Communion at a Protestant Church of Ireland service, the soon to be Cardinal Desmond Connell said that Catholics' participation in Communion in a Protestant Church was a sham and that the Protestant practice of inviting all who are baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity failed to respect the faith and obligations of members of the Catholic Church.

What the President had hoped would be a joyful occasion instead became just another opportunity for acrimony and division – all over the sacrament of communion.

There are many explanations of why this strong division has existed for so long on the issue of who is welcome and who is excluded from communion, but basically all the explanations come down to two main themes – one is belonging and the other is understanding.

The belonging issue, put bluntly, comes down to who is in the club and who is not. That issue is addressed by Jesus in the Gospel lesson today. In the aftermath of his reception by the people in Nazareth, he challenges their complacency born of the sense of privilege they find in belonging to God’s chosen people.

He points out that when the people of Israel did not honor Elijah, God had no trouble helping out so called foreigners – the widow at Zarephath in Sidon. And he makes the same point about Elisha – there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, he says, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.

I don’t see much tolerance in Jesus for the club mentality. His ministry seemed to have a special preference for those who lived on the edge and did not belong to the club or enjoy the privileges of respectability or the smug self-righteousness of religious orthodoxy. He went against every social convention and religious rule in gathering his community of disciples. To use the sacrament he instituted as an occasion to make some people feel as if they do not belong, excluded and unwelcome, – to do this seems blasphemous to his spirit.

The issue of understanding is a bit more subtle. Many churches have excluded young people from participation in communion until they reach what we call “the age of understanding” and complete a course of study so that they can comprehend the meaning of what is going on. This is changing, but still the issue of the child’s level of understanding is a barrier to full communion for all baptized persons.

The fact that many of us adults struggle with our comprehension of what is going on is another matter, but perhaps if we think of what is being communicated in communion we can work with this issue of understanding.

Before we think of what is being communicated, let’s consider how it is being communicated. Much of what we do in church is very cerebral – it involves words and thoughts, ideas and concepts. Our particular brand of religious practice is much shorter on movement, action, emotion, or other means of communication. Baptism and Communion are exceptions in that they are more visual and tactile and have non-verbal elements.

For this reason, whenever I have conducted worship with persons of severely limited mental capacity, communion is always the centerpiece of the service. In Vermont I conducted worship in a facility similar to the Southbury Training School, and everywhere I’ve been I’ve led worship in nursing homes where some of the congregation is inevitably suffering from Alzheimer's or some form of senility. What people in these difficult and sometimes heartbreaking circumstances can understand is very difficult to gauge, yet providing communion in those setting seems so right that if feels often like the one good thing that takes place.

You can see somebody who is sitting there semi-dozing in a wheelchair, not singing a note of the hymns, not opening their eyes when they hear you speak, and you might think not much is going on. But when you come to them one on one to serve them the sacrament, and when you hear their long lost voice mumble the words: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed,” you truly get a sense that a connection has been made that reveals the peace of God which passes all human understanding.

Communion, even with a shadow of understanding, gives us a message of community, and it does it in an ancient, universal way that requires few words and even less interpretation. It is a simple act of hospitality. I know it can communicate much more than that, but creating community and a sense of belonging is enough of a religious message to make the sacrament sacred even when there is little capacity for comprehending the other riches of grace it offers.

I think this gets back to the message of the Apostle Paul - if I understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. All communion has to communicate is the love of God – a love made manifest in the person of Christ, a love made concrete for today in the community of the church. If in receiving communion a person gets a sense of welcome, of belonging, of acceptance and love, then God is present in that moment and it is sacred, holy, and worthy of our praise.

You love a certain person, and this person loves that person, because everybody loves somebody. But God loves everybody!

In the holy quiet of this hour, let us open our hearts and minds to God as we prepare to receive the gift of grace offered in Jesus Christ. May the Spirit of God bring us into close communion with one another, with our neighbors, and with those absent from us

We celebrate an open communion. This sacrament is for all who wish to know the presence of Christ and to share in the community of God's people. Christ welcomes you. Christ recognizes you. Christ invites you into the circle of fellowship in his name.

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Benediction

Philippians 4:4-7 (NRSV)

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.

Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.

Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

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