This past Monday morning I had a meeting with the other United Church of Christ ministers in our area. There were about a dozen of us who gathered at one of our smallest, rural churches. We met in the basement or fellowship hall. The church had no educational wing and the sanctuary was not suited for our gathering. The church is in the middle of nowhere. They have about 35 people who attend on Sunday mornings. They have actually grown recently because they have a new pastor and some very committed people.
It reminded me of my first church, also a rural church, which had no educational wing and about forty people present on Sunday mornings. That was where I began my ministry. I hadn’t thought about that congregation in a long time. It made me wonder how they were getting along. Since I was just beginning my ministry at that time, it also made me remember how supportive they were of a man who had little experience. As I look back on my early sermons they had to be very tolerant and forgiving.
Gathering in that small, rural church helped me remember that every church, no matter how big or small, is still important to God and especially the people who make up the congregation. It reminded me that every church, regardless of its size, has a small beginning. The church is not like a professional baseball team that can go out and spend millions of dollars and assemble a team of great players. Unlike a city that can create bond issues to build an athletic stadium or ball park, a church has to rely on the resources of its people.
Being in that rural church reminded me that when they celebrate the Lord’s supper it is the same Lord’s supper that we celebrate. We come because we need the forgiveness of God, therefore we are all alike. And just as Jesus is present with us at our table, Jesus is present with them at theirs.
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Paul told the church at Corinth to “remember.” They had apparently forgotten what it meant to be a church. There were divisions among them, not because they were different but because each was doing his/her own thing. It wasn’t the supper of the Lord they sought, it was to feed their own stomachs. Some just ate, ignoring others who were late or different. Some ate privately as if the meal was just for them. In the process some went hungry and some got drunk. Everyone was looking out for number one rather than see themselves as a community.
Paul said, “I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better, but for the worse.” These were a people who had forgotten their roots. They needed to be reminded that they were the body of Christ. And as the body of Christ they were to “wait on one another.” In other words, they were to make sure that everyone was included, that the body is more important than any one individual.
We live in a very competitive society. To be successful and win at any cost has become an essential value. For better, for worse, our nation has become the most powerful nation on earth. Unfortunately, we rank near the bottom when it comes to crime and poverty. The economy may be booming but the gap between the rich and the poor is widening.
And what about the small church? The experts tell us that congregations with less than 100 members will soon be extinct. They simply can meet the demands of operating a church or paying a minister to lead them. What is happening in the church is not unlike what is happening in the rest of society. The mega stores and corporations are making it harder and harder for the little guy to compete.
The Lord’s supper is the one place we are all the same. We are all gathered around the table because we are sinful. The disciples who gathered in the upper room were no different. First, there was Judas, the traitor. Then there was Peter, who denied Jesus three times. James and John were there too, the two who were competing to have the best seat in the house.
Paul reminds the people at Corinth that when we eat from the Lord’s table we are to each examine our own lives. The only person to be judged is ourselves. And all others at the table are to be treated with respect since each is welcome. No one is denied the opportunity to be part of the gathering. The sinful, the shameful, the guilt-ridden, the lonely, the oppressed, the broken, even the proud are all included, for better for worse.
Ironically, this is the anniversary date of the student killings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. You remember Littleton don’t you? It is also the anniversary week of the tragedy at Waco, Texas (April 19th). Seven years ago, David Koresh and his Branch Davidians perished in a fire. And five years ago, (April 19th) 168 people lost their lives in the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. For better or for worse we are a nation that cannot deny the destruction of innocent life.
It is easy to make judgments about those who commit hideous crimes. Its much more difficult to admit the harm we do to others. I believe we suffer form “selective remembring.” We have no trouble remembering major tragedies but have a habit of forgetting our mistreatment of others. For better for worse we remember only their faults and weaknesses. Or, we may remember what harm came to us and forget the support or friendship we received. When we do selective remembering we conveniently leave out part of the story to make us look better or to make others look worse.
Paul said that we are to “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” The Lord’s supper is in itself an act of redemption. Every time we participate in it we are not just acknowledging the power of the resurrection over death we are experiencing it. Just as Jesus is known to us in the breaking of bread, we are once again liberated from our sins. When we remember the resurrection without remembering the death of Jesus we are being selective. We remember the good part, or what was easy. We forget the rest of the story.
So, this evening, let us remember all. That on the one hand we have not always been loving toward others and that all of us are in need of the grace of God. And yet, on the other hand, each of us is gathered here at this table, together, forgiven and redeemed.