One of the great things I get to do as pastor of East Church is to lead a monthly service of communion at Havenwood-Heritage Heights, a local (and United Church of Christ sponsored) retirement community. It’s generally a small and informal gathering, mostly members and friends of our congregation who are part of that community (with a few retired clergy as part of the mix!), but it’s a time that is unfailingly sacred as we’ve shared and prayed together; in fact, I must confess that I’ve always come away from this experience feeling as though I’ve been ministered unto at least as much as whatever has been imparted by the pastoral care I’ve sought to offer!
It’s also been a wonderful reminder of who we are as the church and of our shared ministry; a point that was brought home to me recently in, of all places, the express check-out lane of one of our supermarkets. I was actually there purchasing the “elements” for our service at Havenwood later that morning – a small loaf of bread for breaking and a small bottle of grape juice to be poured into a makeshift chalice – and the young man behind the counter immediately took notice, saying, “Now, if I were to guess I’d say you’re getting ready for communion!”
I know my eyes popped open wide as I told him he’d called it correctly, and went on to explain about our upcoming time of worship at Havenwood. And the thing was, this young man was not only complimentary of what we were doing, but also genuinely interested; turns out he himself was a part-time youth pastor serving at a nearby church of the evangelical tradition who was currently seeking to help the children in his congregation understand what the Lord’s Supper is all about. “It’s just so important,” he said, “and it’s not so easy to explain. But I would never want our kids receiving the bread and cup without having at least some sense of the Lord’s presence in it.”
Truly, it was an unlikely discussion in a place where “10 Items or Less” is the rule; but we actually had a nice chat. I shared with him my contention that children often have a deeper sense of the spiritual than we adults give them credit for; he commended me for doing “the good work” of ministry day in and day out, a word I very much appreciated. And at the end, as the line of shoppers behind us began to grow (!), he asked for my card and if we might talk again, a request I was happy to accept.
Just a random encounter on another ordinary day; but one that served to remind me that though we in the wider church may well have our differences in tradition and customs, polity, process and, occasionally, the finer points of theology, the fact remains that we are all in this ministry together. For instance, we might not approach matters of baptism in quite the same way – do we baptize children as infants, or wait until they are older and can make a believer’s confession of faith – and we may debate who can properly receive (or serve) the Eucharist, but there is no denying that the same Lord is present whether that baptism happens by sprinkling or immersion, or if the bread and wine is shared in the proper liturgical context of Sunday worship or rather passed hand to hand amongst youth gathered at outdoor ministries such as New Hampshire’s Horton Center or Pilgrim Lodge in Maine. And certainly, while it’s true these days that so many of our churches have been forced to deal with all the swift changes in our culture and our changing (some would say shrinking) place in the world – and perhaps have chosen different approaches in doing so – we still have, as Paul said to the church in Ephesus, “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:5-6)
It seems to me that now, more than ever, our strength as the church – locally, denominationally, and ecumenically – is to be found in that unity and in our shared ministry of God’s extravagant and radical love shared with the world, personified in Jesus Christ. We do indeed have “the good work” to do, each and every one of us in this particular time and place. This was the thought I shared with our own gathering of saints at the Havenwood Chapel as I told the story of my supermarket encounter earlier in the day; adding, incidentally, that given all the rancor and division of that week’s upcoming inaugural activities and protests, this exhortation to unity, service and, above all, love also might be a good lesson for our divided nation to learn as well.
And so might it be.
c. 2017 Rev. Michael W. Lowry