You might be familiar with Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber. If not, Google her; you should know about her. She’s an author and speaker and is famous for her tattoos and outspoken views. She came out of very rough and tumble lifestyle, abandoning her conservative Christian upbringing, but finally finding her place in the Lutheran church. She founded the congregation House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver and in August was called to be pastor of public witness by the Rocky Mountain Synod. Her New York Times bestselling books include Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint, the memoir of her journey from alcoholic stand-up comic to Lutheran pastor. I’m telling you all this because I want to tell you the story that she tells in her newsletter. She writes:
House for All Sinners & Saints was only about a year old when I took a Sunday morning phone call from a young parishioner who had gone home to Grand Rapids for a weekend visit. I could tell right away that Rachel was crying.
“Take your time, baby.”
When she finally spoke, it was halting and in a whisper. “Nadia, I’m at my parent’s church and they’re serving communion and …. (her voice cracks) I’m not allowed to take it.”
Rachel hadn’t thought much about her childhood church’s “closed table” (the term for when a church only allows certain people to take communion) until now. But she had spent a year with HFASS, a community centered around the grace of an unapologetically open table, and without even noticing it had happened, she had been changed by it. Every Sunday she had seen a woman stand at the altar table (again, she had only ever heard a male voice from the front of the church, never one with a timbre more like her own), and had heard that woman say these words: “We have an open table at House, which means that during communion, everyone without exception is invited to come forward at communion and receive the bread and wine – which for us is the body and blood of Christ. If you choose not to commune, you can come forward with your arms crossed and receive a blessing instead.”
Jesus ate supper with more types of people than I myself would feel comfortable with. Sinners, tax collectors, soldiers, sex workers, fisherfolk, and even lawyers. And his LAST supper was the worst. He broke bread with his friends who were just about to abandon, deny and betray him. And yet, he took bread, blessed it, broke and gave it to these total screw-ups and said, “this is my body, given for you, whenever you eat of it, do this in remembrance of me.” He instituted the Eucharist by giving bread and wine to all the people who were just about to totally screw him over.
And then what does the church do in remembrance of him? – try and keep the “wrong people” from receiving the Lord’s Supper. Some would argue it is reckless to just feed all who hunger. That the Eucharist is too sacred to just hand it over to anyone. But maybe the Eucharist is too sacred to not just hand it over to anyone.
People of good faith disagree on this issue. I know that. There are those in my own tradition who say that only the baptized should receive and that there is a catechumenal path that can be taken for those who wish to commune. Baptism first, THEN communion. As if grace only happens in a certain order. Over the years there have been dozens and dozens of adult baptisms at HFASS – I’d guess more than at most Lutheran churches. But having experienced the unmerited and always available grace of an open table, these folks sought out the grace of the baptismal font.
Before hanging up with Rachel, I assured her she was loved and wanted in our community and then I said, “Would it be ok if I told some folks at church tonight about what happened?” and she said yes. As a small group of us stayed behind that night to stack chairs and put away paraments, I told them about Rachel’s devastation at having been denied communion at home. Without skipping a beat, Stuart (the church drag queen) said, “Well then we’ll just have to take her communion at the airport.”
So, at 10 pm on a Wednesday, eight of us showed up to Denver International airport with a cardboard chauffeur’s sign that said “Rachel P___” on one side, and “Child of God” on the other, and waited for her at the bottom of the escalator. We then made our way up to the interfaith prayer room, I spoke about how on the night Jesus was betrayed he gathered with his faltering friends for a meal that tasted of freedom, and then we handed her what had been withheld days before: the body and blood of Christ. If we are to be judged for having gotten this wrong, let it be that we sat more at the table than fewer. Because it’s not our table. It’s God’s.
Today is World Communion Sunday, a day promoted by the National Council of Churches to promote Christian unity. Begun in 1933, it’s an attempt to remind us how each congregation is interconnected one with another. In these days of divisiveness, it’s not a bad idea. But as Pastor Bolz-Weber’s story reminds us, there are still divisions, still gatekeepers whose job, they believe, is to say who is in and who is out.
I like to tell the story of the three sisters who were part of the trip to Germany I took many years ago. All three sisters were Lutheran, but they could never take Communion together, at least in two of the churches where they were members. One was in a Missouri Synod church, the other a Wisconsin Synod church. On Pentecost Sunday, in a little church in Germany, they came to the altar together. And it was a very big deal – for them and to all of us sharing in this joyful banquet.
Now, the gospel reading today might seem like an odd one for World Communion Sunday, especially the first part. On a day focused on unity, talking about divorce would seem to be quite incongruous. Better to go with the second part. Wouldn’t everybody agree on welcoming children? But hold on; let’s look at this more closely. When we read the teachings of Jesus, we always have to ask, “who was he talking to?” Certainly, his words have meaning for us today, but we have to wonder how people then would have heard them.
First of all, we have to recognize that the Pharisees were asking about divorce because they wanted to trip him up. Hmm, why a question about this law and not another? Could it be that the practice Jesus had of welcoming those who were outcast, those considered to be outside the bounds of society? The answer Jesus gives should remind us of the answer he gave about paying taxes. He answers them with a question. He’s not going to play their game.
He asked them, “What command did Moses give?”
They said, “Moses permitted a husband to write a decree of divorce and to put her away.”
That would seem to be the end of it. But wait, let’s see if there’s more to the story. And let’s first acknowledge that all of this is from a hetero-normative perspective. Same-sex marriage wasn’t on the horizon yet.
It’s crucially important to know that in Jesus’ day, marriage was a profoundly patriarchal institution in which women and children were considered to be the property of men. And when it came to divorce, the husband had all the power, as is made clear in as Deuteronomy 24:1-4.
Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she doesn’t please him because he finds something objectionable about her, so he writes a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house.
Now, fast forward to Jesus’ day when there was dispute about acceptable grounds for divorce. Some said only adultery was just cause, while others stuck with the all-inclusive “something objectionable about her.” We know from other Bible stories of how precarious life was for women who were not attached to a man. Women and their children depended on marriage for their wellbeing, which put them in an extremely vulnerable position. We know Jesus that always cared about the powerless and vulnerable, so we have to ask: who’s vulnerable in this picture? Women and children. Now comes the shocker, as later he expands on this teaching:
If a man divorces his wife and marries another, he commits adultery against her; and if a woman divorces her husband again and marries another, she commits adultery.
Wait a second. Did he just say “if a woman divorces her husband”? Yes, he did. The good news is that Jesus puts men and women in equal positions; each has agency in the marriage. The bad news is that Jesus is still critical of divorce.
But – Jesus also recognizes the reality of the human condition. In effect, he’s saying, What Moses says about divorce is well and good, but remember, it was an accommodation to human struggle.
When two people become one in a marriage covenant, that relationship shouldn’t be broken apart. That’s the ideal. Isn’t that what every couple intends when they make their vows? But sometimes the ideal cannot be achieved. Sometimes divorce is the best option. Considering that this is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, sometimes divorce is the necessary option. Jesus still wants divorce reserved as a last resort, when the marriage is doing more harm than good, not when, “she does not please him,” or “there’s something objectionable about her.”
Like so many other situations in which we might find ourselves, when there is no good resolution, when sin is unavoidable, we have to do the best we can and then rely on God’s grace for compassion and forgiveness. On World Communion Sunday, we can recognize that we are all united, both in our human condition, with all our frailties and failings and in our access to grace. We could all be members of House for All Sinners & Saints.
Then, there are the children. Again, remember that life for children in Jesus’ day wasn’t like it is today, at least it’s not supposed to be like it was then. Then, children had no power; they were property; they were expendable. The disciples wanted to shoo these nuisances away. But Jesus turns another societal norm on its head. Indignant, he orders them to let the children in and he blesses them. He even says that we’re all supposed to be as child-like and eager to see Jesus; “whoever doesn’t welcome the kin-dom of God as a little child won’t enter it.” We should be reminded of the status of so many vulnerable children today: immigrant children, foster kids, kids kicked out of homes for being lgbtq, kids who are neglected or abused – and remember Jesus’ example of welcoming them in.
In both of these incidents, Jesus breaks down barriers. Women find agency; children receive blessing. Everyone is welcome as far as Jesus is concerned – especially these vulnerable ones. Would Jesus refuse anyone Communion? I don’t think so. Everything he said and did was about bringing us all together. So often he fed people or joined them in a meal. Eating together was almost a sacred activity. Communion is a sacred activity, a sacrament. We call it a Meal. Who would invite guests to a dinner party and then serve only some?
I’m not criticizing churches who do not practice open Communion – well, just a little. That is their choice and they have their reasons. I just want to be very clear that here, at this table all are welcome – no exceptions. And if you ever find yourself left out of another Communion table, know that I and whoever wants to come with me will come to you – at the airport or wherever, with a sign with your name on it on one side and “Child of God” on the other. And we will share the most sacred meal of all together.
Mark 10: 1-16
Jesus left there and came to the districts of Judea and the other side of the Jordan. Once more the crowds gathered around and as usual Jesus began to teach them. Some Pharisees approached Jesus and, as a test, asked, “Is it permissible for husbands to divorce their wives?”
In reply Jesus asked, “What command did Moses give?” They answered, “Moses permitted a husband to write a decree of divorce and to put her away.”
But Jesus told them, “Moses wrote the commandment because of your hardness of heart. From the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female. This is why one person leaves home and cleaves to another, and the two become one flesh.’ They are no longer two, but one flesh. What God has united, therefore, let no one divide.” Back in the house again, the disciples questioned Jesus once more about this. He told them, “If a man divorces his wife and marries another, he commits adultery against her; and if a woman divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
People were bringing their children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples scolded them for this. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not stop them. It is to just such as these that the kin-dom of God belongs. The truth is, whoever doesn’t welcome the kin-dom of God as a little child won’t enter it.”
And Jesus took the children in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them.
“Jesus welcomes the children”