Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
As we consider the curve balls thrown our way over the last couple years… As we enter a new year, hoping it might hold better things in store (at least in terms of COVID, if not in other ways too)…As we come to terms with the various uncertainties that follow us into 2022, I find one thing deeply reassuring. None of us has to do this alone. We’re held in God’s hands and we’re in this together.
If you’ve been part of this church for any length of time, I hope you’ve found it to be a shelter in the storm, a safe place to connect with kindred spirits. I hope you’ve experienced our shared desire to draw closer to God and to hold one another in God’s light. I hope you’ve been part of meaningful conversations and had opportunities to pray for others and to be prayed for in turn. I hope this place has offered challenge, too, along with comfort. Following Jesus isn’t always easy, nor is it a simple thing to live out God’s call to justice in a world that can be deeply unjust. It helps, I find, to surround myself with others trying to do the same. Seeking to be faithful to God, doing our best to engage in God’s world for the greater good, together.
Today’s Scripture texts both speak to what it means to be part of the Church. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul offers this powerful metaphor of a human body, each part with its own essential role, all of them functioning best when they work together. Any of us who’ve dealt with physical pain or illness know all too well that body parts don’t do their thing in isolation. And any who’ve taken on other kinds of physical challenges – hiking or swimming, playing a sport, even staying on top of physical therapy workouts – you know the importance of each muscle, bone, and joint making its contribution for the good of the whole. So it is with the Church as the body of Christ, Paul says: “if one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” (1 Corinthians 12:26) Again, we’re in this together.
Our reading from Colossians takes a slightly different tack, listing several qualities a church community should demonstrate. Things like compassion, kindness, humility, patience, thankfulness, and love. The author reminds us to steep ourselves in Scripture (“let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” v. 16), and to make that joyful noise to God we talked about in children’s time today (“with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God” v. 16). And then we find that beautiful line we use at every ordination and installation service: “whatever you do in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
We won’t always get it right – no church does – but the same third chapter of Colossians speaks to that, too. in v. 13: “Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other, just as the Lord has forgiven you…” Sometimes sticking together comes easily; sometimes it takes a bit more effort. But I hope it warms your heart, as it warms mine, that these are your people – here in this room and online, those physically present right now and members of our church family who are with us in spirit. Whatever this week or this year may hold for you, you are not alone. Unlike a nuclear family, we’ve chosen this particular tribe. But now, to paraphrase Colossians 3:14, we are bound together, clothed in love.
I’m not sure how many of you have access to a show on Apple TV called Ted Lasso? It’s got a fair amount of salty language for what is in many ways a heartwarming story with loveable characters. For that reason, I guess I should be a little careful about how heartily I endorse it from the pulpit. (At the very least use some parental guidance, please!) But the Ted Lasso Christmas episode has quickly become an all-time favorite in our family. I won’t go into all the reasons why, in case you get a chance to see it for yourself, but without too much in the way of spoilers I think it’s ok to tell you about the Christmas dinner scene.
The show’s plot revolves around a British football team (we’d call it a soccer team) and its coaches, players, and staff. Since the team includes players from all over the world, a staff member by the name of Leslie Higgins has a tradition of inviting for Christmas dinner any of them who are far from home. Missing their own families, they’re warmly welcomed to a Higgins family Christmas. Usually just a couple of them turn up. So an unexpectedly large turnout for this year’s feast has them scrambling to seat everyone. But at the end of the meal, as the camera slowly pulls back down the full length of the house, we see everything from dining room and kitchen tables to card tables to a pool table and even a surfboard cobbled together brilliantly, end to end, to make one long dinner table. In a touching moment after they’ve enjoyed their international potluck meal, Mr. Higgins calls out each player’s hometown by name – impressing us with the effort he’s made to get to know each person there – and then he lifts his glass… “to the family we’re born with and the family we make along the way.”
It strikes me as a lovely metaphor for the Church, particularly on a communion Sunday like this. As we gather around a common table with “the family we’re born with and the family we make along the way.” A host – in this case Jesus himself - who knows each one of us by name, knows why we’re here, knows what it means to us to be here. A community drawn together by common goals, bonding over shared sorrows and shared celebrations. And always, always, room for anyone who wants to pull up a chair.
As you picture the camera pulling back to reveal each segment of that comically, movingly massive Christmas table in the Higgins household, bright smiles and friendly conversation and storytelling and laughter bouncing across it the whole way down… I invite you to imagine a similar scene unfolding here.
What if our communion table was just the starting point and we extended it out as far as we could? Piecing together a far longer table from whatever we have on hand. It doesn’t need to be glamorous; it just needs to be BIG. So we’d all have to run back home, I guess, pulling out little folding tables or ping pong tables or old dressers or finding doors we can lay on top of sawhorses. Ideally, we’d make our extended table so massive it couldn’t possibly fit in our sanctuary, so it would stretch not only down the aisle, but right out the front doors, down the street and across the city.
And remember - we’re far from the only people interested in extending our table’s reach like this. Churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples, community centers and neighborhood organizations all over are deeply committed to similar efforts. How many faces, how many family stories and cultures and languages could be represented if each of our stretched-out tables started to meet and merge together? All of us with a common desire to forge connections and build unity in a divided world. Sharing each other’s tables, and stories, and lives.
Granted, there are tables where we as Christians, particularly white Christians, might have some work to do to get ourselves invited. Heaven knows how much damage has been inflicted around the world, plenty of it over the centuries here in our own nation too, in the name of a God who must be both angry and heartbroken at how cruelly his children have treated one another. But where might there be windows of opportunity to confess the Church’s sins, and ask forgiveness, and enter conversations with humility? Are there tables nearby where some of us might be guests rather than hosts, there primarily to listen and learn? Are there even tables we’ve been invited to, but where we haven’t so far shown up, having forgotten the importance of standing together in solidarity, rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep?
Rewinding a bit to the subject of Christmas, this congregation has done a wonderful job playing Santa Claus over the years. What I mean is simply that you’ve gathered and delivered so many gifts: food, clothes, warm coats and quilts, toys, hygiene kits, school supplies. I commend you for that and I know you find that kind of generosity a core part of your identity as the body of Christ in this place.
As we move forward, I wonder if we can expand on that generous nature, and on our collective understanding of what it means to share, looking for opportunities to linger where we might have formerly popped in and out and left our gifts by the chimney. Where might we sit together around shared tables, befriending new faces and hearing new stories? Less of a Santa Claus paradigm and more of a Higgins family Christmas, if you will.
For while we have every reason to celebrate the closeness of this community – what a gift that can be - it’s important to keep that far bigger table in mind, too, the one that pushes out through these doors and across the city, and to notice other tables extending out in our direction too. I wonder – could each of us try pulling up a chair in a new and different spot this year, making a point of listening and learning from those who’d not be inclined to darken our door here at 28th and Dravus? Might we find opportunities to bond with them over shared goals or projects? To swap stories? To share laughter and tears as well as food and funds? Might we take the first small steps toward building lasting relationships that, sure, might shake us up a bit, but also, through the power of God’s Spirit, could leave us transformed?
Even and especially at such a time as this, I believe we can enter the new year with hopeful hearts, because the God who makes all things new has some good surprises in store for us along with whatever else may come. Clothing ourselves with humility, patience, and love, let’s keep our minds open and our spirits receptive to God’s leading. Let’s embrace our identity as the body of Christ not just for those who are here but for those who are not here. In a divided and divisive world, let’s find ways to move forward together.
“To the family we’re born with and the family we make along the way,” may God grant a meaningful, memorable, transformative New Year. Amen.
 “Carol of the Bells” episode of Ted Lasso, season 2 episode 4