The niceties were over. The Fettucine was half gone when she took her gloves off. The nonagenarian from the Victory Class invited me to lunch at The Olive Garden. I smelled a rat from the get-go. “Dear, I invited you to lunch because I have a request,” she began. “What I am asking is, would you be less passionate?” She seemed pleased to have been so precise. “Less passionate?” I asked, scrunching my nose a bit, leaning in and asking for clarification, “can you help me understand what you mean?” I leaned back. “Well, you know, can you care a little less about things you preach about?” My nose scrunched again involuntarily. Words were slow to come in response. She ventured further into the hole she was digging. “what I mean is, some of us just want to go to church to have a little communion with God and then go home—so we can go golfing.”
I had just finished a three-week preaching series, “Orphans and Widows and Aliens, Oh My!” (taking a cue from The Wizard of OZ). I reminded the congregation it is in our Judeo/Christian DNA to care for the unloved, the unwanted, the unprotected, and un-homed. I suspect my elderly friend was not bothered by my reminders orphans and widows need the attention and care of the church.
That congregation had long supported a home for children in the city. In fact, I had been one of the sweet little babies adopted by a young couple in the Victory Class and placed on the cradle roll back when I was a newborn and when they were young. I was their poster-child-come-home to serve as one of their pastors. What was there not to love about that story, even if I am “too passionate?” Never mind that the “children’s home” no longer housed an orphanage placing little white newborns into the achingly empty arms of lovely white middle-class couples who had not yet managed to join the baby boom business. In my sermon, I reminded the congregation the agency’s focus has shifted. Early childhood education, child abuse prevention, family therapy, foster care management, programs for youth aging out of foster care, and an emergency shelter for adolescents who had nowhere else to turn are their focus. During that part of my sermon, The Victory Class jotted down their grocery lists on the back of offering envelopes from their pew-backs. To them, it was still all about the babies. I got a pass for that sermon.
Caring for widows was something my lunch companion appreciated, too, being that she now was one. Who could argue against taking Poinsettias and Easter Lilies to shut-in members at the holidays? I think she balanced her check-book when I expanded the definition of “widows” to include all those around us without a social safety-net. All of those left without protection and vulnerable to hunger, illness, loneliness, and despair. “Why should anyone be lonely? They should join a bridge group. If they had married well, they would have a nice widows’ pension to live on.” My lunch companion did not say that. But I imagine she would.
It was caring for the foreigners in our midst that most rankled my still-golfing-in-her-early-90’s lunch companion. We were in the run-up to the U.S. 2016 election when “build that wall” was the cruel psalm-response on the lips of civil-religionists everywhere, nowhere more so than in our part of the nation. Aliens? Foreigners? Send them a little help in our mission offerings, but keep them “over-there” was the undercurrent. A path to citizenship for people who broke the law to come here? Compassion toward those from nations decimated by war? My sermon must have trod too close to her toes. The undigested pasta in my belly churned as my friend asked me for less passion.
“We just want to go to church, have a little communion with God, and go home—so we can go golfing.”
Congregations can break the heart of a pastor.
The undercurrent in the city must have set Jesus’ stomach-churning. Judas’ betrayal, Peter’s naivete must have broken his heart, and yet, he lifted bread, breaking it and sharing, “This is my body. It is given for you.”
When we commune with God, we commune with the one so passionate he gave himself for all the world and invites us to drink deeply of the cup of love poured out on behalf of all. Orphans, widows, aliens, nonagenarian golfers, and us.
In the lobby of the Olive Garden, as we put on our coats to leave, my friend said, “So, we understand each other, right? You’ll be less passionate from now on.” “No,” I said, gently. “No. I won’t be any less passionate, but I am glad we had this time to talk.”
Rebecca Zahller McNeil is the pastor of two congregations, First Congregational Church in Neligh, Nebraska, and Park Congregational Church in rural Elgin, Nebraska. Ordained in 1985 in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Becky now serves with Ordained Ministerial Partner Standing in the United Church of Christ. Becky occasionally blogs at everydaystories.blog
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