The Universalist Church of West Hartford

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Who is My Neighbor?

A Homily for World Wide Communion Sunday

Rev. Jan K. Nielsen

October 6, 2002

The first communion service I ever led was not in a sanctuary, but at a hospital beside, and it was a Universalist Communion. You have already heard stories from my ministry as a hospital chaplain, and no doubt you will hear still more. “Boot camp for ministers,” some call it. “Boot camp” or not, it was a pivotal experience for me, a time when I knew, without any doubt that ministry is my true calling, and that I am Universalist to my core.

I went to see a man scheduled for surgery the next morning. I remember him as a congenial fellow, tanned, fit, in good spirits. We talked about golf, and his grandchildren, and then he began recalling memories of his Presbyterian childhood. And then he said, “You know, I would like to receive communion again.” He had married a Catholic woman, and had attended services with her for years. In all that time, he could not receive communion in her church because he was not a Catholic. Now this is the point in the story where the Unitarian Universalist chaplain inwardly starts to panic. “What do I do now?” I thought. I had never served communion before. But his story touched the Universalist in me; I wanted to help. So I scurried back to the chaplain’s office and after some instruction from my Lutheran colleague, I returned the next day with everything needed to lead a communion service. When we arrived, his Catholic wife and Unitarian Universalist daughter were there. So we all gathered around – a Presbyterian, a Catholic, a Lutheran, and two Unitarian Universalists – all sharing a sacred meal, as people have done for generations. It was truly a Universalist communion, a bridge built across the chasm of difference. Am month later a note came from his daughter. Her father had died. “He was so grateful,” she wrote, “to once again receive communion. Thank you.” At that communion, I learned how deeply the human heart can yearn for rituals that connect us with one another.

While it may be the custom in other traditions to exclude some from communion, the Universalists have long welcomed everyone to their table. We can look back to the writings of Judith Sargeant Murray, in the year 1782, to see this distinctly Universalist idea of communion. She was the wife of pioneer Universalist minister, John Murray, and a noted author in her own right. She wrote that communion meal symbolizes the many being gathered into the one. Many grains are gathered together into one loaf, just as the scattered individuals of humanity are gathered together in one God. Many grapes are pressed together into one drink, just as the spirits of the human race become one with God. Radical thoughts in 1782, and just as radical in the year 2002.

As Unitarian Universalists, we continue this age-old custom of sharing a sacred meal. But what, you might ask, is the meaning of communion for a 21st century Unitarian Universalist? After all, we may walk many different spiritual paths, and bring many names for the Holy. Each of us may hold different views about the shared sacred meal. Disagreements over communion have divided congregations, and families, throughout the history of Christianity. But I turn again to the writings of the early Universalists. They were not always united in their views of communion, yet they held to the belief that no difference of mind should ever interrupt the flow of love to one another. And today we carry on this Universalist legacy of love. I believe that communion holds three central meanings for Unitarian Universalists: thanksgiving, remembrance, and commitment.

Our service of communion is a time of thanksgiving, a time to give thanks for the gifts of bread and drink, the gift of love, the gift of life. We give thanks for the gift of community. When we come together to break bread and drink the juice of the fruit, we are reminded of our common humanity. All of us share the need to eat and drink to sustain life. We are reminded that we are all dependent on the bounty of our nurturing earth. We are reminded that we are all dependent on one another.

Our communion service is a time of remembrance, a time for remembering all those whose lives have touched ours, people who were there for us at turning points, people whose love has made a difference in our lives. We may think of parents and grandparents, friends that stood by us, perhaps that special teacher who helped us to find our life’s calling. And we remember Jesus. “Do this,” Jesus said, “in memory of me.”

Our communion service is a time of commitment. “Love thy neighbor,” Jesus taught, a teaching too often lost in all the debate over doctrine and dogma. We heard earlier the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The lawyer asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus answers with a story, a story of reaching out to another with mercy and love. He upset the popular view of neighbor, the idea that our neighbor is “someone like us.” He turned the world upside down with his teaching that everyone is our neighbor. And Jesus opened his table to all. “Table fellowship” became a symbol of his ministry. He shared meals with untouchables, women, and the poor, the maimed, and the marginalized. At the center of Jesus’ message was a radical compassion, a love of neighbor that extended to all. As we share the bread and the cup, we can commit ourselves to the way of love, for it is love that just might bring light to our hurting world.

I share with you a story. A wise teacher asked his students, “How can we know when the darkness is leaving and the dawn is coming?” “When we can see a tree in the distance and know that it is an elm and not a juniper,” ventured one student. “When we can see an animal and know that it is a fox and not a wolf,” chimed in another. “No,” said the teacher, “those things will not help us.” Puzzled, the students demanded, “How then can we know?” The master teacher drew himself up to his full stature and replied quietly, “We know that the darkness is leaving and the dawn is coming when we can see another person and know that this is our brother or our sister; otherwise, no matter what time it is, it is still dark.”

Today is World Wide Communion Sunday, a day when congregations the world over celebrate communion. Here at the Universalist Church, it is our custom to share in this world communion. And we say, “All are worthy. All are welcome at our table.”


(c)2002, Jan K. Nielsen. All rights reserved. For reproduction permission, please contact the church office.