This past Sunday, our church service ran two minutes over. Perhaps not all that important until you know why. First the back story and then a similar one from years ago …
The worship service went on a bit longer because, at the end of the Holy Communion portion of the service, our senior pastor noticed that one of the acolytes had not yet received communion. Even as the rest of the communion assistants were putting their items back onto the altar, our pastor realized that this young lady was unsure whether the time for communion had passed—that she was out of luck.
Because she is an observant and caring person, our pastor quietly invited the acolyte back to the communion rail and offered her the bread and wine—the sacrament of the altar. The young acolyte was not left behind. Her journey for the coming week could start with tangible forgiveness—and kindness embodied in her pastor, this servant of Word and Sacrament.
Today’s pause-for-caring reminded me of a similar event that occurred years ago, when I was an ELCA staff member. At a venerable church in the heart of Pennsylvania Lutherdom, I was the guest preacher at a service whose presiding minister was also a guest. The service went smoothly according to liturgical order, including Holy Communion. When the last member had taken the wafer and wine, the presiding minister moved into the Prayer after Communion and then the Benediction.
But before the words of dismissal were uttered, a wise-and-caring usher interrupted the service loudly with the announcement, “Wait! We can’t go yet. *Elsa hasn’t had communion!” Sure enough, in the very last pew there was Elsa, too frail to come forward, but like the rest of us hoping for the assurance of God’s forgiveness and grace.
The also wise-and-caring guest presider stopped, realizing what was going on. With a few careful words—something to the effect of “This is a family meal and none of us can leave until all of us are fed”—she took the elements back to Elsa in that far back pew. While the rest of us watched—me with tears in my eyes—Elsa took the bread and cup with assurance that she had not been forgotten. And only then did all of us complete the liturgy with those precious words of dismissal: “Go in peace. Serve the Lord.” No one was excluded; no one was left behind.
Until Sunday’s service at my home congregation, I had not recalled the memories of Elsa, that pastor and that usher. Each of them knew that this meal of forgiveness joins all of us together. We all need assurance of God’s grace. We all need to belong. We all need to walk together out that door and get back to God’s work wherever we find ourselves.
Elsa was not left behind that day. I can imagine that she became a beacon-reminder for that congregation and the rest of us: The fellowship of believers travels together!
No matter how long the service might last…
*Not her real name, which I have forgotten over the years. But last Sunday’s service helped me remember the look on Elsa’s face when she realized that she was esteemed and dearly loved!