When Jesus Shows Up at Church
One of the most astounding promises in a Book full of astounding promises is the Lord Jesus Christ’s promise to attend any gathering of even two or three who seek to honour him (Matthew 18:20). Yesterday, he clearly showed up in our little gathering at St. George’s Anglican Church, Moncton, New Brunswick.
In fact, he showed up twice.
To feel something of the force of his visitation yesterday, you need to know that our church is a prayerbook congregation. We use the Book of Common Prayer composed largely by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer during the English Reformation of the sixteenth century, and we follow it assiduously.
That means that every Sunday morning service of Holy Communion at 10:00 a.m. is like every other Sunday morning service of Holy Communion at 10:00 a.m., differing only in the hymns sung and the sermon preached.
Except this one didn’t start on time.
The organist had finished his prepared pieces and was clearly “noodling” as 10:00 came and went with no clergy processing in from the front left door of the sanctuary. That wasn’t all that surprising, as occasionally we start a little late. But by 10:08 the service still hadn’t begun, and folks were beginning to stir.
I was sitting in my usual place, about seven or eight pews from the front on the left side, when a young man strode down the centre aisle. About six feet tall, slender, maybe late twenties, long dark blonde hair, he came past my aisle and went right to the front—ostentatiously expelling a long plume of cigarette smoke as he did.
The apparently deaf church ladies behind me began to comment in no uncertain terms as he took a seat in the front pew. A minute later, one of our ushers appeared to ask him to put out his cigarette, which he did on the floor in front of him. The usher picked up the butt and returned to the rear of the church, only for the visitor to light up another.
At this point, the rector of the church, Chris Van Buskirk, finally entered the sanctuary with his two clerical associates, singing out the invocation in his clarion voice…except it wasn’t what was printed in the program. And Chris never makes that kind of mistake. Another clue, then, that this was not a typical Sunday.
Chris and the others processed up the choir to the altar and then turned to face us. As if on cue, the young man then stood up. He paced forward and up onto the choir, a few steps up from the sanctuary floor. He turned to the congregation with his cell phone in the air as if to capture our reactions with a small grin.
Chris called out the first hymn number (it happened to be, in fact, Hymn #1) and as the organist began, Chris walked toward us and toward the visitor. We began to sing, and the young man began to speak animatedly to Chris. Another usher came up, and I heard Chris clearly say, “Call 9-1-1,” before returning to talk with the newcomer.
The visitor seemed to try to go past Chris to move up the choir to the altar, but Chris just stepped into his way. The tableau was striking. Our church building is quite a lovely neo-Gothic pile, as the Brits say, and Chris was in full vestments, a vision of white and green (the latter colour being appropriate for Trinity season, or “ordinary time”). It could have been an absurd, even offensive, sight: gorgeous colourful satins confronting threadbare dun cottons. What would result?
Hymn #1 ended with nothing changing, and Chris immediately said, “Our service continues with hymn number two.” Off we went, and Chris seemed to show his companion where the lyrics were in the hymn book he carried. The young man seemed uninterested in making a joyful noise unto the Lord, perhaps contemplating his imminent arrest. But he remained standing there, occasionally looking out on the congregation.
Hymn #2 ended, and Chris called for Hymn #3. Now, let me make clear that we never sing three hymns in a row. That’s what those whippersnappers do at those Hillow Creek/Willsong churches. But off we went. And still no RCMP.
As the third hymn ended, and the tension remained keen, Chris then called for a hymn deep in the hymn book—and specified the tune he preferred by name. I had to smile at this tour de force of pastoral poise. So we began Hymn #246 to the tune of GREENWICH or WINDERMERE or some such.
Midway through this hymn, two police offices entered from the front right, one male and one female, both shorter than our visitor and yet both obviously, bulkily capable of handing a thin street person. And they handed him, all right: with professional calm, gentleness, and a minimum of coercion. I like being proud of the Mounties, and I was proud of them.
Chris walked out with them, and then I heard him say something that moved this cold, middle-aged, Anglo-Canadian male to tears.
“We have breakfast here tomorrow morning….”
And we do. St. George’s hosts 60-70 street people, whom we call “community friends,” every morning, Monday to Friday, for breakfast, showers, and a selection of donated clothes. We are the only church that does it for Moncton’s increasing population of wanderers. And Chris is always there serving.
The hymn ends, and we’re all still standing, wondering what’s happening next. Chris re-enters the sanctuary and takes his place at the crossing. He invites us to sit, and tells us that he had met the young man at the 8:00 a.m. service, which he attended without incident.
The visitor then engaged Chris in conversation about “greed in his heart,” and Chris readily confessed to the same sin. Chris then tells us that the young man had positioned himself as he did in the 10:00 a.m. service “because he couldn’t see why some people were higher than others, as if to look down on them.” So Chris was explaining things to him as we were singing through the hymn book.
And that was that. Except Chris then led us in a brief opening prayer, including a prayer for this visitor and our other community friends, and we returned to the prayer book.
But it wasn’t just another service. Jesus had shown up as the least of these.
And he had shown up also as our pastor, Chris: Christopher, Christophoros, “Christ-bearer.”
What could have been a grotesque confrontation of churchly splendour and street poverty, of middle-class propriety versus unpolished disruption, turned into pastoral kindness and practical hospitality.
Instead of saying, “And don’t ever come back to disrupt our pleasant routine!” the Christian priest said, “And please come back for breakfast.”
I confess that the rest of the service was a bit blurry for me, as typing this post is a bit blurry for me now. But the two modes of Christ’s visitation to St. George’s Moncton yesterday were as clear as they could be.