Summary: Lent, 1986, Communion: We should never be intimidated from the Lord's Table by ritual, shame, or weakness. It is hosted by one who offers us mercy and grace, paid for by His blood; so come boldly.
In the South Africa of apartheid, I suppose, nearly anything is possible. And so I do not expect that this story, improbable as it sounds, is untrue. If anything, I expect it could be multiplied many, many times over.
At any rate, the story is that one day an Afrikaner, one of the ruling class in South Africa, made his way to his local church to spend some time in prayer and devotion – good enough in itself, but it ought to issue in some positive ways of living. But as entered the church building and made his way forward to kneel at the altar rail, there he found a Zulu woman, also in prayer, also at the altar rail. With the sudden fury that only race hatred can breed, he rushed up to her, shook her vigorously on the shoulder, and spit out, "What makes you think you can come here?" "How did you get in my church, what makes you think you can come here?"
Her answer was one of those responses born out of years of trying to get along, trying to survive when all the odds are weighted against you. "Oh, no sir, you don't understand, I was just cleaning here, just dusting under the altar rail. Just cleaning, sir, just cleaning."
To which the Afrikaner, preparing to engage in religious exercise, replied, "Well, all right then, go ahead and clean; but don’t let me catch you praying in here!"
So terribly have we perverted the faith, so horribly have we misunderstood what it is to have access to the living Lord, that we would somehow set up criteria for praying at the altar of God. So viciously have we wrenched from its anchor the faith of Christ that we would blaspheme God himself, as if there were those who were qualified to appear before him and. those who were not, those who were privileged to enjoy the presence of divinity and those shut out in the cold. What a blasphemy and what an outrage! And yet I suggest to you this morning that we are all too often guilty of barricading the altar of the living God; we too tell others, "You are not welcome here." And it goes against the heart of the Gospel itself.
A couple of years ago I was asked to officiate at a wedding which was to take place in the Great Choir of Washington Cathedral. The entire Cathedral is an awesome place, as I imagine most of you know – full of the glory and the splendor of God, immense with majesty, crowded with symbols. Everywhere you look there is a new delight for the eye and a new reading of some aspect of the Christian faith. But I had not ever before been up in the Great Choir and back to the high altar; something in me said as I was standing there trying to get ready for this wedding, "Hey, this is not the place for a Baptist preacher, this is not the spot for a fellow from Kentucky who only yesterday was up to his elbows in grease, changing the oil in his car; this is inappropriate for a guy who argued with his wife last night and whose kids do not always obey -- isn't there something about having clean hands and a pure heart?" The very grandeur of the building and the altar, designed, and rightly so, to teach us of the glory of God, also intimidated me, frightened me a little. It made me muse, "What makes you think you can come here?" You are no priest, no bishop, no dignitary; what makes you think you can come here?
A century ago in Scotland a great theologian and preacher had been asked to come out to a country church one Sunday morning to offer the Lord's Supper. He came that day, very full of himself, very proud of his eloquence; and his sermon spoke mightily of the ways in which we must keep the faith. He spoke long and hard against this heresy and that wrong idea. He criticized philosophers the country congregation had never heard of; he roared with fire and brimstone about abstract sins which had never really tempted anybody, at least not anybody there among these plain folks. And then with great dignity and with all the proper liturgical formalities he moved through the Communion service and imperiously summoned the little band of churchgoers to the altar rail. Most came, slowly, hesitantly: shuffling; but they did their Christian duty. One, however, lingered behind, sitting alone in a dark corner of the church. The preacher looked in her direction; she turned her eyes away. The deacon went back to her and held out his hand, but she shook her head. It seemed that she would not be persuaded to come to the Lord's Table at all. But then someone else sensed what had happened, and sensed too the proper response; making his way back to where she sat, he whispered, "Come, lassie, take it; he did it all for thee, all for thee".