(These are some thoughts about the Gospel that will be read on the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 1.)
In the first chapter of the Gospel according to Mark, we find Jesus teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum. Suddenly, he is interrupted by a man with an unclean spirit, who recognizes Jesus as the Holy One of God. This story raises lots of questions for me, but the most important ones have to do with who’s included and who’s excluded.
What was this man with the unclean spirit doing in this holy place? Shouldn’t he have been excluded? Where were the ushers? I am reminded of an Alice Walker story, “The Welcome Table.” In that story an old African-American woman attempts to enter a white church during Sunday worship. The ushers don’t know what to do, until their wives instruct them to throw her out. After being thrown out, she continues down the road, telling Jesus her troubles, especially the injustice of being thrown out of church by people whose children she had helped raise.
Some years ago I asked a group of parishioners, “Who is excluded from our worship?” They were shocked by the question because, of course, we didn’t exclude anyone. “What about people who don’t speak English, or who are deaf, or who can’t get up the front steps?” Although we don’t usually think about it, there are people who are excluded from our worship, and perhaps there always will be. Try as we may, there are barriers that are very hard to overcome.
For many years and in many places, children were routinely excluded from worship, at least from worship with the rest of us. Sent out to Sunday School just before the sermon, to return, at all, in time for Communion, children were not expected to part of our worship. In The Episcopal Church of my childhood, we were taught that there are two sacraments that are “generally necessary to salvation…Baptism and the Supper of the Lord.” (The Catechism, 1928 Book of Common Prayer) There was a problem with that in practice because baptized persons who had not been confirmed were excluded from Holy Communion. That has changed and in many congregations the newly baptized receive Communion as part of the celebration of their Baptism.
The work of inclusion is still challenging, whether those who have been excluded are children, people of color, gays and lesbians, immigrants, or people of a different socio-economic group than the majority of church members. And the challenge isn’t just about letting people in the doors; there are ways that we shut people out of real participation in our worship. I think that perhaps is the greatest challenge, the ongoing work of making worship accessible, liturgy in which all those present have a real chance to participate. And beyond that, making life together in the congregation open to newcomers.
The man with the unclean spirit in the synagogue in Capernaum recognizes who Jesus is – something the disciples don’t get for a long time, and maybe not until after Easter. Perhaps there’s another lesson for us in this – those whom we have excluded are often great sources of spiritual wisdom when we have the grace to let them in and listen to them.