I sat near the back, as I always have. My favorite stained glass windows filtered in the sunlight at my left, while in front of me the old woman who once shaved her head for cancer funds made an announcement that her recent prayers had been answered. After a year away, I was home again, home under the great wooden beams that keep vigil over my tiny church in Green Mountain Falls.
The welcome I received should have not surprised me, yet I none the less found myself caught off guard by the hugs and questions and excited hellos. The announcements began, and I settled into the quirkiness of the place. The pastor announced that the church had been called upon to contribute 80 boxes of jello for a local Thanksgiving food drive. Of course, in the land of small town Sundays, the jello will not be stored in bags or boxes; there in Green Mountain Falls, a jello tower will be erected. Perfect. Other announcements included an abundant pumpkin harvest, one of which had been brought as a donation to the church. A choir member stood and announced that he had been married to his wife for 40 wonderful years. A high school student asked prayers for her upcoming audition with the city orchestra. I listened to it all smiling, feeling as if I was in a congregation that had its priorities straight.
Midway through the announcement, I watched the pastor's wife walk in holding their son, nearly 2 and looking like a miniature of his father. I remembered the day when our pastor held his cell phone up to the microphone and announced that they were going to have a baby. Another is now on the way. Beautiful.
One of the things that kept me in Green Mountain Falls in the first place was the pastor's unwillingness to candy coat the difficult side of the gospel. Sunday's sermon did not disappoint. He told the story of a drug lord in Brazil, a man named Fernando who, even after "converting" to Christianity, continued to provide drugs and contribute to poverty and needless death. He spoke of his initial reaction to this man--scorn, the same scorn that we all felt as we listened to the story from our pews. Yet as he related it to the passage for the day--the story of blind Bartimeus, who would have been understood to be a sinner by virtue of his disability--he called us back to the reality of the example set for us by Jesus. The gospel, he reminded us, is not only for the poor, but for Fernando. It is a gospel that calls us realize that if a man like Fernando were to step onto the road and cry out, "Son of David, have mercy on me," Jesus would accept him as he accepted the blind man. "Are we willing to help the violent, the despicable, and not just the poor? That is the gospel, and I don't know what to do with that. Peace be with you." And thus the sermon ended.
As he prepared to speak the benediction, the pastor reminded us that we seldom listen to the postlude, though the women who play put effort into it every week. "Perhaps this week," he said, "we should stay and listen." It was one of the most beautiful piano pieces I have heard in a long time, and I would have missed it. I wonder what other small beauties I fail to take time for.
I ended my return to Green Mountain Falls with a potluck, several people gathering around me simply to ask questions about my year away and hear what was ahead for me. I felt it as the embrace of authentic love among the body. It was precious to me, this homecoming. The gift of God in the form of a small town Sunday.