I am in the midst of gathering stories, quotes, and photographs from my friends in the congregation at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in order to compile a summertime, “God at St. Thomas” virtual calendar. One of my friends said, “you have to tell the story of the cup” and as soon as she said that, I knew that this was exactly the story I wanted to share. This story reflects the uniqueness of how God is experienced in this little urban community of faith and radical welcome that many of us are grateful to call home.
St. Thomas is a 100+ year old church built in the Northside of Richmond Virginia. In its time, it was a mission church for a newly developing neighborhood that had been expanding as the city’s residents stretched out to find more affordable places to build. Our homes and our church are old; that old-ness is charming on many of our back streets where we work to maintain leaks and keep our homes and our turn-of-century church in good repair. Any number of big, older rundown homes on the primary road heading north out of the city have now been converted into apartments, or sometimes split up into unregulated “board and care” homes for those who are physically well but have some significant cognitive, intellectual, or mental health challenges. These homes are a bed, a roof, and sometimes food but offer little else. At St. Thomas, our doors are open and our congregation welcomes all. So, any number of board and care home residents also make their faith home here with us on any given Sunday and at our programs throughout the week.
On this particular Sunday morning, last summer, a few of us were gathered early to rehearse for summer choir. Often, there is coffee brewing and we might grab a cup or top off a travel mug from home. But over the summer, we decided to keep it simple and only have refreshments after church. We had been diligently rehearsing our notes in the choir room and began making our way to practice in the choir loft with the organ. We walked together through the parish hall, chatting and catching up on our week. One of our elder residents from a nearby group home had been in the parish hall looking for some coffee and, just like the choir members, was a little disappointed not to find any. We explained that it was summer and we were trying to keep things simple so there wasn’t any made yet, but that we would have food and coffee after the service if she wanted to stay. She nodded and found a seat in the couches in the foyer.
Typical for me, I got hung up talking to our new interim rector in the robing room as I was cutting through on my way to the choir loft. My choir director was “patiently” waiting for us, but we were loitering about and talking as we tend to do. Finally, we started to coalesce into a singing group when down the stairs from the altar walked our elder neighbor, carrying a cup she was drinking from which everyone she had walked by thus far had presumed to be coffee. She wondered out loud if she could be directed to a table where she could sit and finish her drink. She walked between our Interim Rector and I toward the door where one of our always kind and patient priests was waving her into the parish hall to find a table. It suddenly became quite clear that it wasn’t coffee in her cup.
I looked over to the helpful priest who was taking her by the arm to walk with her to the parish hall and mouthed, “that isn’t coffee!” at the same time our new Interim Rector asked, “where did she find coffee?” then immediately catching a waft of its aroma exclaiming, “oh, that isn’t coffee!”
The priest walking with her ever-so-gently asked where she had found something to fill her cup and she explained it was from the silver pitchers in the back of the church, the ones that we had nicely left out for people who needed a drink.
In a quick flash of divine calmness, the priest walking with her began to say…”oh my…well, that wasn’t meant for you to drink…” and the, almost immediately, “well, actually it IS for you. It’s for EVERYONE, actually. Just not right now…we all share that together during the service.”
Exactly, once again.
With her tumbler still half-filled with the not-yet-sanctified tawny port waiting to be brought to the communion table, our elder neighbor and our priest meandered together into the parish hall. There, she received some ice water, a few crackers and some coffee was put on to brew to help level out the quantity she had already consumed and make her a bit less wobbly. Our interim rector, wide eyed at the moments of unexpected grace and radical welcome that fill these walls daily, set immediately off for the sacristy to replenish the communion wine supply before the service.
I was late to choir rehearsal…in trouble, of course…and holding back laughter and tears. The crazy grace of yet another God at St. Thomas moment unfolding.
The cup of salvation, indeed.