Gathered at Five: What Is Real?

October 7, 2018
Reverend Meghan K. Gage-Finn

Isaiah 2:2-5

There’s a day coming
when the mountain of God’s House
Will be The Mountain—
solid, towering over all mountains.
All nations will river toward it,
people from all over set out for it.
They’ll say, “Come,
let’s climb God’s Mountain,
go to the House of the God of Jacob.
God will show us the way the Lord works
so we can live the way we’re made.”
Zion’s the source of the revelation.
God’s Message comes from Jerusalem.
God will settle things fairly between nations.
God will make things right between many peoples.
They’ll turn their swords into shovels,
their spears into hoes.
No more will nation fight nation;
they won’t play war anymore.
Come, family of Jacob,
let’s live in the light of God.

So growing up, this day in October was always magical for me. This first Sunday in October, marked by many as World Communion Sunday, felt extra special and approaching as close to a high holy day as we Presbyterians allow. Points to whoever from my childhood made the future-pastor prediction back then!

I admit I had a pretty broad view and understanding of World Communion Sunday decades ago. I remember thinking with awe, as a kid in my home Presbyterian Church, as we said the Great Prayer and shared in the bread and the cup on this day, “Wow! Christians all over the world are doing this exact same thing right now.” (Okay, so I had a loose understanding of time zones at that stage). We are all breaking bread and sharing the cup and uniting around the one, metaphorical common table, across all lands.

It might have registered that the ancient words of remembrance and celebration and promise were being said in different languages, and I might have even imagined that the bread used the world over would be special to each place. But I’m pretty sure I thought that literally millions and millions of Christians (all of them?!) were essentially stopping what they were doing to all share in this holy moment and observance of communing together. Apparently that powerful imagery stuck with me long enough into adulthood such that I chose to delay my own ordination by several months so that I could be ordained on World Communion Sunday. It felt significant that the first time I would be able to say the words over the elements at the table and serve the people as a newly minted and wholly unprepared minister would be on this momentous day, the first Sunday in October, when we all shifted our focus together to______________.

What, exactly?

To rally around an idea? A concept? An actuality?

Well. Begrudgingly, I will admit that it was not until all that long ago that my eyes were opened…

In reality, World Communion Sunday is celebrated by several Christian traditions, not all of the Christians everywhere, to promote Christian unity and cooperation. It was born in 1933 by Hugh Thomson Kerr, pastor of Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh. Those who keep track of these things in the denomination remember that it was “an attempt to bring churches together in a service of Christian unity, in which everyone might receive both inspiration and information, (because that’s what we want in a good worship service- information) and above all, know how important the church of Jesus Christ is, and how each congregation is interconnected one with another.”[1]

Sarah was my faithful research assistant on this and she made the good point that something meant to be broad and connectional in nature, was from its inception a project of white, privileged American males. We invented something and called it World Communion, lacking any collaboration with, or input from, the rest of the world.

It did expand and after a few years was adopted by what is now the National Council of Churches and was later endorsed in other Christian churches worldwide.

It should be said that it came out of the best of objectives. And it was a product of its context. Essentially, this observance emerged out of an impulse of liberal Protestantism of the time. It was meant to infuse hope and unity in the midst of global uncertainty, and signal harmony in the wider church in the face of national division.

Global uncertainty, national division, a desire for harmony. This sounds like a fair description of today, not just of 85 years ago. As professor and Christian educator Debra Dean Murphy wrote, “like many efforts of this era, World Communion Sunday was rooted in a sunny theology of progress — the idea that, with enough determination and moral resolve, the Church could, at least for one Sunday in early October, make visible its unity in the face of increasing political strife and uncertainty.”[2] A sunny theology of progress- now that doesn’t sound bad at all today in the midst of global climate concerns and disasters affecting the most vulnerable, with still a month to go in the lead up to our own country’s toxic midterm election process, the painful and traumatic Supreme Court nomination, FBI investigation and confirmation.

The other denominations observing World Communion Sunday in the middle of the last century originally promoted the idea across their missionary networks outside the United States, and it is a whole other sermon why working through that model of missional evangelism is problematic, but today, World Communion Sunday is largely limited to a few US Protestant denominations. (See all the information you are getting in this service?!)

There is no such observance in the Roman Catholic or Orthodox Churches, so that’s roughly 1.5 billion Christians right there not observing World Communion Sunday. And even our own Lutheran friends don’t focus on a worldwide practice of Holy Communion today, rather they observe “Global Church Sunday,” to highlight the global connections of the Lutheran Church.

Now wait just one minute!

My strong adherence to this idea of oneness and unity, all of us gathering together, naming our trust in Jesus Christ, all at the same time…was this whole rosy, Kumbaya, image of the Christian church holding hands across the world on one Sunday in October false all of these years?

If this wasn’t true, what else isn’t real in my life?

Is Disneyland actually not the most magical place on earth?

Did my parents have something to do with my baby teeth turning into quarters?

Maybe Oprah isn’t helping me live by very best life…

So. What is real?

What are the things to which we can hold fast?

The prophet Isaiah spoke into a space of deep political divisions with a message about finding unity in the real. He is known as the prophet of consolation and encouragement. He speaks to a people who seem to be at the end of their line. The reference to Zion is meant to represent a rallying cry for all the people, a city of universal truth and peace, a place to gather around a God who has hope for the people. We hear that the nations will see Zion and stream, “river,” like water toward it. Water usually flows down, from a mountain, but the people will flow to it, moving toward one another. Now the verb here in Hebrew, na-ha-ru, can mean “flow like a river,” but it can also mean “shine in joyful radiance.” So as the nations move toward one another, in flux, they will be transformed to radiate God’s light and joy. And they will become a source not of division and destruction, but of life and growth for the earth and for one another. As one commentator says, “Nations known for war will come to this new house and household of Jacob, not to conquer or plunder, but to learn God’s ways” and “this teaching will replace the knowledge of war.” Isaiah’s is a vision of transformation and tools of destruction will become instruments of human craft to cultivate, nourish, produce- to sustain the life of the whole human family in God’s good creation.[3]

The willingness of the people of God to seek the God of Jacob names a hunger for revealed truth. Wisdom from the Taize community in France reminds us that this truth is not found in some human-made observance or ritual, but the prophet speaks of a different ending for a troubled people, one where God’s loving presence dwells in the city, with the people of God, and this has consequences the world over.[4]

If World Communion Sunday isn’t as real as I thought it was, if it isn’t that rallying cry for all the people, should we even go about marking the day? Debra Dean Murphy cautions us why World Communion Sunday may actually be a bad idea, even if it emerged with the best of intentions.

She names one problem with the idea, saying that unity, in terms of our worship, our understanding of God and Scripture, is not a product or reward of our efforts at getting along. Nor is it “the tolerant niceness of shallow peace.” Rather, it is a gift, and sometimes we receive that badly or not at all, but however we receive it, it is not of our own creation.

It is the gift of union with Christ, made known to us in the breaking of bread, and making us, despite ourselves, a body that lives in and through the power of a healing, reconciling God. She says, “There is no time when we gather that we are not constituted as the body of Christ — taken, blessed, broken, and shared – and thus commissioned for work and witness in a dangerous, strife-filled world.”

Communion reminds us, Murphy says, “what it means to be a people for whom the whole of our life together is ‘one colossal unearned gift.’”

She also makes the point that observing World Communion Sunday one day a year suggests that communion is “somehow our achievement, that we make it special by deeming it so, forgetting that this is something we are given, something that is offered us with grace upon grace, and that it is exactly its ordinariness that makes it holy, but not through any power of our own. Our only task,” she says, “is to receive and learn what it means to take what has been blessed and broken, in order to be shared.”[5]

It’s important for us to remember, especially on a day like today, that communion isn’t just about us, it is not some saccharin-sweet, “it’s a small world after all” exercise, but it is an act of resistance to the way the world wants us to be separate and divided. It is our proclamation of our unity in our diversity, our diversity in our unity. And that is what World Communion might offer us- a chance to stop and acknowledge the real of who we are and how we are, and the space that exists between our real and the real that God hopes for the world, and it invites to celebrate all the same.

I traveled earlier this week for a church meeting and the flight was long enough that I had the chance to watch a movie on the plane. I feel like I might be among the last who hadn’t seen Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the documentary about Fred Rogers and the PBS show Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. If you’ve seen it, you can relate to the fact that I was definitely doing the ugly crying on the plane, where you are trying discretely not to cry and let out all your feels in your own completely public/private space of your seat, and you are failing. Miserably.

Fred Rogers created a make-believe city and community where children could learn and develop, be seen and heard, just as they are. His neighborhood was not a place where everyone got together and got along, and lived happily ever after, in unity and free from struggle. Rogers had the insight and gifts to bring the reality of conflict to the neighborhood, to let children and their adults name it and face it and deal with it. As Junlei Li, co-director of the Fred Rogers Center says, “Change happens in the neighborhood…when you get diverse people together with their different opinions, you have conflict, real conflict.”

As the realities of the Vietnam War were in full force in the world outside the neighborhood, King Friday the 13th established a Border Guard, and is against change in the neighborhood. He wants to build a wall in order to keep things the same. Rogers modeled diversity and variety, all on the message that we are united through love and kindness and gentleness.

Through the decades, as the world and our country grappled with assassinations, the Challenger explosion, 9/11, Rogers named and claimed the ugliness and sharpness of the human experience. He never promoted the idea that we should be self-protective in the face of evil, or even that we all need to think, act, and believe the same way. He avoided what Debra Dean Murphy calls “the tolerant niceness of shallow peace.” Out of fantasy and play, he helped young ones know their reality and delivered a message that what is real and what is needed and what matters most is compassion, empathy, and hope.

What is the danger in trying to achieve a reality based on unity, one-ness? Does that lead us to believing we don’t, or shouldn’t see color or race in the world, because we are all “just humans?” Does it lead us to think that it is best to surround ourselves, in our neighborhoods and schools and places of work and worship and play, only with those who think and vote like we do? Does it lead us to miss a chance to be part of the Beloved Community?

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote widely about his belief in creating the Beloved Community. The phrase was first coined by theologian Josiah Royce early in the beginning of the last century, but it was later popularized by Dr. King. King’s Beloved Community is not devoid of conflict, but recognizes, like Mr. Roger’s neighborhood, that conflict is real. But it is also built on the belief that sacrificial action and love benefit all, and most of all- King believed it is achievable, that it can be real- through the work of all of us. In Beloved Community, intentional and purposeful actions benefit the whole.

One caution against celebrating World Communion Sunday is that it waters down the depth and breadth of the human experience and moves us away from being part of Beloved Community, of understanding our intentional and purposeful call to be God’s faithful in the mess and conflict of the world. It can turn the joyful, complicated feast into an artificial, sanitized version of the gift of this time and meal together and its broader implications for all of us. It can make it intangible and inauthentic.

So what is real? This is real. This table and the gifts upon it offered to us bring us face-to-face with God and with one another, to be reminded of our new life together in Christ’s love for the world. It is real that we come to this table full of our doubts and our struggles, our yearning for the world to be better, safer, and a more equal place for all God’s children. It is real that being part of Beloved Community is messy and we fumble, but God will make things right between the people if we would but river toward one another and come and live in the light of God! May it be so.

[1] https://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/worship/special-days-and-emphases/world-communion-sunday/

[2] https://debradeanmurphy.wordpress.com/2011/09/28/world-communion-unity-and-bodily-health/

[3] J. Alec Motyer, Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary, p. 50-52.

[4] http://www.taize.fr/en_article167.html?date=2007-11-01

[5] https://debradeanmurphy.wordpress.com/2010/09/30/world-communion-and-french-fries/

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