Sunday, October 03, 2010

All That We Let In: A Sermon for World Communion Sunday

This week I came across a remarkable set of photographs, which I am now sending around the sanctuary for you to see. They are from a book called Hungry Planet. About 7 years ago, Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio set out to travel the globe to investigate what it is that people eat. They sat down with thirty families from twenty-four different countries, and they talked with one another about their lives and their work, their favorite recipes, and how they shopped for or otherwise acquired their food. Then they photographed each family with one week’s worth of the food they consume. One family from North Carolina spends $341 each week on food, and one from California spends $159. A family from Germany spends the equivalent of $500 each week, while a family from Darfur living in a refugee camp in Chad spends $1.23. There is something remarkable about the photos, seeing all those bottles of Coca Cola lined up behind the family from Mexico, and the fact that only those in Chad, and Ecuador, and Bhutan have absolutely nothing packaged or processed in their diets.

How we eat, what we eat is a common thread that binds us together as well as something that sets us apart from one another. Just listen to some of the favorite foods that were shared with the authors of the book: A family from Great Britain loves chocolate fudge cake, and a family from Mongolia treasures their recipe for mutton dumplings. The Ecuadorian family shared a recipe for potato soup with cabbage, while the family from Poland treated their guests to pig’s knuckles with carrots. The familiar and the exotic overlap in unexpected ways: a family from Beijing loves shredded friend pork with sweet and sour sauce, and the family from Mexico loves pizza, pasta and chicken. A family from Manila loves both traditional “adidas”—that is, chicken feet—and also Cheez Whiz. They eat it for breakfast.

The authors of Hungry Planet wanted to show us how, not only are new and exotic foods showing up in great abundance on our own supermarket shelves, but KFC and Coca Cola and Kraft Cheese singles are also showing up on grocery shelves from Bosnia to Bahrain. It is a hungry planet, certainly, and it is a small planet, and getting smaller as our cultures reach out and embrace one another. It is challenging to think about what we eat, and to put it in the perspective of globalization and starvation and the epidemics of obesity and diabetes in our own country. But I tend to think we’re better off, as the song says, for all that we let in. It’s good to think about these things. It’s good to think about our neighbors, those who are far off and those who are close at hand, and to see and recognize those ties that bind us closer to one another than we realize.

Each year on the first Sunday in October we observe World Communion Sunday, a day that is organized around the idea of sharing a meal together. It was first celebrated at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, in 1933—a year that’s been called the darkest year of the Great Depression, and a time when Nazism was on the rise in Europe. (Extremist responses to economic crises are nothing new.) The people of Shadyside felt a celebration emphasizing Christian unity would provide encouragement, and solace, and a sense that the church of Jesus Christ is relevant, that it still has a word of hope to speak to a world that is feeling increasingly hopeless. And so their plan was to emphasize that unity through the sharing of a common meal, the communion meal, that meal that breaks down the walls between churches and individuals. It’s good to think about all God’s children, those who are far off and those who are close at hand, and to see and recognize those ties that bind us closer to one another than we realize. We are better off for all that we let in.

In today’s gospel lesson, the disciples cry out to Jesus with a plea: “Increase our faith!” It might interest you to know what comes immediately before this plea: Jesus’ instructions on forgiveness. “And if the same person sins against you seven times a day,” Jesus says, “and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive” [Luke 17:4]. To which the disciples respond something along the lines of “Auuugggghhhh! How can we possibly do that? Increase our faith!” Forgiveness, unity, recognizing those ties that bind us close to one another, so close we that will wound one another and forgive one another—these things are central elements of the shared meal.

My family and I recently watched a film, an adult comedy (with strong language) called “City Island.” “City Island” is about a family, a family in which every single person is lying to every other person about something. Someone’s pretending they’ve quit smoking. Someone’s been kicked out of college. Someone goes off to a weekly “poker game,” but, really, he’s taking an acting class. At the beginning of the film, there is a dinner scene in which all the tension created by all the lying makes it impossible for anyone to communicate in any meaningful way. Before even a few minutes have gone by, people are yelling and storming off, leaving their dinners uneaten. (Another of the secrets is that one male family member has developed a rather strange obsession around feeding women.) Without revealing too many of the plot twists, there is a dinner scene at the end in which the relationships have been transformed, by the simple fact that everyone is telling the truth, for the first time in a long time. Forgiveness, unity, recognizing those ties that bind us close to one another, so close that we will wound one another and forgive one another—these things are central elements of the shared meal.

Finally, Jesus speaks of the table. He speaks of our need to do service around the table. He speaks of our need to be willing servants of one another, our need to pour out our lives in service with no expectation of reward. He says, “Who among you would say to your slave… ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’?” [Luke 17:7]. And it’s a rhetorical question, because, of course, the job of slaves—and let’s be clear, in this passage, we’re the slaves—the job of slaves is to do service. But Jesus is winking at us too. Because, in fact, that is precisely what Jesus does, what God does. The master invites the slaves to dinner. Sits us down and prepares a meal for us and serves us. But it’s not because we have faith the size of a mountain or even of a mustard seed. It’s not because of the service we do. It’s not because of anything we do at all. It’s because of who God is. It’s because of grace.

It’s no accident that thirty years ago the Presbyterian Church added the Peacemaking offering to World Communion Sunday. It is a kind of happy accident that the youth group decided to pick apples for CHOW this World Communion weekend. On the day we celebrate the gift of God’s invitation to the table, and the miracle that it binds us together with God’s children all over the world, we add the component of service by giving to those whose tables are bare. Those in refugee camps. Those with no potable water, let alone abundant stores of food. It’s not that God won’t love us unless we give or serve. God will love us, no matter what. That’s what grace is. It’s not that God won’t continue to bless us with the miracles of unity and communion through our common table. God will. But the hope is that our blessings will make us want to bless others. The gifts we receive will make us want to give. We will want to show grace. We will want to forgive, and forgive, and forgive, and to give and give and give. We will want all these things, because we have experienced all these gifts at the hand of the one who truly does say, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table.’ Thanks be to God! Amen.

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