Oct. 4, 2020

Psalm 19:1-6

Philippians 3:4b-14


Throughout my 16 years of serving Methodist churches “World Communion Sunday” was something of a thing.  While we never went overboard with it, we took the opportunity to highlight the grace of the sacrament and acknowledge a practice and a kind of kinship that we shared with Christians all over the world.  There’s something powerful about imagining people of vastly different cultures, colors, and clans all gathering around the same ritual and confessing in one way or another that God is in it.

I asked my lectionary group on Tuesday morning, “Who came up with World Communion Sunday and what exactly is it?”  The Lutheran and the Episcopalian ministers both said the same thing.  “We don’t know.  For us, every Sunday is World Communion Sunday.”  (That’s because they celebrate the sacrament at every service.)  Another colleague said, “It’s a Presbyterian thing,” which turns out to be partially correct.  The Presbyterians came up with it in 1936 and 4 years later the Federal Council of Churches (which became the National Council of Churches) adopted it and advanced it as an ecumenical movement in celebration of global Christian unity.

But, it seems to me that there’s something odd about celebrating Christian unity (or unity at all for that matter) at this time in history.  Put aside the different understandings of the Eucharist that continue to delineate one denomination from another, there’s the much hotter matter of interpreting our social and political climate through the lens of faith and then somehow seeing as “kin” those who seem to relish in the very things that strike others as morally bankrupt.  If you are at all disturbed by the culture wars waged all around us and visibly on display at Tuesday night’s debate (and then in comments all over social media,) it wouldn’t surprise me at all if you also felt the wind behind the sails of ecumenism and unity also coming to a distinct stop.  Is communion even a possibility in times like these, and where is God in all of this division anyway?

It seems somewhat serendipitous to me that Psalm 19 is assigned for today’s service.  It was the subject of my first sermon at my first church and I heard its words as a similar kind of question churned within me all those years back.  That week was my first experience with Midnight Run, an overnight excursion into Manhattan with bagged meals, soup, and clothing for the homeless populations that clustered in cardboard boxes beneath the skyscrapers.  We’d hand out our bags and invite any who would awaken to come to our vans for provisions.  As we did, I wondered, “Where is God in all of this anyway?”  Where’s God in this contrast between wealth and poverty, in the brokenness on display that few actually see, in the sadness of lives lost to the complex circumstances that led to boxed homes and bagged meals at well past bedtime?

My answer, in part, was that God was in the food we handed out, in the hands that made it and packed our vans with supplies, and in the hearts that came up with the program, and signed us up to do it every month.  God was in our kindness and in the receptivity of those who accepted our offer.  God was in the conversations we had with those who lingered, in the prayers that were occasionally offered – sometimes for us and sometimes by us -, and most comically in the baritone solo version of “I Love to Tell the Story” sung to us by a man in rags who was clearer about his faith than many in our group were.

But, honestly none of that seemed like enough, and I thought of the Psalm.  “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.  Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.  There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard.”  It’s that sudden change that gets me.  There’s this eternal proclamation of God’s wisdom and glory juxtaposed immediately to divine silence and creation’s inability to hear.  There’s a knowing and an unknowing happening at once, a blessedness and brokenness right beside each other. And then the Psalmist continues, “yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.”  The silence doesn’t get to be the truth of the matter.  There’s a “yetness” to God’s proclamation, a “nevertheless” or “even so” that points to the mysterious, unknowable, truth that a God who allows both brokenness and beauty to coexist holds it all together in a plan that begins and ends in self-giving, divine, love – a plan embodied by a savior who would suffer our brokenness and die because of it so that he might also rise up out of it in order to bring us all along.  In the end there is only Resurrection, and sometimes that’s all we can know or understand.

I’ve been reading a collection of reflections from Portland Magazine called, “God is Love.”  In it Barry Lopez talks about the deep melancholy he felt as he hiked a tiny section of a vast Alaskan tundra, which if you didn’t look closely or carefully was nothing but a damp stillness in every direction.  Feeling small in a bleak world he thought of the phrase, peccata mundi, or “the sins of the world.”  The violence we do to one another and our human penchant for causing pain swirled in his mind as he walked through the isolation of that endless landscape.  And, that’s when the epiphany struck.  “I remember the impasse of this conundrum: I don’t know how to forgive the Gestapo and the Schutzstaffel for what they did at Buchenwald.  I don’t know how one forgives the capitalists who have wreaked cultural and environmental havoc on the Parana River in the country of the Guarani.  But I know you must.

To condemn what individual human beings perpetrate but to forgive humanity, to manage this paradox, is to take on adult life.  Staring down peccata mundi that day on the tundra, my image of God was this effort to love in spite of everything that contradicts that impulse.  When I think of the phrase, ‘the love of God,’ I think of this great and beautiful complexity we hold within us, the pattern of light and emotion we call God, and that the rare, pure ferocity of our love sent anywhere in that direction is worth all the mistakes we endure to practice it.”[1]

What I’m suggesting today is that our decision to celebrate Communion in the midst of conundrum is similarly a step into Christian adulthood.  It is to confess a divine complexity that is beyond our knowing, to believe in forgiveness beyond our capacity, redemption beyond our making, love beyond our giving, and life beyond our living.  It is to say that when we come to receive what amounts to a paper wafer and a drop of juice the truth is that we are also accepting then (and as often as we can) the life of God alive within us (even though sometimes we don’t feel it.)  And lastly, I’m saying, that our little drive-through ritual paired with all the different liturgies across the globe this day point to a reality of true Communion that hasn’t yet become the way on earth that it is in heaven.

My friends, let our weird little communion kit work within you.  Let it be our protest against the world’s warring.  Let it be our hope in God’s future.  Let it be our proclamation that resurrection is the end of the story, known to us in part even now!

[1] Barry Lopez, “God’s Love on a Dazkling Plain,” God is Love, pages 37-38.