World Communion Sunday
18th Sunday After Pentecost/A • October 4, 2020
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • © 2020 All Rights Reserved
Psalm 19 • Philippians 3:4-14
You’re in the house; you hear a noise. You listen: silence, broken by the question, “Who’s there?” That’s common at our house. It’s two stories, three with the basement. If someone comes in and you’re upstairs, if someone is doing laundry in the basement, and you didn’t know anyone else was home, you call out, “Who’s there?”
That question is a fundamental one, isn’t it? We’re social creatures; we may like some time to ourselves but we all want eventually to know someone else is there, that we’re with someone else. So we fling out this question to the universe, to creation: “Who’s there?”
“The heavens are telling the glory of God,” Psalm 19 declares, “the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech and night to night declares knowledge.” This is the great poetic imagining of creation’s conversation. The subject is the glory of God; the audience is everyone listening. Are you listening? Who’s there?, we ask and creation flings back this answer: “The heavens are telling the glory of God.” Listen up.
Surely we don’t listen to this conversation nearly enough. In worship, in work, we focus on ourselves: what are we going to do, what should we do. But listen to God’s Word closely and there are an amazing amount of words that have nothing to do with us, they are about creation itself. Genesis begins with light and dark, land and sea, and only at the end comes to human beings, almost as an afterthought. When God decides to start over, the means is a flood, a literal undoing of the ordering of the waters from which creation proceeded and human beings are saved so they can save the animal kingdom. When God intervenes in history in the Hebrew scriptures, again and again it’s through great natural, creation centered events: a reversal of waters that lets the people of God escape their oppressors, a drought that brings forward a prophet. Who’s there?—the heavens are telling the glory of God and all we have to do is listen to hear the answer.
“Who’s there?” We’re social creatures, we need each other, so we create communities.
when Sociologist Margeret Mead was asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. She reversed the question back to her students. They offered examples of when humans formed tools like shovels, fish hooks, cookware, and grinding stones.
She listened patiently and then said, “These were important advancements, but they do not speak to civilization, our ability to live together in authentic community.”
She went on to say that she considered the first signs of civilization in an ancient culture to be a femur (thighbone) that had broken and then healed. Mead explained that in the animal world if you break your leg, you die. You can’t run from danger. You can’t find food. You can’t access water. You become the prey. No animal survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal.
A broken femur that has healed suggests that someone has taken the time to stay with the fallen one, has bound and treated the wound, has carried that person to safety, and has cared for that person during recovery.
Healing someone through difficulty is the beginning of a civilized culture. It means someone was there, someone helped.
Healing communities is one answer; another is teams. By teams, I mean all those groups who identify together. I’m from Michigan and the two most important teams among Michigan colleges are Michigan State, whose team colors are green and white, and the University of Michigan, blue and gold. Years ago, Jacquelyn bought me a lovely winter coat. It was warm, had lots of pockets, fit perfectly but there was just one thing: it was blue with gold accents. I went to Michigan State. I can’t wear blue and gold. Of course, I did wear it for years; we were in Connecticut, it was safe, no one knew about the teams. But sure enough, when we moved to Michigan, as soon as it got cold and I put on my winter coat, someone asked me what I was doing wearing blue and gold. Wrong team, wrong colors. I had to wear something else.
Paul is telling us his team in this part of the Philippians. His terms may be just as obscure as green and white, blue and gold, to someone out of Michigan but the people there would have understood him. Listen to what he says.
- circumcised on the eighth day, – he had a bris,
the signature ritual of inclusion for Jewish men
- a member of the people of Israel – this is his nationality
- of the tribe of Benjamin – this is his tribe, like saying he’s a New Yorker. Benjamin is one of the two tribes that formed the Jewish nation.
- a Hebrew born of Hebrews – he’s not a convert, he’s second generation
- as to the law, a Pharisee – this is a religious tribe within Judaism,
it’s like saying he’s an evangelical
- as to zeal, a persecutor of the church – Paul started out as a district attorney, prosecuting Christians
- as to righteousness under the law, blameless – no sins on his permanent record
Seven signs to draw his identity. Paul is speaking to a church that divided into tribes. Some follow one person, some another. Possibly some grew up Jewish; some grew up Gentile. Some are Greek, some are from other places.
He’s giving his resume, his tribe. Haven’t we all done this? “Where are you from?” “I went to school at Harvard”, “We’ve been going to this church over 50 years”, and so on and so on. Paul is a remarkable man. It’s an amazing list, really, someone everyone would respect and admire.
So his next statement is shocking:
Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.
Wow: all rubbish, his pedigree, his upbringing, he degrees, his accomplishments, his membership and position in the religious world. It’s all something to throw away.—t’s all rubbish.
Now we’re met on World Communion Sunday, a celebration that began as a reaction to Christian tribalism. For centuries, Christians divided up over all kinds of issues: power, liturgy, what kind of instruments to use in worship, what kind of clothing clergy should wear, whether there should be clergy, what kind of furniture to have in the church, who could be a church member, race, gender, who people love. You name it, Christians have divided over it. Most of this has nothing to do with Jesus Christ; most of it makes as much difference as whether your hat is green and white or blue and gold. This is the testimony of the Bible: it’s rubbish. What’s important is being found in Christ, living from the mind of Christ, loving in the name of Christ. That’s what Paul means by “gaining Christ”. He means making Christ more important than all the rubbish, more important than your tribe, more important even than you.
We haven’t always done that. Fred Craddock talks about his first church, a little church in a rural area. When a highway was built nearby, a trailer park sprung up for the workers and their families. He was a young minister and I guess he didn’t understand about tribes because he suggested to his deacons that they should do something to invite those people. After he pushed on the issue, the church met to discuss it. They voted on it, they voted to require that anyone own property in the county before they became a member of the church. Craddock moved on. Many years later, after he retired, he was in the area and he went looking for that church. He found it and the parking lot was full, there was a neon sign and a crowd of people. The church had closed long before; it was a barbecue restaurant. I guess the owners didn’t care who bought from them, what tribe they belonged to.
Communion reminds us of this one fact: Jesus Christ loved so much he suffered betrayal and crucifixion to inspire love in others. He didn’t care about their tribe; he didn’t care about their hat color. He didn’t care what kind of furniture they used; he didn’t care whether they had a degree or not or whether they were Jews or Gentiles or men or women. He just cared for them. When we receive communion, we’re trading our hats for his cross. “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord,” Paul says. Can we say it with him? Can we live it with him?
There’s nothing wrong with being part of a tribe. I’m a Congregationalist; I love our traditions, our history, our way of worship. But it’s not Christ. It’s like my hat. Do you have a favorite hat? I do—or I should say, I did. Last summer was sailing one day, I looked up as the wind gusted and my hat flew off my head, into Curtis Bay. I tried to do hat overboard but no luck; it was gone. I was a little sad for a moment but then—it’s just a hat. And the wind was fine and the water was beautiful. The heavens were telling the glory of God. That’s what was important: hearing that, feeling it.
Who’s there? You are—I am—Christ is. Together we are meant to be that healing community that Jesus preached and Mead mentioned,. Today is World Communion Sunday. Today we listen to the world saying, “Who’s there?” Today we forget our tribes, today we remember our furniture and our differences are rubbish next to the surpassing value of being found in Jesus Christ. Today we lift him up, his cross, his life, his invitation to us to live in the community of the kingdom of God where when we ask, “Who’s there?” He answers: I am.