Sermon October 2 2022 World Communion Rev. Betsy Hogan
So, here’s a thing that I didn’t know.
I think I always imagined that World Communion Sunday – this Sunday when churches of pretty much every mainline denomination around the entire globe ALL celebrate communion as a reminder of our oneness-in-Christ, our connectedness as a global family of faith –
I think I always imagined that it must have been started by the World Council of Churches. Which is sort of like the UN, but for churches. This kind of global body that serves not only as a sort of relationship glue on the ground for churches around the world, but also as a sort of hub of exchanges of issues and ideas and awareness and activism and outreach and music and prayers.
It really is like a churchy UN, our official global connection with one another.
And so every year, when World Communion Sunday rolls around, always the first Sunday in October, I think I always assumed that it must, at some point, lo these many decades ago, have been instituted by the World Council of Churches.
As a symbolic and unifying act of shared worship. Centred around our most symbolic unifying act – gathering around the table of Jesus as disciples and friends trying to follow his Word and embody his Way, to eat and drink together as “one Body in Christ” as the Apostle Paul puts it.
Because we share this meal, nourished in body and spirit, together.
And not just together like here in this place, in body and also in spirit via livestream, but it’s always, every time we do it, not just about together “us” – the people in this particular congregation – but it’s always about the wider church. And not even just The United Church of Canada but the extra wider church, beyond denomination and artifical borders.
If you’ve ever found yourself wondering why it’s only ordained or commissioned clergy who can preside at communion, in a church denomination that’s otherwise not particularly notorious for drawing those kinds of lines around who can do what –
It’s because as soon as I stroll over there, and begin by welcoming you to the table, I’m actually not just “me” doing all those things I’ll be doing. It’s more like I’m a me-shaped representation of The Order of Ministry in Churchness, during communion and also in baptism. I’m basically operating as the wider church, dropped right into your midst.
So that when you share in communion, you’ll be symbolically reminded and you’ll FEEL like you’re sharing it WITH the whole wider church. Or at least you might do, now that I’ve mentioned it.
At any rate, notwithstanding all that already-there symbolism of sharing in this ritual of communion with God and with one another and with the whole wider Body of Christ that is the church around the world –
I did always assume that calling a particular Sunday “World Communion Sunday” and having all churches, including Protestant churches like ours that only celebrate communion a handful of times a year, intentionally celebrate communion together over the course of the same 24 hours –
Must have been something instituted by the World Council of Churches. Officially. At some point. In a fit of ecumenical enthusiasm: all different churches seeing beyond all our differences in theology, in traditions, in cultures, to gather as one global family around the table we all share.
It has World Council of Churches written all over it.
But it turns out, that’s not how it started.
In fact, it just got thought up by a bunch of elders at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh. In 1933. And when their clergyman, a Dr. Hugh Kerr, was asked many decades later how it all happened, how and why they thought it up, he said that to the best of his recollection it arose out of a conversation about people struggling to feel hopeful, struggling to feel connected to others, in a world that seemed to be getting more and more fraught, more and more divided and divisive, more angry, more afraid, more unstable.
And… of course. It was 1933. It was the depth of the Depression – and Pittsburgh as an industrial city must have been hit desperately by the Depression. Not to mention Mussolini in power, and Hitler just made Chancellor, and right-wing fascists about to be elected in Spain, and reactionary uprisings increasing closer to home too.
It WAS fraught, and it WAS divided, and it WAS angry and fearsome and unstable.
And as these elders sat together in what had probably started just as a regular old run-of-the-mill church meeting, it’s not hard to imagine them – as they started to talk, as slowly their feelings started pouring out, as they sat there together in the midst of all of it – it’s not hard to imagine their conversation reflecting the words of the passage of Lamentations that we heard before.
The thought of my affliction is wormwood and gall – it’s like bitterness pervading everything around them. My soul continually thinks of it ¬– they’re just overwhelmed, they’re exhausted. My soul is bowed down within me – it’s like a heaviness they’re carrying: anxiety, weariness, despair.
It’s not hard to imagine that lament, in that meeting of elders at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in 1933. There’s a reason why the passages of Lament in our scriptures are so important, whether in the Lamentations or in the Psalms.
Because they’re elemental. They’re timeless. People grieve and they rage and they curl up in a ball of barely coping misery in the scriptures, just as we do now, and just as people always have. And those words are there for us, if we’re past the point of words ourselves.
Which maybe, in 1933, the elders at Shadyside Presbyterian Church were. Almost.
Because once they’d poured it out, they kind of found their way back. Just like in our passage from Lamentations. Which honestly, if you read the whole thing – and it’s only a handful of pages long in total – we don’t get the whole picture from just reading that one passage from Lamentations.
Because there is A LOT of lamenting in Lamentations, before there’s the ‘finding the way back’ that only happens after a verse or two in our passage this morning.
But the elders of Shadyside Presbyterian did find their way back. With that kind of deep recentering breath after the catharsis of lament. “But this I call to mind,” as Lamentations says. “and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of God never ceases, God’s mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”
“What we need,” the Shadyside elders said, “is to have a communion service where we remember our oneness in Christ with all our brothers and sisters around the entire globe. The comfort of that. The strength of it. What we need is a communion service where we remember we’re connected, we’re “in communion”, with other people in other churches all over the world, who are all praying and living and hoping in these times, just like we are. What we need is a communion service where we remember we’re not alone in all this.”
So that’s what they had. That first year, they invited some neighbouring churches to do the same – celebrate communion that Sunday as an on-purpose world wide communion. And I guess they did. And I guess they all spread the word.
Because by 1936, only three years later, it had been adopted by Presbyterian congregations all across the US, and churches in other denominations too.
And by the time Second World War began, World Wide Communion Sunday had circled the globe. “It was during the Second World War that the spirit caught hold,” is how Dr. Kerr’s son put it, “Because we were trying to hold the world together. World Wide Communion symbolized the effort to hold things together, in a spiritual sense. It emphasized that we are one in the Spirit and one in Christ.”
It's such a straightforward notion. No more apparently dramatic than a tiny tiny mustard seed that I COULD be holding in my fingers right now and you wouldn’t know – because it’d be too small to see.
But it was enough in that moment for them to find their way back: “But this I call to mind,” as Lamentations says. “and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of God never ceases, God’s mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”
It was enough, it helped enough, to take root and to grow and to spread, until it could uproot mulberry trees and cast them into the sea. If anyone ever wanted to do that, which I can’t see why anyone would. Especially when quite enough’s been cast into the sea.
But here we are almost 90 years later, and it matters – that we gather around this table in community, trying our best to embody the way of Jesus in how we live –
And that we do it, remembering with intent that this circle of praying and living and hoping in these times -- it stretches around the globe. It’s a world communion.
So thanks be to God, who invites us to this table.