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Notes on World Communion Sunday

October 6, 2013

Notes for a sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on World Communion Sunday, October 6, 2013

 Luke 17: 5-6          2 Timothy 1: 1-14

I used the sermon time today to reflect on the origin of World Communion Sunday. It was a particularly fitting day to tell the story, since this was the 80th Anniversary of the celebration. Here are a few notes on what I said.[1]

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World Communion Sunday (originally called Worldwide Communion Sunday) was first conceived by Hugh Thompson Kerr in 1933 when he was pastor of the Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. The Rev. Dr. Kerr was a nationally known preacher and pastor who believed deeply in the ecumenical and global importance of the church bearing witness to God’s intention for all people to live with compassion, peace and justice.

rev_kerr_40s

I said that I have come to think of Hugh as a pioneer in social media. Here are a few of his accomplishments that I highlighted in the sermon:

  • Hugh Kerr became the pastor of Shadyside in 1913.
  • He served the congregation faithfully for thirty-two years, until 1945.
  • Rev. Kerr broadcast his Sunday morning sermons over the world’s first commercial radio station, KDKA Pittsburgh. These broadcasts became the vehicle for dissolving the walls of the sanctuary and sending the welcome good news of Christ into far-flung homes. Under Dr. Kerr’s leadership, the church’s worship services were the first, anywhere, to be broadcast by radio.
  • Not stopping at the borders of his own community, Hugh’s Christmas Eve service in 1922 was the first worship service to be broadcast in the Arctic, and his Easter message of 1929 was the first broadcast to the Antarctic, being heard by Admiral Byrd who was there at the time.
  • In addition to being a prolific author of books for the church, Hugh wrote hymns, including God of Our Life, written for the 50th anniversary of his congregation. (We then opened our new hymnals and read the words together, reflecting on their relevance today as we approach our own 300th anniversary).

The idea of World Communion Sunday took shape during Dr. Kerr’s year as moderator of the Presbyterian Church in 1933. I then took a few minutes to recall what the world was like in 1933:

  • Mt. Rushmore was dedicated as the first National Monument (which I only mentioned because the congregation I serve has heard stories about my family’s summer vacation at this and many national monuments, and because the monument was currently closed due to the government shutdown).
  • 1933 was the very worst year of the Great Depression – 15 million unemployed.
  • Even as the New Deal was being progressively unrolled to alleviate the worst effects of the depression, multiple dust storms swept across South Dakota, stripping topsoil from the land and  devastating farms creating what became known as the Dust Bowl.
  • In January, Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany, and by December he was dictator.
  • First Japan, and then Germany, withdrew from the League of Nations, and walked out of the World Disarmament Conference.
  • In India, Gandhi began a three-week hunger strike over the mistreatment of lower castes, and is then imprisoned.
  • In the words of one commentator: “The prevailing mood was anxiety—fear about economics, fear about politics and fear about the future.” Not much has changed.

In this context, Pastor Kerr wanted to do something both “real and symbolic” to bear witness to God’s intention for our world. He shared the idea with his congregation, and, in good Presbyterian fashion, the Council of Shadyside Presbyterian Church was the first to adopt the idea. Several nearby churches concurred, and a resolution was sent by Pittsburg Presbytery to the next General Assembly. World Communion Sunday was adopted as a national observance by the Presbyterian Church and was celebrated in the United States and overseas for the first time on November 1, 1936.

By 1940 it had been endorsed and promoted by the Federal Council of Churches, now the National Council of Churches and was quickly an international observance.

I then suggested we could think of the table at which we gathered as being 25,000 miles long (the approximate circumference of the earth). “In our fragmented world, in which groups often relate with suspicion and violence and even try to destroy one another, the churches of the world coming together to break the loaf and drink the cup is a sign of God’s intention for all peoples to live together in love, peace and justice.”[2]

To illustrate, I said that World Communion Sunday had begun seventeen hours earlier on the other side of the International Date Line on Sunday morning in the churches of the Tonga Islands, Fiji Islands, New Zealand, Australia, and so on towards us. It would also continue for another seven hours as the meal moved west. It is a moveable feast, a progressive dinner, in which Christ is our host.

World Communion Sunday has also become associated with peacemaking in our denomination. The Peacemaking Offering as established in 1980 and was set in the context of World Communion Sunday. The General Assembly requested “each congregation, on the occasion of World Communion Sunday each fall, to celebrate our common life in the global bonds of Christ’s peace-giving body and, as part of the celebration, to receive a special offering to support initiatives on peacemaking and peacemaking education throughout the church.

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It has been our habit for these last seven months to sing “The Trumpets Sound, the Angels Sing – The Feast is Ready to Begin” as we approach the table. Today, following my reflections, I walked around the congregation inviting members to announce “The feast is ready to begin” in as many languages as we could. Among the languages that called us to this 25,000 mile long table today were Russian, German, Arabic, Chinese, Swahili, Gujarati, Hindi, Akan/Fante, Spanish and Hebrew.

In the worship that surrounded these reflections we:

  • Carried our Blue Presbyterian Hymnals to the front of the sanctuary, gave thanks for them, and dedicated our new hymnals;
  • Introduced the Rev. Lynn Dunn to the congregations (she was ordained here last week);
  • Sang the communion liturgy using new music;
  • And participated in the Peacemaking Offering, our portion of which is going to the Presbyterian Prison Ministry.

It was a great day of worship. To God be the Glory.


[1] With appreciation to Del Mester of the Chicago Heights Presbyterian Church for his faithful telling of is story each year in the church newsletter, and to John Dalles of the Wekiva Presbyterian Church for his history of this celebration that appeared in The Presbyterian Outlook (October 2002), which I have cited liberally.

[2] Preaching God’s Transforming Justice – Year C.

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