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Who is at the Table? (World Communion)

October 8, 2014

A sermon preached by The Rev. Susan R. Andrews at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on World Communion Sunday, October 5, 2014

Revelation 7:9-17          Isaiah 56:1-8

As we gather around our multi-cultural table this morning, there are many images that I carry in my heart:

  • 1978 – sharing the bread and the cup in a simple adobe sanctuary in Quito, Ecuador, while children and chickens scampered around our feet;
  • 1996 – joining hundreds of Palestinian Christians parading around a gilded sanctuary in Beit Sahour on the West Bank – bringing forward loaves of homemade bread, which after the sacramental feast, were given and shared with the poor;
  • 2003 – listening to a 100 voice choir singing at the Bastos Presbyterian church in Yaounde, Cameroon – a congregation of 5000 people, with over 200 baptisms a year;
  • 2004 – marveling at 400 Presbyterians singing and clapping in Baranquilla, Colombia, most of them young adults, a huge percentage of the membership of the Iglesia Presbyteriana de Colombia, a church thriving in the midst of danger and persecution.

Yes, my friends, it is these images of our brothers and sisters in Christ that come to mind – so different from us in many ways, and yet woven into our very body – the body of Christ called the church – our worldwide church that is held together by one Lord, one faith, one baptism. And it is these images that I see when I hear the words of our New Testament lesson for today – the great vision of Revelation – the God drenched vision of shalom – that great multitude singing and praising and marching before God – a multitude from every nation, from all the tribes and peoples and languages.

But, let us not forget that for writer of Revelation, the multitude marching in joy and peace – these are also the ones who have come out of the great ordeal – out of the great tribulation  – out of the real pain and suffering and brokenness of life. And we are reminded that God’s great promise does not protect us from struggle. Instead God’s great promise empowers us to endure in the midst of struggle, because God is with us – because God’s great love never abandons us. And so, this World Communion Day, I think of other images – images of tribulation, images of great ordeals, images of our broken, beautiful world today.

– 4000 Iraqis dead this week; 4000 Africans wiped out by the Ebola virus; hundreds of thousands of Syrians killed by their own brutal dictator; four good people beheaded by ISIS fanatics; hundreds of children murdered in Gaza as helpless pawns in a Hamas/Israeli conflict;

Some would say that these are “political” images. But I say they are spiritual images – images of God’s precious people – victims in the unending reality of tribulation, the unending ordeals of human sin and human suffering. And my friends, God is as present in these later images as in the parades and feasts of hope.

Madeline Albright once served on a panel with Elie Wiesel, the great writer and Holocaust survivor. Wiesel asked the panelists to name the unhappiest character in the Bible. Some said Job, because of all his trials. Others said Moses, because he never did reach the Promised Land, others Mary because she witnessed the excruciating death of her son. Wiesel disagreed with all these choices. Weisel thinks that God is the unhappiest biblical character because of the pain God must feel in seeing all God’s children fight, abuse and kill each other, often in God’s name. (quoted in Context in June, 2005)

Over thirty years ago our Presbyterian denomination gave us a vision for how we can live faithfully and hopefully in this in between time – this time between the broken reality of the present and the promised wholeness of God’s future. Our General Assembly decided that Peacemaking is the Believer’s Calling. Peacemaking is the main vocation of our daily lives – a perspective, an attitude, a way of living that can help bring about peace – one person, one day, one congregation at a time. The special offering you receive this day is the Peacemaking Offering, a reaffirmation of this calling at the core of our Presbyterian discipleship.

Out text from Isaiah is one of the foundational texts for our call to be peacemakers – and it was the biblical theme for the meeting of the General Assembly in 2003, the year I was elected to serve as Moderator for our denomination. No passage better describes for me what it means to be a follower of Jesus in our particular, peculiar Presbyterian way.

It sounds and feels familiar – this ancient text from Isaiah. Though penned 2500 years ago, it describes the world in which we dwindling reformed Christians live today.  In 2014, we sit in communities where demographic trends are transforming the culture in which we live. Buddhist temples, Islamic Cultural Centers and Pentecostal immigrant congregations are growing, while we Presbyterians shrink, And vegetables common in Guatemala and Vietnam and Kenya are filling the bins at our suburban markets, and sprouting in the furrows of our community gardens. But the Presbyterian Church is way behind the times in embracing all these creative changes.

In the Presbytery of Hudson River, most of our villages and cities are between 25 and 50% non- Caucasian – and yet our presbytery membership is only 9% non-European white.. And so our music and our food and our decision making and our outreach is failing to speak to the majority of our new neighbors. Thank goodness that congregations like the White Plains Presbyterian Church are slowly beginning to look like the world in which we live, and create communities of wholeness – celebrating difference and welcoming newness.

The context for today’s passage from Isaiah is this. The people of Israel are coming home after 50 years of painful, powerless exile.  They are coming home to an Israel transformed by eclectic, global politics – a nation no longer comfortably, predictably Jewish. Yes, they are coming home to a Temple in ruins – and to an identity threatened by secular values at odds with their faith. But, rather than revving them up with a judgmental vision of exclusivity and superiority, Isaiah shakes them up with a new vision that pushes every boundary they have established in their lives.

Rather than returning to their glory days by rebuilding a gilded Temple of wealth and status, Isaiah invites them to become a different kind of dwelling place – a flesh and blood community shaped not by bricks and mortar, but by a gracious, prayerful heart. And the question of who is “in” and who is “out” receives a very different answer from Isaiah than it did from prophets in the past. God’s people are no longer those chosen by biology or pedigree or theological purity. No, the chosen ones turn out to be everybody – everybody, that is, who decides to worship God and honor God and live like God – to act out in their everyday lives, God’s holy covenant of justice and peace. Isaiah transforms the Temple from an exclusive club into a “house of prayer for all people.”

Now, in order to make his point – in order to illustrate just how radical this shift in vision is – Isaiah points to two categories of people – people who traditionally have been excluded from the exclusive club of God’s people. According to the Hebrew purity codes in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, “foreigners” and “eunuchs” are not allowed, are not “saved,” are not welcome within the sacred sanctuaries of Israel. Why? Because, according to the legal codes, they are ritually unclean. In one case – the eunuchs – they are considered unclean because of their supposedly sinful sexual identity.   And in the other case the foreigners are considered unclean because they look and sound and eat differently than the comfortable norms of traditional Hebrew life.

But, in this astounding development in scripture, Isaiah simply rewrites the sacred texts. Isaiah re-imagines the wideness of God’s mercy. Isaiah reconfigures the political landscape of religious life. Yes, Isaiah blows open the stereotypes that have governed God’s people for centuries. And he ushers in a brand new kingdom of God – a kingdom of God that becomes real flesh and real blood in the radical compassion and hospitality of  Jesus.  Friends,  Isaiah’s vision in ancient Israel is as huge and compelling and unfinished today as it was 2500 years ago. But it is the only vision that can capture the immensity of God and the hope of humanity in this bleeding, beloved world.

One of the buzz words in our 21st century world is “globalization” – a political and economic ideal that has caused great conflict, as well as great possibility. But as this word appears in the newspapers, we know that much of the globalization movement is about consumerism and economic profit – about engaging with poorer countries to create lower labor costs, so that goods in this country can be cheaper. Of course such economic development in the two-thirds world can and does increase the standard of living – but at what cost to values and cultures different from ours? And at what cost to basic human rights and dignity? Do we really want the whole world to wear blue jeans and drink coke, while uneducated teenagers work 10 hours a day producing our clothing?

I would like to suggest that globalization from a biblical and theological perspective means something very different. Godly globalization is not about profit, but about promise. It is not about economic wealth; it is about spiritual wealth. It is not about connecting corporations, but about connecting communities and companions around the world. And, the purpose of Godly globalization is to build a table big enough to hold the entire human family – a big round table where everyone is equal –  a table that nourishes the hospitality and courage that can incarnate God’s dream of shalom – yes, a table that feeds all of those joyful saints from many nations marching away from tribulation – and toward the new creation.

One of the stories that delighted me this past week – as leaders from around the world continued to gather at the United Nations –  was the description of the new Prime Minister of India’s participation at a dinner party at the White House. Narendra Modi is a charismatic leader who has captured the imagination of the majority poor in his home country. But, this week of all weeks, this devout man was fasting as part of a Hindu festival day, and so he was unable to eat any of the exquisite food prepared by the White House chef. But Mr. Modi sat at the table anyway – drinking warm water, and fully enjoying the eclectic, global guests whom President Obama had gathered for the evening. It was not the food, but instead the tapestry of differences, the unique tastes and experiences and skin colors that made that small dinner party into a tantalizing image of God’s kingdom table.

As we now gather at this global table, let us rejoice that God is opening  us up, filling us with hope, and sending us out to welcome the whole world into the abundant life which is the birth right of all God’s children.

May it be so, for you and for me.  Amen

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