Remembering that We Share This Table
Stevc Hollaway, Harbor Church, October 7, 2012
When I was in high school I went to see the last Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn movie, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. The guess who in that film was a black man coming home with their daughter. But on this World Communion Sunday, I want to ask who you think is coming to dinner here at the Lord’s Table. This is a large table. It stretches all the way around the world. It is a table at which people from every nation, tribe, and tongue gather to remember that Jesus died for them as well as for us.
Jesus prayed that all Christians would be one, even as he and the Father are one. When we think about sitting at table with all the Christians of the world, we may imagine that most of the people at the table look like us. I grew up thinking that most Christians in the world were white. We had what Rudyard Kipling called “the white man’s burden” to evangelize and civilize the world. Of course, living in Japan I knew that there were Japanese Christians and I was aware of missionary work around the world. What I didn’t understand was that a great revival was taking place in the twentieth century and that millions around the world from other nations and races were coming to faith in Christ. In 1900, 79% of the world’s Christians were white. By 2005, only 34% of them were white. Most of the people around the Lord’s Table today are what we on Block Island would call “minorities.” They are the majority.
Did you know, for example, that Brazil has 175 million Christians? That there are 108 million in Mexico? There are probably at least that many in China. India, Nigeria, and Congo have more Christians today than Great Britain or Italy. The leading language of Christianity worldwide is Spanish.
There’s an interesting map prepared by Todd Johnson of Gordon-Conwell Seminary for the Pew Forum [http://www.pewforum.org/uploadedfiles/Topics/Issues/Politics_and_Elections/051805-global-christianity.pdf]. It shows the movement of the statistical center of Christianity over the centuries. For the first 1000 years, the center moved mostly around Turkey until it landed close to Constantinople. In 1800 the statistical center was near Rome. By 1900 it had moved west to Madrid. By 2000, though the center had moved south to Mali, in Africa. And by 2100 it will move further south to Nigeria. Sub-Saharan Africa has been the hotbed of growth for Christianity in the last few decades and that is not likely to stop.
By the year 2025, it is expected that 24% of all the world’s Christians will live in Africa; another 24% will be in Latin America. 20% will live in Europe, 19% in Asia, and only 12% in Northern America.
Do you remember the parable about how the king was throwing a banquet and the first people he invited were reluctant to come [Luke 14]? The king was insistent that his house would be full. He sent his servant out and told him to go into the streets and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame. While we weren’t paying attention—while we were focused on making money and national security and saving our little island—God’s servants were bringing all kinds of people to the table. And so we gather today for the Lord’s Supper, kind of expecting it to look like a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving, and in fact it looks like the United Nations. All of a sudden we are the 12%, and we ought to be saying “Praise God!” Your kingdom is coming; your will is being done on earth as in heaven. If I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself. They will come from the east and the west and the north and the south and sit down at table in the kingdom of God.
I want us to remember today that we share this table with the people of God, with the body of Christ—and the body of Christ is not white, and the body of Christ does not speak English. If we say, as we should, that the core of our identity is that we are Christians, we need to think when we say this not of people who look like us, but that we are part of a body that is made up of people of all races, most of them darker than us and most of them poorer than us. When I say that I am a Christian, I am expressing solidarity with them.
As I’ve heard Walter Hilse practicing this week, I’ve recognized the importance of using all the voices of the organ. If I were to get on the organ and try to play it with my third-grade piano skills, I would probably use just a few fingers and only one stop. Even those of you who know more about how to play a piano would—if you sat down at this organ—play it pretty white-bread. It would sound like a child’s play organ or a run-down Hammond in a funeral home.
But other people know that there are many voices already in the organ. They just have to be empowered to sing. Last week in the postlude Carrie played with the harpsichord voice. I never knew that voice existed! This week Walter played with many voices—and who knew this organ could sound so grand?
It’s like that with this table and with the church. We act like there are just a few voices, the ones we are used to. But God has built into the church many voices—from every nation, tribe, and tongue. Perhaps they need to be empowered. Perhaps we need to listen. Perhaps they are singing already, but like those ring tones we are too old to hear, they are just out of our range. But someday all those voices will join together on earth as they already do in heaven. Someday it will not just be symbolically that people of all nations gather around one table. Someday we will all be together and Jesus himself will serve us.
Shouldn’t we live as if that is a present reality? Because it is. The church is already real. We are one body. We are one people. Christ has torn down the dividing wall. In Christ there is no male or female, slave or free, black or white or Asian or Hispanic. In Christ there is no North or South, in him no east or west.
World Communion Sunday was started by Presbyterians in the United States in 1936. It was a time when isolationism was popular, when “America First” was a political slogan. It was a time when we wanted to look away from all the conflict in Europe and what Japan was doing in East Asia. But some Christians thought that it was important to think of the church as a body existing around the world—even though that was far less true than it is today. The practice of World Communion Sunday was adopted by the old Federal Council of Churches, a mainly Protestant group in the US, in 1940. Just think of what it meant to American Christians in 1940 to say that they were one with German Christians and English Christians and Polish Christians and Italian Christians. How could you hate those with him you shared the Lord’s Supper? How could you let the body of Christ be torn apart by violence? Even today, it is a shock to think that today we are sharing the bread and the cup with Christians who are loyal citizens of Iran and Syria. How can we hate anyone with whom we share this meal? How can we hate our own body?
Wendell Berry is a farmer, writer, and advocate for the simple life in Kentucky. He is also a deeply Christian gentleman whose wife chaired the board of the new moderate Baptist seminary there. In 1968, he wrote a poem called “To a Siberian Woodsman (after looking at some pictures in a magazine).” He looked at the pictures and saw in this enemy during the Cold War someone not so different from himself. The poem has seven parts, and I will close with this.
You lean at ease in your warm house at night after supper,
listening to your daughter play the accordion. You smile
with the pleasure of a man confident in his hands, resting
after a day of long labor in the forest, the cry of the saw
in your head, and the vision of coming home to rest.
Your daughter’s face is clear in the joy of hearing
her own music. Her fingers live on the keys
like people familiar with the land they were born in.
You sit at the dinner table late into the night with your son,
tying the bright flies that will lead you along the forest streams.
Over you, as your hands work, is the dream of still pools.
Over you is the dream
of your silence while the east brightens, birds waking close by
you in the trees.
I have thought of you stepping out of your doorway at dawn,
your son in your tracks.
You go in under the overarching green branches of the forest
whose ways, strange to me, are well known to you as the sound
of your own voice
or the silence that lies around you now that you have ceased to speak,
and soon the voice of the stream rises ahead of you,
and you take the path beside it.
I have thought of the sun breaking pale through the mists over you
as you come to the pool where you will fish, and of the mist drifting
over the water, and of the cast fly resting light on the face of the pool.
And I am here in Kentucky in the place I have made myself
in the world. I sit on my porch above the river that flows muddy
and slow along the feet of the trees. I hear the voices of the wren
and the yellow-throated warbler whose songs pass near the windows
and over the roof. In my house my daughter learns the womanhood
of her mother. My son is at play, pretending to be
the man he believes I am. I am the outbreathing of this ground.
My words are its words as the wren’s song is its song.
Who has invented our enmity? Who has prescribed us
hatred of each other? Who has armed us against each other
with the death of the world? Who has appointed me such anger
that I should desire the burning of your house or the
destruction of your children?
Who has appointed such anger to you? Who has set loose the thought
that we should oppose each other with the ruin of forests and
rivers, and the silence of the birds?
Who has said to us that the voices of my land shall be strange
to you, and the voices of your land strange to me?
Who has imagined that I would destroy myself in order to destroy you,
or that I could improve myself by destroying you? Who has imagined
that your death could be negligible to me now that I have seen
these pictures of your face?
Who has imagined that I would not speak familiarly with you,
or laugh with you, or visit in your house and go to work with
you in the forest?
And now one of the ideas of my place will be that you would
gladly talk and visit and work with me.
I sit in the shade of the trees of the land I was born in.
As they are native I am native, and I hold to this place as
carefully as they hold to it.
I do not see the national flag flying from the staff of the sycamore,
or any decree of the government written on the leaves of the walnut,
nor has the elm bowed before any monuments or sworn the oath of allegiance.
They have not declared to whom they stand in welcome.
In the thought of you I imagine myself free of the weapons and
the official hates that I have borne on my back like a hump,
and in the thought of myself I imagine you free of weapons and
so that if we should meet we would not go by each other
looking at the ground like slaves sullen under their burdens,
but would stand clear in the gaze of each other.
There is no government so worthy as your son who fishes with
you in silence besides the forest pool.
There is no national glory so comely as your daughter whose
hands have learned a music and go their own way on the keys.
There is no national glory so comely as my daughter who
dances and sings and is the brightness of my house.
There is no government so worthy as my son who laughs, as he
comes up the path from the river in the evening, for joy.
[from Openings, Harvest/HBJ Books, 1968]
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Block Island, RI 02807