Our angle of view has changed much since the first World Communion Sunday. The first celebrations of this event were really designed to raise money for missionaries and evangelism. Until very recently the Western Church believed that we had the truth, the rest of the world needs it, and evangelism is the most important global task of the church. Indeed, evangelism is a key work of the church, one of the four classic marks of the church. But it may not be the most important global work of the church for our time. Here’s why. Today, for the first time since the first generation of Christianity, there are now more Christians in Asia, Latin America and Africa than there are in Europe and North America. We are now the minority. The Christian Church is growing around the globe and the rest of the world needs the American Church less and less for evangelism every passing year. They are doing a fine job on their own. Yet our thinking still sees the American church at the center of the world.
Sometimes Western Christianity’s blindness can be monumental. Hurricane Hugo was heading towards the Southeastern United States, and Pat Robertson came on the air and began to pray that it would turn and miss our coastline. Amazingly enough Hugo made a wide turn and missed the continental US and Robertson thanked God. He failed to mention that Puerto Rico was devastated. The following week I was effected in two ways. First, I got together the pastor of the UCC Spanish speaking church in Pawtucket, RI and we took our youth groups down to help cleanup damage to our UCC churches on the island. Second, I found out that the Providence School system had received more than 1000 new Puerto Rican students in the month following the hurricane and they needed ESL teachers. We can’t just think locally or regionally or even nationally anymore.
I can remember when I really began to understand the implications of a globalized society. I was in a Liberian restaurant called Cecilia’s in Providence, Rhode Island having a quiet dinner. We had the whole place to ourselves on a Sunday evening. We had been ignoring the television in the corner of the room until a news flash interrupted the ball game to say that the Liberian President, Samuel Doe had been overthrown and killed and Charles Taylor was the new President. This was the first and only time I have been in a Liberian restaurant. What are the odds of getting a news flash from Liberia in that one hour of my life?! A number of people in a local church were from Liberia and as we wondered how that might effect them, the restaurant quickly filled up, as people came to discuss the news together. Some were celebrating and buying each other drinks and others were off in the corner in serious discussion. The local Baptist church went through great upheaval as the Liberians were divided and heard news of atrocities committed by various factions and the death of family members. This calamity across the ocean had touched our lives.
You have already been touched by half the planet this morning. The wheat for your toast was grown in Kansas and the bread was baked in New Jersey, your coffee may have come from Kenya or Sumatra, your juice was from somewhere between Florida and Argentina. Then you went and got dressed in clothes where the cloth was made in Indonesia and your shoes are from Thailand. You got into your car, a Ford that was perhaps put together in Brazil with components from Ireland, Czechoslovakia and Arkansas and the petroleum was pumped in Saudi Arabia. Throw in the fact that you are sharing air and water with 5 and half billion other people across the planet and I’d say that you are already in communion with the whole world every day.
On September 11 we were shocked into awareness that this globalization, this communion in the world, is more than an economic and cultural reality, it is a political reality too. We are in communion with a world of immense suffering, violence, war, hatred and despair. Let me put the threat of terrorism aside for a moment and just focus on what has come across my desk this week.
The Heifer Project quarterly magazine, aptly titled “World Ark” came this week, with the focus being the rapid diminishment of fresh water in the world. One billion people lack clean drinking water delivery in our world today, and three million people, most of them children, die every year from this lack of sanitization. It will take 150 years of terrorist related deaths to equal this year’s death toll from dirty water. What does it mean to be in communion with the billion people of the world who don’t have clean drinking water?
The New York Times reported on the plight of Ma Pinghui, a 16 year old Chineese girl who made false eyelashes for a cosmetic company. After a few months of working 14 hour days at 50 cents an hour, she wanted to go home, but the company required a $50 penalty if you quit before a year and no one can save money when you pay the company for all your room and board fees. She lives in virtually slavery along with 350 million other poor Chineese workers in sweatshops. What does it mean to live in communion with the sweat shop workers of the world?
I could pile on the examples, and at the end of the sermon we would all feel helpless and hopeless. It is important to remember that we do not do God’s work alone. When we work for justice and peace we join hands with millions of Christians from around the world, and most importantly, we join the work that God is also engaged in. Our hope springs from the truth that God is not idle in the face of world problems, God is still the Prime Mover, the Righteous One, the God who has the whole world in divine hands. Our struggle is to stay engaged as disciples as we wait for God’s timing.
Think for a moment of the great changes in human history. Christianity did not die with Jesus on the cross, but rather the message of love and human solidarity spread throughout the Mediterranean and became the religion of the empire. It wasn’t instant, it was God’s timing over three centuries. It took three generations after the American Revolution to fulfill the promise of freedom for African slaves, but justice came with God’s timing. It took another 100 years to end the worst aspects of Segregation, but it came. In our own lifetime, we have seen the Berlin Wall fall, the cruelty of Aparthied end, a genocidal tyrant like Slobodan Milocivitz brought to trial at The Hague. These took time, but God’s will for the world prevailed. The world will never be a perfect place, but it is not inevitable that we will just sink into evil and despair. God’s purposes are still being worked out.
Those purposes move through the combined efforts of thousands of people who hear the call to be servants, who chose to be in communion with the suffering of the world and do acts great a small to welcome God’s presence into the world. It is most appropriate that as we celebrate World Commuion Sunday in Worship, we follow it up with walking in the CROP Walk to raise money for hungry people. John Wesley once said, “Get on your knees because much depends upon God. Get on your feet because much depends on you.” As you recieve communion today, I would like you to be in prayer for one specific concern you have for the world. Pray fervently for those who are suffering and crushed by exploitation. And pray for God’s guidance about something you can do. I challenge everyone to have one major concern about the world. Read about it, become an expert in one thing, let it become a passion for you, find some way to make a connection, to somehow join God’s work on that issue. Let us be fervent in prayer and action to live out World Communion with our lives.
We now celebrate Communion every Sunday. Last Saturday at our Praise Service two of my friends attended along with their wives (one a Baptist who grew up a Presbyterian and the other friend was a member of the Christian Reformed Church). It meant a great deal to me to see them come forward to partake of the sacrament. We are truly One in