October 1, 2017      ‘It Isn’t A Small World After All’     Doug Norris

click to hear audio recording

So, a Rabbi, an Iman, a Mormon and a United Church minister sit down for lunch…  It sounds like the start of a bad joke of some kind.    This was at the Habitat for Humanity Interfaith build, a couple of weeks ago, it was a beautifully mixed crew – trying to fit  head coverings under helmets, rabbi’s prayer tassels hanging out beneath his safety vest…

As we ate lunch, the Rabbi had a question for the Mormon.  He understood that the Mormon church, which has been almost entirely an American group, is beginning to set up in other places.  He said, the Mormon story is so very rooted in the United States, how you do find it when you take that story out into other parts of the world, what kind of interpretation is needed for the story to make any sense?  He was puzzled about how a story from one place takes root in another part of the world.  And then we realized that of course every last thing in the Jewish and Christian story is from another place and another culture 3000 years ago.  We are likewise always trying to do the same thing.

We are always extracting, distilling, some essence or some universal idea from some very particular story, because the world is massive and history is broad and we always inhabit one small part of it, trying to make sense of the whole thing.

Christians have a complicated history in relating to the world.  Jesus seems to have dealt really well with a group of ten or twelve people.  Men and women.  Religious and not.  Saints and sinners.  But when the group got too big he tried to get away, tried to hide in the long grasses outside the village for prayers.  But they always found him.  He was not a global figure.  Probably never went more than 50 miles from where he was born.  And look at him now.  As John Lennon famously said in 1966 when trying to describe how popular the Beatles were,  ‘Bigger than Jesus’.  

The very classic passage today from Philippians is a good case in point.   There are just a couple of moving parts – a brief Bible Study moment :  It was written well after Jesus lived, maybe up to eighty or a hundred years later, so thinking abut Jesus was quite developed.  He was now a ‘cosmic’ figure, and not just historical.  He had come from ‘above’.

So here’s the bouncing ball :  He could have been supreme, powerful, claimed the whole world, but he chose to live as a servant of the people around him, emptying himself in an act of humility.  And so, God chose to honour him.  At the end of the passage it says ‘and so his name will be the name at which every knee shall bow and every tongue confess.’  See the irony?  He embodied humility, and this was turned into triumphalism – he was so darned humble that he now rules the world…

In our relating to the world, at our best the people of Jesus have seen and responded to the needs and the aches of the world.  Still do.  Believing that the compassion of Jesus was the model, scattering hospitals and schools and hundreds of thousands of congregations of people who simply serve humanity.

At our worst of course we know now that we have been tools of colonial powers and have been co-opted by the powerful to ravage new lands and to send missionaries not to serve people but to shame them and convince them to make every person in every place a Christian.

So, I approach ‘World Communion Sunday’ a bit gingerly.   I have grown up in the church at a time when we now move about the world easily and quickly, and every other church ministry seems to have the word ‘global’ or ‘worldwide’ in it’s name, and on the other hand in the United Church in this time we have backed away from sending people to other lands and begun receiving the gifts of other churches, other peoples in other places, we have embraced the partnerships of other religions and adopted what we call ‘whole-world ecumenism’  – the conviction that anyone who is going about the work of peace, justice and the integrity of creation is doing holy work, regardless of the name.  This is the filter now through which we view the world.

I sent a message to a member of congregation this week, congrats on taking on an important board appointment with a charity.  Looked over the list of what he does.  Global professional roles, community engagements, and I know he has small children and he hangs out with them.   And I was fatigued just thinking about it.  Wow!  It is a broad world he lives in, with a huge population.

And I spoke this week with some other folks whose world is being resized to focus very closely on one person.  The intensity of an illness or a trauma can focus the world so that the whole field of vision is twenty feet wide and has a very small population.  Small and very deep.

Here is a spiritual practice I want to recommend on this Sunday – calculate the size of the world – calibrate the size and the scope of the world you can live in with vigor and compassion, staying well and whole.  You, broken and scattered, will serve nobody.  And since at times God will most deeply move through us when we are out         and at times God will most deeply move through us when we are sequestered with one or a few people, we need to know what kind of world we will serve on any given day.  Calculate the size of it.  Live within it.

We may have a hint here today, about this practice.  A world the size of a Table.  Jesus loved the table.  He brought the people he loved to meals, challenged who belonged at what tables, and the final gift he had to give was the simple parable of the meal.  ‘Do THIS in remembering me.’

So at any given time the world I can live in will fit around a table.  The only questions we’ll need to know at the table questions :  Who needs to be nourished?  Who is left out?  And, can we set another place?

Now, to your table spread….