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Where do we start?

2 Timothy 1:1-14

World Communion Sunday originated in a Presbyterian church in Pittsburgh in 1933. The celebration “was adopted as a denominational practice in the Presbyterian Church (US) in 1936. Churches in other denominations were invited to celebrate from the beginning, but it wasn’t until 1940 when the … predecessor body of the National Council of Churches promoted extending the celebration to a number of churches around the world that the practice became widespread. Today, World Communion Sunday is celebrated around the world.”[1]

This is a quote from a Presbyterian website and is consistent with what I’ve always believed. But I think it was last year, or maybe the year before, when I heard this may not be entirely true. It started with a conversation on Facebook in a group for Christian clergy. Someone mentioned World Communion Sunday, and a pastor in the United Kingdom asked “What’s that?” Someone originally from Canada said she hadn’t heard of it until moving to the U.S. Soon the conversation had many of us asking, “Is World Communion Sunday only celebrated in the U.S.? Then what makes it ‘WORLD’ Communion Sunday?”

I have not been able to get a definitive answer to the question of how widely it is celebrated. I am thinking that perhaps churches around the world that have ties with a U.S. denomination (say, for example, the Korean Presbyterian Church) may indeed honor World Communion Sunday because it is promoted by the Presbyterian Church. But the millions of people around the world who belong to churches not affiliated with the U.S. may have never heard of it.

This bothered me … first because I have always loved this image of people all over the world celebrating the Lord’s Supper together and aware of one another as we gather and eat bread or rice, to drink Welch’s or merlot or coconut milk. I love this idea that we are all celebrating communion in our own ways, but aware of one another doing the same. But as I thought more, it began to bother me more because it seems like such a symbol of American ethnocentrism—to create something that the whole world is supposed to join us in and then not even notice if they don’t.

I share this not to take the joy out of World Communion Sunday. We do know it is honored in places around the world, even if it is not as widespread as we might imagine. But I want us to think of this day not as the day that everybody does what we do, but as the day we stand in solidarity with others, with a greater awareness of the world and the world’s needs. World Communion Sunday should be a day that reminds us we are in communion, in relationship, with people around the world. It is possible that the rest of the world doesn’t need to celebrate World Communion Sunday as much as we do because we are the ones who tend not to see.

Of course, so much of our experience is based on what we see, what we experience, or where we start from. I read a story this week about a little experiment that a group called Christian Aid used to do. The author wrote, “We used to do Bible studies where we allowed half the group biscuits at break and the other half went hungry to a late lunch. When both groups studied the feeding of the five thousand, it appeared that they had different texts. It’s about a miracle, said the well fed group. It’s about bread, said the [hungry] group. As [sci-fi author] Tony Ballantyne said, ‘different beginning points give stories different shapes.’”[2]

When we planned for communion today, there was no thought of need. Someone purchased the bread, and maybe she saved the receipt for reimbursement or maybe just added it to her groceries for the week and considered it a donation. There was no question of “enough.” Of course there was enough. Even if the store didn’t have the kind of bread we wanted, there would be bread, and we could afford to buy it. What about those places where the people are hungry and there is only enough communion bread for the sacrament, not for nourishment? Do they watch each other to make sure nobody takes too much? Are there ever any leftovers? How are the leftovers distributed? How does it feel to hear “I am the bread of life” if your life has so little bread? In contrast, how is our experience of communion affected by the fact that it starts with plenty?

When I was growing up, we often made French toast when we had extra—when we hadn’t eaten all of our bread and it had grown stale. Dipping it in egg and milk and then covering it with syrup made it a tasty treat. A writer with similar experience once asked a woman from Zimbabwe if she knew French toast. The woman replied, “Yes, French toast is what you do if you only have one egg and have to make it stretch to feed three children.”[3] How you experience it depends on your starting place.

The Bible is the same way. How is our experience of the Bible shaped by its starting point? We start with not one but two Creation stories—stories which vary greatly but both proclaim that we live in an amazing world of incredible diversity, and we are God’s creation, created in God’s image and filled with Divine breath. How would our experience of the Bible be different if it started with Leviticus, with lists of rules and punishments, or even with Song of Solomon, with its erotic love stories? “Different beginning points give stories different shapes.”

The book of 2nd Timothy is no exception. Although most scholars agree that it was not actually written by Paul, it was written as his farewell document, his last words of encouragement to a particular follower and church leader. But since it was most likely written after both were dead, it’s really to us. We are the “Timothy” to whom he writes. He starts with gratitude and a reminder of Timothy’s heritage of faith: I am grateful to God when I remember you and I am reminded of your faith, a faith that lived first in your mother and grandmother. The writer is reminding the audience: this is who you are. You are a person of faith. You have a heritage of faith. This is important because Timothy was discouraged. It sounds like it was getting harder and harder to be a Christian, harder and harder to not be ashamed in the face of so much defeat, hard to be true in the face of persecution, even harder to lead the church against competing messages. This is Paul’s pep talk: remember who you are. Remember your heritage. Remember your gifts.

It’s a good message for us as well, especially when we get discouraged. Remember who you are. Remember your heritage. Remember your gifts.

A little video that I just love has recently gone viral. It’s a father and his daughter. She is standing on the bathroom counter, looking at herself in the mirror, as she repeats after dad: I am strong. I am smart. I work hard. I am beautiful. I am respectful. I’m not better than anyone. Nobody’s better than me. I am amazing. I am great. Every child needs to hear those words, but I’m sure her father, an African American man, knows the particular importance of those words for his little girl. Those words will begin her day in the hope and prayer that they will affect her day. “Different beginning points give stories different shapes.”

If Timothy were Paul’s child and Paul had a bathroom counter, Paul would be standing Timothy up there to repeat, “I am a person of faith. I have a heritage of faith. I will not be discouraged. I have gifts. I am strong.”

So imagine it for a minute. You are God’s child, and God wants to get you ready for this day and the days to come. So God stands you up on the cosmic bathroom counter and says, “Repeat after me.” Think about it for a minute: what words would God want YOU to repeat?

Got some? Good because here comes the hard part. Say them out loud. Call them out for us all to hear. I’ll even start us. I am brave. You next. What words does God want you to repeat in the mirror? Say them out loud.

“Different beginning points give stories different shapes.” Let this be our beginning point.

 

[1] https://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/worship/special-days-and-emphases/world-communion-sunday/

[2] Dudley, Rebecca. “The Truth about French Toast.” https://knoxchurchdunedin.files.wordpress.com/2014/12/pentecost-19-the-truth-about-french-toast-revd-rebecca-dudley.pdf

[3] Ibid.

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