Why Care About the World?
A friend came to see me recently and asked if it’s about time to give up on the world. D.C. traffic is bad. College debt mounts. Jobs can be scarce or the rat race leaves us breathless. Our bodies break down and hurt. We read of headlines this week of Russia bombing in Syria. Or the U.S. bombing a hospital in Afghanistan this week. ISIS attacking. Congressional resignations and dysfunction. Yet another senseless shooting at a school, unbelievable tragedy, if it didn’t seem to be happening so frequently. We look out the window at the hurricane and wonder if God is bringing back another flood.
It can be enough to make us want to withdraw from caring about the world. Why bother? Should we be finished with it? Should we just give up?
Well God has never given up on us. When God might have every reason to turn God’s back, God didn’t and doesn’t. Instead God so loved the world that God came to care for it. And so should we.
Let us pray. Gracious God we celebrate that you came and for us. Help us to find our calling and joy in loving you, each other and your world. Amen.
Last Sunday night my mother called at 10pm, the night before her surgery, and told me to go outside and watch the lunar eclipse. Her surgery went as well as could have been hoped for, thank you for all your prayers. They make a difference. When your mother calls you thinking about the eclipse you go outside to look at the eclipse. So I went out onto the driveway in my pajamas but I could not see the sky. It was just too cloudy. It made me think though and I was very interested this week in reading about water being found on Mars and the path of the rocket going past Pluto. They make the galaxy seems a bit smaller.
500 years ago, our galaxy was in many ways thought to be a more intimate place. Jewish philosophy had taught that the universe had a finite beginning. Early Christian eschatology taught it had an end. Before Copernicus, our earth was thought to be at the center of the universe. The clouds were not that far out of reach. The planets and stars were close.
When humans realized that the sun was at the center of the galaxy and that the universe was huge, it changed so much of how we humans viewed the cosmos. For one thing it changed where God and heaven were thought to be.
John tells us Jesus descended from Heaven, as several parts of New Testament do. Humans in most cultures have traditionally looked to the sky to find God. Our hymns speak of God who stretched the spangled heavens, who reigns above the swirling planets, the worlds God’s hands have made, as our opening hymn puts it.
God wasn’t so distant when God was just up in the clouds. But the more we learned about the universe, the bigger it seemed. In recent years data from spacecraft and powerful new telescopes allow humans to determine that the universe is significantly larger than humans had thought.
In the 1920s, Edwin Hubble determined that the universe was not static but indeed stretching, expanding. This helped give rise to the big bang theory, but also anxiety. I think of the young, distraught Woody Allen in the movie Annie Hall whose worried mother takes him to the doctor. The doctor asks Woody’s character what is wrong and the boy complains that the universe is expanding and someday would break apart and that would be the end of everything. The doctor consoles him by saying that that’s not for millions of years and our job is to just enjoy ourselves while we are here.
Far from enjoying it, platonic Greek philosophy has taught that our cosmos were fundamentally flawed so the goal must be leave the material world through the spiritual. In the last century, many Christians called dispensationalists focused on the world’s end, easy to do with world wars, depressions, holocaust, nuclear weapons, and famines and took seriously the idea that this world wasn’t worth it.
If God is above the ever expanding skies, then God is far away. If God seems to be moving away from us maybe we should check out too. How do we enjoy ourselves while we are in a world where the news is bad and God keeps getting farther away?
The 20th century philosopher Paul Tillich was known for the complexity of his lectures. Once after a particularly difficult lecture a man stood up to ask, “Professor Tillich, I appreciated your statement that faith is the ultimate concern of life, but what I really want to know is, do you think the ultimate is concerned about me?” In other words, “Does God care?”
This question lies, in part, behind the famous discussion between Jesus and the Pharisee Nicodemus in John 3. Nicodemus was a rich, powerful member of the Sanhedrin but felt something missing from his life and so went to Jesus at night to ask how to get to the kingdom of God. Jesus tells him a person must be born again or born from above. Nicodemus, you may recall, questions how that is possible. Jesus suggests a spiritual rebirth. In other words if we experience God in the spirit.
Then in our lesson Jesus shares the reason for his being here – that God does care. That we and the world we live in matter. That one has to understand earthly things before grasping heavenly ones. For no one has ascended to the father, but Jesus. We live here. Jesus suggests that the kingdom of God could be ours here and now if we have the faith to be God’s people and experience God in the spirit. The word for eternal in Greek here doesn’t mean just quantity of time, as everlasting does, though it has a time component, it means the joyful God-like quality of life. Jesus uses it twice. We can experience the joy of the kingdom in this world because God loves the world and is not finished with it yet.
God loves the world so much that God gave, not just sent, but gave, God’s only son. God did not send God’s son into the world to condemn the world, but so the world could be saved.
This is good news. God’s presence is not in a faraway place. The kingdom of God is for all who live in faith now. World Communion Sunday began in Pittsburgh at in the 1930s because people needed hope. It was the Great Depression and the news was mostly bad. So Presbyterians created a day to think about hope, unity and the promise and presence of God though communion. On World Communion Sunday, we celebrate the unity of the world. All are made in God’s image. We celebrate the breadth of God’s love, that God cares about all the world and so should we. We celebrate the depth of God’s love, that God so loves the world that God gave God’s son for you and me individually. We celebrate the unity of the church, for God gives us a gift in communion, the experience of God.
Communion is a gift to us to experience God spiritually. We celebrate that God is not so far away in the incomprehensibly large cosmos, but is in the small, the close, the near. God is here in spirit in each and every bite of bread and drink of cup.
God gave God’s only son. Giving implies a more personal connection. Communion celebrates that personal connection. Communion celebrates God’s intimacy with and caring for us. Communion is a celebration. Rather than giving up or withdrawing, we should celebrate our lives, our faith and the world God loves.
Pope Francis was here last week as you know. One interesting note is he has said his favorite movie is the 1987 Danish film Babette’s Feast.
In it two sister’s live in a small village. Their father was the pastor of their small, very austere religious community. The values of the community were more about withdrawing from the world than celebrating it.
In their youth, the sisters had many suitors, but their father rejected them. Years later a girl named Babette shows up. She carries a letter explaining that she is a refugee from Paris, and recommending her as a housekeeper. Babette serves as their cook for the next 14 years, producing bland meals which the austere congregation wanted. Her only link to her former life in Paris is a lottery ticket a friend buys and sends her each year. One day, she wins the lottery of 10,000 francs. Instead of using the money to return to Paris, Babette decides to spend it preparing a delicious feast for the sisters and their small congregation to celebrate what would have been their father’s one hundredth birthday.
As the various ingredients arrive from Paris, the sisters begin to worry that the meal will become a sin of gluttony, and so the sisters and the congregation agree to eat the meal, but not enjoy it, and to make no mention of the food during the dinner. No enjoyment.
One of the sister’s former suitors comes to the dinner as the guest of his aunt, a member of the congregation. He is unaware of the other guests’ plans and so regales the dinner guests with information about the extraordinary food and drink, comparing the meal to the finest in Paris. Although the other celebrants refuse to comment on the meal, Babette’s gifts finally break down their barriers, elevating them physically and spiritually. As one reviewer put it, “Ancient wrongs are forgotten…and a rebirth of the human spirit settles over the table.”
The sisters assume that Babette will now return to Paris. However, when she tells them that all of her money is gone and that she is not going anywhere, the sisters are surprised. Babette then reveals that she was formerly the head chef of a famous French restaurant and that dinner for 12 there has a price of 10,000 francs. One of the sisters tearfully says, “Now you will be poor the rest of your life”, to which Babette replies, “An artist is never poor.”
This is World Communion Sunday, where through our flowers and dress and breads and creative displays we are artists too.
God has made a feast for us. God gives the finest gifts of saving grace. Out of this little bread and juice we tap into the grand celebration of a God who so loved the world that God gave God’s only son. Jesus became poor so that we could become rich in spirit. Despite its problems, our world is amazing and there is all we need here to enjoy the spirit of the kingdom.
Faith, even in the Calvinist tradition, need not be austere. Too many experience religion as judgmental or divisive.
We were made to taste the fruit of an abundant life. To celebrate the sacrament with joy as we commune with our creator.
Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry.” The cry of many starving people in our world is literally for bread. By 2050 world population will exceed 9 billion. A billion of them live in poverty now.
Jesus came that the world might be saved through him. We who love Jesus must care about the world he loves.
We can provide hope and help. We can bring bread. We can care about the poor. About the environment. About peace. About finding a way to grow the economy so that everyone has a chance. We can be hope for those who are afraid. Hope for those in jail. Hope for those mourn. Hope for those who seek to prevent another senseless shooting.
God is not far away. God is near. As near as the bread and cup. Far from fleeing the world we must care for it and celebrate it.
One of the great writers of my hometown was Erma Bombeck. Bombeck was born and lived in Dayton and is buried in the same cemetery as most of our family.
Bombeck was involved in her church much of her life. She wrote in a column in one of the Dayton papers about an experience one Sunday.
She saw a small child sitting near her who was turning around and smiling at everyone. He wasn’t kicking, tearing the hymnals, or rummaging through his mother’s handbag. He was just… smiling.
Finally, his mother grabbed him and said, “Stop that grinning! You’re in Church!’” With that, she gave him a glare, and, as the tears rolled down his cheek, the mother added, “That’s better,’ and returned to her prayers.” Bombeck wrote, “We too often sing, ‘Make a joyful noise unto the Lord!’ while our faces reflect the sadness of one who has just buried a rich aunt who left everything to her pregnant hamster.” “What a fool, I thought, this woman was sitting next to a sign of hope — the only miracle left in our civilization.”
Bombeck continued, “It occurred to me the entire world is in tears…. I wanted to hold this child with the tear-stained face close to me and tell him about my God. The happy God. The smiling God. The God who had to have a sense of humor to have created the likes of us.”
In a world where too many are in tears, the church has a chance to respond. To be hope and love for the world. If not us, who?
We start by celebrating God’s hope and love made real to us here at this table. For the fundamental characteristic of a triune God is to be in relationship with you and with me. God communicates God’s care for us in the close connection of communion. God so loved the world that God gave God’s only son.
In this gift of spiritual presence, in this gift of the Lord’s Supper, the far away became near. The unknowable, knowable. The condemned, freed. The path to salvation opened. The communion joy made real. That we may taste and savor it.
May it be so. Amen.