Sermon: Preparing the Table (with Carol Reed) 10/4/15

       At Pilgrimage, we believe strongly in what’s called “the priesthood of all believers.”  What that means, in part, is that on any given day God’s Spirit can speak to anyone.  Sometimes that someone is me; sometimes it’s someone else.  Part of my job is knowing when to step aside because someone else’s word is more powerful and poignant than mine.  Today is one of those days.

            We’ve already heard an important word about “letting the children come” to Jesus, to worship, to the table.  How blessed we are to have Miss Janet working with our children.  I don’t speak those words lightly.  I worked for a while in Children’s Ministry.  I’ve worked with lots of Children’s CE workers.  I’ve never met anyone who cares so deeply about the children and gives them such high quality religious education.  So, I’m going to say it again:  Miss Janet, your presence and work among us, especially with our children, blesses us deeply.

            We’re also blessed by the presence of Carol Reed.  You might know that Carol is the daughter of missionaries.  She did most of her growing up in Pakistan.  Often during Joys and Concerns Carol keeps the needs of the wider world community before us.  That is a gift to this community.

            In preparation for today’s service, the Worship Committee asked Carol to bring some items from her collection that might remind us of Christians from around the globe who are gathering at the table today.  We were thinking “meaningful decorations.”

            Happily, Carol brought her treasures….then she told us the stories behind them.  When I read Carol’s email that described what each object meant, I realized that on this World Communion Sunday, nothing I could say would speak half as well as hearing the stories behind some of these objects.

            So, I’ve invited Carol to tell us a little about the items she brought today.  Carol

Carol’s World Communion Celebration Message Oct 4, 2015

Thank you Kim.

When Ugena and Sarah asked me to bring in a few items to help decorate, I was a little overwhelmed. I had no idea what to choose.  When I look around my home, I am surrounded by pieces from around the world.  Each one tells a story and is a part of my history, and the history of the world that I grew up in. Thank you for allowing me to share a few of these pieces with you today and the stories behind them. Thank you also to the members of the congregation and of the choir who are wearing clothing from around the world. It is a joy to see all of the colors and patterns, and at least symbolically, it brings more of the world to our table today.  This morning I am wearing a beautiful Indian sari very uncomfortably.  Not because the sari itself is uncomfortable, but because it is a clear reminder of my privilege. This sari cost about 100 times the average daily income of a one of the village families that I grew up with.

My parents were missionaries that followed God’s calling to serve the poor, first in Greece, then in Pakistan. They were not preachers, but teachers in a sense. Their focus was rural development. They dug wells and built irrigation ditches, introduced new farming techniques and crops to improve yields, started village schools for boys AND girls, trained midwives, improved child nutrition, worked to reduce infant mortality and provide family planning.

The poor women in the villages where my parents worked often had 12 or more children, many of whom never reached their second birthday due to malnutrition or treatable and preventable diseases like diarrhea. A few weeks before I was born, my sister brought home a little baby girl.  She had received her in trade for a goat from the child’s mother. While this may seem crazy to you, this mother had already given birth to something like 18 children (if memory serves me right).  She had too many to feed already and had watched too many die. The milk from the goat would be valuable nourishment for her other children, and she hoped her precious child would have a better life with us. Of course, my mother made my sister take the baby back, so I didn’t have the joy of a twin, but that story has never left me.

In the villages I saw how hard people worked to get the staple of life, bread that we take for granted every day. The men and women ploughed, planted, and harvested the wheat by hand. Those who were blessed enough to have an ox, a water buffalo, or a donkey to help with the labor were the lucky ones. The grains, gathered by hand with a scythe, were piled on the threshing floor where a village animal, usually an ox, was tethered to a stake in the center.  It walked around in circles to trample the grain and crush it.  Only when the grains are broken open from their protective husk can you take the precious kernels and grind them to make bread.  This basket was used to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Life in much of the world is incredibly hard.  But it can be beautiful. From the waste of wheat, the little pieces of straw leftover, beauty emerges. Rough jute fibers used to make sacks to hold grain are reused to create beauty. And amongst the poor, I have seen incredible artists and musicians.  But perhaps the most striking thing is the beauty of spirit.

In most of the world, guests are treated with honor, eat first, and are served from the nicest dishes the family has or can borrow. Today our abundant communion feast is spread out on a cloth woven in Greece, served in dishes from Pakistan, India, and Kenya.

Where I grew up, even the poorest of the poor would honor a guest with generosity and graciousness. Even at the cost of feeding themselves or their family, guests would be served the very best. It is a culturally expected form of radical hospitality. While I did not always understand this as a child, the food that I was given was often at the expense of the women and children of the family who were already malnourished.

Most of the Christian villagers I grew up with were originally Hindu from the untouchable caste. They were devastatingly poor and had for generations been the outcasts. Auntie Eva and Auntie Alice were spinster missionary ladies who served in the Punjab of India prior to partition in the 1940’s and in Pakistan afterwards. They welcomed my parents to Pakistan in the 60’s

A letter addressed simply to “Ant Alice, India” was actually delivered to her in Pakistan. Anyone who has any concept of how enormous the subcontinent is and how miserable the mail delivery service was at the time, would know that is astounding. This letter found her because these missionaries were widely known and beloved. They had a heart for service.  Each Christmas, Auntie Alice and Auntie Eva would host a tea party. The tea was chai, beautifully and lovingly served from the finest English bone china and accompanied by a feast.  The guests of honor were the village women, the outcasts, the sweepers, the untouchables. Sometimes the act of serving one another, and of sharing a meal together at the table, is in and of itself a sacrament.

This red, hand woven, hand embroidered wedding shawl covering the pulpit came from those missionary Aunties. I felt it was especially appropriate to share this shawl’s story on World Communion Day.  It is red, color of communion wine. Red the traditional color for weddings in India. It is also the color of blood, and its story is marred with that as well.

At the time of partition when Pakistan and India separated in 1947, millions of refugees fled Pakistan to escape to India in fear of their lives (and the other way as well).  Wikipedia reports that: “In the riots which preceded the partition in the Punjab region, between 200,000 and 500,000 people were killed in the retributive genocide between the religions.[2][3] UNHCR estimates 14 million Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims were displaced during the partition; it was the largest mass migration in human history.”  Hindu and Sikh families fled to India.  Muslim families to Pakistan. A majority of Christian converts were from the untouchable caste from the Hindu religion. They were in danger, both on account of their chosen faith, and of their cultural affiliation as Hindus in the newly formed Pakistan.   Most had to leave everything behind and if they were lucky enough to survive, start again from nothing in a new place.  This wedding shawl was given for safe keeping to the Missionary “Aunties” by one of those families who were fleeing for their lives. It was very likely the family’s most valuable possession.

It was never reclaimed.

Generations later, we are still watching men, women, and children fleeing for their lives as a result of war, religious conflicts extremism, and desperate poverty. Poverty like that desperate mother in the village willing to give up her precious child in hopes of saving its life. Mothers and fathers would not put their precious babies on those boats if the boats were not safer than the land they came from.

This has been going on for far too long!  I try to understand why this keeps happening and I just cannot make sense of it.  My sister tells me it is because there is sin in this world. I will agree with her. The sins of greed, disregard for human life, violence, and injustice are overwhelming. I think we must follow Christ’s teachings and love the Lord our God with all our hearts and love our neighbor as ourselves.

But I am not a theologian.  So I look to the words of others to help me understand. In the radio program “On Being” entitled: Until the Heart Stays Open…guest speaker Laura Fanucci quoted Hazrat Inayat Khan as saying    “God breaks the heart again and again until it stays open.”

Laura went on to explain that: “You have two choices when you feel it happening……You can let your heart stretch to the point of ripping open to the beauty and agony of living in this mortal world……. Or you can pull the protective shield back over the vulnerable center. You can break or you can burrow. I have done both.       Only one gives life.”

The individual and collective stories of the refugees are heartbreaking…..  Perhaps they are meant to be. Perhaps our hearts, like kernels of wheat, can only be useful when they are open.

I want to share the story of an Afghan women I was honored to meet.  She was a well-educated, intelligent, and highly respected woman before she came to this country.  She was the headmistress of a large girl’s school in Kabul. She was forced to leave her home, her family, her career… everything behind. The only work she could get here in America was as a cleaning woman in a hospital.  She explained that it was devastating to her sense of self-worth, not because of the work, but because of how she was treated.  “I cried every single day for 3 years” She told me.  “No one looked at me, spoke to me, acknowledged me.  I was just the cleaning woman.”  As a nurse in a rehab hospital I worked alongside many who were physicians, nurses, and educators from around the world. Yet in this country they found work only as cleaners, nurse’s aides, and other menial jobs.

On this celebration of world communion, I want each of us to truly recognize people as human beings.  They are God’s precious children, each and every one of them.  They deserve peace.  They deserve hope. They deserve respect. And they deserve a future where they can work, raise their children, and worship their creator without daily fear of bombs, bullets, torture, rape, and persecution.

Each one of us needs to search our hearts and find a way to be of service.  We can all pray.  Some of us can share financial gifts to help those in need.  We can urge our representatives to help bring peace to the homelands of these refugees.  We can vow to open our eyes, be welcoming to the strangers in our midst and treat them with honor and respect. If we are to be God’s hands and feet, we would do well to start with God’s word as our inspiration:  I know we already read the scriptures today, but I ask that you humor me and look at two more.

 Leviticus 19: 33-34. “3When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”

 And now one of my mother’s favorite passages: Matthew 25:-34-40 :

“Then the King will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Both of these passages give us a clear mandate to lovingly serve our brothers and sisters in need.

This wooden carving that holds this basket is carved of one piece of wood. Each individual piece is powerless on its own, but when the interlocked pieces work together, they can accomplish the work of holding up this dish. We as individuals are all God’s children. All by ourselves it can be daunting to tackle huge challenges like poverty, violence, and injustice. But when we, as the body of Christ, come together and are interconnected… we work together to form a sacred space.  We can work together as God’s hands and feet to do God’s work.

So today I invite you to let the lavishness of God’s grace and this loving community at God’s table nourish you. But as you enjoy the beauty and bounty before you I ask you to remember those who are going without. Without the comfort and nourishment of food, safety, or the spiritual sense of peace and belonging that comes from a supportive community. The refugees and migrants are coming and will continue to come as long as there is war, poverty, and injustice. There are 4 million refugees from Syria alone that need placement. That doesn’t even touch on the crisis in Sudan and elsewhere. Nor does it address the problem of extreme poverty that is so prevalent throughout the world. Instead of building walls, I ask that we build bigger tables. Instead of begrudging those in need the leftovers and crumbs, I ask that we embrace the tradition of radical hospitality and offer them our first fruits and a seat of honor at God’s table. And if you are so called, perhaps you can help to fill this basket with a special love offering to help the refugees.

Thank you.

About reallifepastor

I'm a pastor who's working out her faith...just like everyone else.
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