Psalm 133

I Corinthians 10.16-17; 12.12-13

Turning the Tables

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

            In October 2013, Debbie and I spent a week in Istanbul.  She was there to attend and make a presentation at the European Council on Information Literacy, or ECIL, which was holding its annual conference in the city.  I was there, partly as a tagalong, and partly to spend a week’s study leave researching the intersection of Christianity and Islam.  And, as the crossroads of East and West, there are few better places to experience that intersection than Istanbul.  Originally Byzantium, and later Constantinople before it came to be called Istanbul, the city has gone back and forth between the two faiths: for a while it was the capital of the Holy Roman Empire, for a while it was the seat of the Ottoman Caliphate, and more recently it is a city dotted with mosques that were formerly churches, and in some cases, churches that were formerly mosques that were formerly churches.

            And even though the history of the relationship between Christians and Muslims has not always been a cordial or respectful one, one of the things that struck me about our visit was how well the two faith expressions live together side by side.  Perhaps it is partly by virtue of geography:  Istanbul sits on the Bosphorus Strait, a narrow waterway connecting the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, a strait that not only splits the city in two, but which separates Europe on its west bank from Asia on the East.  In fact one sunny morning Debbie and I boarded a barque that took us across the strait to the Asian section of Istanbul, because it’s the part of the city frequented by locals rather than tourists, and afforded a more authentic taste of the city and region.

            There are two reasons I mention that trip this morning.  One is that beginning next Monday I’ll be taking another study week, this time to a place only slightly less exotic than Istanbul – I’ll be in New Jersey, as you read about in this month’s Uniter.  And the other reason is that today is World Communion Sunday.  One of the things we often say on a communion Sunday is that no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, there is a place at the table for you.  Everyone is welcome.  But it occurred to me that if this is true, then the obverse might also be true, that no matter who we are or where we may be on life’s journey, it is also true that there is a place at other tables for us.  Remember, none of us is really the host at this or at any communion table; God is the host; Christ is the host.  This is not our table; it is God’s table, it is Christ’s table.  So in a way we are all guests, whether it is at the table at the United Church, or the table at the Union Church of Istanbul, where Debbie and I worshiped one October Sunday in 2013.

            The Union Church is an interdenominational congregation of English speaking Christians in the city.  In fact, in almost every major metropolitan city around the world there is a Union, sometimes called an International, Church.  They are often congregations of people who work for multinational corporations, or ex-pats, or tourists like ourselves; they encompass a broad range of mostly Protestant Christianity, and the services are conducted in English.  In fact Debbie’s Dad was, for the last twelve years of his ministry, the pastor of just such a congregation in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  And Debbie and I once enjoyed worship at the comparable American Church in Paris.

            The Union Church in Istanbul appeals to abroad range of English speaking Christians.  But I am going to be honest with you, and say that I did not appreciate its every aspect.  It was a little too evangelical for my taste.  The praise band warmed up the congregation before the hour, and then played during much of the service, and the sermon was not only several times longer than it needed to be, but its theology was to me a little too exclusivist, and betrayed a one-dimensional understanding of scripture.  But what I loved about the service came in spite of the fact that I didn’t care for its style or theology.  Because as we sat there listening to a sermon that described a decidedly narrow view of God, the windows were wide open on that glorious sunny Sunday morning, and what should come wafting through those open windows but the sonorous ad-han, or Muslim call to prayer, which echoes across the city five times a day.  It was a moment of deliciously divine irony:  while the preacher drew a picture of a constricted Christianity, the ad-han sounding over the rooftops and yes into church windows in a city that sits at the crossroads of East and West was a reminder that all the earth belongs to God, all peoples of the earth belong to God, and as Marie read, of how good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters can live together in unity.  God made a place for me at that table that morning.

            Three years later, in October 2016, we found ourselves at another ECIL Conference, this one in Prague, in the Czech Republic, and I used that as another study week to research the life of a Protestant reformer who predated Martin Luther by exactly a century.  Jan Hus was pastor at the Bethlemska Kaple, or Bethlehem Chapel, in Prague in the 15th century, and his thoughts and writings about church reform established a foundation for Luther’s work one hundred years later.  I visited the Bethlehem Chapel while we were there, and I have a photo of myself standing next to Hus’ pulpit – only because I wasn’t allowed to climb into it.  But it was not in the Bethlehem Chapel, but rather in a different church, that I felt the same kind of welcome we hope to convey to others who come to the table with us.

            First, understand that I don’t know a word of Czech.  My familiarity with the language is limited to words like Dvorak, Smetana and Janacek, all bohemian composers.  But on Sunday morning I found myself sitting in St Nicholas Church, a Czechoslovak Hussite Church in the northwest corner of Prague’s Old Town Square, listening to scriptures and a sermon that I could not understand.  I was able to pick enough words out of the Bible reading to know which gospel story the minster was using, but most of her sermon was lost on me.  It was a small congregation, and I imagine most worshipers were Czech, though I know I was not the only foreigner in the pews that morning.  Still, there was a bulletin of sorts, and even though it wasn’t in English I could still kind of follow what was going on just by dint of rite and gesture.

            Then, toward the end of the service, it was time for communion.  Even though I don’t speak Czech, I have spoken the words of institution literally hundreds of times, and I knew I could follow the sacrament.  But then the pastor did something she didn’t really need to do, but it touched me still, and I felt as though it was spoken directly to me, though of course it wasn’t.  She turned to the congregation with the table spread before her and said, “All baptized persons are welcome at the table.”  Yes, she said it in English.  I was moved.  What a warm, welcoming gesture.  If she had never said that, I would still have walked away from that church with a sense of having truly worshipped; but her saying that made me feel as though I belonged at that table.  Which, of course, I did, because no matter who I am, or where I am on life’s journey, I was welcome there.  The tables were turned and there was a place for me.

            Jan Richardson is a United Methodist minister, artist and poet who maintains a blog called The Painted Prayerbook.  This morning’s bulletin has an excerpt of one of her poems – the first and last stanzas of “And The Table Will Be Wide.”  On this World Communion Sunday, I’d like to close by sharing the poem in its entirety.  May it remind us of what it means to always keep a place at our table for our brothers and sisters, whoever they may be.

And the table will be wide.
And the welcome will be wide.
And the arms will open wide to gather us in.
And our hearts will open wide to receive.

And we will come as children who trust there is enough.
And we will come unhindered and free.
And our aching will be met with bread.
And our sorrow will be met with wine.

And we will open our hands to the feast without shame.
And we will turn toward each other without fear.
And we will give up our appetite for despair.
And we will taste and know of delight.

And we will become bread for a hungering world.
And we will become drink for those who thirst.
And the blessed will become the blessing.
And everywhere will be the feast.

Amen.

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