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Matthew 26.17-19, 26-30

Acts 2.37-47

World Communion

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

          The Fellowship Community Church in São Paulo, Brazil  is an international church, sometimes also called an American church, because its worship services are intended for English-speaking people from all over the world who have come to the city to live and work.  There are American churches in many of the world’s major cities, they represent multiple, mostly mainline Protestant denominations, and the good ones, like Fellowship Community, do much more than offer Sunday morning services.  They reach out into their surrounding communities – in São Paulo’s case, into the favelas and settlements made of cardboard boxes – and minister to people of incredible need.  I worshiped in Fellowship Community Church in January of 1982.  It was the first time I had ever attended church overseas, and what brought me there was the minister’s daughter – Debbie’s dad was Senior Minister at Fellowship Community for twelve years.  To be honest, it wasn’t that much of a foreign experience; what can be foreign about an English speaking service in a large Presbyterian-looking stone church with your father-in-law in the pulpit?  But it did serve as a reminder of the multiple expressions of Christianity nearly five thousand miles from home, and that no matter where a church may be located, we all share a common communion and community.  On this World Communion Sunday, I’d like to take you on a tour of a handful of the international churches I’ve visited and worshiped in, not all of them in English, as a way of reminding ourselves that we are all in communion with one another wherever Christ is present, no matter where that may be.  [Prayer]

St. Stephan church in Baden is about fifteen miles south of Vienna.  It was built in the 1400s, constructed in the Gothic style, then remodeled after the Baroque, which to my mind is more fitting, as it is not a very large building.  In 1791, while he was in the midst of writing his opera “The Magic Flute,” Mozart was staying in Baden – which as the name suggests, was known for its warm baths – and his friend Anton Stoll was music director at St Stephan.  As a gift to his friend, Mozart wrote a short sacred motet he titled “Ave Verum Corpus,” or “Hail the True Body,” for mass.  The piece was first played at St Stephan in June of that year for the feast of Corpus Christi, which means “the body of Christ.”  Nearly 200 years later, in 1989, as a member of the Danbury Symphony Orchestra, I was privileged to perform the Ave Verum in St Stephan’s Church in Baden during the Sunday mass.  To be able to play such a exquisite piece of music in the same spot and for the same occasion –morning worship – for which Mozart wrote it was an incredible experience on multiple levels, primarily the spiritual and musical ones, which as we well know here at the United Church so often go hand in hand.

Several hundred miles to the north, far up in the Scottish highlands, about ten miles southeast of Inverness, sit the twin towns of Boat-of-Garten and Carr Bridge.  In the summer of 1992 I served the churches in both towns during my first sabbatical.  It was part of a pulpit swap – I worked at those two churches while their minister came to Connecticut and worked at my one church.  How did I ever let myself get talked into that one?  Boat-of-Garten is on the River Spey, and if any of you is a scotch aficionado, you’ll know that some of the finest single-malt whiskeys come from the Speyside.  And no, I will not tell you how many of them I sampled.  The churches, for all their proximity, could scarcely have been more different:  while Boat-of-Garten had a lively and engaged congregation, the dear souls at Carr Bridge were stonefaced and stoic.  I could never tell if I was getting through to them or not – it was your stereotypical Scottish reserve, I suppose.  Nevertheless, we all, my girls included, made some good friends in our two months in the highlands, and we were fortunate enough to be there in the blooming of the heather – it was spectacular.  And again, since the Church of Scotland is Presbyterian, I felt right at home.

Five years later I spent six weeks of sabbatical following the trail of John Calvin through France and Switzerland.  We spent most of our time in Paris, so I was able to worship at Notre Dame and at the American church in Paris, which was similar to the one in São Paulo; in fact some friends of ours who were members of the American church tried to get me to apply for the position of Senior Minister there, and while it was tempting, it just wasn’t a practical opportunity for me at the time.  But I was also able to visit St Pierre Cathedral in Geneva, formerly a Roman Catholic Church that became Protestant during the Reformation.  Calvin was pastor at St Pierre’s from 1541 to 1549, when he was summarily run out of town for his strict reformist views on theology and his attempts to impose them on the citizens of the city.  Still, Calvin’s work continues to shape and inform ecclesiastical theology, and it was a real treat for me not just to visit St Pierre’s, but also to stand in Calvin’s pulpit.  There were other tourists there that day, so I resisted the temptation to preach.  But nearly ten years later, I had a truly a proud papa moment when my older daughter Clare, who was living in London pursuing her master’s degree, visited friends in Geneva and worshipped at St Pierre Easter morning.  Calvin’s church on Easter morning – you can bet there was some jealousy mixed with my paternal pride.

The image on the back of this morning’s bulletin struck me when I first walked into Rome’s Chiesa Santa Maria Maggiore – the Church of St Mary the Great; it is the rose window at the rear of the sanctuary, and it was absolutely stunning as the morning sun shone through it.  I visited more Italian churches than I can count in the summer of 2008; the focus of my sabbatical was the ways that the historic creeds of the church are represented in the church’s art.  And it may be because Sta Maria Maggiore was one of the first churches I visited on arrival, but this image struck me and has remained with me ever since.  I can’t tell you how many photographs I took of it, but mine were all from the floor level, and did not capture its detail nor its grandeur as well as the one in the bulletin.  Besides Mary and Jesus, you can see the Ten Commandments and a menorah on the left, the cross and the cup and paten on the right, and atop it all, the dove of the Holy Spirit.  As my study took me from church to church to church, I saw something I had never noticed before:  when considering the church’s art and appointments, the altar, the images and icons, the stained glass windows and yes, even the furnishings, it pays to do more than just look up and around; it is also important to look down as well, because there is some gorgeous artwork on the floors of Italy’s churches.  I first noticed this during an early morning visit to St Peter’s in the Vatican; because the crowds were sparse that time of day, they were polishing the marble floors – with what I can only describe as a Zamboni.  The patterns in the marble floor were stunning, and taught me to notice the floors of the churches I visited as much as the rest of the building.  It is not an overstatement to say there was art everywhere.

I’ll leave you with just two more this morning.  The Union Church of Istanbul sits smack in the commercial district of the city, and is itself surrounded by a number of churches and mosques.  I’ve mentioned before how many churches and mosques have changed hands over the centuries – churches that used to be mosques, mosques that used to be churches that used to be mosques.  The Union Church though has always been a Christian church.  In some ways it was similar to São Paulo’s Fellowship Community Church and Paris’s American Church:  it’s the place where English-speaking ex-pats go for worship.  But it is less multidenominational and more evangelical.  Most of the service was occupied by praise music, and the sermon was long winded and short on substance, if I may be forgiven.  But it was still a joy to worship there, and what struck me most was that even as we sat in that small Christian church, we could hear the Muslim call to prayer that periodically echoed through Istanbul’s streets and into the church’s open windows.  It was a helpful reminder of the plurality of worship styles the city has.

And the last was a service in which exactly one sentence was spoken in English.  St Nicholas Church sits in the southwest corner of the Old Town Square in Prague.  It is part of the Czechoslovak Hussite Church, named for Jan Hus, a protestant reformer who predated Luther by a full century.  St Nicholas’ worship the morning I attended was led by a young female priest, probably in her early- to mid-thirties, who sang a good deal of the liturgy in a wonderful alto voice.  Actually, I could follow some of her sermon, mostly because I knew the scripture text she was using and could make out just enough words that sounded like their English equivalents.  But when the time came for communion, she looked out into the congregation and said, in perfect English, “All baptized persons are welcomed to the Lord’s table.”  And in that moment I understood she was going the extra mile to emphasize that all of us were welcome, that regardless of language or provenance, the church is truly a world communion. 

On this World Communion Sunday, we remember that communion is far more than what you and I do here at Christ’s table.  It is the relationships we hold with our brothers and sisters in Christ in every time and every place, from our own little home on the Connecticut River, to half-way around the world.

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