I. World Communion Sunday — Favorite, but Appropriate?
I’ve told you before, I think, that my favorite Sunday of the year is World Communion Sunday. Not just because it was my first time 11 years ago, in this pulpit. But because I think of myself as a citizen of the world, because I think that we stagnate as local ministers of the word if we are not broad thinkers of the world.
But I must admit that Friday, as I sat down to think about what I might say to you this morning, I asked myself, what does World Communion Sunday have to do with us? With who we are? With what we’ve gone through?
My first response was, “it doesn’t — toss it and return to the local.” Perhaps you’ve felt it too. I know that it is easy, and even right, for a time, to be totally consumed by the tragedy in front of us.
But my reason for liking world communion Sunday so much is that our local ministries are informed by our worldliness.
What does that mean? Certainly I don’t mean worldliness in the sense of being aloof and above what is going on around us. I use the notion of worldliness to give some expression to Jesus call to faith. His call to faith is more than a call to be empathic. He suggests in the usual reading of this familiar story about what it might be like to have faith as the ability to say to a mulberry seed, be uprooted and planted in the sea.
That illustration, you will observe comes on the heals of Jesus’ stunning description of what it means to be neighborly: be ready to forgive someone who sins against you forever . . .
Their jaws drop: how is this possible? their question has become, for me, the question transplantation.
First a bit of exegesis and then I’ll get back to this idea of transplantation.
I find the text, as the major translations put it off-putting.
Did Jesus really use such violent imagery? Such black and white, either/or metaphors? Either serve fully and well, or be drowned?
I took a closer look. Not a Greek scholar anymore — but with the help of some other translations and my Greek text — it seems that the present indicative might have other options.
In Greek, verbs have a host of tenses English does not have. So instead of translating “it would be better if a millstone were tied around your neck and you were thrown into the sea,” presumably to drown, the present indicative suggests that we’re not talking about an instance here of having been thrown into the sea to drown, but the effect through time of having a weight about your neck and trying to swim.
Chris Bojhalian was interviewed yesterday by a Vermont Public Radio personality about his new book The Night Strangers. He spoke of writing the first scene in the book, an airplane attempting to land at the Burlington International Airport and having to crash land in Lake Champlain. To prepare for writing that scene, he enrolled in a program used to train Marines where an adjustable and completely configurable plane fuselage is dropped into a 20,000 gallon tank with you strapped inside it. In struggling to escape from the plane, he experienced what it was like to swim fully clothed. When I was in High School I took life-guard training and had to swim 1/4 mile fully clothed. There is a sense of immanent drowning, but you only know it as a struggle for life.
Jesus, instead of arguing for a drastic punishment, suggests that those who throw more difficulties in the way of disciples making first strokes toward God, ought to go swimming fully clothed, or with a brick about their neck. Then they will know what they are doing to others.
III. How Should We Behave?
The New Revised Standard Version from which we read this morning concludes this swimming image with the words, “Be on your guard!” As if to emphasize that the power and might of God is not only powerful and mighty, but vindictive and erratic. Again, this is left-over imagery from another, more medieval time. Behave or be killed!
More modern translations, like the one by JB Phillips simply says, “Be careful how you live.” And the one I like most is from the Good as New Translation — “Make sure that your behavior is helpful at all times.”
This is a challenge — of course. We find it relatively easy to be helpful during a local crisis. Just like we find it relatively easy to forgive one time or even 5 times. but forever.
IV. Sustainable Local Good Behavior
As you know, I manage the Waterbury Good Neighbor Fund. The fund has been in existence for 20+ years. I have not calculated the following figures exactly, but my guess must be close. In one month, the fund grew by as much as it has grown since its inception. When I took over shortly after my arrival in Waterbury we raised about $3,000 per year. The last two years, our biggest years, we raised just over $10,000. In the past month, we have raised $155,000.
And that’s a beautiful thing. We offer what none of the other funds out there 0ffer — a listening ear, no paperwork, and almost immediate response. For people struggling to put their lives back together after the flooding, this is an important thing. Insurance money and FEMA money all take time.
Is this sustainable? Of course it is. If, in the interest of helping the sinking swimmers who struggle to make ends meet in our community year in and year out, each of us who live here and who have an invested interest in a healthy community, were to click on the paypal button on the Good Neighbor Fund and donate $10 a month every month, we could be better neighbors and have a stronger community to boot.
What it requires, in order to be sustainable is not a flush of empathy as we have all felt in the aftermath of the flood. Empathy, argues Jesse Prinz, a philosopher at City University of New York, “is not a major player when it comes to moral motivation. Its contribution is negligible in children, modest in adults, and nonexistent when costs are significant.” Other scholars have called empathy a “fragile flower,” easily crushed by self-concern. Empathy may get us going — and make us feel good. But it has nothing to do with the larger debate about how to seek flourishing for ourselves while living in right relation with the rest of the world.
Perhaps the KJV scholars did us a service in their translation of the concluding portion of our text — the famous bit about a tree being uprooted and planted into the sea.
They have created an amazing reaction — much like the disciples’ reaction at Jesus’ encouragement to forgive.
The Greek language has notoriously tricky prepositions. Of might mean in or on or of. By might mean under or on-top-of or next to. The rule in translating, is use the one that makes sense. Most modern translations have take the phrase, “Planted in the sea” and translated it “planted by the sea.”
I don’t need to parse this metaphor for you.
I’ll just quote one of Martin Luther King’s more famous lines, of many(!). This from his letter from the Birmingham jail — “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”