Remembering the Future: “Bright with Eden’s dawn”

A sermon for World Communion Sunday

by Ken Sehested,
Text: Hebrews 2:5-12 (The Message)

      The main title of this sermon, “remembering the future,” is a nonsensical notion. How can you remember the future since it hasn’t happened yet? Maybe if you love science fiction, or if you’re a fan of the actor Michael J. Fox, you can imagine going “back to the future.” But remembering the future?

      How silly is that, in a grown-up world?

      Maybe, in our growing up, we have actually grown in, grown in on ourselves, grown sour on the world, grown weary of illusions, grown cynical about pious propaganda—pious politics as well as pious religion.

      I believe, however, that remembering the future is at the heart of our redemptive calling. Remembering the future is what we ritually practice each and every week in the celebration of the Eucharist, communion, the Lord’s Supper. It’s a ritual to remind us to remember the future each and every day. We are by definition an unreasonable people—if, by reason, you mean the economic reasoning which generates extremes of wealth and poverty. If, by reason, you mean defense strategies that generate instability and terror. If, by reason, you mean the certainties which proclaim that you get is what you earn, that you are what you can buy, and that respect comes at the price of threat.

      We are, by definition, an unreasonable people, because we believe that another world is possible. We believe that one day mercy will trump vengeance. We believe we’re headed for a party, not a purge. We believe the meek will inherit the earth. We believe that what the poor and the abandoned need is not money but friendship. If we are to be co-inheritors with the meek, we’d best spend some time with them. For we have much to learn—much to learn about the faith we profess.

            Today is world communion Sunday. Our Presbyterian friends get credit for initiating this annual observance, back in the  mid-1930s. I’m not sure if it’s celebrated much outside the US. And that may be because much of the world suspects that “world communion” holds the same promise of what we call “globalization.” A globalized economy is supposed to work for everyone. “Everyone has an even chance,” so we’re told. But casino owners say the same thing, knowing the process is heavily tilted toward the house.

      Having said that, however, I’ve always thought one of the strengths of this congregation is its global vision. We have consistently made connections with people and events at a distance from our own neighborhoods.

      Early this past summer I rediscovered a small 4” x 6” notebook I used to record the offerings we received in the first year after our founding. In fact, the very first offering we took as a congregation was not for our own support. Our very first offering was a mission grant to Rabbis for Human Rights, an Israeli organization which was replanting olive trees destroyed by the Israeli army on the West Bank in Palestine. The total was $305.

      In case you didn’t know this, the Circle of Mercy budget process requires that our annual mission grants line item be equal to 10% of everything else in the budget. And that line item is the only one that does not zero out at the end of the year. Meaning: if we don’t spend the allotted amount, we carry that surplus over to the next year. We don’t do that with any other line item. We maintain this commitment because when finances get tight, most congregations end up cutting the missions budget. This commitment involves a spiritual discipline as well as a budgetary practice: Relinquishing control over some portion of our assets reflects our convictions about God’s alternative economy. It is a counter-cultural habit that testifies against the rule of hoarding.

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      There are a lot of courageous people in this small Circle. A significant percentage of you have taken risky adventures of faith which involved geographic dislocation. Just in recent years the Walker Wilson family spent 2 years in Colombia., tending the needs of the massive numbers of people dislocated by that country’s civil conflict. The Sigmon Siler family spent a year in Cuba, Mark working on the very first professional training for prison chaplains and Kiran, Joy and Leigh helping hosts other gringo delegations visiting the island. This academic year, Marc Mullinax is teaching in South Korea.

      Stephy has made several trips to Haiti, training grief counselors. At least 3 of our number—Mary Anne Tierney, Kaki Roberts and Rachel Berthiaume—have done Peace Corps tours. A couple years ago Will Farlessyost went on a Witness for Peace tour to Nicaragua. Joyce recently reported on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada regarding the treatment of indigenous people. Linda and Bill Mashburn have traveled countless times to Central America. Jane and Larry Wilson lived in Colombia for years, and LisaRose Barnes lived in Belarus for several years. Brian Graves grew up in the Dominican Republic. About half of our congregation—including many of our children—have visited our sister church in Camaguey, Cuba.

      This list is incomplete. If we were to start telling stories, there would no doubt be a lot more examples.

      But of course, “foreign” travel doesn’t always require many hours on a plane. Sometimes “foreigners” live close by. It’s easy to cross significant social, political and economic boundaries without leaving town, much less the country.

      Missy Harris has volunteered at the Haywood Street Congregation, whose membership includes a good many homeless folk. Tamara Puffer is part of a Homeward Bound team helping the homeless into permanent housing. As part of his ministry, Louis Parrish maintains daily contact with a 101-year-old woman in Swannanoa who has no family. At least once each year David Privette volunteers at a camp for young people living with serious illness or disability.

      A number of you have been advocates for the undocumented, none more than Tim Nolan. Mahan Siler is a regular volunteer at Marion Correctional Institution, and Mark Siler at the Buncombe County Jail. Chris Berthiaume and Tyrone Greenlee are both key leaders in Just Economics, which , among many other things, provides an economic literary training series each year—and each year, Jo Hauser has organized an evening meal for the group. I think Tracey Whitehead has raised money for about half the nonprofit organizations in town. Greg Yost has labored and lobbied and stood in courtroom defendants’ chairs several times—and jail cells as well—as an advocate of the earth’s health and well-being.

      Holly Jones is likely the most intelligent, compassionate and competent public servant in the state. Jessica and Rich Mark gave away to local nonprofits $9,000 of the profits from the small business they created. (You can’t get more unreasonable than that!) Just recently, Sabrina Ip offered many nights of assistance helping Brian and Beth care for their twin babies. And Rachel Rasmussen returned to us after a year volunteering a Jubilee Partners, welcoming refugees from war-torn countries find a safe haven.

      Several in the congregation have maintained close contact with Wiley Dobbs, our only member serving time on death row. And supporting LGBT young people. Each year all our kids make cards for prisoners on Valentine’s Day—for some inmates, the only correspondence they receive; and cookies for the annual Christmas program. A little sugar goes a long way in prison cafeterias.

      Dozens of you volunteer in public schools, at MANNA Foodbank, with Room in the Inn and a host of other organizations committed to the common good of our city, of our nation, of the whole-wide world.

      Truth is, the majority of our acts of healing, our stands for justice, our pursuit of peace are anonymous, attracting no applause, no news reporters, rarely acknowledgment of any kind. Except in the heart of God. (Ethics is, as they say, what you do when no one is looking.)

      I could stand here all evening just telling you other specific examples. And I’m quite sure I don’t know the half of it. But you get the point.

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      Many of you have seen the bumper sticker: The first line boldly proclaims, “Jesus is coming back soon!”

      The second line adds: “Look busy!!”

      Going and serving and telling the goodness of the news of grace and mercy we have come to experience in our own lives is surely part of our mission. But part of our mission is also learning to not be so busy, to be still and know, to opt out of the rat race, to come to experience the sheer relief of knowing the world’s healing is not finally up to us. Being exhausted in the world of nonprofit work can be as deafening as exhaustion in the for-profit world.

      As believers we have parallel callings, distinct in their performance but woven together in their origins and growth. There is the call to sacrificial engagement with the world’s pain; and there is the call to relaxing into the confident quiet and stillness of the abiding presence of God. Their rhythm has its own ecology, its own alternating impulses, its own distinctive and mutually-reinforcing requirements and disciplines. The deeper we dig into our own souls, discovering the DNA of God’s love, the more loving, and forgiving, we will be in the world. And the more loving and forgiving we are in the world helps us dig deeper into the love of God. Neither precedes the other. Neither is more important than the other. The joining of these two are linked as much as breathing in and breathing out.

      And the only way we can get it right is to remember the future, a future that in the book of Hebrews is referred to as “bright with Eden’s dawn light.” (The Message)

      The secret to our sacramental vision, the secret that inspires our conviction that heaven’s regard has not abandoned earth’s remorse, is that the future is not determined by the past. If that were true, surely we all would burn in hell.

      The Greek word that describes the early church’s practice of the Lord’s Supper is anamnesis. If you look it up in the dictionary, it means “a recollection of past events” or a “reminiscence.”  It’s true that when we gather for communion we always tell a particular story, of Jesus’ final meal with his disciples. This is not a generic religious ritual. We are people of a particular story, though we believe the story to have global and even cosmic significance.

      But we don’t simply reminiscence: yeah, so-and-so did such-and-such around some Palestinian dinner table back in the day. Anamnesis is more that historical accounting. Anamnesis means to re-member, to put the pieces back together, to be animated with the same Spirit which drove Jesus to his confrontation with the authorities. It was not a confrontation he desired. The next to last prayer he said before his death was “let this cup pass from me,” which is fancy way of saying: Get me outta’ here!

      Elsewhere in the Book of Hebrews the text returns to the image of Jesus as the “pioneer” of our faith, and goes on to say that “for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God” (12:2). It is this “joy” that here in chapter 2 is referred to with the image of the coming day that is “bright with Eden’s dawn light.”

            The thing that drives us in our engagement with a world shaped by despair and driven by violence is the promise that another world is waiting, another world is coming, another world is groaning, waiting to be born, as a mother in childbirth. And we are among its midwives. Likewise, the thing that protects us from despair and exhaustion is this secret whisper we manage to hear when we quiet our souls: Be not afraid! God is not yet done. The night of travail will surely give way to the morning, a morning “bright with Eden’s dawn light.” Be of good cheer. For “we are people on a journey, pain is with us all the way. Joyfully we come together at the holy feast of God”: From College Avenue, to Camagüey, Cuba, to Bogota, Colombia. “Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God” (Luke 13:29). That’s a world communion Sunday worth working and waiting for.

            Sisters and brothers, the meek are getting ready. The invite us to join them in that risky vigil.

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Circle of Mercy Congregation, Asheville, NC, 7 October 2012
©Ken Sehested @