The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

THE WORD FROM THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORLD

Delivered 10/4/98
Text: John 17:1-11
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"...that they may be one, as we are one." That prayer of Jesus is the impetus behind this World Communion Sunday. A wonderful day. In the winter of 1935 a group of ministers met to study the spiritual needs and possibilities of our church in depression days. In the Lord's Supper they saw a great opportunity to unite the membership in dedication to Jesus Christ. This early ecumenical awareness led to the first World Communion Sunday, November 11, 1936. The following year the date was set where it is today - the first Sunday of October.

So the day is here. And Christians around the globe are gathering at the Lord's Table. Here in Greensboro. Comfortable. Content. Or in Louisiana or Mississippi or south Florida where they might be gathered in makeshift shelters following the devastation of Hurricane Georges. Or in the Dominican Republic or Haiti where they gather in sparse surroundings regularly, but today they do it with tears in their eyes as they think of friends and family who are suddenly missing from this year's Table, lives snatched away by nature's fury.

I have only been in that part of the world once - it was a trip to inspect some Haitian mission stations - and it gave me several enduring memories. I remember narrow and winding streets, steep grades and abrupt descents, full of pot holes and other tire- and transmission-killers. People and animals are all over the roads, totally oblivious to the danger that comes roaring around the corner. The most important piece of equipment on a Haitian car is the horn - it was in constant use. I remember the smell of wood burning everywhere - in what should have been a tropical garden spot, vast forests had been cut down leaving empty barren hillsides. I remember the sound of rats scurrying overhead on exposed beams in the dormitory where we slept (or tried to).

I remember the sights and sounds of abject poverty, and, in particular, an incredible section of Port au Prince called Cite Soleil - Sun City - a pleasant sounding name but the most UNpleasant sight I have ever seen. I have no idea how big the area is, nor could I tell you how many hundreds of thousands call it "home." The dwellings are made of mud or corrugated steel or cardboard or whatever people can get their hands on. They are tiny - about four of them could fit in my office. No electricity or plumbing, of course. The narrow streets were jammed with people with nowhere to go and nothing to do. And smack in the middle of it all was a huge football-field-size garbage dump. It was the community latrine. People were squatting down, relieving themselves - sticks or stones were the toilet paper. There were people washing there - a man was down in a sewer handing up buckets of sewage water for people to bathe in. There was a little boy foraging for food there - he had found what appeared to be what was left of a head of lettuce, but you could not really tell because the flies were so thick on it that they almost covered it...lunch. There were fires smoldering in several places, fires that looked like they had been going for quite some time. There were children playing there...some with clothes, some without. The stench was unbelievable.

This was exactly what Jesus had in mind when he talked about Gehenna. Gehenna was the dump outside the walls of Jerusalem that must have been just as horrible. Gehenna in Greek is the word we translate into English as HELL. This was Hell on earth.

You can find those Hells in other places as well. Not long ago I read of an American church delegation visiting Manila in the Philippines who encountered much the same.(1) Marie was one of the travelers - she was met one morning by a Filipino guide who took her on a tour. As they walked through the poverty of the Manila neighborhoods, the hopelessness was everywhere. Desperate-looking parents with their children crowded the doorways and street-corners. Dirt and soot and trash littered the streets and the buildings, and the smell of human waste was at times almost overpowering. Everywhere she looked, Marie saw the faces of poverty. The hollow eyes, the angry stares, the envy of the barefooted children when they saw her Nike tennis shoes.

As they made their way through the maze of rubble and half-standing buildings, Marie and her guide turned a corner. In the distance they could see what looked like a hill, but with no trees on it. It seemed to be smoking. Marie asked her guide what it was. The guide, whose name was Fina, simply said, "Oh, some people live over there. It's not very nice." And she discouraged Marie from going any closer. But Marie wanted to see, so they walked on toward the smoldering hill.

It soon became apparent why the hill had no trees: it was a huge mountain of garbage that had been being piled up there on the outskirts of the town for many years. The reason there was smoke was that it was on fire...smoldering. Garbage dump fires burn way down deep inside, and they are very difficult to extinguish. Some have been known to burn for twenty years, because no matter how much water you dump on them, the water never gets to the root of the fire. Gehenna again.

As Marie stood in awe of this incredible sight, she was interrupted by a young child, perhaps three or four years old, scampering past her up the hill. This youngster was quickly followed by another, and then another, chasing and playing there on that mountain of smoldering trash, just as if nothing were wrong, as if there were no danger, as if the garbage heap on which they ran was a grassy hill in a city park back home.

Marie wanted to meet the parents of these children, so Fina asked the kids where their parents were. Marie and her guide made their way up through the trash heap village and found the place where the children said they lived. There, sitting on an upside-down plastic bucket, was a depressed looking woman.

Marie walked over with Fina and asked the woman her name. The woman was frightened at first, but when Fina explained who they were, she stood up and extended her hand. Her name was Antonia. She looked around quickly and found a sturdy crate and carried it over for Marie. She motioned for Fina to sit on the bucket where she had been sitting. Then Antonia sat herself down on the trashy ground.

Suddenly, Antonia jumped up again, as though she had just remembered something important. She reached behind a piece of oily cardboard to a makeshift shelf, and brought out an orange. She wiped it off as best she could with her skirt, and peeled it carefully. Then she divided it in half, and offered one half to Marie and the other half to Fina.

At first, Marie wanted to decline the offer. It was obvious this woman needed every morsel of food she could get her hands on, both for herself and for her children. But when she saw Fina graciously accept her half of the orange, Marie did likewise.

"Why are you here?" Antonia asked.

"I came to see your country, and to meet the people here. I came because my church wants to be more aware of people around the world."

The three women talked about their lives. They talked about their children and about their hopes for the future. They talked about their faith. The conversation they shared almost made Marie forget the horrible surroundings. Eventually it was time to go. As they stood up to leave, Marie extended her hand. Antonia looked into Marie's eyes, and she asked, "So what will you tell your church about me?"

At first, Marie did not know how to respond. What should she say? That this desperately poor woman needed their help? That her children were at risk every minute of every day from threats of violence and disease and malnutrition on that miserable garbage heap? Or should she tell them of Antonia's incredible generosity, how she offered them food from her meager supply, how she sat on the garbage so her guests could sit on the makeshift furniture? What should she say?

When Antonia saw that Marie was not sure how to respond, she reached out her hand and gently touched Marie's forearm. "Just tell them I believe in the same God as you. And tell them I trust that God will give life for me and my children. And tell them I am glad they sent you." Tears welled up in Marie's eyes, and in Fina's and Antonia's eyes, too. And the three women, strangers just an hour earlier, embraced one another.

Marie walked down the hill and back to her hotel. She may have left Antonia on that hillside, but she also brought something of Antonia home within her too. When she worships now in her home church, Marie sees the fine buildings and furniture and appointments, but she remembers that smoldering garbage dump. And when she receives the body and blood of Jesus in the Lord's Supper, she remembers how Antonia divided and offered the orange. Broken for you. Given and shed for you. Perhaps Antonia taught Marie what giving of oneself really means. Perhaps a lesson we all need to learn. On this World Communion Sunday, we do well to listen to the word from the other side of the world.

Amen!




1. From a sermon by Kurt Hansen, Primrose Lutheran Church, Belleville, WI, "The Gift," 11/9/97

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