How Open Is Our Table?

One of my all-time favorite films is called "Places in the Heart."  You may not remember this 1984 film, but you may remember a well-known incident associated with it. 

In 1985, "Places in the Heart" star Sally Field won her second Academy Award for her role in this film.  In her now-famous acceptance speech for her Oscar, Field said, "I can't deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me!"  This line, of course, has been slightly misquoted as it has become well known as "You like me, you really like me!"

"Places in the Heart" is a wonderful film.  Set in Texas during the 1930s, it is a film about survival in the face of very difficult circumstances.  Sally Field plays a poor widow with small children.  She takes in boarders to help her make ends meet on her dirt poor farm.  Her two borders are a blind man, played by John Malkovich, and an African-American man, played by Danny Glover.  Glover is also her farm hand and farm manager and faces overt racism from Field's white racist neighbors. 

"Places in the Heart" is a story of triumph in the face of overwhelming odds.  Sally Field well deserved the Oscar she won for her role in this film.

"Places in the Heart" is also one of the most theological Hollywood films ever made.  It has the most amazing final scene, set in church, during Holy Communion.  As Communion is being distributed, the camera pans the congregation.  There pictured all around Sally Field's character are all the people who are and have been important in her life, those both living and dead.  It is a portrait of the heavenly banquet, the communion of saints, if ever there was one.

I thought again of "Places in the Heart" when I read today's gospel lesson from St. Luke, in which Jesus is describing God's heavenly banquet, one which will include everyone, not just the wealthy and friends and relatives, but also the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.

This story is typical of St. Luke's Gospel.  Luke often pictures Jesus eating and drinking from calling Matthew, the hated tax collector, to be his disciple over supper through his Last Supper Passover meal with his disciples.  The Jesus of Luke likes to eat and drink.  Luke's Jesus also always has a very open table for his dining.  Welcome at Jesus' table is for everyone, rich and poor, men and women, all ages, races, ethnicities, religions, and sexual orientations.

Before I joined the staff of Odyssey Networks this past January, I spent nearly four years as senior pastor of Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, which, with more than 6,000 members, is the largest Lutheran congregation east of the Mississippi River. 

While I was at Trinity, we began a new Wednesday evening program for all ages.  We called it FEAST, which was an acronym for Fellowship, Education, Adoration, Song, Together, since the first letters of those five words spell FEAST, F E A S T.  Anyway, what was and is so wonderful about this program is it involves music and education for all ages and begins with a meal, a meal to which not only members of the congregation, but hungry people from the community, are invited.  I am told that the attendance grew this past winter to nearly 300 people each week, many of whom would not have been eating that evening without this meal.  And because they were eating with many Trinity members and families, some of whom were also in need of a good meal, they were not singled out, but were part of the congregation family, at least for Wednesday evenings.  Everyone was and is welcome at that table.

Welcoming is not an easy task.  The folks at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, are similar to many other Lutherans:  They are shy and often all too often reticent to talk about faith.  And since Trinity is so large, members are always concerned that they will welcome someone new and find out that they are a life-long member!  Ouch!  So, folks there often keep quiet just like many other "good" Lutherans do!

Welcoming someone who is clearly different from us presents additional challenges.  There is a reason that Sunday mornings are still the most segregated time in North America--likes attract likes.  Trinity Church in Lansdale attracts a number of non-white members, but because of the large overall numbers at worship, they are mostly lost in a sea of white faces.  Most other Lutheran churches are even worse.  And Trinity is no different from many Christian churches--most are mono-racial.

I well remember the first African-American family who joined the first congregation I served, Holy Trinity Memorial Lutheran Church in Catasauqua, which is near Allentown, Pennsylvania.  Ruth--not her real name--Ruth was a Xerox executive and her husband Bill--also not his real name--was a telephone company worker.  They had two handsome, bright children.  Except for their race, they were like many folks in that congregation.  Actually, they were more educated and upper middle class than most folks in that congregation.  They became active members of Holy Trinity, serving in many leadership capacities.

After they joined Holy Trinity, Ruth shared with me a dream she had had the night before the first time she attended worship at that congregation.  Ruth had dreamed that as she and her family entered our previously all white congregation, everyone turned, looked at her family, and then everyone left!  Years of experiencing and expecting racism only made her dream a feared reality.  Fortunately, our small congregation embraced Ruth and her family.

More recently, while I served the other Trinity, Trinity Church in Lansdale, one of our new non-white members was approached at work by a long-time white member of Trinity.  This long-time member called our new member aside and demanded to know why he had joined Trinity since this new member was different from others here.  The long-time member's implication was clear--this non-white new member was not welcome at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church!

Well, the new member handled this overt racism kindly, frankly, with more patience than I would have had.  Fortunately, he was and is not a man who focuses on racism or hate.  He even continues to recommend Trinity to his co-workers and friends, encouraging them to come and worship there.

While this sort of overt racism was and is, fortunately, very isolated at Trinity, as well as most congregations, that does not absolve us as Christians from addressing and condemning it and all forms of racism.

And most racism is not nearly this overt. 

Since I have joined Odyssey Networks, I now live in Manhattan where we are blessed with many wonderful theatrical productions.  One of my favorites, formerly on Broadway and now continuing off Broadway, is a show called "Avenue Q," a bawdy adult musical comedy with nearly life-sized puppets.  In "Avenue Q" there is a song called "Everyone's A Little Bit Racist."  The song's words include these:

"Everyone's a little bit racist


Doesn't mean we go

Around committing hate crimes.

Look around and you will find

No one's really color blind.

Maybe it's a fact

We all should face

Everyone makes judgments

Based on race."

There is no excuse for racism of any kind.  Our gospel lesson today is very clear on this issue:  God's heavenly banquet is open to all and if we attend and except that everyone at this banquet will look like us, we will be very disappointed.

Everyone's a little bit racist.  There's much truth in that not so silly song.  And it all drives me back to the communion table which all Christians share.

In 1970 I was a delegate to the World Encounter of Lutheran Youth in Toulon les Baines, France.  This was a gathering of young people, ages 18 - 35, in advance of the Lutheran World Federation meeting held in nearby Evian, France.  The meeting had been moved at the last minute from Brazil because of terrible government-sponsored torture of dissidents there, but that's a story for another sermon.

Anyway, the World Encounter of Lutheran Youth frankly did not go well.  It was, after all, the summer of 1970, a turbulent time globally, especially for young people.  Those of us from the so-called First World, Europe and North America, we wanted to talk about societal issues before our church--poverty, hunger and war, for example.  Those from the so-called Third World, Asia, Africa and Latin America, mostly from missionary churches, were uncomfortable with these conversations and wanted to talk about more traditional topics such as conversion and evangelism.  Then there were those from the so-called Second World, the then Communist bloc countries.  They were being watched by the KGB, and they were afraid to talk about much of anything!

As you can imagine, this made for a very strained meeting.  Finally, the youth conference closed with a Service of Holy Communion.  As this service began, I wondered why we should even share Holy Communion, since community among our group was almost non-existent.  As we were preparing for the sharing of the sacrament, each of us was invited to pray the Lord's Prayer in our own language.  There, finally, in a cacophony of languages and sounds, we found our unity in Jesus Christ, in prayer and then in Christ's Holy Supper, a unity which had escaped us in the political and theological discussion earlier.  It was truly a Pentecost moment of unity in Jesus Christ in the midst of diversity in much else.

And that is how Christians come to the communion table this day or anytime we receive the sacrament of Holy Communion.  Still broken people to be sure.  A little bit or even more than a little bit racist.  Wanting to welcome others, but often not knowing how.  Sometimes fearful, sometimes hopeful.  Sometimes hurting, sometimes confident.  Sometimes bored, sometimes excited.  Bringing all our hopes and fears with us.  And all still welcome at God's table of grace today and every Sunday.  All still loved and forgiven by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  And to that all we can say is thanks be to God!


Let us pray. 

O God, help us to be welcoming people.  Help us to welcome all people at your table.  Help us to understand that your table, your table of grace and love is open and welcoming to everyone--those a lot like us and those who are very different than us are all welcome at your table.  We pray in Christ's name.  Amen.


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