Hosts and Guests, Roots and Branches

Luke 14: 15 – 24

June 03, 2012

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

I was just with a friend’s 94-year-old mother. Word was out that she was breathing her last and I rushed to the hospital. When I got there I saw a fully intibated woman moving her head back and forth-in nervous distress. I remembered the “pad” trick. She could at least write. So I got her a pad, she scrawled weakly on it, “Water,” I said to her – we think that hearing is the last function to go “Anita, do you want something to drink. Are you thirsty” Instead of getting what I thought I would get which was a pathetic but certain yes, I got an angry shake of the head NO. She then scribbled, with an anger that is hard to get out of a pencil: “Water the plants.” Even on her deathbed she couldn’t give up caring and controlling. Yes, caring, and yes, controlling. Both/and – not either or. Today – after Char’s wonderful sermon last night about direction and hearing the stories of your friend Thelma, who tended to dominate debates, I’m told, I want to outline a dominant, caring direction for our next act in the great drama that is the UCC and the great drama that is the United States of America. I am not talking to you; I am talking with you.
I come to you needing a new direction as well. I have made my excuses about why I can’t attend the feast. So have you. It is time to drop the excuses and accept the invitation from Almighty God to be a guest at God’s table.

Who are you in the story of the great banquet? Are you one of the great excuse makers, who can’t eat because of your obligations? Or even while dying need to tell others what to do? Or are you one of the lame, the poor, and the unwelcomed? Do you imagine yourself the host, who then gets angry because his control is rejected? And which kind of Protestant are you – those who only know the missionary position PAUSE or those who know how both to serve and to serve? How to be a host and to be a guest. I believe our great tradition will live on if we can be both hosts and guests at the table – and that we will render ourselves useless if all we can do is serve. We are overdoing it. The Protestant Work Ethic has always been overdoing it. It is time to under do and over be.

What we have is a great tradition of the word, a magnificent ethics, beautifully opened minds and even hearts. As a denomination, we have a proud record, a great list of firsts, a great list of accomplishments. What we don’t have is sacramentality. We are heavy on word and light on table, as Philip Melanchton said in these parts more than a hundred years ago now.

Sacramentality is not about your brain, about being right and wrong, it is not about being smart or well or even giving or caring. Sacramentality is the observation of the holy in the ordinary. Sacrament is bread and wine and a glimpse of all time and all people through this ordinary way of supping and having supper. It is being part of the long table, alpha and omega from the beginning of time to the end of time. With that knowledge, you need a cell phone less to “stay in touch.” Note psychologists say we have a great urgency to connect today. “Honey, I just landed.” They are right – and knowing that we are part of a great whole, a long table, will connect us in a way broadband never will.

The parable tells us what kind of table it is – and all our efforts to get a good seat at it are in vain. Likewise our excuses. We Protestants don’t know how to limp, so fierce are we about not being “lame.” We Americans are so afraid not to be rich or to become rich that we work way too hard, way too long, at jobs we don’t enjoy, in order to buy things we don’t want. We don’t know how to say, “I don’t know.” We are afraid of weakness, and even falsely imagine Jesus’ vulnerability as weakness instead of the strength that it is.

A magnificent new book, now being required by the President of Harvard for her students to read is called, BEING WRONG by Kathryn Schulz. It describes doubt as the fountain of wisdom. I believe that moving out of the missionary position, which by the way is not the only position, is the next stage in the Reformation. It is also the next stage of globalization, what I might call glocalization, a way to be at home where you are and connected to the awesome world. It is getting the light back in the enlightenment. It is replacing ME HOST YOU GUEST with me host and guest and you host and guest and let’s figure out how I can give my gifts to you and you can give your gifts to me. Plainly put, we Protestants don’t know how to trust someone else to water the plants. In my congregation, the old timers often complain that the new timers don’t bring enough to the table. That is not true. They just don’t bring to the table what we want them to bring to the table. The next generation is going to be different from the last generation – and all they need is our blessing. And oh, how we who are older, also need their blessing!

We have what Rosemary Reuther calls a great Eucharistic starvation, which translates into a pandemic time famine. People don’t have time to take care of their children or their parents. We outsource this work and think we have to pay for it. Why don’t we have enough time? Because we are very busy being successful on somebody else’s terms. Jesus parable of the great banquet with its eloquent slave who had to tell the master the bad news suggests that we learn to be unsuccessful and proud of it. In Money Ball, the message is similar. “If you change what is meant by winning, you change the game. And “we value players that other people don’t.” The gospel takes what you think life is – getting a good seat at a good price, rushing, working, pleasing, doing what the master tells you to do –and says that is not life. Life is everybody at the table. The gospel always puts a different paint job on what we think reality is.

My good friend James Forbes says that the difference between black and white churches is here: White churches think God needs them and black churches think they need God. You see that one is a host and the other is a guest. One worships, the other has worship committees.

My own route to God’s grace and to the table has been through my weakness, not my strength. I became a guest and stopped hosting for a while. I survived breast cancer, ten years now. When I had my mastectomy, I knew I needed God. I was carried by prayer through the whole thing – and not by reminding people that they needed to water the plants. I learned to trust the team around me. I was carried by others who loved me. It was the best thing that ever happened to my competence. I stopped carrying for a while and was carried. I also have watched the failure, so far, of my life work that racism would end or poverty would cease. I learned to be someone in need as someone who had something to give. I learned I didn’t know everything, even though I was a part of a smart and caring and giving church. You know that church. It is the one who tells everyone else they are welcome – and forgets to mention that they were first welcomed. I was tossed out by the Lutherans only to be picked up by the United Church of Christ. It welcomed me – and in the name of my being a guest, I can host. I am a religious renegade who lives to thank organized religion for what it did for me. I can’t host just to fill up the seats at my table. It doesn’t work. People get spiritual indigestion, take a lot of alka seltzer, in a world where I am the helper and they are the helpee.

Let me name two important fairly practical directions for a renewed sacramental direction. First, and it won’t sound that big at first, we could learn to pray at table. Not teach how to pray at table. Not shake our heads at those who don’t pray at table or don’t make time for family dinners any more. No whining. No judging. No blaming. No teaching. Beyond the missionary position. Simply pray yourself at table. Remember that old prayer, Come Lord Jesus.. Come Lord Jesus be our Guest and let thy gifts to us be blessed. Even Jesus wants to be a guest. If we can pray at normal tables, our Eucharistic practice will mature. If not, it will continue to be a pale second to our emphasis on the word. In the word side of our faith, it is too easy to shake the finger. To judge. To define. To sound good. In the tableside of our faith, it is not so easy to be judgmental about the obligations we think others should have. It is hard not to enjoy a table.
Last night’s important conversation about fracking was very helpful to me. There was disagreement, which was good, about the issue itself. There was also a deep down consensus, which Americans actually have on both sides of the aisle. “It’s all about the money,” said both sides. I wonder what would happen if we actually faced the absurd role money now has in our politics, our government, our own lives. I wonder what would happen if we said to each other, “I am powerless over money and the grab it has on my life and the life of the poor and the life of my church.” Note the AA rhythm there. We are neither hosts nor guests right now in the greatest country in the world. Something more is pulling our strings. Hosts and guests right now have a lot in common. At table we could get to that. We probably won’t get to it in a political debate.
Another example. I just did a wedding with a Palestinian refugee and a Jewish Princess. These are their words for themselves. Her parents were divorced twice so she has a biological mother and father as well as two stepmothers and two stepfathers. His father is a non-observant Moslem. Nevertheless his father is requiring that she convert to Islam so as not to embarrass the family. She has agreed. She has bowed down. We all bow all the time to all sorts of things, so please keep your holier-than-thou hat off. She also told her new father in law that Avi would have to convert to Judaism. And so both the Palestinian and the Jew are in the process of turning towards each others’ religions. The families are threatened when they are not amused. In this marriage no religion will be first. Both will water the plants. Obviously I get a long of interesting weddings in NYC. A Hindu Taxi Cab Driver marries an Ecuadorian. They have two services and one hosts one and the other hosts the other. A Chinese American marries an African American. How do you pray at this wedding? You let the joy emerge from the table and worry less about which words about God to use and how to get it right. You let the Eucharist emerge from the joy at table and then you give thanks for it. You get beyond control into Eucharist.
We have urgency to host and to give. That urgency is powerful, beautiful and flawed. The flaw is fairly simple but takes a while to reveal itself. The flaw is in the failure to be mutual about giving and receiving. When we brag that no matter who you are, you are welcome here, we ought to add, “No matter who we are or who you are, we are all welcome here. Lose the mutuality in welcome and you lose its joy. Maintain the mutuality in welcome and you might be ok. Become a Muslim if he becomes a Jew and you get the picture.
When we meet needs, or welcome others, and don’t see our self-interest in that relationship, trouble starts. At its worst, the motion is the same missionary motion as “converting the heathens.” At its best, we mix things up and host and guest and then host and guest some more.
Let me give a second and more systemic – and briefer example. With immigrants, we puff ourselves up and act as though we are the hosts and immigrants are the guests. They are a permanent they, who only take and do not give. When people are allowed to say “I bought 24 pairs of legs today”, meaning I hired 12 immigrants, we are in great danger as a nation. We have objectified human beings. Immigrants are deserving of America. I am also deserving of America. You too. There is no we and no they. There is no one who doesn’t “deserve” a place at the table. Those who want a nation of only one color or one food or one race are fossilizing as hosts. No body will accept the invitation to that party, because it’s not a party, but instead a control feast. And with that attitude, the youth group will never learn to clean up after the potluck. Never.
Finally I will tell you a story. It was Christmas Eve on the East End of Long Island. The farmer had already had too much Christmas cheer by 4 p.m. The light was almost gone. He pulled up his truck in front of our church and dumped a lot of turnips on the front lawn. He told us they were for the “poor,” which word was said as though it was spelled “pooor.” My congregants were arriving for the first service at 5 and the Sunday School was rehearsing its pageant. The parents were eager to acquaint the children with the baby Jesus who loved the poor and the small. That is why they were so easily deployed to put the truck load of turnips into the church basement. They too wanted to witness as much as they wanted to get the dusty, earth-encrusted turnips, off the front lawn. The window to the basement was opened, under the stain glass window of the standing Jesus, and the turnips dirtied the hands of all who transported them.

The turnips didn’t begin to smell until mid January. Luckily, only a few of them were going bad. That’s when we decided on the turnip recipe cook-off. It gathered 100 participants, each of whom had to make a turnip dish in our church’s kitchen, and write out their recipe by hand, to enter the contest. My husband won the turnip cook-off with his exquisite turnip French fries. The runner up was turnip chips. News 12 Long Island covered the entire extravaganza. The turnips never went to the poor. We didn’t have the delivery system. Instead we had fun.

Maybe you don’t like turnips. You surely don’t like people making a mess in the front yard on Christmas Eve. But don’t blame the farmer. He wanted to give the gift that he had. Everybody does. Never refuse a gift. Multiply it.

Without a foundational gratitude in our normal lives, in normal ways, none of the big stuff will budge. When ordinary people do what is in their power to do – which is to know grace at table – the big stuff would do well to start watching out. Likewise the plants, because they will always be watered.

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