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Graft Into Our Hearts, O Lord, a Love of Coffee Hour
A sermon preached by the Rev. Kit Lonergan on September 1, 2013

KGL+
Sermon
Christ Church Andover
Year C, Proper 17
September 1, 2013

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts together be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and redeemer. AMEN.

Last summer, I preached on my fear of heights one Sunday morning. As I was preaching, I nearly started to sweat just thinking about the experience of climbing up stairs to impossible heights, but lucky to have friends to hold my hand as I ascended medieval staircase after medieval staircase in church after church while traveling in Europe. Obviously, I have more than one fear. Many of us have fears that are more obvious than others, perhaps a fear of dogs or spiders or slithery slimy things, or being in a tight space— a fear of things. But there also lies a fear of situations—the more subtle experiences which make us cringe inside, which halt our normal round of breathing, which allows something in us to kind of crumple and find an adult version of running away in the other direction.

One of my experience fears has always been the coffee hour after church on Sunday.

It’s like flashing back to the middle school lunch room, where relationships hinged and grew and dissolved based on whom you sat next to and the people who were at the table. My guess is that everyone here has a memory of the middle school lunch table, or high school table, or being new to a school and being unsure of where to sit, fearful of immediately sitting with the ‘wrong’ people, the ‘uncool’ people, or even worse, sitting at a table only to find that it was the regular table for some of the cooler kids in your class. Walking from the cafeteria and scanning the room in order to find a place to be, a place to nourish oneself, a place to sit and rest—that turns into a whole different scenario if you don’t know anyone; if all circles already are full and closed, and it seems that there isn’t a place for one more to join. When I was in middle school the question that this hinged on was ‘would people turn their trays for me?’ It meant that if everyone who sat at a round table kept their tray horizontally, there was room for fewer to join—if you came over and asked to join a table, they could decide to ‘turn their trays’ (or even take their food off of them) vertically (or portrait versus landscape for you techy people) so that there was room for more to join in.

It is easy to imagine that that kind of scenario stops at a certain age. But we would be lying to ourselves if we did. Coffee hour after church (in all the churches I have attended) seemed to be more like middle school lunchrooms rather than the Eucharist we all shared in together just moments before. Nothing is more harrowing for a newcomer or an introvert, or just someone who is looking to be part of something larger than those first few steps into a Parish Hall, scanning the room, and wondering if someone in their small circles of conversation would be willing to ‘turn their tray’ and let you into the community. I have been in churches where the sanctuary service was one of the most inclusive and welcoming I have experienced in my life only to be left standing alone, munching on a cookie, in the corner of the parish hall for nearly fifteen minutes immediately following it and seeing that no one really wanted to talk to someone new or different. They already had friends. They wanted to catch up. They had already welcomed me at the service, what more could they do?

Jesus said to the leader of the Pharisees where he had been invited to eat dinner, "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous." Paul wrote: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

What better scripture for the Sunday in the beginning of school time, and the beginning of the church program year, to remind us that no, we are not always as hospitable as we hope and ought to be.

Jesus loves himself a table talk. He loves gathering around the table to share food and to sit with his friends, and even, in this case, not so much his friends. Even the Pharisees, who were not always supportive of Jesus during his ministry, invited him in this morning’s gospel to eat with them simply because they were intrigued and wished to know and understand him better. Jesus constantly portrays the kingdom of God as a banquet table feast. There is food for all. There are seats for all. No one is left out, no one is left without being impacted by another human being. In his novel, ‘Smilla’s Sense of Snow’, Peter Hoeg’s protagonist, Smilla, describes the concept of infinity in a way much like the banquet of the king: “There was once a man who had a hotel with an infinite number of rooms, and the hotel was fully occupied. Then one more guest arrived. So the owner moved the guest in room number 1 into room number 2; the guest in room number 2 into number 3; the guest in 3 into room 4, and so on. In that way room number 1 became vacant for the new guest. What delights me about this story is that everyone involved, the guests and the owner, accept it as perfectly natural to carry out an infinite number of operations so that one guest can have peace and quiet.” In a more contemporary mode, the banquet is like a Sabra Hummus commercial that was recently aired—people from all different races and ethnicities and nations and languages coming together, sitting at a neverendingly long table and sharing food together. Everyone makes sure that there is room for another, even though that may impact their own experience of the meal—if you take Smilla’s quote, it means that to welcome someone else, you too must change—be willing to adapt, to move down one room so that someone else might have a place to sleep and to rest.

Every week we (hopefully) remember to remind and invite all to the banquet table that we celebrate here at the altar in the form of the Eucharist. We say that if you are drawn to eat, then eat with us. If you are uncertain, try it out. If you don’t feel called to partake, that is alright too. But it’s easy here in a sanctuary to keep that invitation in mind. It’s tougher when it’s easier on us to just eat the rest of our meals with our friends and family, rather than extend ourselves and our emotional investment into others we don’t already know. I recall being serving with a welcoming committee at a parish where, towards the end of the evening, one brave woman acknowledged that she had a hard time welcoming the young adults who walked into the church because she knew that they probably weren’t going to be ‘regulars’—they weren’t going to commit, they weren’t going to pledge, they weren’t going to stick around for decades. They were only going to be around for a year or two, then move on. While factually accurate— even I could attest to the truth of it, as I was only there for two years and yes, then moved on-- it was a shocking revelation that others on the committee felt the same way as well. Our own self-preservation was getting in the way of the gospel Jesus preached— it wasn’t our fault for not being friendly, it was the fault of those who wouldn’t commit.

And that is the rub. We are tribal people at our core. The Israelites were—the Pharisees were. The followers of Jesus were. In a world filled with danger and distance, safety was found in the tribes that we lived with, fellowshipped with and traveled with. The entire Old Testament is filled with the stories of a tribe trying to stay together by relying on each other in a new and transformed way—rather than simply caring only for oneself, the Israelites were commanded to live together in a new way, one which bound them together in a covenant, setting them apart from the surrounding tribes. Jesus saw that this had been taken to a whole other degree and offered a reframed vision of the ‘tribe’—who was in and who was out.

None of this welcoming though, is innate to us—our self-preservation demands that we limit those who we let in, who we care about, who we associate with. Something in our frail, human, limited vision stops us from turning our trays so that more may sit and join in the feast. Our collect this morning reminds us of this—‘GRAFT in our hearts true religion’ it says. Graft—that compassion, that welcome, that ability sit at a table filled with unknown people and seek in them the presence of Christ without fear is something that we are given as a gift from God— it must be sewn into us, patched on our unruly wills and egos, knitted into our very being. We often care too much for who sits at what table, rather than being open to the angels in disguise who will appear at our table, in our Parish Hall, who bring a message of hope, and of course, transformation. We may not look like a Sabra Hummus commercial anytime soon, but we can seek to all move down a seat so that everyone who seeks to sit and rest and refresh might be accommodated, and even more, welcomed.

AMEN.

Last Published: October 3, 2013 11:30 PM