Some of you may recall in December of 2013 when Rev. Alex Gee, the pastor of Fountain of Life church on Badger Road just across the Beltline, wrote an essay in the Cap Times about his experiences as a black man in Madison.
It was a searing personal essay that came right on the heals of a devastating statistical report called Race to Equity that documented the significant disparities by race in Dane County in areas like education, employment, income, health and incarceration.
This one-two punch propelled a lot of folks in this area into action, trying to understand what had happened and what might be done to make conditions better. One of those early efforts happened in April of 2014 and it involved a meal.
The Gospel writer Luke liked to write about meals. There are more instances of Jesus eating with folks in his Gospel than in any of the other three by Matthew, Mark or John.
There’s the Last Supper, of course. There’s the meal with disciples in Emmaus on the evening after his resurrection. There’s a meal for 5,000 on a hill and dinner with tax collectors like Levi and Zacchaeus and with religious leaders – like Simon the Pharisee and today with an unnamed leader of the Pharisees.
Breaking bread together was more than physical nourishment for Jesus. It was a place where he connected with a wide variety of people – friends, skeptics, honored leaders, despised people. He established a pattern that his followers would adopt in the years to come.
At the meal we heard about today, there was more than a bit of observation going on. Luke tells us that the Pharisees were “watching him closely.” After all, he had been known to do things like cure people on the Sabbath, flouting the law to help someone in need.
And Jesus was doing some observing as well. “He noticed how the guests chose the places of honor.”
I was doing some observing at that meal back in April of 2014.
Alex Gee had invited people to come to Memorial High School on a Sunday afternoon – that would be the Sabbath for us – for a potluck. His idea was to get people from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds talking to each other about their lives.
One of the great side stories from this involved 80-year old Helen Finley, whose family has been involved in what is now The Crossing campus ministry for many generations. Helen lives at Oakwood West, a little over a mile down the road from Memorial High.
She had made a five-bean casserole to share, but her garage door at Oakwood Village down Mineral Point Road was stuck closed. So walked to the school carrying her casserole.
Helen said, “I had decided when I read Rev. Gee’s statements a while back that I wanted to get involved and do something. And I thought this is the way to get started.”
So did a lot of other people, including me. We filled our plates with food and settled around the tables in the cafeteria. And wouldn’t you know it, a lot of the folks together were pretty monochromatic.
Then Alex got up and explained a bit about the plan for the event – people having a chance to talk about race relations across the usual racial and ethnic boundaries.
“Take a look around your table,” he said. “If most of the people there look like you, think about moving to another table. Raise your hand if you need diversity.”
People started moving to different tables. Pretty soon, it looked a lot more like the scene Jesus was describing in the Gospel today – a wonderful mixture of people who were willing to humble themselves, not just to sit at the safe place, but who took the chance of opening themselves to strangers.
Folks from here who help serve meals at Luke House on the first Monday evening of the month know a bit about that.
After the food is prepared, after the tables are set, after the kitchen crew gathers for a prayer, half the volunteers head out to tables to wait for the food to be served – and to be joined by a half-dozen diners who had come by for the meal that evening.
Paul Ashe, who runs the meal programs, reminds the volunteers not to start digging into the food until everyone is seated.
You can’t totally close the status gap at these tables, but he tries to create an atmosphere where those gaps are minimized – and where people from different backgrounds can get to know each other at least a little bit in the breaking of the bread.
A book that some of us read last fall – and that many folks on campus read because it was the Big Read at UW last year and that many Madison police officers read because Chief Mike Koval invited the author to meet with them – that book is Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson.
Stevenson’s book is about the death penalty and the criminal justice system and race in America.
It is passionate and eloquent. Stevenson offers a challenge to those who want to change the structures that dehumanize people based on race or ethnicity or gender or sexual identity or any other category.
His challenge is what he calls “being proximate” to the people we say we care about. It means sharing that meal at Luke House or that cup of coffee at the Good Neighbors Personal Essentials Pantry. It means getting up from that monochromatic table at an interracial potluck and sitting with people who do not look like you. It means listening to their stories and sharing out stories. It means seeing them as equals, not as someone simply in need of our help.
It was not just our Gospel story today that offered some ideas about hospitality in the midst of a stratified society. That letter to the Hebrews that Kaitlin read this morning also had some powerful words:
“Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.”
It’s a message of proximity. It’s in those uncomfortable moments of moving outside our own circles and listening – really listening – to those we encounter along the way that we begin to live out the message of Jesus.
Let me play a short video clip from an extraordinary moment last Sunday morning on a show called Washington Journal on C-Span. The guest was Heather McGhee, president of a progressive public policy organization known as Demos that works for equality in our country. “Demos” is the Greek word for “the people” and is the root word of “democracy.”
A caller posed a question to Heather McGhee that may be on many of our minds.
Do you detect a theme here from the potluck at Memorial High to the tables at Luke House to the words of Bryan Stevenson and the response of Heather McGhee?
Do you hear the connection to the letter to the Hebrews and the story of Jesus at dinner with the leader of the Pharisees?
Here’s my challenge to all of us as we head into a new school year, a new program year: Is there one thing each of us can do this fall that might help us expand the circle of our relationships?
Our theme at Memorial is to reach out in ever-widening circles. We do that in many ways, but when you look around here on a Sunday morning, we are a pretty white, middle class group of folks.
Now I know Heather McGhee suggested we might consider joining a predominantly black church, but I’m not encouraging you all to bail on Memorial in the next few weeks.
We have been working, though, to build relationships with some of the predominantly African American congregations in town, like Zion City Church, that has been using our space for their music rehearsals.
If you get a chance, you might visit one of the predominantly African American congregations some Sunday. If you don’t want to go alone, get a little group together.
If you want to go to Zion City, they meet from noon to two at the Boys and Girls Club in the Allied Drive area. I’d be happy to go along.
If you want to go to the Wednesday evening Bible study at Christ the Solid Rock near East Towne, you’ll get to experience the amazing insights of Pastor (and now Judge) Everett Mitchell along with those of members of his congregation. I went to one of those with John Rosch and it was fascinating. I’d love to go back.
The point is, there are ways to widen our circles a bit. It does not mean stopping the first black person or Latino you meet and saying, “Hey, let’s have dinner together.” They might find that a bit…odd. It means looking for places where relationships can begin to build because you share experiences.
Yes, I know this is not always easy. Yes, I know groups throughout history tend to gather with people like themselves. It takes some effort to get out of what is most familiar and comfortable to us.
I think that over and over, what Jesus asks his followers to do runs counter to a lot of our natural instincts – things like love our enemies and give up our possessions or like inviting “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” to your next banquet.
Let me take this back to the Scriptures as I wrap up and I’ll use a little help from Richard Rohr, a Franciscan spiritual writer. He suggests that racism is often rooted in a distorted view of God, a view that has God (historically pictured as an old white guy on a cloud – not only in Christianity, but in Greek and Roman myths as well) – a view that has God alone above and the rest of us down below.
Rohr says that Jesus and Christianity offered an alternative idea, the idea of the divine as a Trinity, a single God with three identities engaged in a circular dance. Unity and diversity engaged in ever-flowing relationships.
I know the Trinity is a hard concept for lots of folks, but it is one of the distinctive concepts of Christianity. So if we are made in God’s image and likeness, then we are made both distinctive and diverse and we reflect God’s image when we are part of that circular dance of relationships.
There’s a hymn that captures a lot of this, so let’s sing #309, “We Are Your People.” Let’s do the first four verses.