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This past week William McEvoy shared this reading from my colleague Karan Anderson:
“My friend Marcy and her boyfriend Brian recently ate dinner at a local Chinese restaurant. As they enjoyed a plate of lo mein, engrossed in conversation, a hand reached down and ushered away their platter of noodles. A voice quick and agitated mumbled “Sorry!” and a thin, poorly dressed woman left the restaurant with their plate of lo mein.
In astonishment, they watched her walk down the street, holding the plate with the flat of her hand as she stuffed noodles into her mouth, slapping sharply against her face. The owner realized what had happened and darted out the front door, chasing after the noodle thief. He stood firmly in front of her, blocking her way and grabbing a side of the plate. A struggle ensued, noodles slid uneasily from one side to the other, slopping over the edge. He surged forward and pulled with a heroic strong-arm attempt to retrieve his plate. The woman’s fingers slid from the plate. Noodles flew, then flopped pathetically on the sidewalk.
Left empty-handed, with soggy, contaminated noodles at her feet, the woman stood with arms hung dejectedly at her side. The owner walked victoriously back to the restaurant with the soiled plate in hand. My friends were given a new heaping plate of lo mein, although they had already consumed half of the stolen plate. A stream of apology in Chinese came from the proprietor. Unable to eat anymore, they asked to have the noodles wrapped up and set off to see their movie.
A block later, they happened upon the lo mein thief. The woman was hypercharged. She simultaneously cried, convulsed, and shouted at a man, who rapidly retreated from her side. My friend, unsure about what to do, listened to her boyfriend’s plea to just walk away. But she didn’t. Instead, she walked over to the thief and said, “Ah, we haven’t formally met, but about ten minutes ago, you were interested in our noodles. They gave us some new ones, are you still hungry?” The woman nodded and extended her bony arms. She took the Styrofoam container in her hands, bowed ever so slightly, and murmured, “Thank you, you’re very kind.” (http://www.uua.org/worship/words/reading/4562.shtml)
How often are we given the opportunity to act towards the benefit of our humanity? How hard is it to step up to someone who is not like you, someone you may not know or even like and offer them a hand up? I don’t pretend that its easy. More often than not, in my own life, I was like Marcy’s boyfriend, willing to walk away from the homeless rather than step forward and offer up my Lo Mein. I will admit, my beloved Francis has taught me much about extending my humanity to those whom life has left out in the cold, to open up my heart and my wallet, even if that sometimes feels foolish. More than a few times Francis has extended herself, far beyond my comfort in helping those in need. And I have been watching that same radical hospitality, that same mutuality, present in so many of you. You should be proud: From your work partnering with the Beardsley School, those who work at the Mercy Learning Center (btw, we are sending a check for close to a thousand dollars because of your generosity in our collection last week) to the work we do with United With Kenya, building schools and digging wells to the support of our partner church in Transylvania and their need for a new parish hall to our standing on the side of love with our LGBT friends and members. We are living our mission to inspire, connect and act.
What will do to invite more people to our spiritual feast? I will be asking you over and over again about not just what you want but more importantly what we need to do to invite more people in. That is the real goal of our time together. It is what we work for and what we hope will be. And remember, it may just not be about you. In fact, while coming to be fed spiritually is what brings us in the door, what feeds us as a religion is how we feed others. The hospitality we enjoy here is not just for us, it is a symbol of what we want our church to become. A feast of the spirit, a garment of mutuality. Our religion calls us to search for the chairs, to welcome those to this feast, yes, even if we don’t agree with each other. Isn’t that the real story of Thanksgiving?
Who remembers the story of the Good Samaritan? A young lawyer, a Hebrew Scholar concerned with Torah asks Jesus “Who is my neighbor?” to which Jesus replies: A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and left him half dead by the side of the road. Now by chance a priest was going down that road and when he saw the beaten man passed by him on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed him by on the other side of the road. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed came to where he was and when he saw him, he had compassion and went to him, bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine, then set him on his own beast and brought him to an inn and took care of him…And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper saying “Take care of this man and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I return”. Which of these three, Jesus asked, the priest, the Levite or the Samaritan, proved neighbor to the man who fell among robbers? And the lawyer replied “The Samaritan, the one who showed mercy upon him”
Most of us have heard this story before. But how many of us have thought of the story beyond its moralizing and guilt ridden message. All of us, me included, have crossed the street to avoid the panhandler. And what do we feel? Guilty. Well, my people, the good news this morning is that I am not here to make you feel guilty.
To get the full impact of this story we need a little biblical context. Jesus’ choice of characters in this parable was intentional and courageous to his first century audience. The priest, the very image of purity for Jews, was charged with upholding the law. And part of that law included mercy and compassion. It was the height of hypocrisy to suggest that a priest would not help the fallen. But perhaps, said the Jews of his time, the priest was late for the temple. Well what about the Levite? Well, the Levites were one the 12 tribes of Israel who traditionally acted as subordinate priests and functionaries in the temple. They cleaned up after the slaughter. So they were a little less holy than the priest but still pretty pious and bound by law, a common man with divine intentions. But the Levite passes by the fallen man as well. So along comes the Samaritan. Now what made this story so very outrageous is that the Jews had utter and absolute contempt for the Samaritans. Samara was a little country between the northern and southern halves of Israel not too unlike Palestine today. Samara retained the “mixed blood” of Jews and Babylonians who had intermarried. This would be the equivalent to any of us, helping out a fighter for ISIS. It was, in Jewish eyes, a pigsty of half breeds. So for a Samaritan, a stranger, to help a fallen Jew, while his fellow Jews passed him by was outrageous. Not only was it unclean, it was an insult to Judaism. But then again Jesus wasn’t known for being subtle.
All of us have crossed the street to avoid the panhandler. I would hope that we are mature enough to have a conscience that moves us towards pity. The meaning I am looking for here is actually a deeper one. Why was it that Jesus picked an alien, a real stranger in his midst, to help the fallen? What was he trying to say? I believe the deeper point is this: helping those we know may not be enough, the true calling to our humanity is to help those who are not like us, the Samaritan helping the Jew, the American helping the African, the Democrat helping the Republican, the Unitarian Universalist helping the Christian. Not agreeing with, but helping. I believe the deeper point to this parable is that we are all wrapped up in mutuality, invited to the feast of life but it’s up to the rest of us to be sure there is room at the table, better yet that there is a warm garment to put over the shoulders of those who are cold and bring them to the table.
Would any of us be willing to take the homeless to the nearest hotel and put them up with Breakfast in the morning and put it on your Visa? I sometimes do this for people in need. Some of you have gone to extraordinary lengths to help those you don’t even know. It feels right. You get double green stamps on the Karma scoreboard for helping. Who feels good about that? Give me an ‘Amen!’ Praise be.
But what if the persons we are helping to find a seat at this feast of life aren’t like us? What if you knew that the person you are helping supports my country right or wrong, prayer in school and is against abortion? Still willing to help? Put it another way, what if we had to invite the wounded and struggling of our society to live in our home? Really. Because that is what Jesus was asking the rich man to do: sell everything you own and give it all away. It’s much more than just saying we are open. We actually have to be open to the other. It makes true Christianity much harder than we hear it portrayed, what was it that G.K. Chesterton said? “It isn’t that Christianity has been tried and found wanting, it is that it has hardly been tried.”
Around here we talk about how open and welcoming we are of those who are not like us, we strive to build the radically inclusive community. But are we really ready to try that? I believe we are, and we will be more so as our ministry grows. Our mission as UUs is to find those seats, to become truly hospitable for the next millennium, to recognize how wrapped up we all are in mutuality. I mean this is really what Jesus was talking about wasn’t he? He was telling us to recognize the essential commonality in all of us, the sense that the Spirit invades each and every living being. Jesus was inviting us to see that we are all cut from the same bolt, drawn from the same stars, built of the same cells, filled with the same Spirit. We are all deserving of a place at the table of life.
For me the essential meaning of this parable lies in the idea of the stranger. Perhaps our greatest human fragility is not greed or fear but strangeness. The word stranger, means different, at odds with the whole, as in the word, estranged. I am not suggesting that we are one big happy family ready for a group hug! Most families, as some of you will be able to attest to after Thanksgiving, can’t even go that far. But I am suggesting that we have a sacred duty to welcome the truly different into our midst. Because the antidote to the fear of the stranger is to make their acquaintance. Those Mexicans, those Christians, those whatever, are not those if they are sitting with us here. This gives hospitality whether in your own lives or here in this church a whole new meaning. Kind of takes it beyond coffee and cookies. Its one thing to be invited to the feast, but quite another to come and be searching for a chair.
What does this look like? How can we find chairs for those in need who may not be like us? I think we do a good job at the door. But we might need to scoot in a bit to let people literally have a seat, or park farther out so that single mom with two kids can park in close. Making as much physical room as we can is a start. But what about the deeper work of hospitality, the really inclusive stuff. What would it take for us to accept and honor another’s belief in say their profession in Christ? How would we respond to someone who is here, perhaps right now, wondering if they are saved from the hell of their own lives? We carry much more pain and struggle than most of us know. I know, I am your minister. But are we really open to hearing from each other and the those new in our midst about what pains them
Beyond that there is much more hospitality to be done. You have heard me say that my mission here is to set free the ministry that is within us. I learned this from my evangelical friends. What does that mean? What that means is that we are open to new ideas, new plans, new ways of looking at the world. What that means is that when you have a calling, a passion to change the world, we want to help set that passion free. The point is to invite each other to the table of life, this table we call this church, and to be open to what they bring. We cook the turkey, others bring the fixings. Finding a seat means being willing to scoot your own fanny over a bit and share the chair. It means inviting a friend to church and giving a bit more in the plate. It means realizing as Dr. King did that we are all wrapped up in mutuality. After the service today, there will a signup to help with our community wide Thanksgiving feast, I will be driving Turkeys around, will you?
We can become more of this inclusive community, welcoming all who come here regardless of their politics, regardless of their color, regardless of their age, their class, how much money they have or what they believe, save that they condemn no one, we will need to look out from this sanctuary and help those in need around us. I have a dream. I might as well tell you now, so its out in the open. It could be years from now, but I have a dream that we will take the feast of our hopeful religion out beyond the barbed wire of fundamentalism out to the people who need it most. Partnering with other churches in Bridgeport and Stamford to share in our resources, my time and our hope. I am exploring even now how we might use the significant resources we have here (and we do) to wrap ourselves up even more in the mutuality of the humanity we share. Our ministry is not just about this church. Its about each of you. Some of you will have family to gather with this Thanksgiving. Some of you will wish you didn’t have to have family over. Some of you will share thanksgiving with friends. Live and let live. Learn to see the familiar even in those you know perhaps too well. Listen to what they love, relate to them on that common ground, say a blessing in the name of universal religion; love, the great commandment of Jesus. Don’t be afraid to talk politics, or religion. We have much to say about what is right and wrong even if we don’t use the same book. You too can speak that truth. But listen as well. That is what it means to find a seat for someone else. And for those who are not with family this Thanksgiving, take heart, we are your family. There will always be a seat here. We are not strangers once we have met. Embrace the stranger, even if it is the sister you stopped speaking to years ago. We share so much more than we realize.
After her friend told Karan Anderson about the Lo Mein Karan asked: “What makes us walk away from discomfort? Or stay? You could say a lot about my friend’s story—a lot about generosity, kindness, attention, and thievery. I’m more interested in what motivates us to confront that which makes us uncomfortable and makes us look at the guts and grit of decisions, the choices to not address things that are uncomfortable, uneasy, unbalanced, unnatural, unbelievable. When our foundations start to shake, we can feel the tremors move up our legs and into our torsos. And we want more than anything to make it stop. Any how. Any way.
“My friend Marcy could feel herself shake. I know because she told me so. But she chose not to walk away, she dealt with uncomfortableness. She held firm in the muck. Sometimes, that’s all we need or can do to get to the other side—the side where generosity, comfort, and kindness reside, the side where foundations are firm and stable.” (Ibid UUA) Where one’s shaking walks back to the other side, the side that remembers that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny”.
We are surrounded by so much, sometimes we forget why we really are here. Or as Saint Francis de Salle wrote, “whom do we love least? That is the degree to which we truly love at all’ (adapted). We are here to change the world, one stranger at a time, whether it is in this church, in our homes, or in our neighborhoods. Strangers aren’t strangers once you realize we share the same coat. Someone once told me that we judge ourselves by our intentions, but we judge others by our interpretation of their behavior. The trick is to really learn what each other’s intentions are. Chances are they are not nearly as demonic as you assumed. So may it be at the feast of life. Amen.