Setting the Table

Here’s the sermon I preached today.  Naturally, it doesn’t ever preach quite like it’s written, but it’s worth posting to share with distant friends.  Not really edited for universality, either — there are some references to “this space” and so forth that are unique to the sanctuary in which it was preached.  But the message should be apparent regardless of context.

Sermon Text — “Setting the Table” — Preached at Glencoe Union Church, 6-24-2012

We ate dinner many different ways when I was growing up.  In the earliest days I can remember, my dad would pick me up from kindergarten at First Baptist Greenville, and would drive me back home.  Usually we stopped by the grocery store, and picked up whatever it was we needed for the day.  We ran errands together, too; Dad would often roll down the windows and let the air blow through our hair, and between recycling drop-offs and trips to the bank and the post office and the hardware store and everywhere else, he would lead me in a little sing-song ditty he had made up to keep me amused during these errands.  I’m a little embarrassed to share, but as they said in preaching, tell it like it is.  So here it is.  Y’all ready?

I don’t care, I like my hair to be MESSY MESSY MESSY MESSY MESSY!  ‘Cause I don’t go to school…to-day!  So my hair can feel COOL, hoo-ray!

And then we would get home, and it was time to set the table.  Mom worked during the day, all day, so Dad would begin preparing dinner.  I would have a few minutes to rest or watch TV or play, but before long I’d be called in to get the knives and the forks, get the placemats, and set out the drinks.  It was also my job to get the drink orders – Dad usually wanted water in a big tall Texas Tech University cup, and I had learned that Mom usually wanted a Diet Coke when she walked through the door.  Though their preferences rarely changed, it was still my responsibility to get the drink orders, just in case someone had changed their mind.

That’s more or less how it went, though it certainly changed from time to time.  Mom had Thursdays off, and sometimes she would help set the table.  When my little brother came along and got a little older, we would split table-setting duties.  We usually split them badly, accusing each other of not putting out an equal number of spoons or fighting over which set of placemats and napkins were most appropriate.  But in time we learned to work better together.

More, of course, went into setting the table than just setting the literal place settings.  We also had to wash our hands and faces.  And the context of dinner mattered too; if we had guests coming over, we would turn on the porch light, or open the front door, clean the living room, declutter the tables near the door, and generally make the place presentable.  And even if we were going out to a restaurant for a special occasion or on a day when Dad just didn’t have time to get to the grocery store, we had to “set the table” in other ways, by getting presentable, by getting rid of the dirt and grime of the day, by getting dressed in something a bit nicer than the usual t-shirts and jeans.  It’s a pattern that changed and shifted often while I grew up from toddler to child to adolescent to teenager, varying based on extracurricular activities and my parent’s schedules and our disposable income.  But it was still a pattern.  Setting the table was something we did, sometimes better, sometimes worse, but it was something we did together.

It was something we did because we wanted each other to feel comfortable.  It was something we did because we wanted to carve out a space in the day that wasn’t rushed; a space when we could sit and the utensils would be there, and we wouldn’t need to run back to the kitchen three times for napkins or things we forgot.  It was something we did when guests came because we wanted them, for a moment, to feel that our home was their home, that they were welcome, that they were loved.  As a child, I thought setting the table was a chore.  As an adult, I learned that setting the table was a sacrament.  It was a way we made grace visible to one another.

The gospel passage Rebecca read for you today is about setting the table: specifically, it’s about setting the table BADLY.  It’s not one that is often read aloud in churches.  When opening to First Corinthians in a worship service, our instincts are to go to the passages in the chapter immediately following, about the Body of Christ being made up of many people with different gifts.  A preacher can work with that, he or she can talk about how people have different talents that can come together for the good of everyone.  Or we want to talk about chapter 13, when Paul extols love.  Love is patient, love is kind, love never ends, yadda yadda, it’s all good, smile and let’s go home.  It’s a good passage, we can all feel good while it’s read, and exhort each other to love, maybe we can sing together The Gift of Love.

I don’t mean to make fun of these operations.  Both are good passages.  Indeed, I count among my many blessings that I have been able to read Paul’s ode to love not once, but twice in this same sanctuary.  It is Paul’s answer to the persistent problems of human community.  It is Paul’s answer to the question of how to live together.  For Paul, Love is the answer that allows the Body of Christ, with all its gifts, to function.

But in order to provide the answer, Paul must first outline the problem.  And the problem is that the Corinthian church was not setting the table properly.  The problem was that they were eating the Lord’s Supper together in a way that didn’t make the table welcoming for everyone there.  Friends in Christ, I am asking you today not to rush too quickly to the answer.  Instead, I am asking you to sit for a moment with the problem.  If we are to live into the answer that Paul provides, it might help to consider what it is, exactly, we are trying to get away from.

(read scripture: 1 Corinthians 11:17-34)

Scholars still struggle with what exactly the scope of the disagreement was in the Corinthian Church.  This is not the only passage in 1 Corinthians in which Paul talks about disagreements and dissension in the church at Corinth, and they seemed to have disagreed on everything.  From what to wear in church to how to speak in church, the Corinthians were divided against themselves in many different ways.

But in this passage, scholarly opinion seems to have come to some fairly firm conclusions.  Early Christians met in homes, usually the homes of its wealthiest patrons, and from this scholars have been able to examine archaeological evidence.  A typical house church would be divided into several rooms, with space for storage and socializing, but also with a private dining room adjacent to a large courtyard.

Given the leisure time available to the upper class, the wealthier members of the church would gather earlier.  They didn’t have to work all day, they weren’t needed in the fields or the pastures or at construction sites.  And so they started the meal of the church earlier.  A long time ago the Lord’s Supper wasn’t just a ritual feast, but it was a real feast.  In addition to the ritual elements, there was a spread probably much like our coffee hour, but larger.

By the time the poorer members of the Christian church arrived, most of the meal would be gone.  The wealthier members would have eaten their fill, and even drunk most of the good wine.  In addition, they would have filled up the private dining room, leaving the lower class folks outside to go hungry, except for the few bits of the ritual food still remaining.  And they would have had to worship somewhere else, separate from the rest of the community.

In all of the text of 1 Corinthians, in all of the problems and divisions of the church, it is only this problem which prompts Paul to use the Greek word Krima.  It is translated here as condemnation, and it means damnation, judgment.  It is a harsh word.  And Paul reserves, in a long, long list of the divisions in the church, he saves this one for last.  He brings it up last, before he finally begins giving answers.  Friends, from this, I am guessing that Paul thought setting the table mattered too.  Paul thought that the way we prepare our space for one another matters.

What Paul asks the church to do instead is to discern the body when it eats the Lord’s Supper.  He asks that we examine who is our neighbor, and what are their needs?  In the Corinthian community, there were workers and wealthy, poor and powerful, laborers and luxuriants, and the lower class were being consistently ignored by the upper class.  When they had meals together, they weren’t noticing each other, they weren’t taking care of each other.  They were worshiping without substance; they were praising God, but not holding their fellow human beings close as the nearest image of God they had available.

Issues of rich and poor are not gone today, but when I think about this passage, and the problem Paul poses for Christian community, I think about Felipe.  I met Felipe at a meeting for UChicago’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender community. We struck up a conversation.  He was a graduate student in Spanish Literature at the University of Chicago, in his first year, and had come to the meeting to make friends and get to know people.  He thought it was interesting that I was in the Divinity School, and that I preached from time to time.  He had a lot of questions about faith, and religion, and a story of a church that had not taken kindly to him when he had come out.

When I told Felipe where I lived in Hyde Park, I referenced it by way of a nearby church.  Upon hearing the name of the denomination, he raised his eyebrow and said, “Sounds like a cult!”  I laughed a bit, and we talked some more, and I tried to show him a Christianity that was different.  But what bothered me about the encounter is this: the church we were talking about considers itself welcoming and affirming of LGBT people.  It has gay members.  It hangs a rainbow flag in its building.  I have heard sermons preached there that were honestly and forthrightly welcoming.

And yet every week, it shares the Lord’s Supper.  And every week, Felipe walks past as a member of the Body of Christ, a member who was once turned out and rejected, and Felipe does not know that there is a table set inside for him.  He walks by hungry, while those inside are feasting on the word of God and the memory of the risen Christ.  He goes by, forgotten.

And this happens not because the church hasn’t welcomed him.  The church has, in fact, made steps to be a welcoming church.  It happens because we in the Christian Church universal, from Hyde Park to Haiti, from Guatemala to Glencoe, are not setting the table.  We aren’t turning on the porch light and calling our neighbors to join us.  We aren’t throwing the doors open.  We aren’t discerning the body, and all the members and people in this world who need support.

Friends, I do not want you to hear my words today as condemnation.  I came into this pulpit today thankful for each one of you, and I leave this pulpit just as thankful.  But I truly believe that we are not doing enough to set the table for our brothers and sisters, whether they be poor, whether they are gay or lesbian, whether they are people of color or people in need.  I have my own solutions, and my own opinions.  I have my own set of answers to these questions.  I could share them at length with you, and am always willing to do so.  But today I wanted to pose the question, and let it sit with you.  Your answers are your own.

But as you formulate your responses in the days and weeks and months and years to come, consider this.  My story of setting the table as a child matters, and you all know what it is like to set a table.  You consider who is coming; you consider who to invite.  You consider how to dress and how to act hospitably.  You consider opening the door and turning on a light.  You ask others to help.  You raise your children to take over the responsibility when they are ready.  You strive to make your home – and God’s home, here in God’s house – their home, their place, their space.  For a while, this may seem like a chore – just like my childish self thought setting the table really was.  But in time, and by the grace of God, we will discover sacrament in it.  We will make the grace of God manifest in our lives.  Thanks be, thanks be, thanks be.

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Aloft in the Kingdom of Heaven

There are a couple of writings going around by Lillian Daniels, a successful UCC pastor in Glen Ellyn, a suburb of Chicago.  The writings are in a well-worn genre.  Depending on your perspective, that genre is either the genre of criticizing the shallowness of spiritual-but-not-religious people, or of ministers complaining about the tiresome task of talking to people who think differently about religion than they do.  You can read the short version here and the long version here.  A brief excerpt, to get the feel for what Rev. Daniels says:

Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.

In some ways, I find myself in agreement with Rev. Daniels.  Spirituality and the life of God is tied up in the experience of a community.  “Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another,” as Proverbs 27 puts it, and this can often happen uniquely and powerfully within a community.  That is definitely one of the reasons why I stick it out with a community of faith; I find some of the most powerful and probing moments for growth in my spiritual life have come, not from personal reading or devotion, but from the wonderfully directed and often scalpel-sharp questioning of the atheist who comes to church with his wife.  I wish more Christian communities had room to do this community thing better, honestly.

But her tone throughout the articles seems thoroughly…well, I find it disconcerting.  It reads very much like the gentleman on the plane is a bother or a nuisance; it reads as though Rev. Daniels, a member of the religious elite, is too advanced to be bothered by such simpletons, especially if they’re uninterested in the religious community.  This may not be intended or even felt by Rev. Daniels, but the tone sort of seeps through regardless.

I can’t help but feel that the tone is symptomatic of a broader dearth of religious AND spiritual imagination.  Imagine another scene: you, a minister of Christ, are on a flight from Boston to Chicago.  The person next to you asks what you do, and when you say you’re a minister, they say they are spiritual but not religious.

Instead of getting peeved and asking for a change of seats, consider this: there in the plane, in the space of those two or three cramped narrow seats, a little space of the kingdom of God has been carved out for you.  As you crest the vault of heaven, you have actually landed precisely where “real human community” has a chance to form and develop, even if only for the duration of a journey between Boston and Chicago.  Indeed, this encounter with another human being is more than just an inconvenience on the way to your destination.  Instead, it is an opportunity to attempt a deep encounter with the Image of Christ that resides at the core of the spiritual-but-not-religious person in front of you.

I confess to feeling the same way Rev. Daniels feels, on many occasions.  Especially if I’m tired, the words of the spiritual-but-not-religious person can sound like an attack.  When someone confesses a life spent in abusive congregations, the feeling that somehow they are blaming you for those problems can be strong.  But if you approach the encounter differently — as God setting out a chance to experience nascent human community where the best fruits of religion can blossom, then there is no problem with this encounter.  What is happening in the plane is exactly what Rev. Daniels claims to want: a space where another human being calls you on stuff.  In fact, the person on the plane, just by saying they are spiritual-but-not-religious, just did.

The next time this happens to me, I’m resolved: I’m going to respond differently.  I’m not going to smile and nod and say I understand, while privately seething.  Instead, I’m going to ask them what their spirituality is like.  I’m going to share my own spiritual experiences of labyrinth-walking privately, and my experiences of worship together in a community as an experience of spiritual awakening and healing.  I’m going to say that one reason I like church is because I have a community of spiritual people around me helping me on my spiritual life.  And I’m not going to say everything; I’m going to listen too.  When that spiritual-but-not-religious person speaks, I am going to strain and stretch and yearn to hear the voice of God speaking through them, as the image of God in them strains and stretches and yearns to hear me.  And maybe in that community of believers summoned into being from Boston to Chicago, God will still be speaking, and speaking boldly, and speaking beautifully.

Confessions of a Guilty Carnivore

Over at Salon, David Sirota has a good post on how vegetarians should talk to meat-eaters.  Full disclosure: I’m not a vegetarian.  I was a vegetarian for Lent, for the most part, having meat only once a day on Sundays and having fish occasionally simply because I needed to do something, while I was learning how to do this new thing I’d never done before.  While I’m not strictly vegetarian now that Lent is over, I have significantly cut back on the amount of meat I eat, sometimes going for a few days without eating any.  I’m working at it, practicing it, one day maybe I’ll get there.

It’s been a challenge.  I actually don’t tend to like a lot of vegetables unless they’re prepared just so.  I cannot stand raw or only slightly cooked onions, no matter how small.  They need to be sauteed forever or stewed to mushy oblivion before I can eat them without retching.  Same goes for peppers.  I don’t particularly like cucumbers, eggplant, or squash, and have only recently developed a fondness for tomatoes — but they have to be good tomatoes.  This makes restaurant vegetarianism very difficult, as the chances that a vegetarian option will contain something that my tastebuds literally cannot stand either on the basis of taste or texture is very high.  It has its positive points, too — having to plan my next few meals well in advance and take time to prepare food myself cuts my food budget considerably, and builds a level of intentionality into my consumption that helps me take care of myself better than if I was just inhaling hot pockets.

But to go back to my point, I think David Sirota misses something very important about the psychological state of a meat-eater.  He describes the aggression that sometimes arises in conversation with meat-eaters quite well.  I know he does a good job, because I have been that carnivore before.

There was a time when even being around vegetarians got me a bit aggressive, a bit willing to spar over it, a bit more willing to even flaunt my meat-eating and dare them to say something.  While I wouldn’t say I was ever as gung-ho about it as the carnivores Sirota describes, that’s still how I felt.

Why was I this way?  Quite simply, because I judged myself for eating meat.  I knew I was doing it for no reason other than personal gratification, to the detriment of the world, and I projected all my self-judgment on them.  My aggression wasn’t really aggression — it was defensiveness.  It was classic projection.

I’d guess 75% of vegetarians aren’t judgmental about it at all.  But a lot of times, meat-eaters, especially ones that seem like their politics would line up with a meat-free lifestyle, are consciously or unconsciously struggling with their own selves on the matter, and foist that hard internal struggle onto others.
I perceive in Sirota’s comments something of the moral crusaderism that can actually make it hard for a meat-eater to get through it, come clean, and make the switch.  This isn’t to say his type isn’t needed — I probably would have never gotten to the point of questioning my meat intake if it wasn’t for moral crusaders pointing out the obvious, that eating meat is harmful to me, my friends, the moral status of animals, and living people across the world I’ll never know.  But it helps to keep in mind that the defensiveness of meat-eaters often comes more from agreeing with the vegetarian’s position, but lacking the courage, self-control, or self-awareness to acknowledge or adopt it.
If vegetarians crusaders are going to do the good work of convincing the world to stop eating meat, they should at least consider their audience, as Sirota says.  And, occasionally, that might call for a degree of empathy with the moral conundrum a meat-eater is placed in, which directly pits their own ego-driven desires against a higher good they perceive and agree with, even if they can’t admit it to themselves. Just some thoughts, from someone who has been working to become less carnivorous, who isn’t perfect, but is trying to do better.

The End of LOST

*SPOILERS: All content which may be spoiling is placed below the jump.*

Well, LOST is over.  Finally.  I will never forget exam week at the end of freshman year, when I agreed reluctantly to watch the sixth episode of the first season when I should have been studying, and ended up watching the first two seasons in less than a week of exam cramming, sleepless watching sessions, and caffeine.  It was the best reluctant decision I’ve ever made.

There have been problems with LOST, at least from the perspective of someone trying to think about sexism and so forth.  The straight white men drive the primary shape of the plot.  There are no gay men or lesbians, not transsexuals.  The show made some great strides with presenting the perspectives of people of color, but those perspectives have often been limited by white-driven stereotypes; take, for instance, Eko the drug smuggler-turned-priest.  And, as my friend Sarah has noted, women in LOST are motivated by two things: men and babies.

The rest is below.

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On Being Fat in Gym

Having been overweight most of my life — literally, I think I started being overweight at 3 and have been there ever since — I just wanted to echo Mark Ambinder’s concerns in this article, but also mention a little bit more about fat stigma. He mentions it briefly, and says that it leads to a whole host of problems, among them the tendency to “duck exercise.” But I don’t know how many people actually realize how deeply true that this is, and how deeply tied into fat stigma it is — in other words, big people duck exercise, not because they don’t want to, but because there is a different unbearable weight on their lives: the unbearable weight of other people’s opinions.

Rest after the jump:

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The Google Book Settlement

I’ve been reading a little bit about the Google Book Settlement, primarily because Ursula K. LeGuin is one of my favorite authors.  She has made waves recently by being the ringleader of a prominent group of authors opposed to the settlement, and who have either withdrawn or condemned the Authors’ Guild for its involvement in the settlement plan.

However, I am really struggling to figure out what I think about the settlement.  Part of me is with LeGuin — she is right to be concerned that the settlement wrests control of her work away from her and gives it to a corporation, allowing it to enrich itself without paying her fairly for its appropriation of her content.  This is a very real concern, and we already have enough “indentured servitude” outfits out there — youtube, for example — that make money on other people’s work and creative products.

But at the same time, I find it hard to square LeGuin’s opposition with many of the more philosophical works she has written on human solidarity, sharing and becoming detached from notions of possession and deserving, and building a world in which individual cultural products serve the good of everyone.  Let me be plain: if I had written The Dispossessed, I would be pissed as hell if I wasn’t making money off of a work of singular genius.  But I would also struggle equally with the fact that I feel the ideas of The Dispossessed are far too valuable to put a price on their circulation.

Because I also agree to an extent with people who want to decentralize notions of copyright — namely, that cultural production should generally be freed in the service of cultural impact.

But I would say — it does seem unfair for Google to make money in perpetuity from advertisements on other people’s works without paying the authors a portion of the ad revenue.  So in a sense, I don’t quite get the full complications of the settlement.

A good article on the issue, by the way, is at io9.

Imperfect Characters in Fiction

So I’m reading through the University of Chicago magazine for my job, and I came across the following in an article that caught my eye.  The article is on Harry Potter, and suggests that J.K. Rowling should be put “on a shelf with Stoker, Chaucer, [and] Austen.”  Having been acquainted with the former only through visual media, Chaucer only through tenth grade English, and the latter only through reputation, I am in no position to judge this assessment.  But the following quotation in the article caught my eye, and is what I feel like mentioning today:

Rowling’s Harry Potter novels turn on this same theme.  Each book is loaded with reminders of how everyone but the long-suffering, brilliant, and saintly (Lupin, Hermione, and Dumbledore, respectively) is captive to their preconceptions about others and usually almost brutal in their unkindness to the objects of their prejudice.

This is part of why I struggle writing fiction.

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