Eating with Snakes – Setting the Table for the Repugnant
Before I begin just a brief word about Howard Thurman whose poem is our first reading. Born in 1899, Howard Thurman was an African-American author, philosopher, theologian, educator, and civil rights leader. His theology of radical non-violence influenced and shaped a generation of civil rights activists. He was a key mentor to leaders within the movement, including Martin Luther King, Jr. to whom he served as a spiritual advisor. Howard Thurman died in 1981.
Kate Heichler said in her sermon on January 7, the first in the preaching series— “How to be a Change Agent in Polarized Times,”—that being a change agent is really hard; restoring harmony in a polarized world is a truly difficult task. But as Howard Thurman wrote:
“When the song of the angels is stilled
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins.”
So this Epiphany we begin the hard work of being change agents. By change agent I mean one who helps bring peace and reconciliation to a polarized fractured world. But how to begin? The task seems daunting. Huge. [St. Mark’s Seminarian] Andrew Arakawa said last week that we can get mired in our own fear, anger, sadness, and despair. It can be a struggle, yet Andrew said that the foundation of our faith is struggling with God. So we struggle. We struggle to begin. We begin.
And I begin with a meal. Now, when I use the title “Eating with snakes: Setting the Table for the Repugnant” that title is for me is a metaphor for dealing with personal encounters with those who, for various reasons—dress, hygiene, class, political views, perceptions of dishonesty and low moral standards, etc.—we actually wish to avoid like the plague. Think of the person with the unclean spirit whom Jesus dealt with in today’s gospel passage. While snakes are a metaphor, I use the sharing of a meal in a very concrete way. Christine Pohl, a professor of Christian social ethics, writes in her book Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition that, “…a shared meal is the activity most closely tied to the reality of God’s Kingdom.” 
When Michele, in her sermon on January 14th said that if we are to be agents of change, we have to sit down with one another. That resonated with me. And I can bet that when Michele invites someone for a talk over coffee and donuts, it is not just because of the fact she likes donuts. She knows that eating together is one of the most intimate and intentional ways we can begin to open up to one another. It is a time we can learn to intentionally treat one another with respect and dignity. For me, the intentionally of treating one another with respect and dignity is a starting point. The biblical call to practice Agape Love—God’s unconditional love— can seem intimidating and beyond our reach. It may prevent us from even getting started with being change agents.
I like a micro approach to solving huge problems. I seem to get bogged down and confused when I contemplate a macro approach to the world’s problems. So I begin with a meal. After all, a meal is a natural part of our everyday life not to mention a major part of our church experience. More on that church experience later.
Of course, eating together offers many possibilities for disaster…and we all have at one time or another participated in one of those disasters whether it be at Thanksgiving, a wedding, a funeral, or what starts as a political discussion at the table and ends up as a screaming match. I will never forget the time my brother-in-law and I screamed at each after dinner for two hours during an out-of-control political discussion. And yet, and yet eating together, paradoxically, is a way we can create community in all its disorderliness.
The early church thought of hospitality as a major spiritual component of Christianity. This dimension has been somewhat diminished over the years. Edward Wimberly, a minister, and pastoral counselor writes:
Welcoming the stranger to the…community regardless of race or gender was very important to the early church…Brotherly and sisterly love extended beyond cultural and racial lines. Participation in God’s salvation history was viewed as a family affair, and all were invited. to be members of this family.
As a church community, as followers of Jesus, we are members of a family with all its anxiety-producing messiness. But Jesus reminds us that participating in the loving relationship with God and with each other…that loving relationship with all its messiness…that loving relationship which Jesus, through his words and actions tries so hard to teach us…that participating in that loving relationship is the only path on which we can begin the process of reconciliation…not to mention restoring unity to the church.
And speaking of church, family, and sharing meals: a new plan is being worked out for our St. Mark’s Maundy Thursday dinner. The heart of the plan is that we will not choose with whom we will sit. Each table will be filled randomly. Pretty radical, eh what? But we have to begin somewhere.
So, I am going to tell a story that involves an actual meal. And though an actual meal, it is also part metaphor and perhaps even a sacrament. It is a microcosm of the problem of accepting the unlikeable, or unlovable, or the repugnant. It is a beginning.
The meal took place at my house and nearly did not happen, and, when it did happen, its outcome hung in the balance between success and unmitigated disaster. I have told this story here at St. Mark’s about 12 years ago albeit in a different context. Anyway, I begin.
The day after Thanksgiving arrives. After the joy and the inevitable exhaustion of the preparation of the meal and the immense amount of energy required to participate in a large social occasion, Stephanie, Noah, our oldest son, and I are looking forward to a quiet evening at home…maybe reading aloud to each other. I’m sure you know and appreciate those precious moments when you quietly recharge your batteries. It is three in the afternoon, and the phone rings. The caller is an eighteen-year-old woman we know from our St. Mark’s Shelter Ministry through which, during the summer, we provide our classrooms as places to stay for homeless families awaiting transitional housing…meals, too. She is a troubled young woman with some issues that are disturbing. Nonetheless, Stephanie had built up a relationship with her. She is now on her own. A court order has separated her from her mother. She cannot go to her mother’s apartment. She had been temporarily living with her aunt. But now she has been told by her Aunt to leave. Where can she go? It is a cold and drizzly late afternoon. Stephanie gets on the phone and starts to call D.C. Government social service agencies. But it is the Friday after Thanksgiving. No one answers the phone. The temperature is dropping promising a nasty frigid evening with some sleet. Stephanie turns to me and asks the question: Can she come to our house for dinner and to spend the night?
I am embarrassed to say in front of you all that I said, “No.” She cannot come here—We need to practice tough love—What if she steals the expensive stuff I having lying around? —We promised ourselves an evening of quiet togetherness—What if…
I just can’t deal this interruption of my life. I am caught up in all the trappings of power and privilege, which can lead to a pernicious disengagement from the real world. I sit stewing in the living room. Me, a seminarian who has forgotten or repressed everything I I understood about being a Christian:
- Jesus’ new commandment: to love one another as he loves us thus identifying us as a disciple.
- The important line in the baptismal covenant about striving for justice for all people.
- About being part of creation that is in the image of God and living in harmony within that creation, treating all we meet with respect and dignity.
- God’s love, Agape love, that includes the love of the unlovely, the unlovable, the repugnant.
I was stuck. My journey as a change agent becomes bogged down right from the git go. My backpack is filled with the weight of fear, anger, ambivalence, sadness, and embarrassment…everything Andrew mentioned but I’m throwing in embarrassment as well.
Now Stephanie has already earlier come to a conclusion of her own. But she knows that she needs to have me fully on board if we are to have this —this guest—stay with us. At 5pm we look at each other. “Well I guess she can come here,” I say. Somehow I begin to get it. I start to become unstuck.
My transformation began for two reasons. I had an example to follow right in front me: Stephanie! Stephanie does embody Jesus’ new commandment to love one another as Jesus loves us. Stephanie is a change agent. She really is respecting the dignity of every human being and doing it through hospitality.
And I begin to understand that. And this is an important point for those of us who struggle to follow Jesus. Yes, I know I’m a Christian. Yet following Jesus’ can feel like somewhat abstract endeavor. I have trouble conceptualizing what it means. But if I can focus on following someone near me who I respect, whose inspiration can be just the launch that I need. I can begin to reconnect with God’s spirit within. It is a beginning.
Secondly, my transformation into a change agent began with a meal. And as a Christian and an Episcopalian, the sharing of a meal can be a sacrament. A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of spiritual grace, given by Christ as a sure and certain means for receiving that grace. And every Sunday I participate in a communal meal, the Eucharist during which—as spelled out on page 859 of the Book of Common Prayer—“we receive the forgiveness of our sins, the strengthening of our union with Christ and one another, and a foretaste of the heavenly banquet which is our nourishment in eternal life.”
What we do in church, I believe, prepares us for what we should do when we leave church. With some degree of intentionality, there is no reason that a shared meal eaten outside the walls of a church cannot be a mini-eucharist if you will…a opportunity for God’s presence to be felt…a chance to live in the Kingdom of God. And deep down on that post-Thanksgiving evening, something about that sacrament of the Eucharist begins to wake up my conscious.
This micro approach of a shared meal leads me to the Eucharist. And the Eucharist helps transform me into a change agent albeit on a small scale. But that beginning can help one begin to accept the macro undertaking. And what is that undertaking? Again, Howard Thurman:
“To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.”
This is a daunting set of tasks. But a meal is something we can all understand. It is a reminder of the Eucharist. It is a start to the Christian commitment to treat everyone with dignity and respect. It is a way for us to practice agape love, that unconditional love of God, self, neighbor…and the repugnant. For us, the work of Christmas can begin.
And remember what Christine Pohl says: “A shared meal is the activity most closely tied to the reality of God’s Kingdom.” And to think I almost uninvited myself!
Our guest arrives. She feels shy, upset and awkward. So are Stephanie, Noah and I…all of us feeling shy, nervous and mighty awkward. Would she like the pasta concoction prepared for dinner? What are we going to talk about?
Dinner is ready. Noah lights the candles. Holding hands we say a blessing. The meal is served. She likes it. Noah starts talking about baseball. She knowledgably joins in. We all talk about music. The candles glow, and we found ourselves bound together and sharing of ourselves. The meal turns into a Eucharist. We are simply…us: Laughing, chatting, and becoming teary-eyed. Truly, God is in our kitchen with his arms around all of us. There is music in our hearts.
 Christine D. Pohl, Making Room (Grand Rapids: William B. Erdmans, 1999) p-30
 Edward Wimberly, Counseling African American Marriages and Families (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997) p-5