First Church of Christ UCC, Woodbridge, CT
July 21, 2013
O Lord Jesus, put us in touch
with the joy of your presence, mercy, and grace,
and let it disturb us to life.
You've got to give a little, take a little,
and let your poor heart break a little.
That's the story of, that's the glory of love.And with those words, the movie Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner begins. It debuted in 1967 but its themes are still timely today. It’s about a young couple, head-over-heels in a whirlwind romance who come to the girl’s parents’ home to give the big news: that they’ve fallen in love with someone of a different skin color and they’re going to be married.
The girl, Joanna, is bright, happy, and fearless. She is as her parents raised her: colorblind. Her fiancé, John, a handsome widower and a brilliant doctor, is more cautious and guarded, unsure that Joanna’s liberal parents’ ideals will hold up when confronted with the reality of a black son-in-law. The evening gets even more complicated when, upon hearing that their son has found a girl to marry, that he feels alive again, John’s parents decide to jump on a plane to join the dinner party, not knowing that their future daughter-in-law is white. Enlivening the mix is a forward-thinking Catholic priest, a family friend who holds Joanna’s father’s feet to the fire of his convictions.
It’s a story of upending expectations and cultural norms. Everyone finds themselves on shaky ground. And everyone knows what the right thing to do is, yet each one has their own difficulty accepting it and owning the courage to do it.
You've got to win a little, lose a little
And always have the blues a little
That's the story of, that's the glory of love.
The same could be said for Abraham and Sarah. Unexpected guests for a meal were thought of as a blessing and were indeed a cultural norm. One could not survive in the desert without the hospitality of strangers. Yet Sarah and Abraham did not expect that these would be holy visitors, or that they would bring news of a son, a child in their old age. At this shocking, upending revelation, a few verses later, Sarah laughs, perhaps nervously, realizing the immanence of God, even in the intimacy of a longtime marriage. It’s as if God is saying, “How do you know what to expect with me? I am God. I am always doing a new thing.”
We in our post-modern world think that God doesn’t show up anymore the way God used to, and perhaps that’s because we’re so sure what that would look like. But God is not about fulfilling expectations so much as making sure we’re paying attention to the upending that God is doing in everyday lives.
Kurt Walker, a UCC pastor in Indianapolis, posted a story on Facebook the other day about how God works. Kurt had found an abandoned bicycle in some bushes near his house. He didn’t know if the bike had been stolen or not but decided to bring it with him to the church and call the police to file a report.
Later than morning an officer came to the church to interview Kurt and write up the report about the bicycle. As they were finishing their conversation, the officer, whose name was Ralph, pronounced as ‘Rafe’, as in Ralph Vaughan Williams the famous English composer, asked if the church had an organist, curious because Ralph played the organ. Kurt was a bit skeptical, asking “Did you go to school for that?” To which Ralph replied, “ Yes, I studied under a professor that once taught at Notre Dame. I used to play up-state way back when but it’s been a long time. I’ve been on the force for twenty years so I primarily play for fun now.”
Kurt was brought up a bit short by this; even more so as he listened to Ralph talk about how his father was worried that playing the organ would never pay the bills and that Ralph should get a ‘real job’. “Oh”, Kurt replied, feeling sheepish about the sarcastic thoughts he’d been having a moment earlier: a police officer who’s a closet organist? Kurt was then reminded that he himself was a second-career pastor, having had to deal with his own worries about paying seminary bills in a line of work not famous for its lucrative income.
After chatting about whether he’d be interested in being a substitute organist some Sunday, Ralph asked, “What kind of organ do you have, anyway?” The church secretary invited Ralph to go take a look, while Kurt offered to turn on the organ if Ralph would like to “take it for a spin”. A former Roman Catholic, Ralph paused on the bottom step. Kurt gestured and said, “Come on up and take a seat.”
What happened next was one of the most grace-filled moments Kurt had ever experienced. Ralph sat on the bench, swung his legs over the side toward the pedals, in full uniform and belt with handcuffs, service piece, and radio, and proceeded to play Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor from memory.
Kurt said that every few minutes the two would make eye contact and smile, knowing that God had just upended both their worlds and created something new. After he had finished about half of the Bach, Ralph then moved over to the Baldwin classical piano he had admired and played the Adagio Cantabile from Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique, from beginning to end, again from memory.
Kurt wept tears of joy and thanks. Both men stepped out of themselves and into the presence of God and were nourished. And what a meal it was.
We’re not always ready for the presence of God to show up. And perhaps it’s better that way, because it always seems that God’s surprises are better than what we’ve planned for. But such upendings can also be challenging, because we often get very attached to our plans, our expectations, and the way things have always been done.
We find our sister Martha in such a situation. This story has been classically interpreted as ‘those who are human doings and those who are human beings’, urging us disciples to achieve some sort of balance between the two. Many who thrive at doing have felt slighted by this explanation, defending their way of being by declaring “Well, nothing would get done if we didn’t do it!” And oftentimes, that’s very true.
But I don’t think that’s what this story is really about. Jesus has come to dinner and by his presence he has upended the whole dinner party and everyone’s expectations. Martha is upset, not because Mary is not helping, but because she’s not behaving like a good Jewish girl should. Rather, by sitting at the feet of Jesus, Mary is behaving like a rabbinical student, something that was only allowed for boys and men. The better part that Mary has chosen is not a contemplative life but freedom. Freedom from the way we think things are supposed to be; freedom to be and to do that new thing that God is creating. And that new thing is a relationship with Jesus: a relationship that will upend our lives in fresh and challenging ways, if we allow it.
|Notice that this depicts Mary with her head uncovered.|
Right now your life as a community is being upended. Where do you see Jesus offering you a closer relationship, a deeper connection in that upending? What freedoms do you now see that were previously hidden? What is the next right thing that you need to do, as a church and as a disciple of Jesus?
When we’re in the midst of an upending, when we’re on shaky ground and trying to scare up a little courage, we need to remember that what’s being offered is new life, yet another second chance, the freedom to love as God loves.
You've got to laugh a little, cry a little
Until the clouds roll by a little
That's the story of, that's the glory of love.