Guess Who’s Not Coming to Dinner
Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church
August 20, 2017
Text: Luke 14: 12-24
Many of us remember that iconic scene from Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner when Spencer Tracy opens the door to meet his daughter’s fiancée and sees Sidney Poitier staring him in the face. Tracy, who completed his last shoot on the set just two weeks before his death, plays Matt Drayton, a liberal newspaper publisher and Katherine Hepburn plays his art gallery owner wife. The situation challenges their stated liberal values. Sometimes we get what we least expect.
This morning’s reading from Luke also sets a scene of a dinner and invited guests, and when they don’t show, the household slaves are ordered to go out “into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” When the slaves tell the master that there is still room they are ordered to go into roads and lanes and compel people to come in and share the feast for those previously invited will not be able to share the dinner.
Like many of the parables found in Luke’s Gospel, it is a story of both radical inclusion as well as judgment on those who refuse the radical message of Jesus, namely, that our focus on wealth stand in the way of being part of God’s kingdom. The non-canonical Gospel of Thomas specifically names businessmen and merchants as excluded because they care more for money than for God.
As in this parable, many of Jesus’ encounters occur around a meal. Here Jesus is on the road to Jerusalem where he is fully aware of the consequences of his radical message of inclusivity. And it was at a prior meal where he was confronted by the Syrophoenician woman who made him realize that the kingdom he was attempting to establish would belong to all, regardless of their race or national origin. Meals are like that, a place where we can examine our relationships one with another.
The parable makes clear that those who refused the master’s invitation to the banquet had lost their moral compass. At that time Jesus spoke of concerns of the world, such as money and even family superseding the central concern of building a kingdom of justice, equity, and peace. This parable tells us that we must be concerned about what is most important rather than going about our daily business as if the injustice in the world is not our concern.
It is always easier to read the paper, watch television news, or listen to the radio and shake our heads, thinking, that’s too bad, and then just go on with our lives. In today’s world where events occur with such a rapid pace, it is easy to be overwhelmed. We may participate in a vigil in memory of someone murdered by a hate-filled man or even send a contribution to an organization fighting hate, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center and think, “Okay, I’ve done my part,” and then go on with our daily business.
As disciples of the One who was willing to be faithful to God’s call to preach justice, we are called to do more than what we do now. We must confront the hate-filled rhetoric not just of the obvious groups like the KKK and Vanguard America but also the lack of condemnation of such groups by the President because his lack of moral leadership on this issue simply gives them credibility.
Hate groups just don’t exist in the South. They exist here in New Jersey as well. There are both white nationalist and black separatist groups as well as a few neo-Nazis thrown in for good measure. But far more insidious than these groups is the so-called patriotic rhetoric we hear from flag-wavers who call members of Congress traitors when they support immigration reform that is inclusive rather than reactionary and restrictive or legislation to alleviate poverty or homelessness.
We should also be concerned about the recent findings of the Harris poll in light of the events in Charlottesville. The poll found that Americans, particularly white Americans, are divided over who is at fault for the violence in Charlottesville, and not just in the South. Nearly half believe “both sides” are to blame versus only 39 percent for white nationalists alone. As one commentator said, this plays to an undercurrent of anxiety about many of the changes that have occurred in society over the past 50 or so years.
What’s disturbing about this poll is the utter disconnect between the personal experiences of people versus what I will call their global view. About two months ago I saw a video made by a college student about refugee resettlement in Buffalo, New York. It began with comments from people at a Trump rally in May 2016 where persons interviewed spewed the same racist rhetoric of candidate Trump.
Then the video shifts to a refugee resettlement agency that has placed four families—I think that’s the correct number—in various parts of Buffalo. Some of the persons recorded at the rally made a distinction between the “nice and polite” refugee family next door or down the street and “those people” ostensibly here to destroy our country. In some ways it was like listening to a creationist explain how Adam and Eve lived with dinosaurs.
The disconnect being experienced by various individuals in Buffalo is similar, I think, to the disconnect being experienced in American society. Apart from the fact that Trump shook a hornet’s nest and allowed racist invective to become, if not respectable, then at least permissible so that small children could tell immigrant or African-American children in school that they’ll be deported, there is a wider societal disconnect, a cognitive dissonance.
This cognitive dissonance is not being helped by our national political leaders who surely are not providing any moral leadership on the important issues facing our society. Therefore it becomes imperative for us in the churches to do just that, provide moral leadership, just as we did during the last Civil Rights era for that is where we are again, in a new civil rights era.
And we need to look at the events not just of this past week or so but of the past several years. Racism has become respectable again. And just as churches were in the vanguard of the prior Civil Rights movement, they must become the vanguard of the new Civil Rights movement. The difference is that we must speak out for groups of persons not included before.
In addition to African Americans, we also have immigrants, persons in the various LGBTQ communities, and a host of others who do not fit in a 1950s idealized America. That America never existed. It truly is a figment of our imagination. Although some would trade all their tomorrows for a single yesterday, as William Faulkner wrote, “Memory believes before knowing remembers.” And that is ever so true.
As followers of the One who welcomed all, we must—indeed, we have no choice—address the racism and exclusion that still exists in our society, in our America. We must take up the gauntlet to challenge the evils in our America that the man who sits at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue does not understand.
We can do so individually when we hear racist and exclusionist comments people make to us assuming that we, as white middle-class Americans will at least agree with. We must also do so as a corporate body—the church. When the churches are silent, evil abounds. And not just the black churches, but all those respectable white ones—the ones you and I attended as children.
Those so-called respectable white churches soft pedaled the point of not just this parable but of many others. This parable makes it clear who will enter the Kingdom of God: the poor, the outcast, and the lame, those who are not part of the respectable and accepted members of society.
That’s what makes this parable and its Talmudic counterpart so radical: the respectable people who have refused the invitation will be not be coming to dinner; the ones we aren’t so comfortable with will be the guests at the table. This kind of welcome is more than just handing out clothing or food to the poor; it means changing society so there are no outcasts. Jesus has thrown down the gauntlet. The question remains how we are willing to take it up.
Let us pray: You, O God, who knows our hearts and thoughts before we are able to express them clearly, be with us as we strive to build the community of peace and justice called for by the One we follow, even Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.