Hespeler, 29 July 2018 © Scott McAndless
Luke 7:31-35, Ephesians 2:11-22, Proverbs 9:1-6
n February 1, 1960, at 4:30 in the afternoon, four young men sat down at the lunch counter inside a Woolworth’s store in Greensboro, North Carolina. They had been shopping at the store, had purchased a few necessary items like soap and toothpaste, and their plan was to sit down at the lunch counter for a cup of coffee before they went on their way.
Except that wasn’t their plan, not really. Oh, they would have been only too happy to pay for their coffee and sit and drink it in peace and leave, but they knew that the staff at Woolworth’s was not going to serve them. You see the young men were black and the store had a clear and well-stated policy that only whites could be served at the counter. And so they were refused and in response the men simply remained where they were, sitting peacefully.
They might have been peaceful, of course, but that doesn’t mean that everyone saw them that way. People were freaking out. They shouted at the men, insulted them. They accused them of being unruly, disruptive and especially of creating racial strife. Yes, people said that they were the ones who were making racial strife happen. The “troublemakers” just calmly remained where they were until the store closed for the night and they left as peacefully as they had come.
The next morning, when the store opened, the men were back and they had brought 16 equally black friends with them. All twenty men went to the counter, ordered something and were refused service. I mean, what did they expect, the policy was clear. Well, of course, they knew exactly what to expect and when they were refused they simply sat there all day.
The next day there were sixty. The day after that, three hundred showed up, so many that the decision was made to divide the protest and groups were sent to other stores and shops with segregated lunch counters. Within a few days, the whole thing had blown up and people all over Greensboro (mostly blacks, of course, but some others too) were not buying anything at all from stores with segregated counters. There was backlash as well with people shouting insults and racial epithets at the protesters. There was some violence directed towards them in one incident as well.
But the protestors hung tough. So did the stores at arguably greater cost. During that time, they saw their revenues drop by a third and there is no retail operation that can sustain those kinds of losses for very long. By the time the protests ended, Woolworth’s had lost millions of dollars – and that is millions of 1960’s dollars. I’m sure it would be billions in today’s terms. The protests ended with Woolworths finally caving in. They tried to do it in as quiet a way as possible. They called in some of their own black employees (for they had no issue with employing such people), had them take off their work clothes and, dressed as customers, go to the counter and order. They were served with no ceremony or fuss and the battle of the lunch counter just ended.
But my question is why. Oh, I don’t wonder why there were protests of racial inequality or why there was resistance against those protests. I understand that racial tension had plagued that part of the world for a very long time by then. But my question is why was that the particular flash point. Why did it have to be about food and especially about who was allowed to eat it with whom? Why did everybody involved put everything on the line for that particular issue? You will note that the Woolworth’s store had already desegregated everything else at that point. They had a diverse staff that included black people. The men had no trouble at all accessing the sales counter, only the lunch counter.
I suggest to you that both the protesters and the owners of the Woolworth’s knew very well what they were doing. They both independently decided that the lunch counter was a hill worth dying on because they had an instinctive understanding of just how dangerous the idea of people eating food together can be.
To see that, you only have to look to the scriptures. If you have ever tried to read all the way through the Bible, one of the first things you probably noticed is that the book is obsessed with food. I mean, there are pages and pages of rules about what you can and cannot eat. You can’t eat this animal but you can eat that one. You can eat fish but not ones without scales. You can’t eat veal if it is cooked in a certain way and you can’t eat anything made with yeast at all at certain times of the year. You can’t get too far through the Bible without asking yourself what all of this is about. Why were the Jews supposed to abide by so many rules about food?
It is true that the kosher diet is generally a healthy diet, but that is also true of the way that most ancient people ate. These rules were not primarily about health and safety. No, the more you read, the more you see that the rules were actually about setting the people of Israel apart from all of the other people who lived around them. They were to be holy and that meant separate. But how could food rules achieve that? For this simple reason, because the rules were so strict and so complicated that even sharing a table with someone who didn’t follow them was impossible. It meant that you could never eat with someone who didn’t follow exactly the same rules.
In other words, the Bible understood the principle that the people of Greensboro North Carolina were fighting over in 1960. You can do all kinds of things with people of other races and nations; you can work together, trade together, even fight the same enemies, but so long as you never eat together you will remain forever a people apart.
Jesus understood that principle too. And as much as he respected the laws that were a part of his own religious heritage, he was determined that he would never allow food laws and customs of who you could share a table with get in the way of getting his message of the kingdom of God out. And people noticed it and criticised him sharply for it. Jesus himself admits as much in our reading this morning from the gospel: “The Son of Man has come eating and drinking,” he laments, “and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’”
Note that this is Jesus himself saying this – acknowledging that this is the reputation that he has. And it is indeed a terrible thing to have people say of you. That particular charge, the accusation of being a glutton and a drunkard is actually listed as a capital crime in the Book of Deuteronomy. According to that ancient law, if your parents publically declared that you were, “A glutton and a drunkard” – those are the very words – the entire town was required to gather together and stone you to death. So this is no idle charge being leveled at Jesus. This is a very serious thing for Jesus to be acknowledging in public.
But what does it mean? Well, that is also clear enough when you look at the passage in Deuteronomy. The charge, in Deuteronomy, is about generally unruly and destructive behaviour and not specifically about how much food or alcohol a person ate or drank. The particular “unruly behaviour” that people seem to be concerned with in Jesus’ case has to do more with who he shared his food and drink with than how much of it he consumed. The most damning thing about Jesus was that he was “a friend of tax collectors and sinners!”
In this story, therefore, you should think of it like you would think of the people criticizing the sit-in protestors at the Woolworth’s store. They are all up in arms at the very idea that all different sorts of people – people of different races, different economic status, different morality – should eat together at the same lunch counter. But they were especially freaked out at Jesus because he was the one who was enabling all of this. He had not only pulled his own stool up to the counter but was actively inviting all sorts of unsavory characters to join him on their stools.
That was what Jesus did and people hated him for it – just like they hated the Greensboro lunch counter sitters. In fact, they hated him so much that they killed him for it. Oh, it may not have been the only reason why, but it was certainly on the list! There were, by the way, lots of people 1960’s who would have been only too happy to put the men who sat at the lunch counter to death too.
Our reading this morning from the Catechism for Today asks the question, “Who may participate in the Lord’s Supper?” It is a question that the church has historically answered with a great deal of caution. We have been careful to exclude all sorts of people – children, people who were declared guilty of certain sins (but curiously not of others), and often people who were outsiders – from the communion table. We excluded them because we understood what the good people at Woolworth’s understood and what the Old Testament food laws understood – that it is dangerous to eat with the “wrong kinds” of people, that allowing it to happen changes things in ways that make people uncomfortable.
If you leave churches alone – if you allow them to default to whatever is most comfortable and what is familiar – they will naturally become communities of homogeneity. They will become places where everyone looks alike, speaks alike and acts alike. Oh, we may not post it on the door. In fact, we tend to want to put the very opposite on the door – “Everyone welcome,” we put on our signs. But the normal tendency is, when someone arrives who breaks the conformity, to find subtle and even overt ways to let them know that they’re not really welcome. Sometimes we don’t even realize that we are doing it.
I don’t condemn churches for having this tendency. It is only human. But it is not what the church is supposed to be. That is why I am glad to see that our readings from the catechism and from the scriptures today remind us that we, in the church, are nothing if we are not the heirs of Jesus of Nazareth. And when we gather at the communion table we are not just sharing a simple meal and we are not just doing some churchy ritual.
There is a reason why the church, right from the very beginning, made a shared communal meal the very heart of their common life. It wasn’t just to remember the last meal that Jesus shared with his disciples (though it was certainly that). It was also meant to be a reminder of all those times that Jesus broke the rules of his society by sharing his table with outcasts and strangers, with tax collectors and sinners.
This is not a communion service – at least not a communion service as it is traditionally practiced in Presbyterian churches. But I have brought some bread today. I have brought it for you. Take a piece all of you. If, for some reason, you cannot eat bread with glutton, take a rice cracker. Take it and hold it for a moment.
Now, before you eat it, will you take a moment to imagine something for me? Imagine you are not sitting in a church right now. No, you are sitting at the lunch counter at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina. Not only that, but imagine that you have been told all your life that you better not be seen eating here. That you are not welcome and that if you refuse to respect the traditions of this lunch counter, then you are a troublemaker, a rabble-rouser, a drunkard and a glutton and a friend of all the wrong sorts of people. You will be accused of inciting racial hatred and it will be your fault if people get hurt. Do you want that on your head? Wouldn’t it just be better to meekly and mildly move on to eat with your own kind?
If you can just imagine such a situation (and I know that that is pretty difficult for most of us who have not experienced that kind of discrimination) but if you can do it, you will have found a better sense of what it actually means to celebrate communion. Now eat this bread at that lunch counter.
Communion is a radical meal, an earth-shattering meal, or at least it is meant to be. And maybe we can all reclaim that power by choosing to truly welcome strangers and outcasts to the feast.