As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, Follow me. And he got up and followed him. And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners? But when he heard this, he said, Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners. Matthew 9:9-13
Guess who’ s coming to dinner is the title of a movie that came out in the 70′ s. The story is about a young woman bringing her boyfriend home to meet her parents. Nothing unusual, except that the parents and daughter are white and the boyfriend black. This was a startling theme to many when it came out. It upset a norm they had carefully treasured of an impermeable magic white circle.
The movie’ s out in remake now. The tables are turned. In this current film the parents and daughter are black, the finance is white. When their daughter arrives home for a visit, the parents happily assume that the white guy who appears at the front door with her is the cab driver. Their bubble bursts when the truth comes out.
Who’ s in, who’ s out? How tidily we organize our world. We like to label and separate out the good guys from the bad guys. We like to cluster in groups like us, separated from the others outside our charmed circle. Our behaviors and attitudes create invisible boundary lines. How comforting it is to know where we stand in relation to others. How disturbing it is to think that something might change the carefully compressed stratas we’ ve constructed for our world. How frightening it is to think that the plates which undergird our world might shift.
I remember sitting in my office one day. A call came through from someone with a first name Judge. I always immediately took calls from anyone with a first name Judge, no matter what else I was doing, no matter who I was with. He quickly got to the purpose of his call. He wanted to appoint me to serve as the guardian ad litem for a child in a hotly contested custody case between a parent and a grandparent. He named the case. I hesitated. Did I really want to get involved in this bitter, horribly hostile case that had already attracted national attention attention for one reason and one reason only? The mother was lesbian.
Lawyers are trained to be able to advocate for any position, any client. But this had a different edge. I was going to be in the middle. I was going to have to sift through everything and answer if and when the Judge asked, Mrs. Harman, do you have a recommendation? During that phone call, in the moment of my hesitation, I felt a knock on a closed door deep inside of me. And whether I wanted to or not, I knew I had to open that door and walk through.
I remember the time I realized that Diana, Princess of Wales, was different. At some point I had become interested in watching her maneuver in a world so very remote from the rest of us. The fairytale princess in a palace. But in a moment, a moment captured by photographers and then circulated around the world, something changed. She hugged someone with AIDS. A couple of steps, arms outstretched, and she bridged a cultural taboo. She crossed a chasm deep and wide. And she wasn’ t just a fairytale any more.
Jesus Christ came to upset the first century world. He came to turn things upside down. He shattered social norms. He broke through the barriers the law perpetuated to keep some in and others out. He touched the unclean. He ate dinner with sinners. He talked to prostitutes. He brought social outcasts, like tax collectors, into the circle of those closest to him. He broke every purity law near and dear to the Jewish heart. He sought out whomever society labeled the other. He chose outsiders over insiders. He showered blessings on the poor, the meek, the persecuted, the least in any group.
Our passage today in the Gospel of Matthew is Jesus’ way of announcing, Guess who’ s coming to dinner! Guess who’ s going to be sitting around the banquet table in God’ s kingdom! And what Jesus wants us to grasp as his words pierce through the centuries is that it’ s not going to be those of us who assume we are the chosen ones (or close to it) merely because we go to church, celebrate Christmas and Easter, recite the creed, take communion on a regular basis, and keep the laws of the Commonwealth, at least the big ones. That’ s not the way to the banquet table. The way is one of grace. It’ s a way of the heart. It’ s love. It’ s mercy.
Jesus challenges us to pull up a chair and sit with the fringe of society. He challenges us to reach out our hand the way he does to the lost, the lonesome, the dis-eased, and those we consider the least in our world. We’ re to reach out and grasp the others’ hands. We’ re to hold those people in our heart. Jesus is challenging us into a scary intimacy with Him and with all those we think of as the other.
My husband, Buff who’ s a lawyer, does pro bono work in the prison system. He teaches a class on the legal aspects of family matters to inmates in prisons in Fluvanna and Goochland. Recently he told me about a couple of the women he’ s had in classes. They’ d murdered their children. But, it’ s strange, he said, I see them as human beings like the rest of us although they’ ve done something as unthinkable as killing children.
When I was starting to do some prison ministry several years ago, a speaker, someone from Hope in the Cities, preached to a group of us: Don’ t think you’ re taking Christ to the prison when you go in from your outside world. He’ s already there, standing among the prisoners inside. You don’ t take Christ with you, you meet Him there.
A couple of weeks ago I joined the Outreach Tour here at St. James’ s. Dana had set it up for our Outreach Committee and I asked to tag along. The Rev. Lynne Washington was our tour guide. Lynne serves as a priest in residence here at St. James’ s and as Assistant to the Bishop for Mission and Outreach for the Diocese of Virginia. What an incredible resource and inspiration she is right here in our St. James’ s midst! Our final destination was the Peter Paul Development Center where Lynne is also the part time Director.
Between here and the Center we drove through several housing projects that are home to those who fall within the lowest socio-economic strata of our Richmond population. For the most part each project is a tightly self-contained area. Sidewalks around the perimeter mark a community unto itself. In some cases the elementary school, fed by housing project kids, is set snugly adjacent to the project.
Most of our city’ s crime and violence happens in and around the projects. Such tightly constructed communities are so easy to organize for the drug dealers. These communities are so easily managed by gangs. Gunshots break out any time of night or day. Stray bullets kill kids or a grandmother sitting outside her front door.
The projects have been around a long time. I remember when I was a new attorney back in the 80′ s. From time to time, I was court appointed to represent a child who lived in one of those projects. I sat on doorway steps talking to children. I went in the apartments to see where and with whom and how they lived. The eeriest time of day there was afternoon when teens and young male adults gathered in groups in the yards and around the perimeters. Prowling. Their swagger defiantly spelled out, This is my territory.
At the time the projects were built, they were considered by so many leaders to be a great way to provide decent low income housing for as many as possible. I wondered though as we drove through them the other day, if there might have been some darker motive back then. Maybe Richmond’ s leadership and its power base didn’ t have the residents’ interests in mind so much as their own to carefully contain and set apart somewhere not near us a segment of the Richmond population that could disturb a serene vision within a charmed circle.
Peter Paul Development Center reaches out to children and adult residents in these projects and to folks living in the Church Hill area. It’ s a hands-on ministry. St. James’ s supports this ministry. How can we support it even more? That needs to happen. In the answer to that call, we face a challenge. The challenge to step out of our comfort zone, to reach out, to be brought in, one by one, into this place of heart and hands and hope, to be present where Christ is doing His work.
It takes people like our parishioners who’ ve been tutoring children at Whitcomb School, the school that serves Whitcomb Court. Our parishioners who go there step across boundary lines not expecting to take Christ there, but to sit in Christ’ s presence as they sit with a child, as they hold a child’ s hand and as that child reaches into their heart.
When we reach out and grasp a hand, we are not pulling someone into the kingdom. It’ s their hand that pulls us in. We stand in front of a swinging door with a heart-shaped keyhole. Christ is ringing the dinner bell. Heart in hand, hand in hand, let’ s go!