I can’t help but note, ironically, that I deliver this particular sermon the first weekend of Lent in the Christian calendar, a time of reflection, introspection, sacrifice, and limitations on what is eaten — either selected foods, or fasting.
I was reminded of this as I worked with a mostly lapsed Catholic family on what was, food-wise, actually a pretty lavish wedding: salmon on toast points, roasted eggplant and blue cheese, some sort of rare beef, and these were just the appetizers. But this was after I had inquired about how the rehearsal dinner had gone, which was held at the local Ted’s Montana Grill. For those of you who may not know it, it is where Ted Turner sells the many cuts of buffalo he raises on his vast ranch.
It went fine, the groom told me, as he waited nervously in those cubicles in fancy halls they stick the men in a wedding party — and the minister — before the ceremony begins.
But we had just forgotten that it was Lent, and there were some observant Catholics who have to give up meat, at least on Fridays, for the duration. There was fish, he allowed, but dry and ordinary, and hard to have to eat when everyone else was digging into juicy bison burgers, steaks, and spicy chili.
For those guests tempted by, even giving into, religiously-prohibited foods during the highest holy season of their year, it did not turn out to be such a very welcome table.
You will forgive me, I know, being one of the most gracious and hospitable UU congregations I know of, if — being a Jewish (UU) woman — I take the topic of needing to set a welcome table somewhat, okay, quite, literally — at least for the first few moments of my sermon time.
Not so much the matter of precisely how to choose and place dishes and utensils on a table — me the queen of mismatched plates and tarnished silver — but the matter of how breaking bread together, sharing food during a meal, places such a huge role in our coming together as families, friends, and religious communities. How they can make us feel warm and special and enriched and included, or shunned, ignored, shamed, and excluded. And how much the stuff of memory they are.
Take my family (please). In my family of origin, we have The Ham story that has stayed in circulation for going on 15, maybe close to 20, years now. How my sister-in-law, my twin brother’s wife, complained to my mother about her choice of a main dish for a family dinner, a faux pas that caused them to never speak again. My mother, you see, is not the world’s best cook, having burned many a toast slice, undercooked many a frozen vegetable, forgotten to warm up many a casserole dish. But she loves — loved — to buy a Honey Baked Ham, one of those fancy and costly ones from a franchise store. This for her was, is, the height of extravagance and culinary opulence.
On this occasion, my sister-in-law, having already angered my mother, and frankly some of the rest of us, by arriving several hours late — or so I remember — commented right before we were all about to sit down: “Another ham? This is the third one we’ve had this week.”
Oh, the daggered stares, the quivering lips, the barely contained disbelief, the suppressed rage, the months, and now years, of replays of that remark. There have been other holidays and holy days and other meals when one or another sibling, grandchild, or in-law has crossed over the line, but none, none has ever surpassed The Ham dinner for gossip and outrage.
In my own family, my created family, there have also been times when no matter how carefully I arranged the table or how well I had cooked the meal, that remarks surrounding the food made for awkward — and unwelcoming — circumstances. Like the time a Thanksgiving guest complained that we needed to remove the turkey from its proud place on the kitchen stove top and place it immediately in the refrigerator, lest we all get salmonella from having let it out too long.
Besides ill-framed and tactless comments about the choice and condition of the foods on a table that’s supposed to be welcoming, there are the kinds of remarks that have made this hostess want to crawl under it. For example, the time that my father, to be sure aging and not totally in control of his choice of words, railed and practically pounded on the table about the idiocy of organized religion and any belief in a supreme being, as my friend, a Methodist seminarian, sat by dumbfounded. Or when my nephews from California, wearing “Israel is a Fascist State” t-shirts to one dinner, spent much of the time regaling each other with stories about the “dumb ghetto kids” they went to school with, while their father, my brother, sat by obliviously, and I wanted to strangle them. Or at the very least never invite them back.
Then there are the times when the lack of welcoming is not because of too many or the wrong kinds of words, but of no words at all, the deafening silence of chewing and no talking. It happens a lot at the assisted-living residence where my father now lives, when I stay for lunch and watch a table full of older people, each one in a world of his or her own, spooning soup or lifting a fork full of sweet potato pie. Where do you come from? I used to ask in a falsely lilting voice, a little louder than usual, lest hardness of hearing be the reason for the lack of chat. Or, how long have you been living here? Or, have you been watching the Olympics? No response.
Now, on those few days when I can handle being in such a parallel universe, I join in the quiet, pretending I am in a monastery and silent meals are a spiritual practice.
At the emergency shelter for women and children I have worked with for the past decade, there are some nights when the residents file in, fill their plates with the usual macaroni and cheese and purchased fried chicken, and also eat wordlessly. Even the children are eerily quiet. The volunteers from local churches who bring the meals tend to wait until the families are fed, before sitting at separate tables, engaging in conversations about Sunday school classes and rummage sales that are completely disconnected from the day-to-day lives of those homeless people they have come to be with.
This situation has always so disturbed me, that, when I gather women from another program, our transitional housing guests, for their weekly support group, when we share an ample and home-cooked meal, we also share blessings, share jokes, share movie favorites, or food favorites, whatever it takes to get us eating and talking at the same time.
These are what I call everyday homilies, the ordinary stories that we live and can retell, that remind us of who we are and instruct us, perhaps, on how we are called to be more mindful and more generous in our hospitality. Sacred scripture is full of these, either told as narratives or parables. Stories of wedding banquets, dinners on river banks with loaves and fishes, last suppers or Seders, where many are invited and many are fed, fed with dignity, fed joyfully. Stories about the invitation to be together in the spirit of generosity and plenty.
For sure, there are stories of eccentric, even bizarre, prophets preaching at the gates of the city, or mystics on mountaintops, or solitary spiritual battles in the desert. But there are also so many other stories involving manna and matzah, milk and honey, and cakes for the queen of heaven that remind us that food is hugely important in religious life, and that that hospitality — either literal or metaphoric — is a key spiritual practice. Negotiating and crossing boundaries, finding ways to not only respect each other but to nurture and draw each other out in expansive ways, to each other’s delight.
Because preparing and setting and sitting together at a welcome and welcoming table is relational. It is that aspect of the religious life, that which binds us together, that calls us out of ourselves and calls us to be with others, especially the Other, that person, those persons, whose being and/or life experience is different from our own.
There is no question in my mind, in a religious movement that prides itself on questioning, that Unitarian Universalism is, at its heart, a relational faith. Our own Commission on Appraisal, the group whose mission is to provoke deep reflection, energizing and revitalizing Unitarian Universalism, last summer issued its report on engaging our theological diversity, a fancy title for its task, its daunting task, of trying to figure out what holds us together, what is the ground on which we meet?
What indeed are we offering at our welcome table?
The Commission concluded that there are, of course, multiple words that describe us:
We are a grounded faith, they found, however lightly held, as we go back theologically two thousand years or more, with our belief in the unity of God or the Good, with our belief in the inherent goodness and not the basic depravity of human beings.
We are an ecological faith, believing in an interconnectedness with the whole living world.
We are a profoundly human faith, with our primary focus for religious development and action being our embodied relationship to the well-being of this world. We care deeply about, and wrestle with, our ideas of human limitations and human power.
We are a responsible faith. Whatever our source or sources for religious inspiration, we understand that humanity must take responsibility for the world seriously.
We are an experiential faith, focusing more on experience (our own and that of trusted others) than beliefs.
We are a free faith, working in close concert with others, to build our own theologies.
We are imaginative faith, engaging with image and story, garnering wisdom from many traditions and building bridges between them, creating places where creativity can flourish.
All of these, in my view, require regular, meaningful contact with others, and we are explicitly, according to the findings of the Commission on Appraisal, a relational faith. While we support the individual journey, they acknowledge, we ground it in caring community. Relational language occurs more frequently than any other in core-of-faith or mission and vision statements shared with the commission. We are a covenantal faith, which means that we value the promises we make and keep to one another…
Are you “there” yet? The Commission on Appraisal reminds us of how challenging and courageous the commitment to hospitality is. They remind us that conflict is inherent in the offering of hospitality, as I have learned often at my own dinner tables, in those community places where the Other is invited, in my own congregations in their efforts to be invitational and inclusive.
Hospitality, setting a welcome table, requires showing up. Showing up to do the preparatory work, the serving work, the meeting and greeting and teaching work, the clean up and maintenance work. It demands that we reach out of our comfort zones, being mindful of awkward spaces, mindful of creating an atmosphere of trust and safety.
Hospitality, setting a welcome table, requires generosity, generosity of time, of spirit, of resources. Generosity can make the difference between a climate of austerity and scarcity, hardly welcoming environments, or a climate of warmth and beauty and abundance.
I invite you to participate in creating a generous religious community — one that is interconnected, ecological, responsible, deeply human, experiential, free, imaginative, and relational. Grounded in a vital and caring community, hopeful that by showing up, giving of our time, gifts, and material resources, that you can indeed participate fully in the love and justice-seeking transformation of the world.