THE KIRK OF KILDAIRE PRESBYTERIAN
A sermon preached by
Joseph Welker, Jr.
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of Kildaire, Presbyterian family. While effort is made to give credit for work
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I think Jesus would have enjoyed Thanksgiving because I think Jesus’ liked to eat. But not alone. With friends, with strangers, one on one, with crowds. The most famous meal we remember is the Last Supper- shared with his closest friends. But there were others-the one with Zacchaeus-where in an intimate conversation one life is turned around. Meals with sinners… one of the accusations made against Jesus is that he ate and drank with sinners. There are meals with close friends like Lazarus, Mary and Martha…
So many meals mentioned in the Bible. When we gather together on Wednesday nights as church family Jesus would be pleased. When some of us gather together with families or friends-I think Jesus would have enjoyed sharing a part of the turkey, the dressing… the conversations.
Jesus would often let meals lead to a larger lesson. This is true in today’s passage. The disciples have just witnessed the miracle of feeding 5000 hungry souls. (And you thought your thanksgiving table would be crowded). People are impressed by the miracle… so much so they are ready to crown him as their new king. The next day we find Jesus alone with his disciples ready to teach the lesson. Jesus knows that he has impressed them by the miracle of feeding their stomachs when there was little to offer.
But Jesus says, there is something more important than feeding your belly-it is feeding your soul. "Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures… "
When they recall the story of the bread that sustained them in the wilderness of the Exodus, he reminds them that God provided that food and now God is providing the bread from heaven that can bring life to the world. Then he makes that statement I sometimes repeat at communion "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry and whoever believes in me will never thirst."
Today, on this Sunday before Thanksgiving, I want to think about the thanksgiving meal being more than just about family and food.
I would like to suggest that there is other food ready to be served… that comes from our faith. I would like to suggest that there is the presence of our Lord at the tables who is ready to feed not only our bodies but our souls. I want to suggest that when Jesus is at the table, the meal takes on a different tone and dimension. Even fragmented families can find a blessing as the presence of Christ fills the table with love and grace. We have the possibility of receiving the blessing that comes to those who invite Christ and others to join us at the table.
You may not even be with your own family. Some of our favorite memories of Thanksgiving in our family are those when we were unable to travel but a host of friends and strangers gathered for the meal.
We have a name for this in the Christian life. It’s something that we have not talked about much until recently. It’s called "hospitality." Hospitality is an old practice that makes possible the presence of our Lord in our midst.
In the Old Testament, hospitality was a part of the law of God. Strangers are to be welcomed as we remember that we once were immigrant wandering pilgrims in the wilderness. The New testament Paul would say, "Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.’ (Romans 15:7) The writer to Hebrews would say- "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it" (Hebrews: 13:2 NRSV) .Jesus said, ‘Wherever two or three are gathered, there am I in their midst. "When the early church gathered, they would often share meals together and welcome others-knowing Jesus would be in their midst.
Hospitality and meals were often seen as a means by which those who participated discovered a blessing by God. They were blessed by Jesus, the bread from Heaven.
Today on this Sunday before thanksgiving, I’d like to share a Thanksgiving parable of hospitality. (1)
The parable comes from the film, "Pieces of April." The main character, April Burns, is a troubled young woman who has recently moved out of her family’s comfortable suburban New York home and taken an apartment in a run-down section of Manhattan. Her relationship with her mother, Joy, has never been good; indeed, Joy comments that she cannot think of one happy memory from April’s childhood.
As the movie opens we find out that Joy is dying of cancer, that April has invited the family to her apartment for Thanksgiving dinner, and that April cannot cook. The entire movie takes place on Thanksgiving Day, beginning in the morning when April discovers, to her dismay, that her oven does not work.
The story revolves around two subplots of hospitality and its absence. The first is April’s attempt to welcome her estranged family and her family’s willingness (or unwillingness) to receive that hospitality with grace. The second is April’s attempt to find hospitable neighbors who will let her borrow their oven. As she walks door to door in her apartment building she finds few neighbors willing even to listen to her request.
Finally, she knocks on the door of an African-American couple in apartment 2-B. The wife, Evette, answers the door: "I have a problem," April tells her. Evette yells in to her husband, "it’s the new girl in 3C, says she’s got a problem." "What?" he asks. "Problems, Eugene, the girl’s got problems. She’s white, she’s got her youth, her whole privileged life ahead of her. I am looking forward to hearing about her problems." Evette laughs and we recognize the ways that race and class make a hospitable welcome unlikely. But the scene cuts from Evette’s laughter to her tears as she sits on her couch and hears of April’s plight. We learn something about Hospitality that Jesus could have taught us: Hospitality involves discovering the humanness of the other, which sometimes just means giving someone the opportunity to tell her story. (Try that at Thanksgiving). In the telling, April becomes more than a privileged white girl. She is a daughter whose mother is dying. Evette agrees to put off cooking her turkey for a few hours so that April can get started and buy some time to find another oven. As the turkey cooks, Evette and Eugene offer another kind of hospitality by teaching April some things about cooking (like don’t use store-bought stuffing or cranberry sauce out of a can), so that she, in turn, can welcome her family with a proper feast."
After much searching, April finds Wayne in 5 D, who will let her use his oven to finish her turkey. But we come to find that Wayne wants something in return for his offer, and when April shows disinterest in him, he derides her. Wayne is not interested in hospitality, he wants to turn a neighbor’s need into an opportunity for selfish gain. He briefly takes April’s turkey hostage but finally releases it.
While April sits forlorn on the apartment steps, a Chinese man approaches and despite his speaking no English, gestures for her to use his oven. She follows him into the apartment and hears the daughter, the only one who speaks English say, "Welcome to our home." As the turkey cooks, April tries to explain to this immigrant family the meaning of Thanksgiving:
"Once there were people here called Indians, Native Americans, whatever. And then a boat came called the Mayflower, landed on a big rock, carrying people just like me. And the first year on their own was hard. It was really, really hard… Let me start again. This was long ago, before we stole most of their land, killed most of them, and moved the rest to reservations. Before they lost their language and their customs…. Okay. Um. Forget what I just said. Once there was this one day where everybody seemed to know they needed each other. This one day when they knew for certain that they couldn’t do it alone."
In her attempts to describe the meaning of Thanksgiving, April engages in one of the themes of the films-her own struggle to make it her own, the inhospitable encounter that produces animosity and destruction, and the possibility that hospitality that comes through the recognition that we need each other.
When April’s family finally arrives, they are greeted on the street by her African-American boyfriend, whose lip is bleeding from a fight. Looking from him to the run-down apartment building, they abandon their plans and drive off to a diner. At this point the film begins to sound like another meal Jesus spoke about in a parable… a great dinner was planned… and the man sent his slave out to invite people to come. But the people make all sorts of excuses. So Jesus tells him to go out into the streets and invite the beggars, the blind, the poor…" Jesus wants to host a dinner where hospitality becomes a meal given freely to those who cannot repay the meal. The Bread of Heaven tells us that this is a sign of the presence of God.
In its closing minutes, Pieces of April reminds us of such a sign. April, having lost her invited dinner guests, invites her Chinese neighbors to share the feast. Her family’s rejection of the meal created a space for a hospitable welcome of the stranger. While this is going on, April’s mother decides to return to April’s apartment; she walks out of the diner and hitches a ride with a stranger on a motorcycle. As the film ends, April’s mother arrives for the meal, which now includes not only the Chinese family and the invited guests, but the motorcycle rider, Evette from 2B, and finally the rest of the family. It must have looked like she was feeding 5000 people. But the table overflows with hospitality that has been extended well beyond the expected guests. And something strange has happened… the meal has become more than a meal… it has become a blessing for those gathered-food for the soul.
Jesus said, I am bread of Life… food for the soul… and where the spirit of Jesus is present- of love, grace and hospitality… then you know you have something to be thankful for.
May God bless you with a very Happy Thanksgiving. Amen.
1. This idea came from the book "Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear" by Scott Bader-Saye (p111f).