IN THIS CORNER! Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage, a group dedicated to fighting same-sex marriage and protecting what they call “traditional marriage.” Brian is a Catholic father of seven who has made it his life’s work to fight what his group’s website calls the “threat to marriage.”
AND IN THE OTHER CORNER! Dan Savage, a writer and host of a radio show about love and relationships. Dan is a vigorous supporter of gay rights and marriage equality. He lives with his partner Terry and their son in Seattle, clear across the country from Brian Brown. Dan and Terry began the “It Gets Better” project after a recent spate of suicides by gay teens who were the victims of bullying. The videos tell the teens to hang in there, that life is worth living, that high school can be brutal and nasty but that it gets better. He’s also a colorful, some might say caustic, speaker and writer, and believe me when I tell you he is not everyone’s cup of tea. You have been warned, so don't write me letters.
Brian Brown recently challenged Savage to a debate over the Bible and marriage. These are two men who are used to giving full-throated defenses of their position but they have never faced each other. “You name the time and the place,” Brown wrote on his website, throwing down the gauntlet.
Dan Savage accepted the invitation to debate. But there will be no crowd of supporters, booing and cheering each side. There will be no grandstanding speeches, no protesters on the sidewalk outside shouting each other down. Dan Savage has invited Brian Brown and his wife into Dan’s home, to meet his family and have dinner and debate on marriage equality. They will meet not onstage, but at table.
And Brian Brown has accepted.
I’m trying to imagine these two, pitching this event to their spouses.
Brian Brown: So, honey? You know that potty-mouthed gay man who’s been so critical of the pope and represents everything we’re fighting against? We’re going to his house.
And Dan Savage: You know that guy on TV who says that our relationship is a threat to families and dangerous for children and society in general? Well… guess who’s coming to dinner!
Now for any of you shifting uncomfortably on those nice pew cushions, this is not a sermon about gay marriage. We may talk about it at some point, at a time when there’s the opportunity for back and forth, but it’s not something I would ever spring on you.
This is a sermon about the Eucharist—the Lord’s Supper. It’s a sermon about communion. It’s a sermon about what can happen when people sit around a table together.
In the words of Dan Savage, as he wrote about this invitation: “[In doing this] I… acknowledge Brown’s humanity by extending my hospitality, and he… acknowledges mine by accepting my hospitality.”
Now let’s not lose our heads here. Do I think there’s any chance that either of these guys is going to change his mind on gay marriage? No. But will the sharp edges of this debate soften just the tiniest bit? Possibly. Will Dan greet Brian with a basin of water and oil for anointing his head? Doubtful, though I’m sure that would be a big hit on YouTube.
Might they come away from this experience changed a little? Possibly. I certainly hope so. In fact, I’ve staked my life on it.
Nine years ago this weekend, I was ordained a Minister of Word and Sacrament. I’ve staked my life on the conviction that the sacraments have gracious, mysterious power in our lives, that we learn at this table what it means to be community at every table.
Whenever we share a meal and share our lives— whether this meal [at the communion table] or a potluck with the church or a picnic with our families or even an uncomfortable dinner between two political adversaries, the Spirit of Christ is present and there is hope for transformation.
The table is intimate. The table is up close. There’s nowhere to hide. There’s no podium to clutch for support. No talking points on index cards, nothing but each of us, all of us, living in these frail bodies that need nutrition and hydration in order to survive, these bodies that are fueled, not just by calories but by love, dignity, community, reverence.
We bring those needs to the table, like it or not, which is what makes Dan Savage’s invitation, and Brian Brown’s acceptance, such a resonant image for our rancorous times.
In the Greek language, the word for host and the word for guest are one and the same. Which is appropriate: in true hospitality, there is a mutuality. There’s nobody in charge at a table. The host is just as vulnerable as the guest, in a sense, because even the most gifted host cannot control what will happen when you get people together, elbow to elbow.
The table is a powerful place. I think this is why some of us struggle with relatives who get nasty over Thanksgiving dinner. People ask me how to respond when Aunt Edna goes off on one of her tirades… and there is no one-size-fits-all answer to that. Except to say that part of what makes it so hard is that people who make racist comments, or who question the other political party’s patriotism, or who demonize “those people” are breaking the rules of the table and turning the meal into something it’s not.
It’s not that you can’t have disagreements over a meal. We will come to this table in a few moments and I know that the people in this room are split down the middle on gay marriage, give or take, just like the country is; pick any other issue in this election year and it will be a similar story. But when we climb up on a table, any table, and make it into a soapbox, when we show contempt for the very person who’s passing us the squash casserole, when we approach the meal from a posture of judgment and power rather than mutual sharing and good faith—then table fellowship is lost.
“Jesus of Nazareth, come to my home to eat.” Simon the Pharisee invites Jesus to dine with him. But he does not extend hospitality. He does not treat Jesus as an honored guest, nor like a guest at all. He dispenses with all the usual customs of hospitality at the time: a kiss of peace, a washing of the feet. Jesus is an inconvenient afterthought. Just like our boorish uncle Bob who won’t stop yammering about the President’s birth certificate, or those evil Republicans, Simon turns the table into a place to assert himself. And Jesus calls him on it: These practices matter, Simon. They aren’t just niceties, they show care and respect. And you blew it. And Simon is the one who's poorer for it.
By contrast, Jesus receives hospitality from a woman who isn’t even sitting at the table. She does all the work of the host, but she does it messy. She does it at a slant. She doesn’t wash his feet with a basin, she bathes them in tears. She doesn’t kiss him hello at the door, she bends over his tear-stained feet and kisses his feet. She’s sloppy and embarrassing and Jesus adores her for it. She is a sinner, we’re told, but she shows great love. Or perhaps I should say, she is a sinner AND she shows great love.
It’s the “and” that gives us hope. Because we, too, are broken. We’re as broken as Simon: so capable, so influential, so learned— but so stingy, so small, so unable to let go of being right that we can’t enter the joy of real relationship.
And we’re as broken as the woman, we feel like outsiders in our heart of hearts (oh if people only knew what I was really like), but so frantic for something real that we will trip all over ourselves in a grand sloppy display of pure desperation and need.
Part of the inspiration for this series on worship is to explore the theology behind our practices of worship. I get questions all the time about why we do certain things at IPC. Why do we allow children to come to the table before they have been confirmed? Why do we move the passing of the peace on communion Sundays—from early in the service to right before the invitation to the table? Why don’t we cut the bread ahead of time so everyone gets their own piece, which would be more sanitary?
Those are all good questions. And there are all kinds of theological dimensions to them, but it turns out that really, all of those questions have the same basic answer. We do those things because we are in this together. Because we need the love of Jesus that is offered at this table; we need it as individuals and as a community. And if that’s true, then nobody is excluded from the table of God: not children, not Pharisees, not women with alabaster jars.
We're in this together, so when we come to this table, we come to be reconciled, and sharing the peace with one another allows that reconciliation to take place.
We're in this together, and being in a community means we share a common loaf. Communion is not a private affair, between us and God, it’s a big unholy family-style meal of bread touched by others’ hands and a cup with little crumbs of bread floating in it, and Jesus says you people are a mess, I love it and I love you.
"She has shown great love." So does God show great love for all at this table. So may we all show great love.
Image: Dan Savage talking about the It Gets Better project on YouTube.