Sermon: Betty's Diner
Text: Matthew 18:15-20
(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 9-10-2017)
I first heard Carrie Newcomer at a Lilly Endowment conference in Indianapolis. We were eating standard convention tasteless food and suffering under an emcee who was trying desperately to be a comedian. So, when this well-intentioned “comedian” emcee introduced our evening’s musical entertainment, I slumped in my seat. I had eaten bad food and listened to bad comedy and was preparing myself for bad music. Boy, was I wrong!
When Carrie opened her mouth, I began to drop mine. Not only does she have a luscious voice, she is one of the finest singing theologians I know. Some people think theologians are lofty intellectual recluses who write volumes about God that few people read and even fewer understand. Actually, every living soul is a theologian; each one of us thinks something about God. Even if you reject that there is a God, you are a theologian, because you must first consider the possibility of God in order to reject the reality of God. Pardon the theological detour, but suffice it to say that Carrie Newcomer is one of my favorite singing theologians.
Long before Carrie, Matthew was an exceptional singing theologian. Today’s Gospel text is a fine example of Matthew’s song. For generations Christian church Pharisees have reveled in today’s text. They have read Matthew’s theology this way: If someone screws up in the church family, do not give up on them – at least not at first. Seek them out, one on one, and if that does not work, then go back with two or three to make your case. Try to help them see how they are damaging the family, but do not give up on them – at least not early on. This theological song from Jesus seems tame enough, but there are more lyrics to be sung.
Before I get to them, though, pay attention to the lyrics that lead up to this song. As Chapter 10 in Matthew opens, Jesus takes a child – in Roman society a symbol not of sweetness and innocence, but of the powerless, of those on the outside looking in – and with this child in his arms, he warns the crowd, “Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones.” Jesus then sings of the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep who never went astray to find the one sheep that did. He ends the song with these lyrics: “It is the will of your Father in heaven that not one of these little ones should be lost.”
Matthew wants those lyrics to echo in our heads when we hear about the unrepentant church member, “If the member refuses to listen . . . tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
For generations, Christian church Pharisees have cheered this tough talk by Jesus, a Jesus who is not soft on crime and does not cuddle criminals, a Jesus who knows that some people just are not redeemable and just do not belong in the church.
The problem, though, with hearing Jesus’ song this way is that we ignore earlier lyrics in Matthew. “A Gentile and a tax collector” in Matthew is shorthand for the “little ones” about whom Jesus just said, “It is the will of your Father in heaven that not one of these little ones should be lost.” So, when Jesus sings, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector,” he is not authorizing the church to give up on troubled and troublesome souls, to show them the door; no, just the opposite; he is telling the church to set another place for them at the dinner table.
In her song “Betty’s Diner,” singing theologian Carrie Newcomer uses the image of a diner for the church and a hostess named “Miranda” to remind us who is invited to the church and the church’s table and why. In the refrain of the song, Carrie sings:
Here we are all in one place
The wants and wounds of the human race
Despair and hope sit face to face
When you come in from the cold
Let her fill your cup with something kind
Eggs and toast like bread and wine
She’s heard it all so she don’t mind
In Newcomer’s song, we meet lots of lost souls in “Betty’s Diner.”
First, there is Arthur:
Arthur lets his Earl Grey steep
Since April it’s been hard to sleep
You know they tried most everything
Yet it took her in the end.
We also meet Jack who is working days and studying nights to get his G.E.D. Then there is Diedra who works at the “stop and go” downtown, along with Veda a recovering addict and Mike who runs the crisis line. And after each person, Carrie sings: “Here we are all in one place, the wants and wounds of the human race, despair and hope sit face to face, when you come in from the cold.”
Throughout my ministry, I have often wondered what would happen if good church folks spent less time divining reasons why some of God’s children should be sent to their rooms without supper or kicked out of the house altogether, and instead spent more time setting extra places at the church’s dinner table. What would it mean if we listened less to Christian church Pharisees and more to the church’s Lord who sings quite a different refrain? The host of the church’s meal sings that there is room at the table for all to “come in from the cold” or to come in from the heat or to come in from the storm or to come in feeling on top of the world or to come in, like Dreamers, feeling the world is collapsing around them, to come in believing heart, soul, and mind in God or to come in doubting that this supper has any nutritional value at all and doubt if God is any more than our best wish.
On the night of 9/11/2001, only a few miles from where a plane had entered the Pentagon, I looked out over a sanctuary at the Old Presbyterian Meeting House. It was jammed pack with many faces that I had never seen before and would never see again. When I listened to the intercessory prayers rising from that stunned sanctuary, I could hear Carrie’s hymn echoing in my head: “Here we are all in one place, the wants and wounds of the human race, despair and hope sit face to face, when you come in from the cold.”
On the following Sunday, somehow within the crazy economy of God’s grace, the communion table had grown in size like Jack’s bean into a beanstalk. It was a much larger table than it had been on the day before 9/11; it had grown beyond the walls of the Meeting House. On the table was bread and cup, but there was more, much more. There were also thousands of place settings for the repentant and the not so repentant, for the regular crowd who always staked out the same pew and for starving souls just looking for a free meal.
And even more miraculously, nowhere to be seen was the fence around the table that permitted only a select few to come to dinner. When I looked at what was carved on the table, the familiar “Do this in remembrance of me” was gone and in its place was a new sentence, a longer sentence: “It is the will of your Father in heaven that not one of these little ones should be lost.”
Ever since 9-11, I have paid far less attention to the rules of conflict that begin this passage from Matthew and far more to the final verse in which Jesus speaks: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Ever since 9-11, the church’s table has expanded beyond the walls of any sanctuary, because Christ’s table, Christ’s church, has a seat for every person ready to “come in from the cold.”
I imagine that you know some folks who are still out in the cold, who have no use for the church or who are convinced that the church has no use for them. Jesus’ song in Matthew 18 is actually a sing-a-long. It is a song still worth singing to family members and neighbors and friends who have been wounded by the church or think the church is a relic of days gone by or think the church is for only certain types, but who yet might be ready to “come in from the cold.”
Sing the song of Jesus in Matthew to them. The tune is easy to pick up and the song is actually a lullaby. It sings of a God who knows the “wants and wounds of the human race” and who patiently awaits us “to gather in one place” and promises that when we do, God will be there.
Sing that song!